Has Ron Paul been "shafted" by the mainstream media? Politico columnist Roger Simon certainly thinks so. Noting that "Paul lost [last weekend's Ames Straw Poll] to Bachmann by nine-tenths of one percentage point, or 152 votes out of 16,892 cast," Simon thinks that Paul has not received enough attention from the chattering class. And it is true that Paul's chances have been summarily dismissed; Paul has did not appear on any of the Sunday talk shows following Ames, is never included among lists of top tier contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, and was described by a Monday Wall Street Journal editorial in a parenthetical aside as a candidate "who has no chance to win the nomination."
Roger Simon is not alone in this view. Jon Stewart weighed in on the question during his Monday night show, calling out a variety of FOX News and other pundits for pretending Paul doesn't exist. "How did libertarian Ron Paul," Stewart asked his audience, "become the thirteenth floor in a hotel?"
Yet while the grievance aired by Simon and Stewart is understandable, it is misapplied in this case. The exclusion of Ron Paul from discussions of Republican front-runners is not a sign of the mainstream media's blindness, but rather of their competence in serving, finally, as an adequate filtering mechanism.
If anything, political commentators tend to suffer from the opposite problem, failing to distinguish between campaign noise and nonsense. The emergence of Michele Bachmann as the front-runner in Iowa is a prime example. Bachmann, during her two terms in Congress, has been a clearinghouse for views and positions that under most circumstances would disqualify her as a mainstream presidential candidate. Among the most notorious was her spring 2009 observation that flu outbreaks during Democratic presidential administrations represent an "interesting coincidence." She also has a record of statements about homosexuality that most Americans would find abhorrent, and has questioned the patriotism of Democratic adversaries on multiple occasions. This, combined with a sparse record of actual legislative achievement, should have ensured that she was provided the same coverage due to most vanity candidates. Instead, she was treated as a legitimate contender from the get-go -- and that attention, combined with the self-immolation of Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, have branded her as a conservative champion.
The media should be applauded for the collective observation that success in the Ames Straw Poll is not an indicator of broad-based support. The Straw Poll is a small enough event to be held inside the Iowa State University basketball arena; The results are far from scientific, and every four years plenty of top-tier candidates (including, this year, Mitt Romney) decline to compete. The event's importance to individual campaigns directly correlates with the expectations set by that candidates. Tim Pawlenty invested heavily and was forced out of the race due to his third place finish, while Romney's seventh place finish elicited only shrugs.
This is to say, the Ames Straw Poll is an event specifically tailored to Paul's strengths. Once the parameters of this year's Staw Poll were established Paul quickly ponied up $31,000 to get the prime location beside the entrance to the polling place, and his campaign funded $20 of the $30 price of tickets for all Ron Paul voters. Most prognostications offered before the event assumed that Paul would finish either first or second.
Though Paul has proven his ability to pack the house, his tally represents a significant bulk of his support and not a small sampling. While Jon Stewart is certainly right in pointing out that Ron Paul laid much of the ideological groundwork the Tea Party currently rests on, Paul himself has never established himself as a viable contender. Speculation about how Ron Paul may impact the presidential race more frequently centers on whether he will run as a third party candidate, rather than on the possibility that he may eventually claim the nomination. The newest Rasmussen poll of the Republican field pegs Paul at nine percent, within one percentage point of where he stood in the last Rasmussen poll and 20 points below the current leader, Rick Perry.
The opportunity cost of devoting more attention to Paul is time not spent attempting to force Mitt Romney to settle on explicit positions, and missed opportunities to interrogate Rick Perry on what, exactly, about the Federal Reserve's current policy amounts to "treason." A sophisticated triage is required in prioritizing coverage of presidential candidates, and reporters and commentators are not incorrect in their evaluation of Ron Paul's chances. In reality, a media that is able to distinguish between Ron Paul and candidates who actually have a chance at becoming the next President of the United States is far preferable to a mainstream press that chases every shiny object that glints their way.