Is it over?
A better way of putting it: Do the media want it to be over?
The Florida Republican primary ended last night with dual scenes reminiscent of campaigns past. The winner, hoping to consolidate his gains and close out a divisive intraparty battle, devoted most of his attention to his general-election rival. His nearest competitor vowed to fight on until the convention.
But the incompatible desires of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich do not matter nearly as much today as how the media will now frame the narrative. (I'm assuming neither Rick Santorum nor Ron Paul will emerge as Romney's principal challenger following Gingrich's lunar eclipse. But who knows?)
For guidance, let's turn to John Ellis, a shrewd political analyst and, famously, a cousin of George W. and Jeb Bush. Writing for BuzzFeed, Ellis says it's a simple matter of economics: Downsized, cash-strapped news organizations can no longer afford to treat Romney, Gingrich et al. as equals.
"This is how it ends for Newt Gingrich," Ellis writes. "On the day after the South Carolina primary, he had two busloads of reporters, bloggers and electronic media types following his every word. Tomorrow [that is, today], he won't need two buses. He'll be lucky if the seats are filled on one."
Ellis's analysis might seem counterintuitive if you believe the media thrive on conflict and want the Romney-Gingrich steel-cage match to continue. Last week, John Heilemann of New York magazine predicted the media would prop up Gingrich in order to keep the contest going -- in large measure because many political journalists have come to detest Romney, whom they regard as a "phony" or worse.
And Dana Milbank flips the John Ellis argument on its head in a tongue-in-cheek love letter to Gingrich in today's Washington Post. "You're the only thing saving us from a long spring of despair," Milbank writes, "the only person who can, by extending the presidential race, drive up our audience and bring us the revenues we so desperately need."
But the media's inherent love of conflict and ratings is not necessarily incompatible with the budgetary imperatives many news organizations face. That's because there's no need to give Gingrich equal treatment in order to portray him as a loudmouthed irritant who's trying to hobble Romney's joyless pursuit of victory. The problem for Gingrich, needless to say, is that though such treatment may be sufficient for the media's narrative purposes, it marginalizes him by according him little more than gadfly status.
The rough media consensus today is that the Republican contest is, in fact, over. Gingrich is described not so much as a serious contender for the Republican nomination as he is an impediment to Romney's need to unify the party and focus on Barack Obama.
I thought it was interesting that Romney's hometown daily, the Boston Globe, ran two-front headlines emphasizing Gingrich's diminishing chances and the damage he could still do to the former Massachusetts governor: "Gingrich to fight on but faces a tough road" and "A drawn-out negative race could mean peril for GOP." You had to flip to the op-ed page to find a Globe columnist, Scot Lehigh, who thinks Gingrich ought to hang in for a while longer.
As for other media outlets -- well, here's a sampling, which I present not to endorse their views (although I think they're right), but to explain why media coverage is about to shrink and shift.
-- Jonathan Bernstein, the Washington Post: "At this point, Romney essentially has the nomination wrapped up."
-- Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo: "So can Newt hold on? Not to win the nomination. That boat has sailed and is pretty much over the horizon."
-- Hugh Hewitt, National Review: "I wouldn't be surprised to see Team Romney announce that on the strength of Florida's overwhelming victory, the former Massachusetts governor will be refusing future GOP debate invitations unless and until someone comes within five points of him in an actual election."
-- John Dickerson, Slate: "The Romney camp was hoping for a victory big enough to start calls for an end to the bruising contest, and they got one."
-- Ed Kilgore, the New Republic: "Newt can stay in for a good long while, and burnish his reputation as an unconquerable pain in the ass. But barring yet another strange twist, persistence is likely to earn him little other than enduring opprobrium from party elites." (Headline: "The Zombie Candidate.")
We even learned today that Romney is receiving Secret Service protection, another indication that though the Republican contest may not be quite over, Mitt is the only candidate who really matters.
It's been fun. From Michele Bachmann's mishegas to Herman Cain's mistresses, from Tim Pawlenty's inability to get off the ground to Rick Perry's inability to count to three, the Republican campaign has been one of the ages. And let's not forget the unprecedented 19 debates, which giveth to Newt and then taketh away.
By all appearances, we have a winner. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming. And -- wait? Who is that? Could it be... Casey Anthony?
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