Spin Cycle

03.23.12

Television News and the Incredibly Shrinking 2012 Campaign

Why television is tuning out the 2012 race.

When Mitt Romney was winning the Illinois primary on Tuesday night, Bill O’Reilly moved from a short discussion of the contest to segments on whether Barack Obama is pushing the country toward socialism and whether he’s been tough enough on Iran. Sean Hannity led off his show with another debate on whether Bill Maher is a bad guy.

It wasn’t just Fox. On MSNBC, Ed Schultz devoted half his program to the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

The next morning, the campaign wasn’t among the top three stories billboarded by the Today show, which included: “What is it about this two-year-old that has more than three million people logging on to YouTube to watch her?”

Nor did the 2012 election make the top three at Good Morning America, which trumpeted this story: “Bikini model busted. The international swimsuit star back behind bars right now.” (CBS This Morning, to its credit, did lead with the primary.)

None of this is coincidental. At the cable news networks, including CNN, the only one to provide continuous primary coverage on Tuesday, the word is out that the presidential campaign is sending the ratings south.

Television, in short, has pretty much decided the race is over, Mitt Romney has won, the thing is boring everyone to death, and it’s time, at least for now, to move on. The campaign is occupying less front-page real estate in the major papers as well.

What happened?

The end of the debates is a major factor. They were produced by the networks and functioned as a kind of continuous reality show, from Rick Perry’s “oops” moment to Newt Gingrich beating up on John King. Now they’re history.

Romney’s delegate lead has also drained the contest of drama. At this point, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can only stop him from reaching the magic 1,144, not win the nomination themselves. And while it’s possible we’re heading for a brokered convention in August, the chatter about that possibility is an insider’s conversation, fascinating mainly to the junkies.

It’s a shame, because the campaign remains very much alive. Romney is still struggling to win over very conservative and evangelical voters while trying to pivot to a fall campaign against the president. Santorum is still winning a bunch of states with a strongly religious message. Newt is Newt. And they continue to rip one another apart in ways that reflect a deep split in the Republican Party.

What’s more, the House Budget Committee just approved a fairly draconian Paul Ryan budget plan that radically overhauls Medicare—and could put Romney in a tough spot this fall. But substance is a tough sell in today’s short-attention-span media environment.

Even the politics-obsessed sites seem bored. Perhaps that why the lead story Thursday on Politico involved speculation about whether Joe Biden would run for president in 2016.

The result is a kind of strange limbo, a campaign that’s neither here nor there. While plenty of states have yet to vote, the media’s interest is fading like a freshly shaken Etch a Sketch.