It appears that the two-man race for the Republican nomination has become at least a three-man race. A Fox News opinion poll shows Atlanta’s Herman Cain (at 17 percent) has caught up with a plummeting Rick Perry (19 percent) and is within single digits of the leader, Mitt Romney (23 percent). Not terribly far back is Newt Gingrich (11 percent).
These results, from a poll taken Sept. 25-27, differ significantly from a CNN poll taken a few days earlier. That poll shows Perry still strong at 28 percent, Romney 21, Gingrich 10, and Cain 7.
But I don’t really want to write about the horse race today. Rather, I want to discuss the media’s role in this election.
Like a lot of other pundits, I have described the race as a two-man contest between Perry and Romney. More than once. When I did so, I caught some grief from readers who claimed I and the rest of the media were trying to dictate the results of the election, pumping up two candidates and pushing all the rest to the side. We were trying to tell the American people what to think.
I can only speak for the rest of the media in general, from my experience working for two of the country’s largest news outlets (the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal). But for myself — and I do believe this to be true for the majority of other news observers — the conclusion that we had a two-man race came from the public, not in spite of it.
Think about this: A month ago, in a poll taken Aug. 29-31, Fox News found the following:
Perry — 26
Romney — 18
Ron Paul — 7
Michele Bachmann — 4
Cain — 4
Gingrich — 3
Rick Santorum — 3
Jon Huntsman — 1
Those results were broadly consistent with the findings of other polls at the time: Bachmann was higher on average, though clearly fading, and the average was a bit higher for Paul, who seems fated to live in the 5 percent to 9 percent range. (Until proven wrong, I’ll agree with the person I heard say the other day, “Ron Paul’s ceiling is his floor.”)
What conclusion could be reasonably reached, months and months after most of these candidates launched their campaigns, other than “It’s a two-man race”? Romney had support equal to that of candidates ranked third through sixth in the August Fox poll, and Perry bested the combined support of everyone but Romney.
So I and others wrote that it was a two-man race. Then things changed.
Perry had a series of progressively worse debates. Romney held his own. Cain stopped talking about Sharia law and started getting traction with his 9-9-9 plan. Gingrich had a series of good debate performances.
And don’t look now, but Cain is getting the attention his supporters thought the media were trying to withhold from him. He’s been all over television. The WSJ’s Dan Henninger wrote an entire column about him in today’s paper. Cain even benefited from a Sarah Palin gaffe (calling him “Herb Cain”).
It’s the same as when Bachmann caught fire and rose to the top tier…as well as when she stalled out and fell to the second tier.
The media aren’t trying to puff up Cain now any more than we were trying to hold him down before. The public responded to Herman Cain, and the media are responding to the public. If he falters, the cycle will work the same way. And likewise if he continues to gain momentum.
– By Kyle Wingfield