Many political reporters and pundits would probably like to forget the months they spent talking about how Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani was a strong front-runner amidst a relatively weak field. Giuliani enjoyed remarkably upbeat coverage for much of his campaign (Extra!, 5=6/07, 11=12/07), and even as he exited the race media continued their mythologizing, with many excusing his remarkably weak performance as just part of his strategy.
On the eve of the Florida primaries, the new line on the Giuliani campaign coming from many pundits and reporters was that the candidate never really tried to win the early Republican contests. According to USA Today (1/21/08), "The former New York City mayor has gambled that he could skip all of the early contests and focus on Florida." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted (1/22/08) that Giuliani "has hung back from the competition so far." And MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared (1/22/08) that some think the GOP race "has come down to McCain, Romney, and--just because Giuliani hasn't been beaten yet--Giuliani." U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger agreed that Giuliani "hasn't really competed in the early states," though she suggested (1/28/08) that "voters might figure you don't deserve a nomination after a drop-by on the process."
Though it's not surprising that Giuliani advisers would try to claim their candidate simply "skipped" the early contests, campaign journalists should be aware that this is false. Giuliani campaigned vigorously in New Hampshire, spending millions of dollars on advertisements and making repeated campaign appearances in the state (ABCNews.com, 1/8/08).
He also campaigned in Iowa (though somewhat inconsistently); as the New York Times noted less than two months before the caucuses (11/18/07):
With a surge of radio advertisements, telephone calls and mailings, Rudolph W. Giuliani is stepping up his efforts to compete in the Iowa Republican caucuses, complicating Mitt Romney's effort to nail down a clean victory here and underscoring the fluid nature of the contest less than seven weeks from the voting.
Indeed, the media conventional wisdom just a few months earlier was that Giuliani's strength was his ability to compete broadly. As Politico.com put it (10/29/07), "The fact that Giuliani can compete in New Hampshire--where he previously was believed to be too far behind GOP rivals Mitt Romney and John McCain to make a serious stand--is another indication of the surprising buoyancy of his candidacy."
A more accurate interpretation might be that the media made an early decision to treat Giuliani as a front-runner. The fact that voters were much less interested in him than pundits were was somehow taken not as a sign that the media had made a mistake, but rather as just part of his plan to win the nomination.
The Giuliani campaign's explanation for its sorry electoral performance didn't fool every journalist, of course. But that may have just confused things for readers and viewers. U.S. News challenged the Giuliani line in its February 11 issue: "In truth, Giuliani started in Iowa, and he competed in New Hampshire. In both states, the man who had dominated the national polls as the Republican front-runner failed." If that's the "truth," shouldn't the magazine's columnist Gloria Borger have to explain why she offered a different reality two weeks earlier?
On the ABC News website, correspondent Jake Tapper co-wrote a piece cataloguing the piles of money Giuliani spent campaigning in the early primaries. But on the January 25 ABC World News broadcast, Tapper explained that "political observers...agree his absence from the early contests made him the forgotten candidate." Tapper added that Giuliani "sat out early primaries."
By the end of the Giuliani campaign, some journalists were poking fun at the one-time "front-runner." Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (1/28/08) covered the close of the Florida campaign by noting that the journalists covering the Giuliani campaign were nearly outnumbering Giuliani supporters at the rallies--by the end of one event there was "an embarrassing media-and-staff-to-supporter ratio of about 2 to 1." Milbank nonetheless managed to tell both sides of the Giuliani campaign strategy, referring to "a thumping in the first five presidential contests" before reverting to the conventional explanation--that Giuliani "closed with a plea to Floridians to reject the choices of voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and the other early-voting states that he skipped."
Having a laugh at a candidate's fall from grace is no doubt appealing to plenty of mainstream campaign reporters. But it pays to remember that months of fawning coverage helped make Giuliani a contender in the first place. As Milbank put it himself, (12/15/07), "Giuliani's gravity allows him to get away with some curious claims that might draw skepticism if uttered by a less serious man." Reporters like Milbank were the ones who decided Giuliani was "serious" in the first place.