The Fox News Primary

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 11:35 AM EDT

Are presidential nominations mostly controlled by the grass roots of the party? Or mostly by party thought leaders acting indirectly? Jonathan Bernstein says that political scientists think it's mostly the latter, and in the case of Republicans one of the biggest thought leaders is Fox News. So Walter Shapiro sat through 50 hours of Fox News a couple of weeks ago to find out who they were rooting for. The answer wasn't hard to come by:

No Republican makes Fox squirm like Ron Paul....Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were each granted a single, respectful, prime-time interview and were otherwise mercifully left on the cutting-room floor.

....When I began this undertaking, I was braced for a bacchanalia of Michele Bachmann coverage....[But] without a major gaffe or gotcha moment, Bachmann was almost entirely absent, like a Red Army general excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after being purged by Joseph Stalin. She was almost never pictured on screen, even though she was on a four-day campaign swing through Florida. When her name came up, it was usually coupled with a glib dismissal of her chances.

....The Bachmann blackout was, of course, the direct result of Rick Perry pandemonium. More rapidly than the rest of the press corps, Fox News simplified the GOP battle to Perry versus Mitt Romney. Eric Bolling, one of the regular panelists on “The Five,” captured the glow surrounding Perry, saying, “We have had this discussion every day since Perry got in the race—that he is the real deal.”....Where does Romney fit into the prevailing Perrymania? Awkwardly. Romney has not been ignored like Bachmann, since every two-man race needs a second banana.

....Still, it wasn’t hard to infer where the preferences of most Fox personalities lie. Late-night Fox host Greg Gutfeld offered the most memorable summary on “The Five.” “Mitt Romney is like somebody you hook up with periodically until you get serious and you want to meet somebody serious,” he said. “He [is] friends with benefits. And Perry is marriage material.” Yikes.

So there you have it. The GOP's most influential thought leaders have made their preference clear, and they have the biggest megaphone around. (Shapiro: "According to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of Republicans habitually watch Fox News.") The rest of the party's mandarins had better rally around Romney pronto if they really think he's their only chance to beat Obama next year.

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