Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might be content with their place in the race for the GOP nomination. but experts and some candidates worry the media's pushed too many candidates in the GOP field to the sidelines too soon.
"I can't think of a time in recent politics when a race for a nomination wasn't between two people early on, but that doesn't mean it isn't premature," says Margaret Susan Thompson, a professor of history and political science at Syracuse University.
Thompson says intense media coverage of two candidates leaves little room for anyone new to break through, but that sometimes early coverage isn't the best indicator of who wins the nomination.
Thompson points to as recently as 2008. Early in the race for the Democratic nomination, the media acted as though the race was between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, but Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa Caucus later made it clear that Obama was better positioned than initially thought.
Thompson believes the media go too far at times in influencing political races by shaping public perceptions of candidates with their coverage.
"Not only did they physically frame Romney and Perry in center stage at the MSNBC debate, but they gave the two of them a blatantly disproportionate amount of attention, and that's not fair," she says. "By framing debates that way, they tell people who is important and who is not." And sometimes, Thompson says, a candidate's media coverage isn't even an indicator of performance on the campaign trail.
Thompson points to the media's coverage of the race following the Ames Straw Poll. Michelle Bachmann won with 4,823 votes and Texas Rep. Ron Paul trailed in second place with 4,671 votes. However, coverage the following morning ignored Paul. Instead, it was more focused on Perry, who had just entered the race, Romney, who hadn't fared well in the Straw Poll but was polling well in general, and Bachmann.
Lara Brown, a professor of political science who studies elections at Villanova University, says the reason some candidates' coverage isn't reflective of their campaign's success has everything to do with the media's framing of them early on. [Check out political cartoons about the Tea Party.]
Brown says candidates are framed almost immediately when they announce their bids, and all coverage is based off of the early coverage.
In the case of Ron Paul, Brown says that early on, he was painted as an "extremist" with wacky ideas, a reputation Brown says he has been unable to shake no matter how well his campaign performs.
"For better or worse, stereotypes become the lens for how the media covers a candidate," she says. "In the case of Perry, it's religiosity. For Bachmann—a tendency toward exaggeration. No matter the frame, it can make or break a candidate."
Candidates are determined top-tier candidates or long shots almost immediately, Brown says, by the framework the media choose for them.
Lack of experience or funds, positions on issues, and likbility all determine whether the media treat them as top- or bottom-tier candidates.
"Take Herman Cain, for example," she says, "He was among the first to announce they were running for the nomination and right away the word 'outsider' was placed in front of his name."
During an interview with • Cain, a former Godfather's pizza executive, accused the media of trying to focus the race upon who is the front-runner rather than shaping it to be about the issues.
"The mainstream media is trying to turn this race into a two- or three-people race," he says. "After the CNN/Tea Party debate, they played the same clips of Romney and Perry arguing over what Social Security should be called. Who cares? Seeing the same people over and over again on TV sends a subliminal message to viewers. I've seen it on Fox and on CNN. I haven't seen one follow-up story about the solutions I put on the table."