Long before anyone votes, the news media conduct the first presidential primary.

They decide who to cover and who not to cover. They decide who to treat seriously and who to play as a joke. They decide who is qualified and who is not. They decide whose background to check and whose to ignore. And they decide whose ideas and proposals have merit and whose deserve scorn.

That bruising primary claimed its first victim Friday when Republican Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOutgoing inspector general says Trump fired him for carrying out his 'legal obligations' Trump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE decided not to run for president in 2016.


Romney, who ran in 2008 and 2012, told supporters he decided not to make the race this time because he wanted "other leaders in our party to become the next nominee." Since then, political reporters and pundits have dashed off to find ways to explain why the potential Romney candidacy crashed and burned so quickly.

But few of those explanations, so far, focus much on the role of the news media. The fact is that most of the news media just did not want to deal with another Romney candidacy. They were tired of him, covered him accordingly and thereby conducted the first primary. They concluded that he was a loser.

Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says that the news media always played an important role in the presidential nomination process, but now that role has become a key one: "The news media do not entirely determine who will win the nomination, but no candidate can succeed without the press. The road to nomination runs through newsrooms," Patterson wrote in his book Out of Order.

Romney clearly did not have a friendly press as he explored a third run, even though he was leading in most Republican presidential preference polls. The poll that really counted was one that took place in newsrooms. That result was a resounding "no." He was mostly covered from a negative angle as soon as he let it be known he was considering another run. You could almost hear the media groans of "Oh, no! Not another run by Mitt," as you read between the lines.

Check out this sampling of news media headlines and commentary over the past three weeks: 

  • "Don't Do It, Mr. Romney," Jan. 16, The Wall Street Journal.
  • "It Makes No Sense for Romney to Run," Jan. 14, The Washington Post.
  • "GOP Brass Not Ready for Romney," Jan. 15, Politico.
  • "Some K Street donors slow to commit to another Romney bid," Jan. 15, USA Today.
  • "Mitt Romney's new focus on poverty has many allies baffled," Jan. 18, Los Angeles Times.
  • "Pundits Rip Romney Over 2016," Jan. 18, Fox News.
  • "Poll: Voters not jumping on the Bush, Romney trains," Jan. 20, Politico.
  • "Is Iowa Really Ready For Mitt Again?" Jan. 23, Politico.
  • "Again for Murdoch, Romney Can Do No Right," Jan. 27, The New York Times.
  • "Romney's Foreign Policy Foresight a Myth," Jan. 27, The Daily Beast.
  • "Poll: Most Americans Consider Romney a Stalker," Jan. 12, The New Yorker.
  • "He's the losingest loser that lost ...," Jan. 27, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

The last two are from humor pieces, but they reflect the tone and tenor of much of the Romney coverage this time around.

Potential White House candidates study many factors as they analyze a possible run — issues, base of support and ability to raise money, among them. But as Patterson notes, the road to the nomination runs through newsrooms. Thus, a candidate is foolish if he or she does not take into consideration how their candidacy is likely to be received and played by the press.

Some candidates who run strictly ideological races think they can win by appealing directly to a fervent base of supporters who are true believers in their cause. But it doesn't work unless the press believes, too. Remember Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE (R-Minn.)?

Moreover, the political morgue is full of failed presidential hopefuls who lost press attention, or never won it in the first place.

Vice President Biden, then a senator from Delaware, and former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, but couldn't get the media to pay attention to them. They lost the media primary long before Iowa and New Hampshire. Barack Obama, arguably less qualified for the White House in 2008 than either Biden or Dodd, easily won the media primary.

No doubt there were a lot of factors that went into Romney's decision not to run. But he would have been foolish to ignore the obvious. In just three short weeks, he lost the media primary. Now, with a full year left before anyone votes in a primary or caucus, we’ll see if Jeb Bush is able to win in the newsrooms.

Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Write him at benedett@american.edu and follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.