Amid a Republican primary season rich with conflict, one skirmish has been largely overlooked: the one between conservative news outlets for the rights to kingmaker status. Squarely in the thick of this battle is a cynical, spam-belching, spin-happy website from West Palm Beach called Newsmax.
Newsmax is America’s fifth most-trafficked political website, with some 4.2 million unique monthly visitors. Its rival Drudge Report is second, boasting 14 million. (HuffPo is No. 1 with some 54 million unique readers.)
In this election cycle, Newsmax has placed its bets on Newt Gingrich. A January click on the website gave readers a dozen articles with a dozen ideological reasons, but the main reason is that a Gingrich win would be good for business.
That’s because Newsmax’s conservative rivals — Drudge, as well as Fox News — had already decided that Mitt Romney gave the Republican Party its best chance to knock off Obama, an editorial choice subtly reflected in the stories that those media promoted on their sites.
The debates, however, gave the non-Romneys an opportunity to cast themselves as the anti-establishment candidates, a storyline pounced upon by powerful talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh who didn’t trust Romney as a true believer in the conservative cause.
A victory for a non-Romney — and Gingrich became the most formidable among them — would be an indication that the old establishment was crumbling and that a new one was talking shape. Beginning in early January, Newsmax shrewdly positioned itself on this fault line.
Shortly before the Iowa Caucuses, Newsmax rolled out a 30-minute hagiography of Gingrich, hosted by Mike Reagan, eldest son of the sainted former president. That wasn’t enough to produce a victory in Iowa, or in New Hampshire, but with each debate, Newsmax heralded a Gingrich triumph.
That message was echoed by ultra-conservative talk radio, as well as by moderate and liberal commentators hoping for a more interesting, combative primary season. Slowly, Gingrich’s momentum began to grow.
In South Carolina, the Evangelical voting bloc may have been tempted to vote Santorum, so Newsmax rolled out a video of Rev. Tim LaHaye, the author of the Left Behind rapture books, giving a hearty endorsement to Gingrich.
Gingrich crushed Romney by nearly 13 points in South Carolina, a win that surely rattled the nerves of the Republican establishment. Florida, being a populous swing state, was lining up as the primary’s decisive battleground.
So Newsmax doubled down on its Gingrich investment, flooding its site with negative articles about Romney and glowing ones about the former Speaker. Even when Gingrich stumbled during the Florida debates, triggering a slide in the polls, Newsmax did its darndest to keep hope alive: a January 27 article only quoted political experts who would say Gingrich won the last Florida debate, a conclusion at odds with the other pundits and the polls, which had flipped in the week since South Carolina.
Still, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, Newsmax made one last bet on Gingrich pulling an upset in Florida. On the day when the state’s Republicans went to the polls, the Newsmax front page was festooned with Gingrich propaganda.
One of the lead stories was a quote from Howard Fineman, of all people. The Huffington Post columnist made a passing remark during an appearance on Hardball With Chris Matthews that Gingrich was running for the “soul of the GOP.” It wasn’t very newsworthy, but this was a phrase — and a narrative — that Newsmax liked enough to promote it to their legions of readers.
Gingrich had been damaged the week before when he told voters on the Space Coast that he would build a base on the moon by the end of his second presidential term. In damage-control mode, Newsmax put a story on its front page under the headline, “Experts say Gingrich moon base dreams not lunacy.”
Only the article itself, from the Associated Press, doesn’t quote a single expert who believed that Gingrich’s claim was grounded in reality. The experts didn’t say the moon base was “lunacy,” but they didn’t say it was sane either.
Another article quoted Limbaugh lambasting Romney, while yet another quoted Sarah Palin scolding Romney for “lying” about Gingrich’s falling out with President Reagan.
These reality-control efforts not withstanding, Newsmax stopped short of being completely delusional. As a hedge against a Romney blowout, the Newsmax lead story was about Gingrich staying in the race “no matter what.” It quoted Gingrich’s campaign manager, then his daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, a “Newsmax Insider columnist,” who both emphasized the candidate’s toughness and resolve.
Romney cruised to 14.5-point victory, regaining his frontrunner status. Barring an epic scandal, he will win the nomination.
There are already signs that Newsmax and conservative talk show hosts are resigning themselves to a Romney candidacy, making small gestures of respect, such as the headline on Newsmax’s lead story Wednesday morning that acknowledges a Romney “romp” in Florida before feebly noting that Gingrich will “Battle On.”
Had Newsmax succeeded in convincing Republicans to pick Gingrich, then the site stood to gain currency as a kingmaker, meaning more access to major politicians, more web traffic and thus more advertising revenue. (As it is, Newsmax has annual revenue of between $35 and $50 million, astonishing numbers in this media climate.)
The site will eventually come around to a tepid (for Newsmax) promotion of Romney’s presidential bid — after all, he’s not Obama. But if Romney gets annihilated in the general election, then the Fox and Drudge brand of king-making will have been damaged. Radio talk show hosts and Newsmax will again team up to tell the political right that Republicans must choose a True Conservative to be the presidential nominee in 2016.
This media coup hasn’t been defeated. Just delayed.