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  • Exit talk

    By Regina Lawrence
    Published: April 4, 2012

    Regina Lawrence holds the Jesse H. Jones Centennial Chair in the School of Journalism at the College of Communication. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Washington in 1997 and was a research fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (2003). She is chair of the Political Communication section of the American Political Science Association and a Faculty Fellow at the university’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation.

    Regina Lawrence

    Politico, the hyper-fast online news outlet, recently conveyed this message to the press corps from a highly placed member of the Mitt Romney campaign team:

    “There is a keen awareness in the party, particularly among fund raisers and elected officials, that [Rick] Santorum is playing to hurt Romney so that Romney loses. Santorum sees himself as the nominee in 2016, and he’s playing a 2016 game. You wouldn’t continue to rip at Romney and tear at Romney and try to damage Romney if you were playing the normal, second-place game.”

    Santorum may or may not be playing a “normal” game. But this not-so-subtle message from team Romney (Santorum is damaging the Republican party’s general election chances for his own selfish ends) is a near-textbook example of a normal, though often overlooked, aspect of presidential nomination contests. Call it “exit talk.”

    Exit talk happens when candidates or their surrogates call on their opponents either explicitly or implicitly to get out of the race. For candidates such as Romney who’ve had a shaky claim to the frontrunner label, there are obvious reasons for this kind of rhetoric — though the Republican party hasn’t seen exit talk this pointed since 1976, when the Gerald Ford campaign initiated a full court press against the “insurgent” candidacy of Ronald Reagan. In that race, the governor of Michigan, the state’s party chairman, and the National Conference of Republican Mayors all issued public statements urging Reagan to quit after he was defeated in the Illinois primary, and the New York Times carried successive headlines featuring Republican leaders’ urgings for “party unity.” (The Times also featured the trailing candidate’s spirited rebuttal: “Reagan Suggests Ford Quit the Race.”) As this example illustrates, party leaders, anxious to position their party as strongly as possible for the general election, also sometimes wield the velvet cudgel of exit talk.

    Exit talk also happens when the media — often reporting unattributed chatter they hear from campaign staff — raise questions about when or whether a candidate will exit.

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    A study I recently published in Political Research Quarterly with co-author Melody Rose shows that candidate Hillary Clinton experienced more of this kind of media-driven exit talk than her historical comparators, Democrat or Republican. One national reporter captured the moment in early May 2008 (just as Clinton lost the North Carolina primary) when NBC’s Tim Russert issued “a devastatingly declarative statement”: “We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it,” said Russert — a statement that shifted “the conventional wisdom of the elite political pundit class that resides on television … against Senator Hillary Clinton’s continued viability as a presidential candidate.” (For her part, Clinton refused to drop out before the party’s final primaries.)

    But although the occurrence of exit talk is relatively predictable, the specific dynamics of each contest are less so. Whether the Romney campaign can successfully pressure Santorum — or Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul — to exit the race before the end of the primary season remains to be seen.

    The message from the Romney camp excerpted above also claimed that, “The normal second-place [candidate’s] approach is to rally around the nominee and become part of the leadership of the party.”

    But if Rick Santorum is truly “playing a 2016 game,” or if he sees himself as the standard-bearer of a righteous insurgent movement (Santorum told Louisiana voters before that state’s primary that “people underestimate me, people underestimate what God can do”) and aims to shape the ultimate message and platform of the Republican general election campaign, he may have few incentives to leave the stage any time soon.

    Indeed, as Santorum told Wisconsin voters before yesterday’s primary, “Less than half the delegates have spoken …. We’re not even at halftime.”

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