The primary game, I'm afraid, is rigged. In a perfect world, all contenders would start from the same point, equally able to assemble a compelling candidacy and make their case to the voters. In this world, however, the reporters who cover the race have already decided that only a few candidates are really worth thinking too much about, despite the fact that the first votes won't be cast in over nine months and even the supposed front-runner garners only 15 percent in polls.
This, from the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter, is a pretty good statement of the media wisdom of the moment:
At the end of the day, when you put all the assets and liabilities on the table, it's hard to see anyone but Rubio, Bush or Walker as the ultimate nominee. Sure, one of them could stumble or come up short in a key early state. It's also highly likely that someone like Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and even Perry could win in Iowa. But, when you look at the candidate vulnerabilities instead of just their assets, these are the three who are the most likely to win over the largest share of the GOP electorate.
Nothing Walter says here is wrong. And I don't mean to single her out—I've seen and heard other reporters say the same thing, that Bush, Walker, and Rubio comprise the "top tier." I've written some similar things, even predicting that Bush will probably be the nominee. So I'm part of the problem too.
This judgment isn't arbitrary—there are perfectly good reasons for making it, based on the candidates' records, abilities, and appeals, and the history of GOP primary contests. But it does set up an unfair situation, where someone who hasn't been declared in that top tier has to work harder to get reporters' attention. Or at least the right kind of attention, the kind that doesn't come wrapped in the implication that their candidacy is futile.
The candidates who aren't put in that top tier find themselves in a vicious cycle that's very difficult to escape from. Because they're talked about dismissively by the media, it becomes hard to convince donors to give them money, and hard to convince voters to consider them. They end up running into a lot of "I like him, but I need to go with someone who has a real shot." Their more limited resources keep their poll numbers down, which keeps their media attention scarce, which keeps their support down, and around and around. The media's prophecy is self-fulfilling.
That isn't to say that it's impossible for a candidate who isn't granted a higher level of attention by the press to find a way to break through. It happens from time to time; Howard Dean in 2004 is a good example of someone who wasn't considered top tier to begin with, but was able to work his way into it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a crazy free-for-all where there wasn't a real top tier for most of the time; the race was led in the polls at one time or another by five different candidates. Any one of them might have held on if they hadn't been such clowns.
Nevertheless, the press has now decided that the only candidates who are worth giving extended attention to are Bush, Rubio, and Walker. As I said, there are justifiable reasons for that judgment, and they do it for their internal reasons as well—most news organizations don't have the budget to assign a reporter to each of ten different candidates, for instance, and if they assign a reporter on a semi-permanent basis to only three or four candidates, then there are going to be many more stories written about them than about the others. However understandable, though, the granting of that elevated status is like an in-kind contribution worth tens of millions of dollars, whether it's truly deserved or not.