By this time in 2000, it had become clear that the two-way race for the Republican nomination between then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was pretty much settled; Bush was going to be the nominee. Likewise in 2008, the three-way primary race between McCain, former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA), and former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) was rapidly settling on McCain. Across the aisle in the Democratic Party, then Vice President Al Gore (D) had essentially cinched the nomination by this time in 2000, as had Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004. In 2008, the race had settled into a near dead-heat between then Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and then Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

The Republican primary battle this year, however, is unlike any of these recent nomination battles. Although many believe that Romney’s nomination is ‘inevitable,’ he has won only one of the three primaries so far, and he is only narrowly leading the delegate count. Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) narrowly defeated Romney in Iowa, Romney won in New Hampshire, and former Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) won by a surprisingly solid margin in South Carolina. As of today, Romney has a projected 31 delegates, Gingrich has 26, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX 14th) has 10, and Santorum has 8. Candidates will need to accumulate 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.

The polls have been incredibly volatile with an unprecedented four candidates in the lead at various times—including two, Herman Cain and Governor Rick Perry (R-TX), who have since dropped out of the race. By a number of measures, this has been the most disjointed and unpredictable Presidential primary in modern history.

As my regular readers should be aware, I am not a member of any political party. As such I do not make endorsements in primaries, and I do not vote in primaries. Although Virginia has open primaries, and I could vote in one of them if I wanted to, I would consider it dishonest for me to do so. Members of the Republican and Democratic Parties have the right to determine who will stand on their respective tickets, and non-members ought not to interfere. I’ll just watch them make their choices with a kind of amused detachment, and then fully engage with the process when we get to the general election stage.

But the way the Republican primary has been progressing this year has been really fascinating. A couple of things really stand out to me.

First, it is not uncommon for there to be a Republican battle between a ‘party establishment’ candidate, usually a moderate, and a more conservative ‘grassroots’ candidate. In 2000, Bush was the establishment candidate and McCain emerged as the grassroots candidate (although, in that case, they were both centrist, ‘big government’ Republicans). In 2008, McCain had become the establishment candidate but found himself coming under attack from a more conservative, grassroots-supported Huckabee.

This year, the establishment has been behind Romney from the get-go (as he was their second-choice in 2008 anyway), but the grassroots wing of the party has been unable to coalesce behind any single candidate. Even though their support has been split between Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul, they have still managed to undermine Romney and prevent him from getting the easy landslide nomination he wanted—proof that, in the post-Tea Party era, the grassroots wing of the party is bigger, stronger, and more effective than usual.

At the same time, even some who might usually fall in-line behind the establishment candidate sense that Romney’s kind of ‘big government’ Republicanism is misaligned with the ever-important independents. In your average election year, running to the center is what wins the general election . . . but 2012 is no average year. Conservatives and moderates alike are clamoring for a smaller, fiscally-sound federal government. The electorate has swung solidly to the right on matters of economic and fiscal policy (though not on ‘social’ issues), and a Bush or McCain-style ‘big government’ Republican—like Romney—may end up being an unexpected liability in the general election, even against a weak incumbent like Obama.

Indeed, elements of the establishment wing of the party defecting from the Romney camp are probably largely responsible for Gingrich’s recent surge. Gingrich’s unique brand of Republicanism falls somewhere between the solidly conservative grassroots and the establishment centrists; he can appeal to a certain element of both. Paul and Santorum’s support comes almost exclusively from the grassroots wing of the party, and has had little real effect on Romney’s numbers since the grassroots folks were never behind him anyway. Gingrich is unique among the field in that his support is pulling from both wings; he has been able to erode Romney’s support where the others cannot.

Gingrich is, by far, the strongest threat to a Romney nomination. Santorum will have a hard time bringing the party establishment behind his candidacy because his strong conservative positions on social issues will make him a challenging general election candidate (he’ll have a very hard time winning the independents). Paul, on the other hand, is easily the strongest candidate in matters of fiscal policy and restoring constitutional federalism, but his isolationist foreign policy positions strike most Republicans (and most independents) as downright nutty . . . at least in the short term. This alone makes him unable to mount a strong challenge against Romney for the nomination.

So the race is really down to Romney and Gingrich. Romney is still likely to be the nominee, but Gingrich looks like he might be able to give him a run for his money and make this the first truly competitive Republican nomination battle in decades.

The other thing that has really struck me about this cycle is how blatantly the media has fallen in-line behind Romney and worked to secure his nomination. We all know that every media outlet suffers from bias, whether its journalists will admit it or not, but what we are seeing here is truly breathtaking and painfully obvious.

Each non-Romney who has risen in the polls far enough to look like a threat has been promptly slammed with a concerted media campaign to discredit him. Sometimes the accusations and stories to come out have been completely baseless, while other times they have been valid topics of discussion but have been timed in a way to cause the most damage. The only two non-Romney candidates who have not been subjected to this kind of media attack are Paul and Santorum, who have each instead been subjected to a near-complete media blackout. ‘If you can’t destroy them, silence them,’ right guys? Each of these tactics are serious violations of basic journalistic ethics, if such a thing exists any more.

In the case of some right-wing news outlets (e.g., Fox News Channel), the support for Romney seems to reflect a kind of deference to the party establishment’s pre-ordained choice. But left-wing outlets (e.g., The New York Times and MSNBC) have been complicit in the same game.

There are a couple of possible explanations for why traditionally left-wing media outlets would be so intent on Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president. The first is that many left-wing journalists believe that Romney is the weakest Republican candidate among those who could actually get the nomination. If so, then his nomination would make it more likely that Obama will be able to win reelection. The other possibility is that they believe Obama is unlikely to be reelected anyway, so they desire to nominate the most moderate, centrist Republican available in order to minimize any rightward shift in government policy. Perhaps it is some combination of the two.

Regardless, I do wish our mass media outlets would at least try to be honest, unbiased, and professional . . . but I figure the likelihood of that ever happening is roughly the same as the likelihood of the Washington Nationals winning the Super Bowl.

Scott Bradford has been building web sites and using them to say what he thinks since 1995, which tended to get him in trouble with power-tripping assistant principals at the time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, but has spent most of his career (so far) working on public- and private-sector web sites. He is not a member of any political party, and brands himself an ‘independent constitutional conservative.’ In addition to holding down a day job and blogging about challenging subjects like politics, religion, and technology, Scott is also a devout Catholic, gun-owner, bike rider, and music lover with a wife, two cats, and a dog.