The Republican nominating process of 2012 will be totally different from that of other years. In fact, it will be the opposite of what we are used to.
Since the procedural reforms initiated by Democrat George McGovern, that carried over into the Republican Party as well, primaries have determined the winner of the nominations in each party.
Iowa and New Hampshire, the first caucus and the first primary in the nation, have tended to sort out the candidates for us. They narrowed down the field and left the rest of the nation with two or three alternatives in each party.
These two small states dominated the process because the contenders usually did not have the money to wage national campaigns. They could only afford to run in these two small states at the start of the campaign. And those who could afford to compete nationally (Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney) were forced to battle in these two states because they were the first test.
Their superior financial resources availed them little in states so small that the purchase of TV time would not drain their treasuries.
In effect, Iowa and New Hampshire have become the quarter-finals, narrowing the field down to two candidates in each party who compete in the subsequent primaries.
In 2000, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were the Democratic semi-finalists who survived these early rounds and George Bush and John McCain were their Republican equivalents.
In 2004, John Kerry and John Edwards emerged as the alternatives. In 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire winnowed down the Democratic field to Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama and the Republican contest to John McCain versus Mike Huckabee.
The other contenders, Giuliani, Romney, Edwards, Dodd, et al., may have staggered on for a few more rounds, but their candidacies were doomed. (Romney won New Hampshire, but his victory was largely discounted because he came from Massachusetts, next door.)
Now, in the Republican primaries, it will be different. The short list of contenders for the nomination will not be chosen in the early primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire will not impose their will on America. America will impose its will on Iowa and New Hampshire.
The quarter finals will not be waged in the cornfields of Iowa or the former mill towns of New Hampshire. They will be held in the living rooms of America among the Fox News audience!
The share of the GOP electorate that watches Fox News has become so dominant that the early stages of the Republican nominating process will be held on its air waves.
It is there, not in the early morning handshaking at factory gates in Iowa and New Hampshire, that we will meet the candidates and come to choose our favorites.
About half of those who call themselves Republicans in the United States report that they watch Fox News every night and two-thirds say they watch it "several times a week or more." A full 46 percent of independents also watch Fox News that frequently. Even 21 percent of Democrats say they watch several times a week or more.
Fox News' market dominance among Republicans and independents was not as evident in 2008 as it is today. Its growth in market share and ratings has been phenomenal. Now its impact is decisive in Republican primaries.
In 2012, the Republicans and independents that will choose the GOP nominee will be found watching Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Shep Smith, Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, Steve Doocey, Brian Kilmeade, and Gretchen Carlson. It is on their shows that the early narrowing down process will take place.
Day after day, we will see all the candidates on Fox News. Not just in debates, but in frequent appearances on the opinion and news shows on the network.
We will watch how they handle themselves, we'll learn how they answer questions, and we'll come to our decision. As such, the Republican nominating process will come to resemble "American Idol" where we watch them perform and vote on who we like the best.
Then, we will tell pollsters who we have come to like and who we don't. They will record our views every few weeks and, through this process, front runners will emerge, candidates will surge, leaders will fall back and the winnowing out will take place.
Normally, the early national polls don't mean much. It is the polling in Iowa and New Hampshire that professionals follow. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton led all the early surveys, but neither one was there on Election Day.
But now, surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire will show the same results as the rest of the country because all their Republicans will be watching Fox News, the same broadcast as the rest of us are seeing. Whatever local activity is going on in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Manchester or Concord will be drowned out by the constant coverage Republicans will be getting on Fox News.
And, as the polls begin to tilt to one candidate or another, campaign contributions will follow them. Those who surge will attract funding and the ones who falter will find their bank accounts drying up.
Mitt Romney, who will self-fund his campaign, will not face any financial scarcity, but if he falls back in the polls, his electoral appeal will fade. Money won't bring him back in 2012 any more than it did in 2008.
When the actual primaries take place, their results will tend to ratify the consensus the country has come to from watching Fox News. Americans will impose their views on the early primaries, not the other way around.
Of course, the final decision will be made in the big state primaries that follow. There, the delegates will be selected to the nominating conventions and the winner will emerge. But the quarter finals will be held on Fox News.
So the quarter finals will be waged over Fox News and ratified by the voters in the early, small state primaries.
The semi-finals will take place in the big state primaries later on.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann