As we've said plenty of times before, one of the main jobs of campaign journalists is winnowing the field of candidates– which must come as a relief to voters who don't want to have more of a say in the process.
Before the results of the Iowa straw poll rolled in this weekend, there were pieces about whether anyone should pay attention to the event in the first place. Most reporters are willing to admit that paying so much attention to an elaborate popularity contest where the candidates pay voters to participate is a little odd.
The lesson for readers comes afterwards, though–when reporters nevertheless assign meaning to the event.
The main takeaway from this weekend seems to be that we now have a "top tier" of Republican candidates. "GOP now has 'three-person race' after poll," says USA Today. "Top tier puts GOP contest in focus," says a Washington Post headline.
So the "top tier"– i.e., the candidates we're supposed to actually pay attention t0– consists of the straw poll winner– who most observers believe has almost no chance of actually winning the nomination– plus two candidates who didn't participate in the contest– one of whom has been a candidate for all of one weekend.
And, naturally, the person who nearly won the straw poll is a "nuisance," according to NBC's Chuck Todd (Meet the Press, 8/14/11):
Well, it was a shake-up, and we have a top tier. It is Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. There are a couple of other candidates that can make some waves. Ron Paul proved that he can do that, he's going to be a nuisance to the field.
Of course, even if Ron Paul had won the straw poll instead of finishing a close second, it's rather unlikely he'd be in media's "top tier."
Does narrowing the field down at this point help any voters assess the candidates? Does it clear up questions about what the candidates are saying about the issues? Of course not. But it gives campaign reporters a horse race with fewer horses. Which is apparently what they want.