Conor Friedersdorf has an illuminating OpEd on the difference between press coverage of “protest candidates” like John Huntsman and coverage of Ron Paul/Gary Johnson.
Huntsman is challenging orthodoxies of thought that afflict the GOP alone, and taking positions that reflect the conventional wisdom in the media […] In contrast, Johnson and Paul are challenging orthodoxies of thought that are bi-partisan in nature and implicate much of the political and media establishment. […]
For questioning America’s aggressive, interventionist foreign policy and its failed War on Drugs, policies that are tremendously costly, consequential, and executed in ways that are immoral and demonstrably damaging to our civil liberties, Paul and Johnson aren’t given points for speaking uncomfortable truths, shining light on evasions, or affecting the political conversation for the better. […]
But a protest candidate that challenges the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the war on drugs, or civil liberties is ignored, no matter the substantive quality of their arguments on those issues. And if their fans complain, it is pointed out that they don’t have a chance of winning. The salutary effect that protest candidates can have on political discourse even if they don’t win is completely forgotten.
I think he’s nailed it pretty well.