Mitt Romney, the media and Sisyphus

Will Mitt Romney’s victory in Illinois prompt the media to declare him a strong front-runner? Will the story be that he has put the game away, and that it is time for the other candidates to throw in the towel? Or will the media say he didn’t win it by a convincing margin (as the media did after his victories in Ohio and Michigan) or that it was to be expected (as the media did after New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, etc.)? Or will reporters and pundits ignore his win altogether (as so many did after Romney’s victories in Hawaii and the U.S. territories)?

I’ve been watching reporters and pundits comment on each Romney victory as if a win is somehow a failure. They have predicted several times that if he wins a given state, he will have closed the deal and won the game (see Florida, Ohio and Michigan), but when he wins, they say it isn’t a convincing victory, and that the next primary will prove his mettle.

Mitt Romney is like Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill for all of eternity, without ever reaching the top — except instead of trying to roll a boulder up a hill, Romney is trying to convince the media that he’s the inevitable Republican nominee. Each time he wins a state, the media moves the goal posts back.

It’s not that the media is biased against Romney: conservative media outlets have done it to Mitt as often as those in the mainstream or on the left. It’s that the media doesn’t seem to understand that the nominating rules are different this year. The new rules, which were written in the wake of the 2008 election, guarantee a long, drawn-out primary process. Whereas before most states awarded their delegates on a winner-take-all basis and many of the big states were allowed to hold their primaries early in the primary season, now most states are required to award their delegates on a proportional basis and most of the big states are required to hold their primaries late in the season. The upshot is that there’s no longer a “breakaway” point and it takes much longer for a candidate to accumulate the delegates necessary to clinch the nomination.

Under the new rules, a candidate can win a state but barely make a dent in the delegate race. For instance, when Santorum won Mississippi last week, he picked up 14 delegates, but Newt and Mitt each picked up 13. So winning the state did him little good in real terms. In the same way, Romney’s many victories have each had only a small individual effect, because in nearly every case the other candidates also picked up delegates. It is only by the steady accumulation of victories that Mitt has built up his formidable lead.