Mitt Romney, the media and Sisyphus

Bart Marcois Public Affairs Consultant
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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.

Imagine a football game where scoring a touchdown meant that your team scored four points and the other team scored three. It would be tough for one team to build up a big lead. That’s what we have with the GOP primary this year. Add to that the fact that fewer than half the available delegates have been awarded so far, and it is even more apparent that a certifiable optimist (as a presidential candidate must be) would refuse to concede or withdraw. Small wonder, then, that after each victory, the media looks at the resulting score (counted in delegates earned) and is unimpressed.

After Romney’s victory in Ohio, his campaign was criticized for meeting with the media to explain the process. Many in the media, and some of his opponents, claimed he should be focusing on big ideas, rather than “process” or “math.” But it was necessary to explain the process to those who explain it to the public, because it was clear that they didn’t understand it, and that was affecting their reporting.

Mitt Romney has won a million more votes than either of his top competitors, and he has won more delegates than all of them combined. That is not a sign of Romney having trouble closing the deal. In fact, the deal has already been closed, though many people haven’t realized it yet. Perhaps after Illinois, the goal posts will remain in place.

Bart Marcois, a former career foreign service officer and former principal deputy assistant secretary of energy, is a consultant based in Washington, D.C.