Don't Believe the Hype

It wasn't much of a surprise that Mitt Romney waltzed to victory in the Puerto Rico caucus yesterday. Rick Santorum had campaigned minimally in the territory and tried his best to offend the region's majority Spanish speaking population while he was there, whereas Romney had the backing of the island's major political figures, including popular governor and potential rising GOP star Luis Fortuno.

But in many ways, it still represents a big win. Romney won 88 percent of the vote, shutting out Rick Santorum from collecting any new delegates. The estimated 22 delegates Romney collected in Puerto Rico are three more than Santorum won in Alabama and 13 more than he reaped in Mississippi. Yet scan the newspapers this morning, and you'll find scant coverage of the caucus. Unlike the states Santorum won last week, Romney's dominating victory hasn't triggered a series of articles questioning whether the state of the race has been overturned. Instead, you get thoughts like Jeff Zeleny's in the Times article on the Puerto Rico vote:

But the Republican rivals had their sights squarely set on Illinois, where 69 delegates are at stake on Tuesday. The race is far tighter here, party strategists said, and Mr. Romney scrapped a brief island respite to return to campaign across the state on Sunday.

I'm all for a good horse race, but this is ridiculous. Yes, Illinois is more closely contested. The latest polls show a tighter race; one from a local Chicago television station put Romney up six points over Santorum, though a PPP poll from this morning gave him a 15 percent edge. However Illinois shakes out, the best Santorum can likely hope for is a close split with Romney, perhaps granting him around 35 of the state's 69 delegates.

Those delegates don’t have a higher value just because they are gleaned from a tighter race. Expectations are largely a media creation, which would be fine if they were acknowledged as such. Journalists are supposed to build a narrative around the facts, and someone rising or falling is a compelling story. Yet reporters take the concept of momentum too far when it is treated as an inherent fact of the election rather than their own construction. When Romney declared that he would win Alabama and Mississippi, it didn't change the underlying reality that he was unlikely to prevail in two very conservative Southern states, but reporters jumped on it as an excuse to claim that Romney had failed expectations, hinting that his campaign might be in trouble. Santorum didn't make the same confident boast about Puerto Rico, so his failure in the territory was forgiven.

Ignore the hype and spin from the candidates or their political consultants. The best frame for the election is the simple and unsexy math of delegates, and by all measures, Romney is well on his way to securing the nomination barring any major scandal.

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