I’ve written before on how the media can drastically turn poll results into meaning much more than they actually do. This time, however, the media is not the only source to blame. Romney’s victory last night has been hailed as the end of the Republican quest to select a nominee (it’s almost the end, but it’s not really). It has been hailed as a victory worthy of a true campaigner – he took Arizona by 20 points, and came from behind in Michigan to snag a 3 point victory. He has secured his spot as the frontrunner, and he will likely take a bump in the national polls.
But before Tea Partiers start begrudgingly buying Romney 2012 bumper stickers, let’s take a look at what the wins last night actually mean. And by we, I mean, let’s allow Nate Silver (the New York Times election statistician) to take a look at what the results mean. There is an argument to be made that Romney’s win last night in Michigan was a poor one. One could say that Romney’s home state, and a state where his father was governor, should have been a big win for him, not one where he barely squeaked by. One could argue that a tiny win in Michigan demonstrates a very real possibility of losing in the upcoming states where other candidates are more competitive such as Ohio and Georgia. One could argue that portraying the events of last night as a win for Romney betrays the true nature of the results. One could argue all these things, yes, but do the stats back this argument up?
Silver does an excellent job here of figuring out just that. In essence, once you get through his expert analysis of trends, it boils down to the fact that yes, Romney should have won Michigan by a great deal more, but he should have also won Arizona by a great deal less. Unfortunately, this conclusion is too nuanced for the American public. Few news stations are reporting the results in this way, and few people are talking this way. “Winning” means a lot to us – even if we should have perceived that win as a loss. And Romney’s big win in Arizona has gone largely ignored, just because people expected him to win there period.
What’s so interesting is that it would appear that the American news consumer only cares about delegates and the actual win. If Romney already won the Arizona delegates, then who cares how much he won by? If Romney won the Michigan delegates (again, that’s not true – another distinction that’s not being talked about), who cares how much he won by? It’s this public perception, though, that is almost more important than the wins themselves. The perception that Romney is a “winner” allows him to gain momentum and stability. How we perceive Romney’s night last night, however incorrectly, does shape the rest of the campaign season. It’s the reason why Chris is so confident that the race is over.
Every headline this morning is “Romney Sweeps” or “Romney Takes Big Victory”, rather than “Romney Under-performs in Michigan and Outperforms in Arizona”. That last headline is the only headline that tells the whole truth, but it’s a headline that won’t be read or seen for the most part. And its absence will shape the course of this race.
(Image from Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)