The real turning point in Mitt Romney’s effort to secure the Republican nomination appears to have been his victory in Michigan, according to analysis by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
After Romney’s tight victory in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, news coverage about his candidacy became measurably more favorable and the portrayal of his rivals—particularly Rick Santorum—began to become more negative and to shrink in volume.
One main component of that shift in the narrative is that after Michigan, the news media began to view Romney’s nomination as essentially inevitable. Indeed, a close look at the coverage finds that references to delegate math and the concept of electoral inevitability spiked in the media the week after Michigan, rising twelve fold, for instance, on television news programs. From that point on, the amount of attention in the press to Romney’s candidacy began to overwhelm that of his rivals, and the tone of coverage about him, which had been often mixed or negative before, became solidly positive.
This does get to the heart of the question of whether the media, by declaring Romney inevitable, made him inevitable, or if the media was simply responding to events. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I think it was more the media responding to reality than creating the reality. If anything the media seemed to be willing to give the much worse organized campaigns the benefit of the doubt, because it made the coverage more exciting.
While it is true after Michigan only 9 of the 50 states had officially started their delegate selection process, the state was an important test case. Santorum had done very well in the February 7th contests, but that is mainly because Romney’s team had foolishly relaxed and not campaigned aggressively in those states. Michigan was a test to see if Santorum could still win once the much better funded and better run Romney campaign really focused against him, and Santorum failed.