How should the press cover the end stages of a campaign once it’s clear who is going to win?

That’s the question that Walter Shapiro and Ed Kilgore grapple with in an interesting exchange today. Shapiro takes sharp exception to the apparent decision of the national press after the Illinois primary to bury Rick Santorum, even though Mitt Romney isn’t yet close to the 1,144 delegates that he needs to clinch the nomination. Kilgore responds that the press needs to be careful about pack journalism, but in this case it really is all over — as you can tell by looking beyond the delegate numbers.

Kilgore is exactly right, on two counts. The first is the state of the contest. Looking at delegates isn’t enough. Shapiro writes that nothing changed after Illinois, but that’s not really true. For one thing, while Romney was the favorite in that primary, there’s still a big difference in that he actually did sweep that state and reap a large delegate bounty (indeed, Shapiro seems to be ignoring that Romney also won big in Puerto Rice just before Illinois, which further nailed down his large delegate lead). Each time the front-runner wins, even when he’s favored, it makes it that much less likely he can be overcome. Also changed since Illinois, as Kilgore notes, are key endorsements heading Romney’s way. Those hurt Santorum severely; he desperately needed resources to remain competitive, and it’s increasingly clear he’s not going to generate any. Granted, I’ve been saying “it’s all over” since Florida (or, sort of, since South Carolina, which is when I do believe it really was over).

But Kilgore is also correct about how the press should deal with the present situation, in which the nomination isn’t technically clinched by the delegate math, but it is in fact locked up:

The job of political writers is to describe what is happening based on all the available evidence, which includes not just primary and caucus results but trends, money, elite opinion, and rudimentary math. Yes, it is possible that Republican voters in places like Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and New York will give Santorum victories next month. But everything we know about the appeal and the financial resources of the candidates and the demographic makeup of these states strongly suggests otherwise.

That’s exactly right. People writing about this stuff owe their readers their best judgment and analysis. There’s a difference, here, between being swept up in pack journalism and observing a stampede within the party. The former is a big mistake and should be resisted. The latter, however, is (if it’s real) perhaps the most important information about the contest, and it would be a big mistake to avoid reporting it or its very predictable consequences.

I think the bottom line here is that elections are not sporting events and reporters (or, for that matter, opinion writers or political scientists) are not umpires. It’s a real mistake to think of elections as held on even terms, in which both sides have an equal chance until the actual voting takes place by the real actors, the voters. The truth is that voters are only one set of actors, and they’re often not the most important ones — especially in nomination politics, where party actors are usually far more important.

As far as the Republican presidential nomination contest this year: Yes, it’s basically over, and has been for a while. Pretending that it’s not is just a disservice to anyone trying to understand what’s going on.