The New Romney: Strong Yet Sensitive

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As Romney rolls out a kinder, gentler image, it's worth considering the press role in strengthening the impact of his debate win.

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Two weeks ago, when I asked what the elements of the "new" Mitt Romney would be once the inevitable "Mitt Romney comeback" narrative took shape, I singled out "previously undiscovered sense of humor" as one candidate. But, now that the comeback narrative has taken shape big time, it turns out that Mitt's newfound wit is only a small part of the package.

Last week's debate, the New York Times reported this weekend, gave Romney's campaign aides the Romney they "had longed to see all year: funny (joking about the "romantic" evening he and Mr. Obama were spending on the president's 20th wedding anniversary), commanding (challenging Mr. Obama on taxes and government spending) and even warm (placing his right hand over his heart at the end of the debate, in an homage to his supporters in the crowd)."

Of these three ingredients -- funny, strong, sensitive -- it looks like "sensitive" is getting the biggest rollout. The Times: "[H]is campaign seemed determined not to let that more emotive, three-dimensional Mitt Romney slip away. Before the crowd of several thousand, Mr. Romney shared stories of friends who had died." (No word from the White House yet on whether President Obama has any dead friends he can talk about.)

The Washington Post concurs. In a piece billed on its home page with the headline, "At long last, the softer side of Romney," it reported that "he has calculated that to win the presidency he must do what for years he has been loath to: share intimate stories about his life." Yes, if you're on videotape coldly dismissing 47 percent of Americans as beyond your concern, there's a case to be made for casting aside your shyness and revealing that you're not the kind of person who would say something like that.

One thing I wonder is whether this meta-narrative -- that is, backstage coverage of Romney's attempt to shape the narrative, as we see here in the Times and Post and have seen increasingly in the media over the last few decades -- undermines the narrative itself. Does writing about the framing make the frame seem too plastic to be convincing?

Hard to say, but I'm more and more convinced that at one key moment the media coverage was aiding, not undermining Romney: It was the 24 hours after the debate that launched the new Romney narrative. In fact, more evidence of this effect has accumulated over the past few days.

We had already seen tentative evidence that the importance of the debate lay not so much in its direct impact on viewers as in the subsequent impact of the media's framing of the debate; as I noted a few days ago, a Google poll found that viewers who watched the debate were less inclined to deem Romney the winner if polled during the debate than if polled right after the debate, once the media consensus had taken a full nano-second to congeal. And you would expect the media's importance to only grow when you include people who didn't watch the debate at all, and relied wholly on the subsequent framing of it, which they probably would have encountered sometime the next day or the next evening. Evidence of this effect naturally took longer to accumulate, but there's now a bit of it. Nate Silver of the New York Times wrote on Saturday:

In a poll of about 500 voters that Ipsos conducted immediately after the debate, late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, Mr. Obama still led by five points. However, Mr. Obama's lead was just two points in a poll Ipsos released Friday, which included interviews from Monday night (before the debate) through Friday morning.... It may have been that Mr. Obama's problems were growing worse throughout the day on Thursday as criticism of his debate performance was amplified.

That would also explain the otherwise odd numbers from the Rasmussen poll. Because Rasmussen is a multiday tracking poll, and doesn't release each individual day's results, the significance of the number it reports each day is always a bit opaque. Still, because Rasmussen is only a three-day tracking poll, that new number is pretty heavily influenced by the latest day's polling. Yet the Rasmussen poll didn't budge after polling on Thursday, the day after the debate. After Friday's polling, though, the Rasmussen number suddenly swung four points. This is consistent with a scenario in which most people who didn't watch the debate only felt its impact on Thursday -- and perhaps while watching the evening news or even the Daily Show, long after the Rasmussen robo-caller started contacting people -- so only Friday's polling fully captured the effect of the media verdict that Romney wiped the floor with Obama.

Also consistent with this scenario: the Gallup tracking poll actually moved a point in Obama's favor after Thursday's polling, but then swung two points in Romney's favor after Friday's polling. To be sure, the Gallup Poll, being a seven-day tracking poll, is even more opaque than the Rasmussen poll, and we don't know in either case what exactly the number on Thursday or Friday was. What's more, some polls, especially at the state level, seemed to show pronounced pro-Romney impact on Thursday. Still, it's notable that the two most prominent tracking polls showed no pro-Romney movement in the numbers that included Thursday's polls but showed pronounced pro-Romney movement in the numbers that included Friday's polls.

Don't get me wrong. Romney undoubtedly outdid Obama in the debate, and you'd have expected simple objective reporting of this fact to have some impact in Romney's favor. Still, I do think it mattered that much of the media went into the debate expecting roughly the opposite outcome. And, as I wrote before the debate, this expectation was simply mistaken; after predicting the emergence of a "Romney surprisingly good in debates" meme, I wrote:

This meme, like the previous one, should by all rights be DOA. The truth is that Obama is not a great debater. Four years ago Hillary was on balance more impressive than he was in the primary debates, and then in the fall debates he had the good fortune to go up against a dim and crabby John McCain. Romney, though erratic, is a much better debater than McCain and on any given night has a good chance of outshining Obama. And since Obama enters the debates overrated, and Romney enters them underrated, a tie will go to Romney, who will have "exceeded expectations."

Well, rather than a tie being inflated into a Romney win, a clear Romney win -- one that shouldn't have shocked anyone -- was inflated into Hiroshima-level devastation. And so devastation is what happened -- though, as with Hiroshima, much of the damage seems to have been done not by the blast itself, but by the after effects.

[Update, 10/9, 2:15 p.m.: I heard someone from Gallup on TV today breaking Gallup's results down a bit more finely than they're generally broken down. Though he didn't cite a specific number, he said Romney had a very strong polling day on Thursday, testimony that counts against my conjectural inference, above, from the Gallup tracking results. Of course, a strong Romney showing on Thursday could still have been media-driven, given how fast media judgments are disseminated. Still, this testimony does count against the more gradual media effect I posited above.]

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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