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.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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