Does the Media's Romney Comeback Narrative Matter?

By Robert Wright

An hour after Wednesday night's debate ended, Alex Burns of Politico tweeted, "Folks obsessed with crying media bias should take a good look at debate coverage. Press loves a dogfight more than a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g."

Indeed, by the time of Burns's tweet, the supposedly left-leaning media had officially deemed the debate a complete, utter, thoroughgoing, calamitous, humilitating, and, above all, game changing defeat for Obama. And I agree with Burns's reading of this verdict. In fact, last week I predicted that a "Romney comeback narrative" was coming--that journalists determined to report fresh wind in Romney's sails would find reasons to do so. And I said one reason likely to be found was the first debate.

I'm not saying pundits were imagining Romney's victory over Obama. I wrote in that piece that Romney "on any given night has a chance of outshining Obama" in debate--and that's what happened.

Still, the reason I wrote that was because of something else I wrote in the piece: Obama is actually not a great debater and Romney is actually a good one (as my Atlantic colleague and campaign rhetoric connoisseur James Fallows has also argued). And the fact that the conventional wisdom was otherwise--the fact that Obama was overrated and Romney underrated--naturally worked to Romney's advantage. It meant that, whatever Romney's actual margin of victory, the margin could be magnified by journalists hungry for a new campaign narrative. If expectations for the debate had been set realistically, the media would have had a harder giving us, for example, the headline that Politico itself gave us this morning: "Debate Grand Slam Resets Campaign."

Does this really matter much? I mean, is what the media says after the debate nearly as important as what viewers get from the debate itself? New York Times polling guru Nate Silver reported something interesting today: An online poll conducted by Google found that people who were asked during last night's debate who was winning were much less likely to answer "Romney" than people who were asked who had won shortly after the debate.

In fact (if my math is right) the proportion of people answering "Romney" grew by 35 percent after the debate and the proportion answering "Obama" dropped by 53 percent. This is only one poll, and, anyway, I don't understand its methodology clearly enough to invest great faith in it, but one plausible interpretation is that, yes, the instantaneous, near-unanimous, high-volume media verdict to which Burns alluded was important. What mattered wasn't just what people saw on TV, but what experts told them they had just seen. And presumably the media's rendering of the story will matter even more for the many people who didn't see the debate.

It will be fascinating to see the "new Romney" get fleshed out in the coming days. In my piece last week I mentioned four new memes that might emerge as journalists built their new campaign narrative. One of them--Romney surprises us with his debate performance--has now fallen into place. And another of the memes--what I called "foreign policy switcheroo"--got a push a few days earlier from a New York Times lead paragraph reporting that Obama is "suddenly exposed on national security and foreign policy, a field where he had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable advantage over Mitt Romney in the presidential race."

And then there's the "previously undiscovered sense of humor" meme. That may be picking up a bit of traction. I mean, I'm not sure how much Karl Rove should count here, but the Politico piece reporting the "reset" did quote Rove opining that during the debate Romney "had humor. WHO KNEW he had a sense of humor?" (Gosh, I don't know, Karl--it's a total shocker and couldn't possibly have been noted by Molly Ball in the Atlantic six months ago .)

I'm sure there will be many other ingredients of the new Romney that I didn't anticipate. For example: After last night's debate, he seemed, I gather, suddenly warmer and more empathetic--the kind of guy who would enjoy sitting down with an unemployed assembly line worker and figuring out how he could help him out with, say, a capital gains tax cut.

I'm an Obama supporter, but I have to admit that even I, after the initial post-debate despair wore off, started getting a bit excited about the new narrative--and not just because it gave me a chance to say I told you so, but because, well, dogfights are fun! Plus, they make us journalists feel, for these fleeting few weeks, more important than we normally feel. No wonder they exist.

[Postscript, 10/5 8:00 a.m.: I should emhasize that I don't think the Romney comeback narrative is wholly the result of journalists who want a new narrative for the sake of novelty. There are conservative pundits who for obvious ideological reasons want to play up the story. And there are progressive pundits (e.g. Chris Matthews) who were so upset by Obama's performance that they ranted about how bad it was, thus amplifying the story. But I do think there are lots of nonpartisan journalists who, being journalists, like to have something new to report--and the more dramatically new, the better. As I said above, I'm not denying that Obama did a bad job in the debate and Romney a pretty good job; I'm just denying that, in a rational world, the discrepancy would have been enough to justify some of the coverage we've seen.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/does-the-medias-romney-comeback-narrative-matter/263273/