Is the Media Pushing a False Ro-mentum Narrative?

John Sides at The Monkey Cage has a good critique of the media narrative right now, and a sobering reminder that the election wasn’t in the bag for Obama in September, and it’s not in the bag for Romney right now. This race is still very much in play: 

The lesson of this debate over Romney’s momentum—see James Fallows—is this: reporters have to ground their stories in data. It’s fine to quote from campaign officials and gauge their mood. But rather than use this to conjure up a narrative that implies SOMETHING NEW IS HAPPENING HERE!, reporters can be the watchdogs they typically want to be and use the data to scrutinize the spin.

If they did use the data, what they would see is this. Romney definitely closed or at least narrowed the gap nationally after the first debate (there is some debate about how much he did so), and the gap tightened as a consequence in key swing states.  That made Obama’s lead in states like Ohio smaller and it arguably gave Romney a narrow lead in FL and a tie in VA.

On the other hand, that debate was almost 3 weeks ago. Nothing that’s happened since then has helped him gain much, if any, additional ground. All of the models and polling averages suggest relative stasis since then: 538, Sam Wang, Votamatic, Pollster, RCP.  So why are we talking about Romney’s momentum now?

I think the media is over-extending the surge/momentum narrative, but some of the data do help to explain the narrative that’s developed and why it may be continuing.

The most important is probably the pretty remarkable swing in the national poll averages, from 4-points down to a tie/one point up for Romney post-debate, that’s held. The debate completely reconstructed the campaign narratives.

The other part, which has fed into the poll swing and the “momentum” narrative, is the very real boost in enthusiasm among Romney supporters. Enthusiasm is very high in terms of the poll numbers and in more qualitative terms like the size and energy of Romney crowds, such as in Red Rocks, CO. The Republican base might be far more optimistic than the swing-state numbers warrant right now, but the enthusiasm seems to be real and to have built since the first debate.

Since we’re dealing with “likely voter” numbers now, this enthusiasm and engagement translates into much bigger margins or at least a closer race for Romney in the reported numbers. Take a look at the trends in the NBC/WSJ survey, which show remarkable stability among registered voters, but a substantial shift among those counted as “likely voters.” Other polling trends show more movement, but there is always more movement among “likely voters.” In other words, the debate didn’t seem to necessarily shift vote preferences overall very much, but it did shift people into and out of the likely electorate. 

I think that the media is being driven in part by these real changes in the state of the race, even if they haven’t translated into increasingly better numbers for Romney in all of the crucial swing states.

  1. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    One other thing to note. The polls that do not oversample Democrats on the assumption that 2012 is 2008 or even a better year for the Dems show Romney in the lead.

  2. DocJay

    The media is reporting what many knew from Romney’s internal polls well over a month ago.   If some  bored doctor in Podunk Junction got this information ( albeit from a wealthy donor) then how could the entire news media be ignorant or choose to ignore it?   

    The media is way behind here and Romney will not change in excitement just because of who is reporting the obvious now.  This is a race to the finish.

  3. KC Mulville

    A campaign, when you get right down to it, consists of four things:

    • Ads

    • Speeches
    • Debates
    • Get out the vote (GOTV)

    The debates neutered (or reversed) the ads. Nobody cares about the stump speeches (I think they just give the campaign something to do while the ads run).

    The one segment that scares me, though, is the GOTV effort. That effort comes at the end, and a lot of it on Election Day itself. Obama has a clear advantage with unions and so on.

    But lately I’ve seen that the Obama campaign has had to take out loans, while Romney has cash on hand. I wonder if Obama can afford a big “ground game” now, and whether Romney has been saving his cash to counteract Obama’s inherent advantages.

    Also, Romney has been expanding the playing field. Obama may not be able to pour so much money into the Ohio GOTV, for example, because he has spend it in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Romney may have kept his money to spend it wisely on GOTV.

    Gee. One executive who blew his money on early ads, versus another who wisely reserved it. What a concept!

  4. Dave

    I’ll breathe easier when/if Romney inches ahead in the Ohio polls. I can still see Obama eke out an electoral college win.

    Somehow this feels like back in June when I was sure the Supreme Court was going to strike down at least the individual mandate only to have Obama rescued at the end.

    It’s not over yet.

  5. Adam Schaeffer
    C

    Paul . . . your point on the composition of the electorate is spot-on. Ultimately, this is what the “likely voter” screens are trying to capture, and why Obama is underperforming so much compared with ’08. Who is going to show up on Election Day? 

    Dave . . . The Ohio numbers disturb me as well, and I’m very nervous that Romney’s still nearly 2 points down on average there. 

    And KC . . . the GOTV savvy of the Dems is what most concerns me. See this post on what they’ve been up to for about 10 years while we were asleep. I just hope you’re right on an expanded map, resources, and especially the enthusiasm and new organization of the Tea Party groups on the Republican side.

  6. Doc

    Yes, me too.

    Dave: I’ll breathe easier when/if Romney inches ahead in the Ohio polls. I can still see Obama eke out an electoral college win.

    Somehow this feels like back in June when I was sure the Supreme Court was going to strike down at least the individual mandate only to have Obama rescued at the end.

    It’s not over yet. · 3 hours ago

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