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.