Understanding the “Romney Won Big!” Narrative

As promised, I watched the debate last night without looking at Twitter, reading live blogs, reading emails, etc. Here’s what I saw:

Unspun view of the debate – sticking by my pre-debate take: these are skilled pols who didn’t get here by accident.

I saw nothing that would change race dynamic. As in most aspects of presidential campaigns, candidates are mostly fighting to a tie.

At best, Romney may firm up some soft supporters or pick up wavering GOP leaners with a negative impression of him from Obama ads, 47% video, etc.

I’m fully willing to concede that Romney might have performed somewhat better than Obama on stylistic grounds (as instant polls of debate watchers found), but the gap between the candidates was, in my view, relatively narrow. The debate was extremely wonky and lacked the sort of personal attacks and zingers that could be endlessly replayed in news coverage.

What’s striking is how the media has transformed the debate into some sort of landslide victory that some hyperventilating commentators think could cost him the election. (The reality: Debates rarely move the polls more than a few points.) Here’s why the debate is being framed as such a decisive Romney victory:

1. Low expectations: Both the public and journalists expected Obama to win even though it was not at all clear that he is a better debater than Romney.

2. Need for drama: The Atlantic’s Robert Wright correctly predicted a Romney comeback narrative based on the media’s need for drama and guessed that a better-than-expected debate performance might be the mechanism.

3. Restoring equilibrium: The fundamentals predict a very tight race (albeit with wide uncertainty) and yet the combination of Obama’s convention bounce and the 47% video have helped him open up a substantial lead. It’s plausible that Romney was underperforming. Certainly many voters had heard about a caricature of Romney that was unlikely to appear on stage. In that context, an event like a debate is more likely to be interpreted favorably and to help improve his public support and coverage a bit.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is the way that the Romney victory narrative is constructed. Here’s a look at how it’s done using postmortems by Glenn Thrush in Politico and Ron Fournier in National Journal as examples:

1. Nuance-reducing headline: Both stories use headlines that frame the debate as some sort of rout:

Thrush: “Not debatable: Obama stumbles”

Fournier: “Incumbent Debate Curse: Barack Obama Falls to Mitt Romney”

2. Narratives about causes: Thrush and Fournier both framed their stories around the assertion that Obama performed poorly because he wasn’t used to be challenged:

Thrush: “Obama, who has spent most of the past four years speaking to hand-picked interviewers or lecturing audiences required to remain mostly mute while he spoke, struggled to shake off the rust.”

Fournier: “The president looked peeved and flat as he carried a conversation, for the first time in four years, with somebody telling him he’s wrong.”

Even if we grant that Romney “won,” we of course have no idea why Obama didn’t perform as well as some had hoped, but the narrative works better if there’s an understandable reason why Obama “lost.”

3. Adjectives! Coverage of debates frequently consists of pseudo-analysis of how the candidates look on stage. With the debate lacking the dramatic exchanges and memorable zingers that journalists love so much, both Thrush and Fournier leaned heavily on adjectives to support their assertion that Obama lost. To Thrush, Obama “seemed far less comfortable, almost grim at times” and “seemed tense and defensive at times, and professorial,” while Fournier wrote that Obama “looked peeved and flat” and “looked bitter.”

If Romney picks up a point or two and the narrative incentives push in the direction of an Obama “win” in the second debate, expect him to be more likely to be portrayed as “resurgent,” “confident,” “energetic,” etc.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.