The burgeoning ‘comeback’ obsession

THE BURGEONING ‘COMEBACK’ OBSESSION…. Over the weekend, Obama’s lead over McCain the Gallup daily tracking poll had slipped to seven points. It led Drudge, among others, to start touting the notion of a McCain “comeback.” (Obama’s lead in the Gallup tracking poll bounced back to 10 today, but this has not led Drudge or anyone else to write about an Obama “resurgence.”)

What’s more, McCain delivered a speech in Virginia this morning. It was a fairly routine speech — indeed, some of it mirrored McCain’s convention speech, literally word for word — which was covered live on all of the cable news networks. Before it was even delivered, some, including Mark Halperin and the Politico, had labeled it McCain’s “comeback” speech.

And why, pray tell, was it a “comeback” speech? Apparently because the McCain campaign decided it’s a time for a new media narrative, and plenty of reporters agree.

The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney wrote today:

Campaigns have rhythms, and inevitably swing back and forth for all kinds of reasons, including mistakes by candidates (think Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants) and the news media’s desire for a competitive race and tendency to find the “underdog is surging” story line irresistible.

It’s one thing to latch onto the “comeback” narrative because the facts warrant it. If reporters could point to a sustained boost in the polls and other tangible, quantifiable metrics, then obviously that’s a story worth reporting.

But we seem to be dealing with a media dynamic in which news outlets like the “underdog is surging” story line because it’s something different to write about. Obama was solidifying his role as the frontrunner last week, so campaign reporters, some no doubt consciously and deliberately, decided it was time to write the opposite. Just because.

Jamison Foser wrote this morning about an on-air conversation between NBC’s Brian Williams and Newsweek’s Howard Fineman about seven weeks before the 2000 election. Williams noted that it “seems true” that the media “almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog.”

Fineman responded, “I don’t think the media was going to allow just by its nature the next seven weeks and the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore’s relentless triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest, and we like to see it down the end if we can.”

Something to keep in mind while we’re bombarded with incessant talk of a “comeback.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.