The media’s coverage of Mitt Romney is showing signs of the pathologies that afflicted its coverage of Al Gore in the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign.

In 1999 and 2000, the press pummeled Gore, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, with absurdly trivial and hostile reporting and commentary on the number of buttons on his suits, his cowboy boots, and the color of his attire, which were framed as evidence that Gore was a phony who was reinventing himself to get elected. These factually dubious claims were used to manufacture a narrative of Gore as a calculating liar that may have contributed to his puzzling underperformance in the 2000 election. While any politician changes and evolves over the course of their career, Gore’s trajectory was framed as a series of phony personas (a sample from Howard Fineman: “By my count we’re on about the fifth or sixth Al Gore now”).

Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential contender in the Intrade futures market, is starting to be covered in a similar way. A Los Angeles Times profile on Saturday emphasized the supposed change in his attire in the headline and lede:

A whole new Romney for 2012 presidential run

The early Republican favorite is wearing Gap skinny jeans and going tieless on network TV. But despite his makeover, he still has a hard time connecting with voters.

Defying his reputation as a 1950s square, the new, more casual Mitt Romney is popping up around the country as he readies a second run for president. He’s going tieless on network TV, strolling NASCAR pits in Daytona and sporting skinny Gap jeans bought for him by his wife.

His latest campaign book, just out in paperback, opens with a regular-guy scene: wealthy Mitt in a Wal-Mart checkout line, buying gifts for his grandsons and comparing the surroundings to Target, another discount store he says he’s familiar with.

The image tweaks are part of a broader makeover as Romney prepares to run from what should be an enviable spot: He’s the early Republican favorite — though far from an inevitable nominee.

Similarly, a Boston Globe report framed around questions about Romney’s “authenticity” questioned his attire at a NASCAR race:

…Romney popped up in Florida at the Daytona 500.

Romney is a true auto buff, a Mustang owner who is the son of a former American Motors president and was raised in Michigan, home of the American auto industry.

That a potential presidential candidate would show up at the biggest NASCAR event of the year, or glad-hand among potential supporters, is hardly out of the norm.

Yet when photos surfaced of Romney working the crowd, he was wearing a “Bass Pro Shops” shirt as if he were a regular angler or race sponsor.

New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny also highlighted these points in an article Saturday:

Mr. Romney is trying to present a more relaxed image to combat impressions that he is unapproachable and stiff. He has not been seen in a necktie for months — not in television appearances, meetings with donors or political dinners, including the one Saturday evening, where he was one of the few men wearing an open-collared shirt.

He turned up in the pit area of the Daytona 500 last month, mingling with race car drivers while wearing a Bass Pro Shops shirt. And last week, Mr. Romney, who put his wealth four years ago around $200 million, walked into Tommy’s Barber Shop in an Atlanta strip mall for a haircut. (Aides sent out a picture of him in the barber’s chair via Twitter.)

Romney’s evolution as a candidate is also being reframed, like Gore’s, as part of a series of personas. For instance, NBC’s influential First Read newsletter described him as “Romney 3.0”:

This, in short, is Romney 3.0. Romney 1.0 was the socially moderate businessman who won election as Massachusetts governor in 2002. Romney 2.0 was the socially conservative presidential candidate who ran to John McCain’s and Rudy Giuliani’s right on abortion, stem cells, and illegal immigration in 2007-2008. And Romney 3.0 appears to be the repeat presidential candidate who will focus more on the economy and his business record than on social issues.

In both cases, of course, detractors of Romney or Gore will argue that the candidate really is especially phony or inauthentic. Even if this is true, the problem is that the perception that a politician is phony encourages reporters to manufacture misleading narratives to reinforce that frame (as we saw with Gore in 1999-2000). In reality, almost every politician is calculating in the clothing they wear, the images they present, and the events they stage. Any reporter can deconstruct this stagecraft or write stories about how candidates are reinventing themselves (indeed, this is one of the few sorts of criticism allowed under what NYU’s Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere). But they tend to only write these stories about candidates for whom the narrative of phoniness seems to apply. For instance, Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who briefly ran for president in 2008, had a homespun manner. As a result, the story that Thompson pretended to drive away from a public event in his signature red pickup truck before transferring to a luxury car got little attention.

Two other factors tilt the playing field against Romney and Gore. First, Romney, like Gore, is the leading contender for his party’s nomination (though Gore had a far more commanding lead at this point). The press tends to be more negative towards frontrunners. More importantly, however, both come from states that are relatively poor fits to their presidential primary electorates. Any politician who succeeds in a hostile state (like Massachusetts for Romney and Tennessee for Gore) has to take moderate positions and make compromises that are relatively unpopular with their own party’s base. As a result, the transition to the national stage requires changes in their profile and issue positions. The most skilled politicians who accomplish this feat tend to be seen as slick (like Bill Clinton*), while less skilled ones like Gore and Romney tend to be seen as inauthentic. By contrast, those politicians who are seen as authentic are often ones whose districts or states match their party’s electorate well (e.g., George W. Bush in 2000), giving them the luxury of not having to adjust their issue profile or public image.

* Notably, Barack Obama got a pass on this process. He didn’t face a competitive race in 2004, allowing him to make the awkward transition from positions that fit his state senate district to those that could win a statewide race for senator in Illinois without serious public criticism. As a result, he could run for president in 2008 without making significant additional changes in his public profile. For more, see here and here.

Update 1: As Dana Houle pointed out on Twitter, one important distinction between Gore and Romney is that the Romney changed his positions on a number of policy issues recently (Gore changed his position on federal funding for abortion early in his career, but that was long before his 2000 presidential campaign). By contrast, Gore was perceived as reinventing himself stylistically rather than substantively. These are all fair points, but they still don’t excuse the sort of coverage described above.

Update 2: For more, see Paul Waldman and Jonathan Bernstein.

One other note: If anyone isn’t convinced that journalistic perceptions of authenticity are malleable, consider the example of George W. Bush, who invented a Texas rancher lifestyle focused on brush-clearing that might have been portrayed as inauthentic if adopted by, say, Gore. Instead, it was typically portrayed positively (or at least in a neutral fashion) by the press covering Bush.

Update 3: I’ve updated the language above to clarify that Gore changed his position on federal funding of abortion.

[Cross-posted at]

Brendan Nyhan

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