Ten Miles Square


October 07, 2012 7:06 AM Understanding the “Romney Won Big!” Narrative

By Brendan Nyhan

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]

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


  • Neil Bates on October 06, 2012 8:25 PM:

    President Obama did not really lose that debate. In my opinion, the "verdict" on Wednesday's presidential debate shows how debased our commentariat has become. Instead of focusing and grading the way genuine debate referees do, they fixated on superficialities: which candidate showed energy, or aggression, or "enthusiasm." These are shallow personal considerations, good for pumping up a horse race but diverting from demanding substance, arguing for one's position, and so on. Mr. Romney kept saying his tax cuts and extra military spending wouldn't result in lower revenue and even higher deficits, without explaining why we should believe him. That would be a big mark down by any authentic referee (as any high-schooler would find out), but the commentariat didn't care much. Even many of the media "factcheckers" went along for Romney's deceptive ride, being silly enough to point to his *just repeatedly saying* his plan would work somehow, as if that were a supporting argument or rebuttal of criticism. Finally, Mitt Romney was disgustingly rude to distinguished moderator Jim Lehrer. (Both candidates had such problems, but Mitt was clearly worse.) It's pathetic.

    BTW this is not about preferences, I note that Kennedy in 1960 and Bentson in 1988 were unfairly granted either "the winner" or "major zinger" for technically irrelevant reasons of the same time decried above.

  • yellowdog on October 07, 2012 2:04 AM:

    Perhaps in grading debates, we should consider whether the debater told the truth. Romney 'won' the debate only if you put an asterisk next to all of his misstatements of fact and misrepresentations of reality. If only demeanor mattered, we could elect Rex Harrison president and be done with it.

  • John B. on October 07, 2012 9:01 AM:

    We need a new English word to more accurately describe televised presidential candidate joint appearances. "Debate" is about as accurate as "reality show."

  • mcc on October 08, 2012 3:57 PM:

    I think this is mostly about the fact that the media-- and Democratic voters-- really, deeply hate Barack Obama, and have for years. The last few months of Romney being a public goofus and Obama leading in polls have forced these groups to grit their teeth and acknowledge Obama as possibly not all that awful after all, but Wednesday night gave us an excuse to return to our old, comfortable status quo: the media got to portray Obama as flailing and failing, and Democrats got to return to our eternal chest-beating that Everything Is Terrible And It Is Obama's Fault. I think the post-debate narrative showed up so strongly because it's what we *want*-- there is a palpable excitement in people finally getting to go back to Obama-bashing, even if it's over something large-scale inconsequential like being slightly less forceful than the other guy during a televised debate.

    This said, Romney won the debate in the only way that matters: He got a distinct poll bump. This could be about Obama's performance, or it could be about the negative coverage that followed the debate, but it's more likely to be the former because snap polls showed voters widely preferring Romney's performance. Anyway, we'll see if that lasts.