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The Chicken, The Egg And The Reporter

Believe me, with less than two weeks until Election Day, I would rather be discussing efforts to keep voters from the polls in Ohio or employers pressuring their workers to donate to certain candidates. But I’m going to dip back into media theory for a quick rebuttal to challenges I received after writing a critique of the way that the campaign media was covering the debates. I argued that Mitt Romney had received an especially large bounce in the polls from his strong performance in Denver partly because a campaign media pack hungry for a new narrative and a tight race had touted his victory for days after the fact. By contrast, I noted, the press had scored Obama as having done better than Romney in the second and third debates, but had concluded that these would not matter as much because they would not affect the current “trajectory” of the race. This struck me as remarkably lacking in self-awareness of the media’s role in shaping campaign narratives and “trajectories.” If the press decides in the moment that one debate matters a whole lot more, then odds will matter a whole more.

This really rankled some of my colleagues, who argued that I was vastly overstating the media’s role. At Politico, Dylan Byers wrote:

Gov. Romney had an impressive showing in Denver, and President Obama, by his own admission, did not. But it was bigger than that. For much of the summer, the Obama campaign had been trying, somewhat successfully, to define Romney as a symbol of corporate greed. When Romney took control of the debate on Oct. 3, without an equally aggressive opponent and in front of an audience of at least 70 million, he presented an alternative image to voters...[MacGillis argues] Romney didn’t build that. The media made that happen.
Because Romney is incapable of giving a strong debate performance? Incapable of looking presidential? Because Obama didn’t fail to deliver in Denver? Because there weren’t voters who were uncomfortable with the Romney they saw over the summer but came around to the one they saw in October? Because, before every newspaper and television network publishes its latest poll, it goes in and gerrymanders the results?

Over at Slate, David Weigel offered this:

The problem: You can’t analyze a Romney rise based solely on the topline, horse race number. Romney’s campaign argues, and Democrats quietly admit, that the great effect of the debate was a spike in the candidate’s sluggish favorable numbers. And they’re right. Check the RealClearPolitics average. On October 3, the day of the Denver debate, Romney maintained a net negative favorable number—48.2 percent, to 47 percent favorable. One week later, Romney’s favorables had risen into the positive zone, and they’ve only risen since. 
Ask yourself: Were the voters who looked more kindly on Romney being mislead by a “media narrative”? To really prove that, you’d have to know how many voters saw the debate versus how many read the spin. Nearly 70 million people watched the debate, in an election that will probably bring out at least 130 million voters. How many of these people watch Piers Morgan Tonight?

I have to say, I find these retorts rather bewildering. I was not arguing that Romney’s post-Denver bounce had come only from the media, only that the media’s trumpeting of the debate as an epically decisive event had furthered and expanded the bounce, thus helping explain why it amounted to one of the largest, if not the largest, post-debate bounces ever recorded. It seems self-evident to the point of banal to suggest, as I did, that the media plays a role in how the electorate views candidates -- both in terms of their top-line preference and, yes, also their favorability assessments of the candidates. Romney’s favorability numbers were low for much of the year not just because the Democrats were running harsh ads against him or because voters didn’t like the Romney they were seeing on screen, but because the media was spending a lot of time confirming the Democratic caricature of Romney with talk of his tax records and out of touch manner and Bain Capital record. No, we cannot know exactly what the mix of chicken-and-egg cause and effect is -- that is why there are whole media studies and communications departments at universities. But we know that what we write and say on the radio and the tube does matter and, at some level, shape perceptions! Why are we even bothering, if it doesn’t? And why are the campaigns still sending dozens of people to the debate sites to spin the pack, if our coverage does not influence the way voters process what they’ve watched for those 90 minutes?

If my common-sense claim doesn't suffice, there's political science to back this up, reports George Washington University’s John Sides:

In 2004, Kim Fridkin and other researchers at Arizona State University showed people footage of the third presidential debate, the debate plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC, the debate plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on  So who won the debate, Bush or Kerry?  It depended on whether you watched the news...
People watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN.  But those who watched the NBC post-morten had the opposite impression.  Fridkin et al. write:
“Our findings suggest that voters’ attitudes are influenced by the arguments presented directly by the candidates during the debate as well as by the media’s instant analyses of the candidates’ debate performances….the impact of the candidates’ messages was often altered by the media’s instant analyses.”
Something similar happened in 1976.  As I wrote about in the Washington Monthly, Ford’s big “gaffe”—saying that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—didn’t even register with voters until a day later, when the news had discussed his comment.

More recently, one of the political reporters I respect most described a similar dynamic after Denver, in more anecdotal terms:

After spending a weekend talking to voters in a close state that's no longer really “swinging,” the first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying “huh, well, I wanted it to be better.” After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history.

Who was that intrepid reporter? Dave Weigel, one of the too-few reporters who actually gets out and talks to voters. And I'm going to guess that one reason those voters wound up thinking the debate was “the worst piece of crap in human history” was that they heard a lot of people in the media saying so in the days after Denver. To try to take ourselves out of the equation is modest to the point of bordering on self-delusion.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis