Though he launched his first run for president more than five years ago, Mitt Romney is still widely seen as an enigmatic figure. With opponents for the GOP presidential nomination raising questions about the sincerity of the former Massachusetts governor’s beliefs, journalists and commentators have launched a round of speculation about who “the real Romney” is. (The phrase is even the title of a new biography from two Boston Globe reporters). Even Romney himself has embraced the “real Romney” framework as these questions have mounted, telling National Review this week that he “wanted to make sure that people remember the real Mitt Romney, not the one being fabricated by my opponents.” The process amounts to a public interrogation not of Romney’s record or his agenda, but of his very being.

Of course, Romney is hardly the first candidate to suffer this sort of treatment. Back in 2008, for instance, numerous articles and TV segments tried to answer who the “real” Barack Obama was—a question that was asked suggestively by John McCain in an attempt to create doubts about the Democratic presidential nominee. Similarly, George W. Bush’s campaign helped drive similar coverage asking who the “real” John Kerry was back in 2004. And, perhaps most notably, journalists frequently portrayed Al Gore as inauthentic and asked whether they were seeing the “real” Gore during his 2000 presidential campaign.

With such a pattern in mind, it’s worth asking: Why does the media keep searching for the authentic self of certain politicians? And what consequences does that approach have for the coverage that results?

The first point to note is that the quest for a person’s true self isn’t limited to politics or journalism. As Rich Yeselson wrote this week on the group blog Crooked Timber, the search for a “deeply internalized ‘authenticity’ which dramatically reveals our true, inner selves” is “one of modernity’s most potent fantasies” and one that “seems especially urgent in the case of those few who wish to be our president.” This impulse is reinforced by journalists’ perceived duty to learn about candidates’ character and by media outlets’ economic incentives to cover politicians like celebrities.

However, the idea that reporters or commentators can discover a candidate’s “true” self is deeply flawed. This approach falsely privileges hidden or private information as especially revealing of a person’s true nature or motivations. More fundamentally, as Yeselson correctly points out, people do not have one true self but instead behave differently in different social contexts—a human tendency that is likely to be especially strong in any successful politician.

Why, then, are certain candidates more likely to be portrayed as inauthentic or somehow lacking in a well-defined “true” or “real” self? It’s partly a structural issue. In some cases, a politician faces a constituency in a run for higher office that differs from one he (or she) previously represented. The change in issue positions and campaign style that typically results from such a change is frequently construed as reflecting personal inauthenticity. In Romney’s case, he had to make the switch from the moderate stances that allowed him to win election as governor of Massachusetts to the conservative positions required to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The other major factor is a candidate’s raw political skill. While journalists tend to avoid expressing their own policy views, they are quite comfortable assessing a candidate’s ability to perform the rites of politics. These judgments are often cloaked in the language of authenticity. As Paul Waldman writes at The American Prospect, “what [reporters] often value more than anything else is not authenticity itself, but the most convincing portrayal of the authentic.” For instance, George W. Bush’s frequent brush-clearing on his Texas ranch was generally covered respectfully even though he purchased the ranch immediately before his presidential campaign and spent his formative years at an elite New England prep school. By contrast, Romney is seemingly incapable of performing authenticity in the way that modern politics demands.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.