Finally, there’s the way that journalists cover the horse race. Traditionally, campaign reporters attend campaign events and seek to infer which campaign is winning, which is losing, and why. (Dickerson’s case that “Romney is peaking at the right time,” which acknowledges the tie in the polls, is based on enthusiastic crowds at his rallies.) Even though Obama remains in a stronger position in the Electoral College, his post-Oct. 3 strategy looks to journalists like the approach of a losing campaign, whereas Romney and his campaign aides are not just trying to convince reporters that they are surging but acting like it. When these campaign optics seem not to line up with the publicly available numbers, journalists too often discount the data, assuming that the campaigns must know something from their private polling that the media doesn’t.

Ideally, journalists should be trying to help the public better understand the true state of the race rather than constructing their own narratives. There are important stories to be told about why Romney stopped making gains and what implications that fact has for the final weeks of the campaign, but they can only be told if the media sheds its crude notions of “momentum” and grounds its reporting in the data.

 

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