Why Romney looks more ‘confident’ in reporters’ eyes

It’s journalism-speak for "seeming more likely to win"

NEW HAMPSHIRE — One of the most frequent problems with campaign reporting is the way that journalists construct candidate-centric narratives that coincide with the ups and downs of the race.

We’ve seen this pattern recur with Mitt Romney in the last few weeks. The weak May jobs report and economic turmoil in Europe have helped to push down the estimated probability of President Obama’s re-election on the Intrade futures market by approximately five percentage points this month. With the GOP finally closing ranks behind its presumptive nominee, Romney’s chances of winning appear stronger than ever.

As if on cue, the press corps that previously savaged Romney as a flip-flopper and phony has started to portray him in a more positive light (though soul-crushingly stupid gaffe coverage continues).

In particular, Romney’s manner on the campaign trail, which has previously been derided as wooden and inauthentic, is now being described as more “confident,” which is journalism-speak for “seeming more likely to win.” During a CBS This Morning segment on June 8, for instance, reporter Jan Crawford said, “On a campaign trail this week, Romney has sounded confident… And why not? In his first head-to-head fund-raising battle with the President, Romney came out on top… [T]he fund-raising numbers were just the latest example of a not-so-great week for Mister Obama`s reelection bid.” Sam Youngman and Steve Holland of Reuters likewise portrayed “an increasingly confident Mitt Romney” in a June 14 dispatch that described the GOP nominee’s improved fundraising and polls immediately before describing him as “[l]ooking confident and more relaxed than his wooden image would suggest.” Finally, a June 14 commentary by E. Thomas McClanahan that ran in my local newspaper, the Valley News (NH), noted “a nightmare of bad news” for Obama before remarking that “Romney, chronically off guard in the primaries, has been campaigning with more confidence.”

Ask yourself this: How often is a losing candidate portrayed as confident? The reality is that politicians tend to seem confident and persuasive when the political wind is at their back (see, e.g., George W. Bush 9/11/01-11/2/04). By contrast, candidates facing poor fundamentals seem hapless and unable to connect with voters. Journalists love to tell a story of how a politician’s personal style is the reason that her campaign has surged or declined—it creates an easy-to-understand narrative centered on the events that reporters cover every day.

We’ve seen this pattern before. Here in New Hampshire, candidates are often portrayed as “confident” when they are in a strong position in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. For instance, the adjective was frequently applied to Romney before, during, and after his January 10, 2012 victory before disappearing in the wake of his defeat in South Carolina. With the nomination finally in hand and Obama under fire, Romney now seems “confident” once again.

Conversely, the damage to President Obama’s chances has also left him more vulnerable to coverage that frames his campaign style as the cause of those problems. Not surprisingly, Obama was savaged last week by the press for a “gaffe” that voters didn’t care about. He and his campaign are now also more likely to be portrayed as ineffective and lacking confidence. Most notably, Time’s Mark Halperin suggested that Obama “lacks in his operation, in his team, the confidence and the momentum that they have in the Romney campaign” during a June 10 interview on MSNBC. Said Halperin:

[Y]ou think about what succeeds in politics, what succeeds in sports? Two things: confidence and momentum. The president is not out of it by any means. I still think he’s the favorite. But he’s right now lacks in his operation, in his team, the confidence and the momentum that they have in the Romney campaign. And I think you see that in the fundraising and you see that in what happened in Wisconsin. Every week one side has momentum and more confidence. They’re better off as we head towards November. Snapshot of the last week is really bad for the president’s campaign, but you’re going to see a lot of changes in this race.

In other words, Romney is on the upswing because he is more confident. The tautological nature of the way the media covers “confidence” has never been better expressed.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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