The October 3 debate in Denver, which was widely viewed as an overwhelming win for Romney over a listless Obama, dramatically altered the tone of press coverage. (A Gallup survey showed that 72% of Americans thought Romney won the debate compared to only 20% for Obama.) And the campaign narratives were suddenly reversed as the debate reviews poured in and polls started moving quickly toward Romney-making the race a virtual tie.
Romney’s narrative in the press changed instantly. In the days just before the debate, October 1-3, the number of favorable stories about Romney (37%) outstripped positive (6%) by 6-to-1. In the days immediately following the Denver encounter (October 4-7), the positive narrative soared to 32% while negative shrank to 23%. The following week (October 8-14), Romney’s narrative was more mixed (30% negative and 22% positive), but that represented a major improvement over what had been overwhelmingly unflattering coverage before the debate. Moreover, coverage in which positive and negative stories are relatively balanced or lean slightly to the negative, tended during this period to characterize both candidates when they had momentum.
For Obama, the debate marked a dramatic shift in his narrative the other way. What had been mixed coverage turned sharply negative. Between the first and second debates, 12% of the stories about Obama were positive contrasted with 37% that were negative.
After the second debate, in which critics and the public thought Obama gave a stronger performance, his narrative rebounded somewhat (17% positive, 34% negative), back to a 17-point negative differential. Romney’s media narrative slipped back, but to levels better than before (14% positive, 45% negative).
A close look at the framing of the coverage suggests that much of this new tone was affected by perceptions of how close the race had now become. From October 4-21, there was more attention to the horse-race, 47% of the coverage overall, than in any other period in the eight weeks studied. And thanks largely to his showing on October 3 and subsequent rise in the polls, Romney fared better than Obama in the horse-race narrative for those 17 days. His horse-race coverage was mixed-28% positive, 27% negative-while Obama’s was far more negative (40%) than positive (17%). What had been a strength for Obama in the coverage-the perception that he seemed likely to win-had now eroded.