CONTACT: Tom Rosenstiel or Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ, 202-419-3650

Less Horse Race than 2008; Michigan a Turning Point for Romney

How the Media Covered the 2012 Primary Campaign

As the presidential campaign shifts from the Republican primary fights to a general election matchup between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that the president’s media coverage in 2012 has been consistently negative while his Republican challenger has experienced a more mixed narrative.

Obama’s negative coverage exceeded positive coverage in 14 of 15 weeks studied, while positive coverage outweighed negative for Romney in six of the 15 weeks and was fairly evenly divided in four more.

The report also finds that so far this year, the media have been less focused on strategy and tactics than they were during the 2008 primary season. In the 2012 primary campaign, 64% of the coverage was framed around strategy and the horserace, compared with 80% in the 2008 GOP primary season. At the same time, there was about twice as much emphasis on personal issues, public record and policy issues in 2012 compared with 2008.

Romney emerged as the conclusive winner of the media narrative after his win in the Michigan primary on February 28, according to the report. From that point, his coverage grew more positive as the media focused more on his delegate math and inevitability while coverage of his rivals, most notably former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, began to shrink and grow more negative.

“While Romney gained a secure hold on the nomination on April 10 when Santorum ended his campaign, he won the media narrative six weeks earlier, and a major factor was that journalists determined after Michigan that the delegate count had become unavoidable,” said PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel.

The study is based on analysis of the tone and volume of candidate coverage during the 2012 primary season from January 2-April 15 using human coding of 52 key news outlets and computer-assisted coding of more than 11,000 news outlets. It also analyzes the framing of campaign stories for a longer period, from Nov. 1- April 15.

Among the study’s other key findings:

  • Romney received the most vetting of his personal life and public record (12% of his coverage) of any Republican candidate during the primary season. The focus included his personal wealth and his career at the private equity investment firm Bain Capital.
  • Santorum, who emerged as Romney’s chief rival, never enjoyed a sustained period of positive press. He had three brief periods over the 15 weeks examined in which his coverage was more positive than negative—following his strong showing in Iowa, his victories in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota, and the week of his win in Louisiana.
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had only one week during the primary season in which he enjoyed significantly more positive press coverage than negative. That was the week of his victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Next to Romney, Gingrich received the most vetting (12%) of his public and private lives, including scrutiny of his marital history.
  • In 11 of 15 weeks studied, former Rep. Ron Paul received more positive coverage than negative – but he received less coverage than other candidates. Paul received about one-eighth as much coverage as Romney and about one-quarter as much as Santorum and Gingrich.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks the transformation of journalism in a changing information landscape through its annual State of the News Media report, its ongoing News Coverage Index and a series of special reports. As part of the nonpartisan, non-advocacy Pew Research Center, it does not take positions on policy issues.