Less Horse Race than 2008

Mitt Romney needed 15 weeks once the primary contests began to gain a secure hold over his party’s nomination for president. But he emerged as the conclusive winner in the media narrative about the race six weeks earlier, following a narrow win in his native state, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that examines in detail the media’s coverage of the race.

After Romney’s tight victory in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, news coverage about his candidacy became measurably more favorable and the portrayal of his rivals—particularly Rick Santorum—began to become more negative and to shrink in volume.

One main component of that shift in the narrative is that after Michigan, the news media began to view Romney’s nomination as essentially inevitable. Indeed, a close look at the coverage finds that references to delegate math and the concept of electoral inevitability spiked in the media the week after Michigan, rising twelve fold, for instance, on television news programs. From that point on, the amount of attention in the press to Romney’s candidacy began to overwhelm that of his rivals, and the tone of coverage about him, which had been often mixed or negative before, became solidly positive.


A look inside the coverage also reveals that Romney endured more media “vetting” of his record and personal character than the other Republican contenders. Since November, just over 12% of the coverage in which Romney was a significant figure was devoted to those subjects. The press focused in particular on his wealth and his experience at the private equity investment firm Bain Capital.

A similar percentage of the coverage of Newt Gingrich also involved vetting his record and personal life (just under 12%), but he received only about half as much campaign coverage generally as Romney.

One quadrennial question about press coverage of campaigns is what subject matter will help voters decide among the candidates. Critics and journalists have long debated whether there is too much focus on strategic and tactical matters in the press. Such coverage explains what is occurring in the race but people disagree over whether it illuminates how a candidate would behave if elected.

From November on, these strategic and political frames—stories focused around such concerns as momentum, strategy, horse race polls, advertising and fundraising—accounted for 64% percent of the Republican primary campaign coverage studied. That is more than five times as much as was devoted to the candidates’ personal lives (12%), 10 times as much as their public records (6%) and almost six times as much as was devoted to the candidates’ positions on policy issues (11%).

Nonetheless, these numbers represent substantially more coverage devoted to policy, personal history and public record than was the case during the 2008 presidential primary season.

These are some of the findings of a special report by PEJ that examines how the primary season was covered and what it portends about the race ahead.

The study examines the shifts and turns in the race and tracks how much attention each candidate received, the tone of that coverage and emphasis of the coverage, or what some scholars call frame.

This analysis was produced through two forms of coding of media content. One involved computer-assisted analysis of more than 11,000 news outlets. The second involved human coding of a sample of 52 key news outlets covering print, broadcast, cable, audio and online means of distribution. The computer technology from the firm Crimson Hexagon was used to examine the tone of each candidate’s coverage, how positive or negative or neutral. The human coding was used to analyze the amount of coverage each candidate received and the framing of that coverage—whether it involved strategy, issues or personal matters. The examination of the tone and volume of coverage focused on the period from January 2-April 15. The coverage of frame reaches back further, to November, to see how the race was covered for two months before the rush of primaries began.

Among the other findings of the research:


  • Santorum, who emerged as Romney’s chief rival and captured some important primary victories, never enjoyed a sustained period of positive press. He had three moments over the 15 weeks examined in which his coverage was more positive than negative—following his strong showing in Iowa, following his victories in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota and the week of his win in Louisiana. But these periods never lasted more than two weeks, largely because his primary and caucus wins were followed fairly soon by losses in subsequent contests and doubts over his organization and financing.
  • Newt Gingrich had only one week during the primary season in which he enjoyed significantly more positive press coverage than negative—the week of his victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21. What’s more, no candidate also fell off the media radar screen more precipitously than Gingrich. In early March, he was a significant presence in about one-third of the campaign stories. (To be a significant figure, someone must be featured in at least 25% of the story.) Three weeks later, he registered in less than 1% of the campaign stories.
  • Ron Paul enjoyed the most consistently positive portrayal of any candidate in the race. But that was offset by the fact that the media virtually ignored him. Paul had 11 weeks out of 15 in which the media attention paid to him was clearly more positive than negative. The next closest were Romney and Santorum, at six weeks each. But Paul received about one-eighth as much coverage as Romney and about one-quarter as much as Santorum and Gingrich. With little attention came little vetting. In all, 3% of Paul’s coverage scrutinized his personal background or public record, the lowest of any candidate in the primaries
  • An examination of President Obama’s coverage suggests the media have been treating him more as a presidential candidate than a chief executive for months. Since November, nearly two-thirds (63%) of the coverage about Obama were framed around political strategy and momentum. In contrast, 21% primarily connected the president with foreign or domestic policy issues, such as Iran or the renewed debate over health care.
  • While a focus largely on political matters—topics such as horse race, strategy and fundraising—made up most of the coverage, the numbers were lower than four years earlier. Taken together, coverage of personal issues, public record and policy positions received about twice the emphasis in 2012 as it did in 2008 (28% in the 2012 race, 11% in the 2008 Republican primary race and 15% in the 2008 Democratic primary race).


Now the race takes a new turn. The focus will shift to the contrast between Romney and Obama, and, with Election Day seven months away, the pace of the narrative will also be altered by the calendar. This retrospective of how the primaries were covered reveals how the two presumptive nominees have been portrayed to this point and what the public has been told about them.

The public has been offered a mixed view of Romney, one that has emphasized his wealth, his record as a private equity executive and focused on the difficulties he has had as a campaigner in persuading conservative primary voters to embrace him. In the case of President Obama, the public has been exposed to a mostly negative portrayal. That, in substantial part, is a function of the fact that for many months he has been the target of multiple Republican candidates attacking his record and his competence as they sought to take his job.