Believe me, with less than two weeks until Election Day, I would rather be discussing efforts to keep voters from the polls in Ohio or employers pressuring their workers to donate to certain candidates. But I'm going to dip back into media theory for a quick rebuttal to challenges I received after writing a critique of the way that the campaign media was covering the debates. I argued that Mitt Romney had received an especially large bounce in the polls from his strong performance in Denver partly because a campaign media pack hungry for a new narrative and a tight race had touted his victory for days after the fact. By contrast, I noted, the press had scored Obama as having done better than Romney in the second and third debates, but had concluded that these would not matter as much because they would not affect the current "trajectory" of the race. This struck me as remarkably lacking in self-awareness of the media's role in shaping campaign narratives and "trajectories." If the press decides in the moment that one debate matters a whole lot more, then odds are...it will matter a whole more.
If my common-sense claim doesn't suffice, there's political science to back this up, reports George Washington University's John Sides:
In 2004, Kim Fridkin and other researchers at Arizona State University showed people footage of the third presidential debate, the debate plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC, the debate plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on CNN.com. So who won the debate, Bush or Kerry? It depended on whether you watched the news...
People watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN. But those who watched the NBC post-morten had the opposite impression. Fridkin et al. write:
"Our findings suggest that voters’ attitudes are influenced by the arguments presented directly by the candidates during the debate as well as by the media’s instant analyses of the candidates’ debate performances….the impact of the candidates’ messages was often altered by the media’s instant analyses." Something similar happened in 1976. As I wrote about in the Washington Monthly, Ford’s big “gaffe”—saying that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—didn’t even register with voters until a day later, when the news had discussed his comment.