How the Media Covered the 2012 Primary Campaign
April 23, 2012
Less Horse Race than 2008
By Tom Rosenstiel, Mark Jurkowitz and Tricia Sartor of PEJ
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.