January 4, 2012

The Santorum Surge Story Comes True

News Coverage Index December 19, 2011 - January 2, 2012

If momentum in presidential politics is something that builds on itself, then Rick Santorum’s last-minute surge to finish in a virtual tie for first with Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses benefited from the narrative in the news media.

The subject of momentum, indeed, was the biggest component of the coverage in the last two weeks before Iowa citizens voted, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. More than a quarter of all the coverage across the country (27%) was focused on polls, strategy and momentum-much of it about dark horse Santorum dramatically gaining ground in the waning days of the Iowa campaign, even though few late polls showed Santorum actually ahead.

"Santorum is surging. A CNN poll of registered Iowa Republicans released Wednesday puts Santorum in third place with 16 percent of the vote-his highest share yet," said the Weekly Standard magazine on December 29.  The December 29 Des Moines Register declared that  "Signs that Rick Santorum is suddenly a contender in the race for the Republican nomination for president were all over Iowa on Thursday."

A final average of Iowa polls going into the voting had shown Romney with a razor thin lead over Paul and Santorum a highly competitive third.

The analysis of the framing of the coverage of the Iowa caucus contest from December 19-January 2 was conducted by PEJ using computer algorithmic technology by Crimson Hexagon that monitors coverage in more than 11,500 news media outlets.

The candidate who matched Santorum vote for vote in Iowa was Romney, and he, too, saw the storyline about him grow more optimistic as the voting neared, particularly after former frontrunner Newt Gingrich’s support began to erode. And in many of those news accounts, it was his demeanor that seemed to signal brightening prospects.

On December 21, an Associated Press story saw Romney’s criticism of Gingrich in "uncharacteristically sharp language" as evidence of his strengthened standing in the race and "newfound optimism after weeks of concern inside his campaign." A week later, another story talked about "a confident Romney campaign in the final five days of the campaign…in strong position to win outright or finish in second place behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul."

If Romney’s aggressive campaigning was taken as a sign of confidence, that opposite was true of Gingrich, whose attacks were portrayed as near desperation. "Trying to reverse a slide in Iowa by positioning himself as the positive alternative to his trash-talking rivals [Gingrich] unleashed an unexpectedly harsh attack Tuesday against his chief rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul," stated a December 27 Los Angeles Times story.

The same day, the AP echoed those sentiments with a single sentence: "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

For Paul, who finished third in the caucuses, Iowa was seen as a hospitable venue given his grassroots appeal and strong organization. He "is in contention to win the Iowa caucuses and do well in the New Hampshire primary…" reported a December 20 Associated Press story that nevertheless downplayed his chances to win the nomination.

A related topic, political advertising and the role of Political Action Committees, accounted for an additional 10% of the Iowa coverage from December 19-January 2.  Much of the coverage focused on the targeting of one-time Iowa frontrunner Gingrich.

A January 1 USA Today story reported on a study showing that "45% of all the political ads in Iowa have been negative spots directed at Gingrich…The ads have had an impact: Gingrich is now at 12% in the Iowa Poll-well behind Romney and Ron Paul-with just a few days to go before voters here begin the 2012 presidential election season."

Candidate records and the issues is No. 2

The second biggest focus of coverage in the final days before the caucuses was the candidate records and their positions on issues, something that critics have long decried the press for ignoring. Issues and records made up 19% of the coverage. And one major story that emerged was an old controversy over newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name in the 1990s.

A New York Times story stated that as Paul had emerged "as a real Republican contender in Iowa, [he] is receiving new focus for decades-old unbylined columns in his political newsletters that included racist, anti-gay and anti-Israel passages that he has since disavowed."

As the controversy simmered, Reuters reported on December 29 that after "drawing fire for anti-Israeli and racist, anti-gay messages contained in newsletters published under his name two decades ago," the Paul campaign issued a statement saying. "Dr. Paul is the most pro-Israel candidate in this race."

Rick Perry also generated some media attention on December 27 when he shifted his stance to broaden his opposition to abortion to include cases involving rape and incest. And Romney made news for what he didn’t say, when he declined to take sides in the Washington battle over the payroll tax cut, declaring "I’m not going to get into the back-and-forth on the con­gres­sional sausage-making process."

One of his sons, Matt Romney, generated a mini-furor of his own by suggesting that President Obama should release his birth certificate before his father would release his tax returns. A contrite Matt Romney later tweeted that he was sorry for a "dumb joke."

The Iowa Caucus Phenomenon

The third-largest media theme in the final run-up to the Iowa voting involved the caucus system itself. That accounted for 16% of the coverage and was particularly prevalent in the first week (January 19-26), when it accounted for 22%.

And one element of this was to discount the possible outcome of the race. "Ask President Gephardt, President Huckabee or President Harkin whether winning the Iowa caucuses helped them snag the nomination of their parties, let alone the White House," wrote columnist Hank Plante. "Tuesday’s much-hyped voting in Iowa is as meaningless as last year’s New Year’s resolution."

Another theme here was that Iowa isn’t what it used to be. One December 25 Associated Press story saw distinctively less emphasis on retail politicking in 2012.  "It was…a less aggressive personal courtship of Iowans in a campaign that, instead, has largely gravitated around a series of 13 nationally televised debates, a crush of television ads and interviews on media outlets… " the story reported.

The Ground Game and Iowa Voters

If the Iowa campaign featured less of a ground game than usual, it might help explain the moderate amount of attention coverage devoted to that theme. All told, 15% of the coverage from December19-January 2 involved the candidates campaigning on the ground, although that theme did increase in the second week to 20%.

Some of that later coverage focused on Santorum’s efforts to capitalize on his rise in the polls with some old fashioned handshaking. A January 1 Boston Globe story reported that Santorum "spent the last Saturday afternoon before the Tuesday presidential nominating caucus hopping between towns in Marion County, making his final pitch to voters who gave Mike Huckabee a huge margin in 2008."

A considerably smaller portion of the coverage, 6%, was devoted to what was on the minds of Iowa voters.  One of those key storylines was the indecision of Iowans who were still weighing choices late in the game.

A January 1 USA Today story reported on statewide poll showing that 40% of likely caucus goers "might still change their minds" and quoted one mother from Grimes Iowa saying, "It’ll depend on my prayer and my gut."

About this Report

For this special edition of the NCI, PEJ employed a combination of traditional media research methods, based on long-standing rules regarding content analysis, along with computer coding software developed by Crimson Hexagon. The software is able to analyze the textual content from thousands of web-based articles on news sites and classify such content by identifying statistical patterns in words.

The purpose of Crimson Hexagon is to "take as data a potentially large set of text documents, of which a small subset is hand coded into an investigator-chosen set of mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories. As output, the methods give approximately unbiased and statistically consistent estimates of the proportion of all documents in each category."

Crimson Hexagon software examines online content provided by RSS feeds of thousands of news outlets from the U.S. and around the world. This provides researchers with analysis of a much wider pool of content than conventional human coding can provide. Specifically, the monitors PEJ creates are based on more than 11,500 news web sites.

Information on the tool itself can be found at http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/ and the in depth methodologies can be found here http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/products/whitepapers/.

The time frame for the analysis is December 19, 2011, to January 2, 2012, which is different than the normal NCI time period. For the analysis, PEJ used the following list of keywords in a Boolean search to narrow the universe to relevant posts: Iowa AND (GOP OR Republican OR caucus)

PEJ created a list of themes that were present in coverage of the Iowa caucuses, and trained the monitor to recognize the presence of each theme in online text. Crimson Hexagon’s software then analyzed news more than 50,000 stories to determine the percentages of conversation that fell into each category.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ