HIGHLIGHTS from the GENERAL ELECTION & the GOP PRIMARIES
Pictured more often than Pres. Obama, and more often than his GOP primary opponents — In many ways throughout the primary and the general election campaigns, Mitt Romney led a charmed life compared to his political opponents. In both the 2012 presidential primaries and the September/October general election period considered in this study, researchers found that the mainstream news outlets published more pictures of him than of his competitors.
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Pictured positively in the spring primaries, negatively at the start of the general election campaign following the leak of the “47 percent” video and the Clint Eastwood chair speech — One of the purposes of this study was to see if there were differences in coverage for each candidate based on the news outlet’s region or the news outlet’s type: exclusively online news sources (e.g. Huffington Post) versus online print websites (e.g. The New York Times) versus online broadcast websites (e.g. ABC).
According to researchers, the “type” of website and its geographical location had little effect on how Mitt Romney was featured — he was almost universally the media darling during the primaries, and more the goat in the general election… until the first debate turned his “negatives” to “neutral.”
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Pictured in the primaries as the ‘Well-Rounded Candidate’ — Perhaps in part because of the sheer number of images of him in the media (and perhaps due also to his advance team), Mitt Romney appeared in the published photos in diverse situations. While many of his primary opponents struggled to be pictured off the podium, the 18 news publications surveyed during the primary season portrayed Mitt Romney as the well-rounded candidate who could be both presidential and a family man.
During the general election, the photographs of both Romney and Obama became generally more formal. Images of the men in suits dominated, whether the Republican and Democratic nominees were on stage at the presidential debates or on other platforms as they flew from swing state to swing state.
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More photos than his competitors
Lots of photos and lots of photos with supporters: Researchers found and pinned more photos of Romney during the primaries and again during the general election season than any other candidate. During the February and March 2012 primaries researchers pinned 1442 photos of Romeny, 1067 of Rick Santorum, 526 of Newt Gingrich and 199 of Ron Paul.
Romney also appeared in more photographs than Obama in September and October. PrezPix researchers pinned 2933 photos of Romney across the 18 news outlets, and 2613 of Obama — despite the fact that Obama also appeared in articles as “the president,” not just as a candidate for the president.
Researchers noted that beyond the greater number of images, Romney appeared mingling with supporters more than any other of the GOP primary candidates — and because of the relatively greater formality of the fall election photos, over the course of the entire election season more than President Obama too. Especially during the primaries, news outlets published photo after photo of him wading into crowds, shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and even signing autographs.
- Compared to his primary opponents, Romney was rarely alone: Whether photos pictured Romney on stage or off, he often appeared standing alongside his wife or among a group of supporters. Images showing Romney with his wife at his side reinforced his image as a family man, while photos of him surrounded by crowds of supporters bolstered his position as the front-runner.
- Kissing babies and just generally reaching out to touch the voters: Many of the news publications published photographs that showed Romney interacting with diverse supporters (although not as diverse as those supporters in photographs with Obama) — including those too young to vote. In fact the study noted that the news outlets published more photos of Romney kissing babies — that old political cliché — than they published of his political opponents. (But it’s unknown whether Romney actually kissed more babies than the other candidates, or whether the news outlets just failed to publish photos of Santorum, Gingrich and Paul kissing babies.)
Obama’s opposite: the photos were worse before they (generally) got better
Treated extraordinarily well by news outlets in the spring, but considerably less positively in the fall: Neither the type of website nor its geographic location appeared to appreciably affect how positively Romney was featured during the primary season — only the Christian Science Monitor pictured him more negatively than positively.
- Romney’s across-the-board positive coverage stopped abruptly come the fall campaign: By the September start of the general election section of this PrezPix study, media outlets had come to view the Romney campaign through the lens of the disappointing Republican National Convention which had been overshadowed by the Clint Eastwood “empty chair” episode, and the leaked video from a spring fundraiser where Romney had been recorded as writing off 47 percent of the country as “victims,” “dependent upon government.”
- Both the tone of photographs of Romney changed, and the content of them did too. The major difference? Romney smiled less, and appeared either “alone” in photographs or with Obama on stage at the debates or next to him via a split-screen photo. Only rarely did Romney appear engaged with supporters as he had been during the primaries. It is worth mentioning that overall, news outlets also rarely pictured Obama wading into crowds; during the fall campaign more formal photos from the debates (or stump speeches) dominated.
The golden one in the primaries
A multi-faceted primary candidate: Perhaps in part because news outlets did not run as many photographs of Santorum, Gingrich and Paul as they did of Romney, Romney appeared in more diverse situations than his opponents. As a result, Romney appeared across the board as a well-rounded candidate who could fit into any setting and with any demographic.
- Front-Runner: Because Romney was the front-runner in the primary polls and the delegate count for essentially the entire span of time of the spring study (late February through late March 2012), Romney consistently attracted a larger and more diverse constituent base than his opponents. As a result, researchers regularly coded the photographs of Romney as positive in part because he regularly appeared surrounded by large, positive -looking crowds who represented many demographics.
- NB: What is “positive” can depend on context: This study did not formally examine the photos of the candidates in the context they appeared — headlines, captions, articles, even placement and size of the images were not rigorously considered. Still the researchers were aware of how important those elements can be to how viewers understand an image.
Researchers noted for example that during the primaries, two of the ten images of Romney in the DallasNews.com pictured him smiling on a podium with Teddy Kennedy, the former senior senator from Massachusetts, an icon of liberalism for much of the country. (Both photos illustrated an article entitled “Mitt Romney can’t shake influence of rival turned collaborator Edward Kennedy.”) Both of the images show the men smiling, seemingly in accord with each other. To a conservative Republican audience those “positive” photos might be interpreted as damning — in essence documenting that Romney is too sympathetic to liberal ideals and politicians. In other words, although coders evaluated both these photographs as “positive” images, a Texas-based GOP audiences might not have understood them to be so. The context in which photographs are seen matters, and can affect the interpretation of images. This study, however, was not structured to capture those kinds of nuances.