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Media falls for Romney's confidence trick

The Romney campaign is on a roll! It has all the momentum, and it’s headed for victory—maybe even by a wide margin.
Romney agrees
Romney agrees

The Romney campaign is on a roll! It has all the momentum, and it’s headed for victory—maybe even by a wide margin.

At least that’s the impression you might get from reading the political headlines the last few days.

“We’re going to win. Seriously, 305 electoral votes,” one Romney aide told Politico, which breathlessly reported Tuesday that a “surging Romney is suddenly playing offense all over the map.”

Politico swallowing what campaigns tell it is nothing new. But The New York Times got into the act, too, reporting Monday night on the “growing sense of optimism inside the Romney campaign,” and noting the “newly relaxed faces of its senior advisers as they lounged poolside at their hotel in nearby Delray Beach before Monday’s debate, ticking through states where they see new opportunities and rising poll numbers.”

Team Romney also trumpeted the news—picked up by CNN—that it’s pulling resources out of North Carolina, so confident is it in winning that state. And—Politico again, naturally—that it's mulling moving into Pennsylvania, which has long been considered relatively safe for President Obama. Paul Ryan led a rally in Pittsburgh last week. A Romney aide told Politico’s Playbook that New Hampshire, also long considered a reach for Romney, is leaning their way. And the Romney campaign demonstrated its carefree attitude by playing a pre-debate game of touch football with the campaign press (gotta love that liberal media!)

In case it needs saying: This is spin.

It’s a co-ordinated strategy by the Romney campaign to build a media storyline about their candidate’s “momentum,” in order to generate positive coverage that creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s the same tactic Karl Rove used in 2000, when he had George W. Bush do an event in California during the waning days of the campaign—despite little solid evidence that he had a chance there—merely to game the press into reporting that things were trending his candidate’s way.

Here’s the actual state of the race, according to analysts like Nate Silver and Charlie Cook, who focus on empirical data, not campaign chest-thumping: After some clear movement towards Romney coming out of the first debate, the race has stabilized over the last week, perhaps with some very slight movement back in Obama’s direction. Today, the race is very close, but Obama likely holds a narrow edge, in part because he leads in most of the key swing states, including Ohio. As Cook wrote Tuesday: “[T]he Obama electoral path looks less steep than the one Romney must traverse.” On Monday, Silver gave Obama about a two in three chance of winning the election.

Some of the sharper commentators are now starting to call out the Romney campaign’s strategy, and the media’s credulity. “[T]he widespread perception that Romney is pulling ahead is Romney’s campaign suckering the press corps with a confidence game,” Jon Chait of New York magazine writes, also pointing out that the big move to pull resources out of North Carolina involved one staffer. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo accuses the Romney campaign of “trying to pull a classic confidence move to convince gullible reporters that their campaign is on the move and they’re confident of victory.” And Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast notes that Romney-backers are “creating a reality” that the facts don’t support.

You can’t blame the Romney campaign for doing everything it can to try to get an advantage. But that doesn’t mean the political press has to go along with it.