Is the media responsible for Romney’s rise?

If you look at the latest polls, you might get the impression that Mitt Romney is red hot, on fire and maybe even headed for the White House. But is this Romney surge the real deal, or merely a media creation turned self-fulfilling prophecy?

The latest Gallup poll of likely voters has the former Massachusetts governor with a 2-point lead over the president, while a Pew poll gives Romney a 4-point lead. Rasmussen and Reuters/Ipsos have the two candidates tied at 48 percent and 45 percent, respectively, while the RealClearPolitics average of the major tracking polls gives Romney a 48 to 47.3 percent advantage.

Conventional wisdom attributes the Republican candidate’s momentum—and his apparent erasure of the president’s lead—to a bounce from the first presidential debate in Denver.  To be sure, the first debate was not Obama’s finest hour and a half.  He looked beat, beaten and demoralized at times, tentative in his delivery, and unable or unwilling to fight Romney as his supporters had anticipated. But while the president’s debate performance was underwhelming, it did not translate into the historic debate win for Romney as Gallup suggested.

Early post-debate polling was not nearly as harsh on Obama as the subsequent offerings by media reports and political punditry. And in any case, nearly half of respondents in a CNN poll said the debate did not make them more likely to vote for either candidate.

Romney scored points on delivery but lacked substance, and presented a more moderate stance that contradicted the “severely” conservative persona he assumed throughout this election season. There were no zingers or memorable exchanges from the matchup— except for Romney’s pledge to kill Big Bird and defund PBS, but even that statement could come back to bite the GOP candidate. Most of all, Romney lied liberally, doing a better job of making stuff up in order to win.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers and puts the president’s chances of winning at 71.2 percent, with 297 electoral votes. Silver argues that the fundamentals of the race have not changed. Obama is ahead in most of the swing states. And the latest national polls, some of which have shaky methodology, are worshipped as other evidence is ignored.

For example, the latest jobs numbers are favorable news for Obama, as unemployment dropped below 8 percent and job growth is higher than in previous election years.  The online prediction market site Intrade gives Obama a 62 percent chance of reelection. And Obama has a 65 percent likelihood of victory, according to PredictWise.

Moreover, President Obama is popular. Although Romney’s favorability rating has reached a new high of 47 percent, this is only slightly higher than his pre-debate rating, and well below the president’s record 55 percent positive rating. Romney remains the least popular presidential nominee since 1984, which, in combination with the other evidence, is not exactly the makings of a winner.

Besides, as Silver will tell you, the challenger tends to win the first debate and gain ground immediately in the polls, but not throughout the remaining weeks of the campaign. As Rachel Maddow notes in her blog, George W. Bush led John Kerry by 8 points in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in late September 2004. After the first Bush-Kerry debate, the two were tied, and Kerry soon edged up a point above Bush. A wild swing in the polls due to a post-debate bounce, but ultimately, no President Kerry. Fast-forward to 2012, and we are seeing the same thing with Mitt Romney’s temporary rise in the polls.

So what’s going on here?  Well, this is like the hype of the press conference before the boxing match. Some in the media declared Romney the winner before the debate even started. Others went over the top with their assessment of Obama’s debate performance.  This seeped into the public consciousness and particularly made an impression on “low-information” undecided voters. That’s politics, that’s news, but that’s also entertainment.

In this reality show era, there is a need for drama and intrigue. A close race provides just that. A wide margin of victory is not so much of a story, but the narrative of Romney as the underdog on the rise — or Obama as the “comeback kid” — is far more appealing to media spin doctors.

Meanwhile, a lot can happen between now and Election Day. There are two presidential debates left, and an opportunity for the president to give his opponent a proper education. The vice presidential debate takes place this week, and many expect Joe Biden to take Paul Ryan to the woodshed in Kentucky. Plus, Romney’s “47 percent” comment isn’t going anywhere and could continue to cause him trouble. And perhaps Big Bird and Elmo will fight back against the man who threatened to take them out. In other words, it is way too premature for the Romneys to plan to redecorate the Oval Office. Obama is still the favorite to win.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove