Winning isn’t everything in primaries
Winning isn’t all that matters in the early contests on the presidential nomination calendar. Candidates seek to beat expectations, and the press and the parties judge the results against what they thought would happen.
In fact, beating expectations can matter even more than the raw results because it affects the amount and tone of the coverage candidates get. Those, in turn, can affect voters in the next state on the calendar.
A classic example: In 1984, Gary Hart was perceived to have “won” Iowa with 16 percent— no one expected him to finish that strongly— andWalterMondale was thought to have “lost” with 49 percent, because he failed to reach 50 percent. Hart then received so much positive publicity that he pulled amajor upset in the New Hampshire primary and went on to become a serious competitor for the nomination.
Almost every smart observer deplores this state of affairs: Shouldn’t we just accept the results, rather than interpreting them through the bias of “expectations”?
Here’s why the expectations game can make sense— and how it can go wrong. For good, bad and ugly:
The Good. Done well, the expectations game is an important corrective to the biggest flaw of the sequential nomination process, which is that early states are more important than later states, but that no state is representative of the nation as a whole. By taking into account the particular demographic features or regional placement of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada as a way to discount success and failure, both the media and party actors are able to adjust the distortions of those states to a national scale.
The Bad. Unfortunately, the expectations game is tricky, and it’s easy to get caught up in the candidates’ spin about what they should be “expected” to do in any state, or previous media narratives.
Expectations are relatively easy in general elections, because we know that most Democratic voters will support the Democrat and most Republican voters will choose the Republican. So it’s easy to conclude that Democrats should do well in Rhode Island and that Republicans should win easily in Wyoming.
It’s a lot harder, however, to figure out which Republicans should do well in Iowa on Feb. 1. Yes, the caucuses usually turn out more Christian conservatives than can be found in Republican primaries in most states. But what does that mean ( for example) for Marco Rubio’s proper expectation level? There’s no obvious answer. And given that every candidate will attempt to set expectations low— so that even a poor result can be spun as a win— it’s especially hard for neutral observers to get it right.
The Ugly. At its worst, the expectations game can wind up as nonsensical as its critics fear. That happens when expectations are set not by objective factors, but by polls— so that “beating expectations” just becomes a question of doing better than the last round of polls.
In that case, the best that beating expectations might indicate is which campaign has the best get- out- the- vote operation. Most likely, it just randomly rewards candidates who happen to have had bad luck in polling. There’s no reason to adjust for those things, the way there is a reason to adjust for local demographic advantages.
Done correctly, judging candidates by whether or not they beat expectations can be very positive. It’s just very easy to get it wrong.