Cynical journalists have decided that blatant attempts by Team Romney and Team Obama to set high debate expectations for their opponents (and low expectations for themselves) are pointless.
They are wrong.
Expectations can matter a great deal — and not just in politics. (Note: This is why newlywed husbands must set the bar low at the beginning of the relationship. It’s best if you can’t cook or do laundry.)
Think of it this way. If your son tells you he thinks he’s going to get a ‘C’ on his report card, and he comes home with a ‘B’, you are proud. But if your son tells you he’s going to get an ‘A’ and he comes home with the same exact ‘B’, well you’re a little disappointed.
Why? Human nature.
When you exceed expectations, people perceive that you “won.” Conversely, if you win a debate on points, but do not meet audience expectations, people think you “lost.”
And so, politicians do something counterintuitive — they brag about how great their opponent is — and stress how mediocre they are. It’s all about raising the bar for the opponent to clear, while lowering the bar for themselves.
This is bad news for Obama, because people expect him to win the debates.
But what if Obama just does okay? What if he just does fine? (Any wonder why the media has suddenly decided that expectations don’t matter?)
As I noted, the media are now generally united in the belief that this rule of politics doesn’t work, and, in fact, has never worked. But if you’re looking for a good example of playing the expectations game, look no further than the master himself, Bill Clinton. In 1992, he used this technique to turn a New Hampshire loss into a huge victory.
[Paul] Tsongas had clearly pulled ahead, but reports of gigantic polling leads had wildly distorted expectations. … So when primary night arrived and the initial returns showed him trailing Tsongas by only 6 points or so, Clinton swung into action. With just over 20 percent of precincts reporting, he staged what amounted to a victory celebration, refusing to acknowledge Tsongas’ victory and crowing to jubilant supporters that “New Hampshire has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid!” Then, before Tsongas ever had the chance to hold his own victory party, Clinton made the media rounds, telling national television viewers that “we won a huge victory here tonight.”
As the results slowly trickled in, the press generally played along, emphasizing that while Tsongas would be the official winner, Clinton was doing much better than they’d expected...
That’s right, Bill Clinton lost New Hampshire. But because he exceeded expectations, The Granite State made him “The Comeback Kid.”
So yes, expectations can matter.