The Expectations Game: How the Media Pick a Political Winner

The Expectations Game: How the Media Pick a Political Winner
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For the first time in decades, the press might be looking at candidates who beat expectations more than the guys who actually, you know, win.

A once-familiar element of campaigns past has returned this cycle—one we haven’t seen in quite some time. It’s the Expectations Game, and its reappearance, like Proust’s madeleine, brought back memories of a much earlier time, when I learned the wisdom of an old aphorism: I’d rather be lucky than good.

As the Iowa caucus nears, the campaign of Marco Rubio is engaged in a vigorous tug of war with opponents and the media to try to establish what showing would dub Rubio as The Alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Over in New Hampshire, no less than four candidates—Rubio, Kasich, Bush and Christie, are fighting to do Better Than Those Other Guys, in the hope that Those Other Guys will leave the field.

There’s a nostalgic pleasure to this return, as it’s been almost a quarter-century since Expectations proved potent, when Bill Clinton converted his second-place showing in New Hampshire into a “Comeback Kid” trope, managing to make Paul Tsongas’s 10-point victory an afterthought. In the years since, it’s been outright victories that have fueled candidacies—McCain in New Hampshire in ’00 and ’08, Kerry and Obama in Iowa in ’04 and ’08.

It was a very different story when I began my life in politics, nearly half a century ago, as an operative and then a journalist. Election after election saw candidates suffering serious, even fatal setbacks not by losing, but by falling short of the goals their campaigns, or the ones the Media Consensus had set. In 1968, President Johnson actually won the New Hampshire primary on a write-in. But because the antiwar campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy racked up 42 percent of the vote—a tally far higher than his shoestring campaign had been expected to achieve—LBJ’s status was weakened, Sen. Robert Kennedy jumped into the race, and Johnson withdrew less than three weeks later.
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