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Those pesky campaign expectations

One of the more intriguing aspects to presidential campaigns is how much expectations play into how the media and the public perceive and eventually choose their presidents.
/ Source: NBC News

One of the more intriguing aspects to presidential campaigns is how much expectations play into how the media and the public perceive and eventually choose their presidents.

The media get criticized for playing the expectations game in politics. The most glaring example of this is probably the 1984 Iowa caucuses when Gary Hart was coronated as a media darling following his 32-point loss to Mondale.

Because Mondale didn't get over 50% in a neighboring state and because Hart finished a surprising second over supposedly more known rivals, Hart got all the attention from the media and turned that 32-point Iowa loss into a New Hampshire primary victory.

But judging a candidate based on expectations isn't something just reporters do, but voters do as well. Actually, if you think about your everyday life, you make judgments constantly based on whether a preconceived notion about someone (or some movie or some food) was true or not. "Frog legs aren't as gross as I thought" or "For all the buildup, that movie sure was a disappointment." 

Two candidates in particular are benefiting from the voter expectations game: Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

Both are courting electorates with some negative preconceptions about them. Because both have been in the media pressure cooker known as New York City, the perceptions of them are more hardened. Yet in hindsight, these preconceived notions may prove to be an asset.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this from a voter:  "She's not nearly as cold as I thought she would be." or "She's so approachable."  Of course, the "she" in this instance is Clinton.

It's been one of the more remarkable aspects to this campaign. And how Clinton benefits from low expectations from both the press and voters.

It is something the Clinton campaign understands well. She has lower hurdles to convince voters she's not a negative stereotype.

Thus every time she laughs, it proves to some undecided voter that, gasp, she's human.

Contrast that with the high expectations Barack Obama has to deal with. How many times have you read voter reactions to an Obama speech that said something like "I was hoping for more” or “He wasn't as inspiring as I thought he was"?

Many undecided/potential Obama supporters expect to hear Obama give his 2004 DNC convention speech and want to be brought to tears or whatever it is that they were brought to after watching him three years ago.

In many ways, that's an awfully high expectations bar that voters (let alone the media) are setting for Obama. Naturally, this bar is hard to meet or exceed.

This is what is bizarre about how presidential campaigns are often covered.

For instance, there's a poll this week showing Clinton's lead in the New Hampshire primary at 23 points over Obama. If her lead about been 30 points last month and Obama had "closed" the gap to 23 points, it would be Obama that was exceeding expectations.

But instead, because Obama started his campaign with such a bang on the process front (garnering big money, big crowds and big buzz), initial polls had Obama doing very well against Clinton nationally and in states like New Hampshire.

Or to look at it another way, ask the Obama folks six months ago whether by the end of September it would be a plus or a minus to be in a dead heat in Iowa, 20 points behind in New Hampshire and even in the money race. They would have unanimously agreed it would be a plus. But that early start proved to be a problem.

Why? Lower expectations for Clinton (with both the media and voters) and higher expectations for Obama.

Clinton simply needs to prove she's more likeable than her stereotype, less polarizing than how the press perceives her, and less liberal than her critics on the right paint her. It's not a bad place to start. It's always easier to pleasantly surprise someone than it is to please someone who already has high expectations.

But it's not just the Democratic race that's being shaped by this expectations game.

The Republican race is being framed a similar way.

Giuliani has benefited greatly from artificially low expectations from both the press and conservative activists.

Giuliani doesn't have to prove he's been a conservative from day one, he's simply got to prove he's not the "liberal" that the media and some others have made him out to be.

And because Republican primary voters are pre-disposed to like Giuliani personally (thanks to the good feelings they have for him regarding 9/11), he's got a lower bar to meet to prove his conservative bona-fides.

Conservative activists end up pleasantly surprised Rudy wants to appoint "strict constructionists" to the courts. He's under-promised and over-delivered on the ideological front.

It's something that, right now, frustrates Rudy's opponents who themselves are being hurt from high expectations.

Mitt Romney has an opposite expectations problem on two different fronts. In his attempt to prove his conservative credentials, Romney has over-promised by changing his abortion stance or pumping up his pro-gun stance. And now, he gets hit from opponents for under-delivering.

Romney's other expectations problem is in Iowa and New Hampshire. Because he built up a formidable organization in those two states so quickly, he was able to pop in the polls a lot sooner, frankly, than many Romney folks expected. What's this led to? Romney's no longer running against the GOP field, but himself. It's not fair, but it's how the expectations game works sometimes.

Fred Thompson has perhaps the hardest expectations bar to meet. He's being asked to be the next Ronald Reagan. Well, Reagan wasn't Reagan until about mid-way through his second term. How is it that Thompson can become another Reagan now?  When voters and reporters are asked to gauge whether Thompson is another Reagan, Thompson has already lost the battle of expectations.

The expectations game is just that, a game. The candidates know it matters and they play to it. And whether it's fair or not, the candidate that wins the expectations game usually wins the election. So far, Clinton and Giuliani are winning the expectations and not coincidentally, they are ahead in the national polls.