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Winning or Losing Isn't Everything in the Primaries

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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As Elaine Kamarck recounts in the Washington Post, 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 -- and Walter Mondale 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 a major 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.

For example: On the Democratic side, there are far more white liberals among Iowa and New Hampshire voters than in the nation as a whole. It therefore makes sense to set expectations higher for Democratic candidates who depend on the support of white liberals (this year, Bernie Sanders), and lower for those who do better with black and Hispanic voters (this year, Hillary Clinton). It may also be reasonable to expect candidates from nearby states, such as Vermont’s Sanders in New Hampshire, to have an advantage.

Also, candidates may campaign more in some states than others. That should be factored into expectations, too. Candidates who have campaigned mainly in a single state -- Chris Christie and John Kasich in New Hampshire -- should have a higher bar for success in that state, and a lower one elsewhere.

All of this reduces the exaggerated influence of the other early states. Voters in those states still have plenty of clout, but it’s limited when the rest of us recognize and adjust for the advantages Iowa and the others have for some candidates, and the disadvantages they have for others.

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.

So done correctly, judging candidates by whether or not they beat expectations can be very positive.  It’s just very easy to get it wrong. 

  1. Although a few weeks later expectations bit back, when Hart did quite well on Super Tuesday but fell short of (very high) expectations and therefore "lost" the day.

  2. And we know that polling in caucuses and primaries is harder than in general elections, and the more difficult it is to get it right the more likely it is that final polls will fail to predict final results.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net