Don't Get Your Hopes Up Over This Political Coverage

Jan 10, 2012
Originally published on January 10, 2012 10:47 pm

This may well be the worst story you've come across yet on politics.

Really, I beg you: You should have very, very low expectations for this story.

And this expectations thing is important stuff.

Pundits, reporters and the campaigns themselves have devoted a lot of energy to setting expectations for the candidates' performances.

For example, former Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told Bloomberg TV that Rick Santorum was the hot political property, coming off his close second in the Iowa caucuses to Mitt Romney. "You know, a few weeks ago ... we would have thought that a first- or second-place finish would have been huge," McKinnon said. "But the bar got raised, and Rick Santorum came out of nowhere, beating expectations."

Ah, expectations. They are invoked on every network, in every major paper and every political blog tracking what happens in this primary season. And the candidates themselves are not immune.

Last Friday, Republican candidate Jon Huntsman explicitly cited his intention to beat expectations four times in 33 seconds. This morning, he was at it again.

If only Huntsman were facing a guy named Expectations, he might actually have a chance at winning.

As far as what I have to offer, it's almost better just to check out Wikipedia. Seriously.

"What both candidates and journalists are trying to figure out is, 'Is one of these candidates gaining strength?' " says Jeff Greenfield, who covered presidential politics for three different television networks and is now host of PBS's Need to Know. "Is he or she performing better than we thought and particularly better than the numbers suggested a week or two ago?"

Greenfield argues that primary season expectations can create a looking-glass world where a win quickly becomes a loss — as it did for Edmund Muskie, whose weaker-than-expected win in New Hampshire in the 1972 Democratic primaries dealt his campaign a mortal blow.

"You're pulling these numbers out of your head, or another body part, and it doesn't mean anything," Greenfield says. "[Primary] voters are so much more volatile and so much less measurable than in the November general election that it's almost a fool's errand."

Earlier in his campaign, Newt Gingrich pointed to polls and boasted that he'd be the nominee. All he could muster after poor results in Iowa was the faint hope that third or fourth would be enough to rally supporters: "Remember, people in June and July said I was dead."

Candidates need to preserve their plausibility. And reporters are on a quest for some drama — especially now that the drama is quickly draining from this primary season.

But, people of America, you deserve better. You deserve something more rousing, like the call South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made for voters to deliver a "landslide" for Romney in New Hampshire.

It seems Haley didn't get the memo, but Ron Paul did. When Fox News' Bret Baier asked him about expectations, Paul served up a classic of the genre:

"What I'm thinking about is, you know, it looks like a three-way-tie, or tight race," Paul said. "We could come in first, we could come in third."

You know, or not. Hey, as long as Ron Paul finishes, he just about meets those expectations.

But all this stuff can get tricky. If you know someone is lowering expectations, does that then raise your expectations? And if a reporter like me explicitly points that out in a story like this, do all those expectations go back down again?

I'm sorry. I've made this whole thing more confusing. I really am a bad, bad reporter.

Or am I?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the run up to today's primary, pundits, reporters and campaigns themselves have devoted a lot of energy to setting expectations for the candidates. And that has inspired NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: This may well be the worst story you've heard yet on politics. Really, I beg you, you should have very, very low expectations for this story. And this expectations thing, it's important stuff.

JON HUNTSMAN: We've got to wake up, when all is said and done, on Wednesday morning or Tuesday night and find that we have exceeded market expectations.

ANDREA MITCHELL: You know, Romney is in such a commanding position, what about the expectations game...

HUNTSMAN: That will indicate that we've likely exceeded market expectations.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, his only rival here is expectations.

MARK MCKINNON: The bar got raised, and Rick Santorum came out of nowhere, beating expectations.

HUNTSMAN: We don't have to win, Wolfe, we have to beat market expectations.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Republican candidate Jon Huntsman on CNN, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Huntsman again, NPR's Mara Liasson, former Republican campaign consultant Mark McKinnon on Bloomberg TV and Huntsman once more. Boy, Huntsman might win if he were only facing a guy actually named expectations. And as far as what I have to offer you, it's almost better just to check out Wikipedia. Seriously.

JEFF GREENFIELD: What both candidates and journalists are trying to figure out is, is one of these candidates gaining strength? Is he or she performing better than we thought and particularly better than the numbers suggested a week or two ago?

FOLKENFLIK: Jeff Greenfield covered presidential politics for several decades and he says primary season expectations can create a looking glass world where a win quickly becomes a loss, as it did for Edmund Muskie, whose weaker-than-expected win in New Hampshire in the 1972 Democratic primaries dealt his hopes a mortal blow.

GREENFIELD: You're pulling these numbers out of your head, or another body part, and it doesn't mean anything. Voters are so much more volatile and so much less measurable than in the November general election that it's almost a fool's errand.

FOLKENFLIK: Earlier, Newt Gingrich pointed to polls to boast he'd be the nominee, but here's all he could muster after poor results in Iowa.

NEWT GINGRICH: When we first began running, we thought if we keep coming in the top three or four - remember, people in June and July said I was dead.

FOLKENFLIK: Candidates need to preserve their plausibility. And reporters, yeah, they're looking for some drama, especially since the drama is quickly draining from this primary season. So people of America, you deserve better, something more rousing, like the call made by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, something here for Mitt Romney.

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: We don't just need a win in New Hampshire, we need landslide in New Hampshire.

FOLKENFLIK: Haley didn't get the memo, but Ron Paul did. When Fox News' Bret Baier asked him about expectations, Paul offered a classic of the genre.

RON PAUL: What I'm thinking about is, you know, it looks like a three-way-tie, you know, tight race and that we could come in first or we come in third.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, or not. Hey, as long as Ron Paul finishes, he just about meets those expectations. But all this stuff gets tricky. If you know someone is lowering expectations, does that then raise your expectations? And if a reporter like me explicitly points this out in a story like this, do all those expectations go back down again? I'm sorry, I've made this whole thing so much more confusing. I really am a bad, bad reporter. Or am I?

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.