It is a presidential election year, and, once again, we are in the midst of the political expectations game. Ever since Eugene McCarthy captured 42% of the vote in New Hampshire against President Lyndon Johnson, political primaries have become less about winning and more about besting expectations. It is the media who are responsible for this. In the last 50 years, the media has moved from simply reporting the results to analyzing it in ways that a loser is portrayed as winner and vice versa. This year is no different, especially now that the Iowa caucuses are over.
Bernie Sanders captured a tie with Hillary Clinton. That is no small achievement because Clinton started with a huge lead and had the support of Democratic Party leadership. It doesn’t matter that Clinton declared victory because she scraped together a few more votes than Sanders. Being as close to Sanders was to Clinton in votes is as good as a tie. That is because no one is elected in Iowa. It isn’t like a normal election where the candidate who gets one vote more than another is elected to office. Iowa is simply the beginning of the race for delegates.
Clinton starts with a 400 delegate cushion because she already has the support of a majority of the so-called Super Delegates, also known as the party establishment. Even though she and Sanders ran a virtual tie, some estimates give her a clear lead of 29 delegates to Sanders’ 21. These numbers are fluid because of the byzantine rules that dominate the Democratic Party’s delegate process in Iowa. Nevertheless, Clinton’s lead is only increased by her winning more delegates than Sanders. For Sanders to catch Clinton, he needed to reverse the delegates. It doesn’t matter that he tied her in the caucus vote. He lost the delegate vote. This should be a slightly disturbing matter for Sanders, not a rallying cry.
On the Republican side, the expectations game is even worse. Donald Trump was widely seen as the leader in Iowa. Although the polls showed him ahead, since when are pollsters more important than the voters who cast real ballots at real polls? Since Trump did not win, and that is significant, he is being branded a loser. It doesn’t matter to the media that nine other major Republican candidates trailed Trump. None of this should lessen that Ted Cruz won, and he should be congratulated and receive the momentum that he deserves.
In hindsight, it was the pundits who were flawed. In Iowa Democrats are more liberal and Republicans more conservative than in the rest of the country. For the Republican Party, evangelicals dominate and regularly select a candidate like Cruz as the victor. Rick Santorum won in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. The important of winning in Iowa can be measured by the success of both the Santorum and Huckabee campaigns during those years. Winning is a nice boost, but a guarantee for nothing. Iowa was a race for Cruz, Ben Carson or some other evangelical friendly candidate to win.
What happened with Marco Rubio, who came a close third to Cruz and Trump, is where the wheels really fall of the election cart in the pundit business. Because Rubio polled half-a-dozen percentage points better than the poll estimates, the media is treating him almost like he won.
Even Rubio is treating it as if he won:
“So this is the moment they said would never happen.
For months, for months they told us we had no chance. For months they told us because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance. For months they told us because we didn’t have the right endorsements or the right political connections, we had no chance. They told me that we have no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high. They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line. But tonight, tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a very clear message. After seven years of Barack Obama, we are not waiting any longer to take our country back.”
Sorry, Marco you got third. No one has ever won an election by coming in third. No one has ever won much of anything by coming in third. Maybe if this was an office where the voters can select up to three candidates, then you could claim victory. The Iowa caucuses are not that. Getting third in Iowa does nothing about taking “our country back.”
Because Rubio ran a strong third, he is being generally viewed as a top-tier candidate, along with Cruz and Trump. That is significant, but he still came in third. He didn’t do as well as Cruz or Trump. An honest spin cannot hide that fact.
One thing is clear, however. Rubio has made the political pundits who play the expectations game look downright meek. No one has ever given a better victory speech for coming in third.
Now the campaign moves onto New Hampshire. Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, has a big lead in the polls. The same for Trump. If either slips a bit, then it’s time for the doom and gloom of failed expectations to raise its head again. In fact, if either wins, then he gets the most delegates. That is called a victory. Instead, much of the attention will be focused on how well Clinton does and who comes in second for the Republicans.
We’ve reached a terrible mess in politics in this country. One of the reasons is the expectation follies that the media plays during Presidential election years. No one made a big issue about Obama or Romney or McCain doing better or worse during the general election vote. At that time, it was all about who gathered 270 electoral votes. This year, there won’t be a discussion that the Democratic or Republican nominee did better than expected in Iowa or New Hampshire during the November vote. It will be about who wins the state and gets the electoral votes. That is how elections are won and nominations too. Unfortunately, no one has told the media. They think it’s their job to tell Americans who won when that person didn’t, or even who came in third.