What to “expect” in the debates

Love this from Paul Waldman:

Most of what you hear before and after is going to be a twisted version of reality presented as an objective, savvy assessment, offered up so you can consider yourself one of the clever insiders who has a keen grasp of how the whole thing played with the rubes. Don’t buy into it.

The first and perhaps most important element of this distorted picture is that holy concept of “expectations.” Many liberals are concerned that lowered expectations for Donald Trump will lead the media to declare him the winner. They worry about this kind of conventional wisdom, from the Associated Press:

“By virtue of her long political resume, Hillary Clinton will enter her highly anticipated fall debates with Donald Trump facing the same kind of heightened expectations that often saddle an incumbent president. Trump, as the political newcomer, will be more of a wild card with a lower bar to clear.”

Or as the sage Mark Halperin puts it, “Winning has less to do with pure performance, it’s almost all about beating expectations.”

It’s important that we pause for a moment to acknowledge how ludicrous this idea is. If someone who was expected to come in last in an Olympic race actually comes in fifth, we don’t give him the gold medal and put a huge picture of him on the front page because he exceeded expectations. We might note his performance, but he still lost. The truth is that if one candidate exceeded expectations, the only thing it really means is that the expectations were wrong. In other words, the people doing the expecting didn’t understand the situation adequately. Yet we talk about it as though the candidate who exceeded expectations has somehow proven themselves to be more capable of being president than the candidate who merely met expectations. What’s more, as this blog has previously noted, it’s often the reporters themselves who have determined what these expectations “should” be… [emphasis mine]

But there’s a problem with my analogy of the Olympic race, too: The presidential debates don’t have to have a winner and a loser. The election will have a winner and a loser, but the debates are supposed to be a means to get greater insight into the candidates and help voters make their decisions. You can have a terrific debate — lively, enlightening, revealing — in which nobody actually wins or loses. Yet a huge amount of time will be spent talking about whether Trump or Clinton “won” — pundits will opine on the question, polls will be taken on it, and throughout almost no one will ask why it matters.

Yes, a thousand times, yes.  Of course, I will “buy” into it when everybody asks me who “won” the debate.  The winner is simply whomever political journalists decide won the debate and that very much drives coverage going forward.  In that sense, there will be a winner.  It’s not actually rational, just reality.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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