A Theory of Decreasing Expectations

Primary and caucus results are all about expectations. Candidates spend the weeks before an election day campaigning hard and attacking their opponents, but they suddenly hit the brakes about 48 hours before the vote and begin setting up low expectations for the results. The point of this move is to create the perception of success, despite possibly losing the actual tally.  Throughout the month of February, as Barack Obama won state after state from coast to coast, Hillary Clinton has been playing the expectations game. After losing the Louisiana primary and with a horrendous win-loss record in caucuses, Clinton stated, “These are caucus states by and large, or in the case of Louisiana, you know, a very strong and very proud African-American electorate, which I totally respect and understand.” She conjured up more excuses for losses in the Potomac primaries as well as Wisconsin.

Wisconsin presents an interesting case: it’s a state with a large middle and lower-income electorate, a large rural population, and a state without a substantial African-American vote (unlike South Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland, D.C., and Virginia). On paper, one would expect Hillary Clinton to handily win this state. Many polls even had her up by 10 points the week before the Wisconsin primary. And yet the Clinton campaign (and even many major news sources) played up Obama’s supposedly huge advantage in the state: it neighbors Illinois, Obama has a huge fundraising advantage, and, most importantly, Obama has momentum on his side. There was even talk that Clinton would regain the momentum if she could pull off an “upset” by winning Wisconsin. The expectations game, as shown by Wisconsin and other states that voted this month, is always played using the most immediate data and never in the context of the broader election process. If expectations are established within the 72 hours before any vote, people begin to lose focus on the big picture. Obama’s win in Wisconsin (by 17 points, no less) should hardly be expected, nor should it be credited solely to his momentum. Expectations in Wisconsin should have been based on the previous months’ worth of data from polling as well as a look at the demographics. Viewed through this lens, Obama’s February victories should hardly be expected. March 4th will be the most important day in Hillary Clinton’s political career. There’s a general consensus in the media that Clinton needs to not only win both Texas and Ohio, but win them by convincing 20 point margins simply to stay in the race. But polling data is showing that the race in both states is narrowing quickly. RealClearPolitics has compiled and averaged the results of polls from both Ohio and Texas, and they show 9 and 1 point leads for Clinton, respectively. Obama is closing in quickly with still a week to go. After a month of 11 straight losses and continuous excuses for those losses, the Clinton campaign needs to actually dig in to have a shot at the nomination. But will they? If their past strategy is any indication, they’ll downplay the importance of winning by big margins in the days before March 4th. They’ll cite the most recent polls and argue that even a slim 5 point win by Clinton is reason enough to stay in the race. Some might even dare say that a narrow victory in both states somehow gives Clinton the momentum. Let me make it as clear as possible: Hillary Clinton must win both Ohio and Texas, and must win both by 20 point margins to remain a credible candidate in the Democratic nomination race. Do not be tricked into the crazy expectations games that will inevitably be played in the coming days. With the odd rules and disproportionate allocation of delegates in Texas, anything short won’t be enough to reverse Obama’s momentum.

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