The Much Expected Expectations Game

Nicholas Vance

In a campaign season filled with self-aggrandizement and conceit, both Presidential candidates have suddenly become struck with modesty.  The game of debate expectations is underway, and both the Obama and Romney campaigns have been publicly attempting to lower the probability that their respective candidates will outperform their opponent in the upcoming debates. President Obama, who is perhaps one of the most persuasive and eloquent leaders of our generation, thinks he is just an “OK” debater. [i] Likewise, Republican Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and remarked, “I don’t think any one event is going to make or break this campaign.” [ii]

For those of you who did not obsess over the final season of The West Wing, the obvious question is why a campaign would want to weaken the candidate’s image at any course in the campaign cycle, especially while heading into arguably the most influential and pivotal moments.

Campaigns play the expectations game for one particular reason: if you lower expectations, it is easier to exceed them. If Team Obama were quoted saying that Mitt Romney will look like a fool compared to President Obama in the debate, or vice versa, the candidate would have to greatly outperform the other in order to live up to expectations. President Obama calling himself an average debater has the purpose of placing the pressure on Governor Romney.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie countered the tradition campaign approach and instead raised expectations for Governor Romney. On NBC’s “Meet the Press”, Governor Christie said, “Come Thursday morning, the entire narrative of this race is going to change.” [iii] In the days following, Governor Christie did not back down from his comments, stating that “These debates over time have had a significant effect on people’s decisions on who to vote for, so that’s why I think playing this expectations game is silly.” [iv] However, historical analysis sides against Governor Christie’s assertion that the debates are in fact game changers.

Since Presidential debates have been broadcasted in 1960, statistical analysis affirms that Congressman Ryan is more than likely correct – that the debates will have little impact on the outcome of the election. The New York Times found only two presidential campaigns since 1960 whose outcomes were clearly impacted by the televised debates – Kennedy vs. Nixon and Bush vs. Gore. Gallup polls during the course of the Kennedy-Nixon debates revealed a four point shift from before and after the debates in favor of Senator Kennedy. In 2000, Vice President Gore was up by 5 percentage points in a NY Times/CBS News poll before the debates.[v] However, Gore had extremely high expectations, and after a few missteps and infamous eye rolls, public opinion soon turned in favor of Governor Bush.

Ultimately, these debates have the potential for Governor Romney to break out of his sluggish campaign cycle and go on the offensive after a dismal week. They also could provide an outlet for President Obama to tie Romney to greedy capitalism and the mistakes of Republicans past.

But let’s not expect too much.