Destination 270

SMU Students Analyze the 2012 Presidential Election

The Expectations Game: A Little Different This Time Around

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It’s a commonly run campaign tactic for a candidate to attempt to lower any publicly held expectations of him before entering into a debate.  The thought process is simple.  If the public expects the candidate to be a poor debater, all he has to do is show that he isn’t—or defy expectations—in order to garner an advantage in the public’s eye.

In the days leading up to this year’s first presidential debate, we saw both campaigns purposefully playing the expectation’s game. The Romney campaign continuously touted the President’s renowned rhetorical skills and ability to work on his feet, while the Obama campaign noted the extensive debate practice that Mitt Romney had recently been granted in the primaries.

Whether the public noticed it at the time or not, these were deliberate messages communicated by the campaigns with the intentions that they would result in higher expectations for their opponent and lower expectations for themselves.

While the winner of the expectation’s game for the first debate is subject to one’s personal opinion, I would argue that Mitt Romney definitely came out victorious.  Much of President Obama’s 2008 victory was a result of his impeccable verbal communication skills, and he had continued to ride the wave of personal popularity for much of his presidency, despite the more negative mitigating factors like the current state of economy. 

On the other hand, Mitt Romney had struggled for the majority of his campaign to overcome the mainstream idea that he was aloof and robotic when he spoke.  Therefore, I am of the opinion that it was probably Mitt Romney’s debate to win before it even started.

And “win” he did.  In fact, Mitt Romney’s stellar and humanizing debate performance so greatly defied the public’s expectations of his debate capabilities, that it resulted in bigger polling gains than even the Romney team probably expected.

But what about this go-round?

It seems as though neither candidate has opted for the strategy of lowering expectations in preparation for tonight’s debate.  In fact, they really have been doing exactly the opposite, although undoubtedly in their own ways.

The Obama campaign has been extremely vocal about the President’s extensive preparation for tonight’s debate, making statements that the public should expect an “aggressive” performance that starkly contrasts what was seen in the first debate.

Furthermore, instead of capitalizing on the already low expectations for the president’s debating capabilities, his campaign is trying to rebuild the public’s confidence in him. Many top democrats have expressed concern over the potential damage done during the first debate and have conceded that the president MUST do well in this debate if he wants to win in November.

According to a top democratic pollster, Ben Tulchin, “the president has got to step up and perform.  He’s created the expectation by performing so badly.  Now he must execute.”

However, in an attempt to inoculate viewers against another potential Romney “win,” the Obama campaign has definitely acknowledged, and provided excuses for, Romney’s success.  An Obama campaign spokeswoman told Fox News, “Governor Romney has been making pitches all of his life and he knows how to say what people want to hear, whether that was during his time at Bain or during dozens of town halls he did during the primary.”

On the other hand, the Romney campaign hasn’t offered any insight into what the presidential hopeful might use as his strategy in tonight’s debate.  They have also refrained from attempting to re-lower the public’s debate expectations for the republican candidate.  This is likely out of fear that it will stifle  at least some of the momentum Mitt Romney gained after so greatly defying many public perceptions in the first debate.

Instead, the Romney campaign is up-playing both candidates debate capabilities, especially with regards to tonight’s “town hall” format. A top Romney advisor ceded to Fox News that “President Obama does will in these town hall formats.” However, he also added, “We think this type of format is conducive to the type of one-on-one conversation that Governor Romney wants to have with voters about the big issues facing the country.”

The Romney campaign has also acknowledged President Obama’s highly publicized strategy for tonight’s debate to be as aggressive as possible. “We expect he’ll launch one attack after another in attempt to distract from his record and make up for his weak performance in Denver.” Similar to the comments made by the Obama campaign spokeswoman, this is also an attempt to inoculate viewers against positive perceptions of Obama’s aggressiveness tonight.

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One thought on “The Expectations Game: A Little Different This Time Around

  1. Extremely well written piece. Glad we found you. Obama seems to do well when he’s perceived to be “behind.” I think it focuses him.
    We will see in a few hours!

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