The Expectations Game Spins Out of Control

March 01, 1992|By CHRISTOPHER CALLAHAN

Marylanders will vote Tuesday in a primary that -- unlike past years -- could actually influence the final outcome. The "winners" of the state's Democratic and Republican presidential contests, however, will not necessarily be the candidates who get the most votes.

It's all part of the Great Expectations Game, in which it matters less how a candidate fares against his opponents than how the candidate measures up to a set of media-established perceptions.

The expectations game is nothing new, nor is this odd winner-are-losers and losers-are-winners version of it. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy derailed a sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, by losing the New Hampshire primary by 8 percentage points. Four years later, George McGovern was catapulted to the Democratic nomination by losing New Hampshire to front-runner Edmund Christopher Callahan is a journalism instructor at the University of Maryland College Park and director of the College of Journalism's public affairs reporting program. Muskie (from next-door Maine) by 9 points.

But the game has -- with the proliferation and increasing sophistication of polls, analysts, press coverage, television and spin doctors -- grown to outrageous proportions, with the expectations of candidates chang- ing practically by the day and small deviations in the end results leading to overblown analyses that impact directly on the electoral process.

Political reporters often seem like frustrated sportswriters. They love a good game, and a good political race. It's simply more fun to write -- and read -- about who is going to win next week's primary than to dissect candidates' positions on farm supports or wetlands policy.

And like any good horse race, a political campaign needs to be handicapped. Who's the favorite? Which dark horses might come from behind? What are the odds?

"People cannot stand not to know the order of things, particularly in Washington. They can't stand to have a race without a clear front-runner," explains political analyst Bob Beckel.

The press sets these standards -- the expectations -- by drawing on polls, political experts and the candidates themselves.

Candidates have grown adept at influencing the expectations of their own performance since the days when the Muskie campaign guaranteed he would win at least 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire in 1972, then came up short. Today's candidates often sound like coach Joe Gibbs explaining how his powerhouse Washington Redskins are really the underdogs going into a game against the feeble Indianapolis Colts. "Front-runner" has become a fighting word in the political arena, and candidates avoid it at all costs.

The Bill Clinton campaign has helped reduce the Arkansas governor's expectations for Maryland by telling the world this is Paul Tsongas' state to lose. So, even though Mr. Clinton has the backing of many of the top Democrats in the state and has natural constituencies among blacks in Baltimore and conservatives in the rural sections of the state, the press has ordained the former senator from Massachusetts as the front-runner here.

The polls also are a critical element of the press-established expectations. And with more poll results available than ever before, the expectations fluctuate accordingly.

But the problem with polls is that they only give a snapshot of public sentiment on the days they're taken. In a race such as this year's Democratic contest, in which the candidates are political unknowns to most of the country, a poll taken the day after the New Hampshire primary likely will be skewed. And the value of the polls is diminished in races such as this where there are large blocs of undecideds.

The third element in the expectations mix is the political analysts. And even more than polls, this group has grown in numbers and importance.

The problem is that this cadre of analysts -- often paid big bucks by the television networks for their opinions -- have a self-interest in constantly changing, or at least tinkering with, the expectations. After all, why pay someone all that money if they're just going to regurgitate what was said yesterday on another station?

"The game among these groups is such that you constantly have to be on the frontier," says Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "Once their analysis becomes the conventional wisdom, they look to change, because nobody wants to be stuck in the conventional wisdom. You're nowhere if you only have CW."

William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute argues that today's version of the expectations game is improved because it is open for debate and discussion, having become an institutionalized part of the political process.

"If it's going to be there, it's better to debate it rather than pretend it doesn't exist," says Mr. Schneider, a former analyst for Cable News Network. "Why should it just be a matter for the press to sit in a smoky room and decide what to report?"

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