The expectations game is not a new concept in presidential politics. Beating expectations in a caucus or primary is more important than the actual order of finish. That’s why Trump’s second looks bad and Rubio’s third-by-a-percent looks great. Trump was expected to do better; Rubio was expected to be a distant third or even fourth. Due to the expectations game, for the next week we’ll hear Hillary Clinton remind us that New Hampshire if Bernie Sanders’s backyard. If she then finishes with anything north of 40 percent, she can call it a victory. Her husband famously dubbed himself the “Comeback Kid” in the 1992 New Hampshire Primary even though he finished in second by nearly double digits, but that kind of perceived over-achievement started some momentum in his favor. Because of the expectations game, we usually see every campaign attempt a careful balancing act between projecting confidence but keeping expectations low.
Every campaign, that is, except for Donald Trump’s.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or perhaps just outside of the February states — then you’re familiar with Trump’s shtick by now. His speeches are laden with self-congratulatory bluster. He brags about his poll numbers. “I’ll tell ya, I’m up, and I’m up by a lot, if you wanna know the truth.” Among the many ways his campaign has defied conventional wisdom in this primary cycle is how he flies in the face of expectation-game logic. He kept raising his own bar, and for a while it seemed like he could continue to hurdle it.
And then Iowa happened. Sweet, holy Iowa. This perpetual winner finished in — *gulp* — second place. Considering he seemed to personify the Ricky Bobby philosophy on life, this was a huge blow to him. After months of unabating arrogance, he clearly lost the expectations game, right?
Not according to him. If you listen to Trump, he had just beat expectations better than expectations had ever been beaten before.
Late yesterday morning, after about 12 hours of licking his orange wounds, Trump unreeled a series of four tweets doing his best to reframe what was so obvious to the rest of us:
Tweet #1: My experience in Iowa was a great one. I started out with all of the experts saying I couldn’t do well there and ended up in 2nd place. Nice
Tweet #2: Because I was told I could not do well in Iowa, I spent very little there – a fraction of Cruz & Rubio. Came in a strong second. Great honor
Tweet #3: The media has not covered my long-shot great finish in Iowa fairly. Brought in record voters and got second highest vote total in history!
Tweet #4: I will be talking about my wonderful experience in Iowa and the simultaneous unfair treatment by the media-later in New Hampshire. Big crowd
In sum, he decided to use last summer’s expectations for him, rather than this winter’s. He retroactively set a low bar. For him to say no one was giving him a chance because most people said so last June is absurd; play that out to the extreme and we could say that, at some point in their lives, no one was predicting that each of the last 43 presidents were going to hold the office either. No one looked at Baby Reagan and predicted he would some day live in the White House. Clearly the whole political world was against Baby Reagan!
In actuality, for weeks — and in some cases months — I heard the pundits voicing how impressed they were with how far he came to earn his favorite status. The political shows in January kept saying how Trump, on the eve of voting, had owned this process. Is he really a political genius, we wondered? So people were certainly giving him a great chance. The oddsmakers made him the favorite by the middle of last month.
Those tweets also suggest that the media has not covered him fairly, despite it giving him more air time, interviews, and attention than any other candidate, just like he wanted them to do. Moreover, the media also consistently covers disappointing finishes like this one in a similar way. When Howard Dean finished third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses after leading the polls for the previous month, we weren’t saying, “Dean finishes in the top three!” but rather “Dean falls to number three!” That result, combined with a Dean reaction that should be paying royalties to Edvard Munch, ended his frontrunner status chances at the nomination. The two candidates who beat expectations — John Kerry and John Edwards — went on to be the Democratic ticket.
Meanwhile, all of this is ignoring the fact that for months he could not speak any more highly of himself as a winner who was on top of all the polls. Remember in his last debate — not to be confused with the last debate — when Cruz suggested the reason Trump was attacking Cruz’s citizenship was because Trump was “dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa”? Cruz went on to give a long-winded Constitutional analysis defending the eligibility of himself and Marco Rubio. Trump’s initial response:
“First of all, let me just tell you something — and you know, because you just saw the numbers yourself — NBC Wall Street Journal just came out with a poll — headline: Trump way up, Cruz going down. I mean, so don’t — so you can’t — you can’t… (BOOING) … they don’t like the Wall Street Journal. They don’t like NBC, but I like the poll. (LAUGHTER) And frankly, it just came out, and in Iowa now, as you know, Ted, in the last three polls, I’m beating you.”
The media is not to blame here, Mr. Trump. To understand why your expectations were so high, and why second place seems like such a disappointment, just look in the mirror.
These reactions from Trump speak to either an ignorance about politics or incompetence about execution, both of which should make voters call into question his ability to run the executive branch. This morning I heard him with Joe Scarborough talking about how he didn’t “understand” why his second place finish was playing worse than Rubio’s third place finish (he also characterized his four-point Iowa deficit to Cruz as a “strong second” while finishing ahead of Rubio “by a lot”). He should know how politics works if he wants to be an effective politician.
One last refrain I’ve heard from Trump and his campaign (see Tweet #3 above) is that he earned the second most votes ever for an Iowa caucus, second only to Ted Cruz in 2016, as if this raw vote total has ever meant anything. Lost in such a defense is that more than three quarters of Iowa turned out in record numbers to vote for someone else. Trump’s spin class is working over time, but it’s burning something other than calories.
Oh, and speaking of Trump, Cruz, and Dean, here’s one unrelated Tweet to whet our appetite for the next couple weeks: Anybody who watched all of Ted Cruz’s far too long, rambling, overly flamboyant speech last nite would say that was his Howard Dean moment!
Trump and Cruz aren’t done with each other. Fun times ahead for Ted Cruz! See you next time for a close look at Iowa’s winner. The last time I did that I called his big surge and Iowa victory four months ago. What do I have in store for him this time?