Playing the Expectations Game

David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign manager for 2008, had this to say about GOP prospects:

By their definition, success is winning back the House, winning back the Senate and winning every major governor’s race. When you’ve got winds this strong in your favor, that’s the kind of election you need to have – or it should be considered a colossal failure.”

I have to say that I agree with the current Democratic Party strategist.  Much is made over the prospects of the Republicans in November.  The strongly posited public sentiment against the Democratic Party is one of the strongest revolts against incumbent leadership in American history.  Democrats have no platform on which to run a campaign, and connection with the Obama administration’s grossly unpopular policy is political suicide.  Because of this lack of strategy, many Democrats are actually running on platforms designed to pin them as supportive of Republican policy.  Take Earl Pomery, for example, who I described in a recent post as touting his support of George W. Bush.

In addition to all of this anti-Democrat sentiment there is more reason to be optimistic.  Recent polls show that Independent voters favor Republican candidates upwards of 13 points over Democrats.  That is all the more important considering that Independents constitute 37% of the entire electorate.  Check out this article on the importance of independents.

With all that said, many strategists in both the Republican and Democratic parties predict that the Republicans will not take control of the Senate.  To that I say, if not now, then when?  Never has there been a time more favorable to a Republican Congressional candidate than 2010.  To be honest, Republican candidates might very well be elected on the simple basis that they are not Democrats.

Gaining control of the House  will merely be a product of public dissatisfaction with Democratic leadership.  So, to say that it would be a success simply to control the House of Representatives is settling for a bad deal.  Real success, success grounded in achieving victories based on policy and character, can only be characterized by Republican takeover of the Senate as well.

Anything less is merely expected.

However, recent polls indicate a gain from the Democratic party on GOP dominated popularity. Here are some findings from a Washington Post/ABC survey:

Democrats have cut in half the GOP‘s early-September advantage on the question of which party’s candidates voters say they will support on Nov. 2. They have also made small gains on the question of which party people trust to handle big issues, such as the economy and health care.

President Obama‘s approval rating has rebounded to where it was in July after hitting an all-time low a month ago. Also, in some state races, Democratic candidates have taken the lead over their Republican opponents or narrowed GOP advantages.

To be sure, the findings still display a significant gap between the GOP and the Democrats. Though slight, the gain is significant in that there is any gain at all, considering the ferocity of the citizenry in opposition to the left. That being said, it is almost certain that as November 2nd approaches, the race for government control will tighten in many areas of the country. For this reason, these polls are not terribly shocking by any means.  In fact, they might even be overdue results.

But, why would a Democratic strategist make such an optimistic statement about the GOP?

Playing the Expectations game

Shanto Iyengar, political communications scholar, details the intricacies of what is called “playing the expectations game.”  Here are the rules:

Campaign spokespersons typically downplay poll results that show their candidate comfortably ahead…in the hope that the outcome will be more surprising and hence covered more extensively and favorably.  Conversely, campaigns sometimes attempt to persuade reporters that the opponent has a substantial lead.”

I can give a specific example of playing expectations from the 2006 campaign.  After the vice-presidential selection of John Edwards by Kerry, Matt Dowd, chief Republican strategist, put out a press release claiming the GOP expected Bush to be trailing by 15 points.  The Kerry camp responded almost immediately, indicating that voters had “already made up their minds relatively early in 2004,” so the lead would be minimal.

Bush overexaggerates the numbers, and Kerry counters by downplaying the predictions.

Plouffe is playing the game.  Here is his assessment of the Democratic gain in polling predictions, clearly downplaying the Democratic prospects:

Plouffe, speaking to reporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, argued that Democrats are turning their trajectory around and are poised, 26 days out, to fare better Nov. 2 than it appeared they would last month. But he said he expected Democrats to “show progress gradually,” in contrast with Republicans who have “maxed out or close to it.”

In 2010, what we see is a massive GOP lead in the polls, and the response by the Democrat strategist Plouffe is the following:

  1. He vastly hypes the expectations of the Republican success.
  2. In the wake of recent polling showing a Democrat gain, he downplays the significance of the statistics.

In this case, his statements on both of these points are actually probably true predictions.  But it does not matter.  You can rest assured that it is merely convenient that his tactics coincide with reality.  Were these predictions invalid, you can count on the same statements being made.

Strategically, putting greater pressure on Republicans by framing success in terms of all out victory makes sense.  It also downplays the chances of Democrats even more significantly, giving them the chance to make the well documented come-back.

But Plouffe is not alone in playing on expectations.  As mentioned earlier in this post, the many Republican strategists do not predict a Senate takeover.  But such a success is a very real possibility.  Is this simply pessimistic analysis?  No.  It’s just part of the game.

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