Friday, October 16, 2015

Jeb Bush and the Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

This Washington Post piece, pointedly headlined "No More ‘Shock and Awe,'" is a particularly illustrative example of the power of "expectations" in shaping news media coverage of campaigns, especially presidential primaries. The Post describes Jeb Bush's campaign as struggling both in the polls and at the task of fund-raising, quoting several Bush supporters (mostly anonymously) and unconnected Republicans as expressing surprise and disappointment at the candidate's middling performance. Instead of being an "unstoppable juggernaut," says the article, Bush has "effectively cemented his status as just another aspirant."

Bush and his advisors hoped, and even expected, to have more money and higher poll numbers at this stage of the campaign, and the article surely reflects a very real sense of dissatisfaction among his supporters and donors about the current state of the Republican race. But is Bush really just another candidate? I would guess that nearly all of his rivals would gladly trade his current level of money and support for their own, and his position looks even stronger if one heavily discounts the probability of Trump, Carson, or Fiorina—the three candidates now consistently leading Bush in the polls—actually winning the nomination.

Bush has clearly underperformed the predictions of the political class thus far, but "weaker than expected" is not the same as "weak." The case for panic is undercut by the quoted claim of an anonymous "top Bush fundraiser" that "the [poll] numbers are beginning to get hard," which is a silly thing to say four months before the first states begin to vote. There's also a certain incoherence to the roster of complaints documented in the Post article; we are told both that Bush has had problems raising money and that he's raised plenty of money (especially when his associated super PAC is included) but that these ample funds won't help him win popular support because of his other flaws as a candidate.

Regardless of accuracy or logical consistency, however, the interpretation of campaign developments by the news media can exert a significant effect on the judgments of voters, and endless headlines lamenting a struggling Bush campaign can threaten to become self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, there's more than enough time left before the voting begins in February for Bush to convince donors and pundits alike that he has turned his campaign around and is making a comeback. Once expectations have been lowered, after all, they become easier to meet.