Now that the presidential debates are almost upon us, the campaigns have begun to observe the equally well-established tradition of "expectations management." Candidates know that political commentators tend to judge each nominee's debate performance against a benchmark of prior expectations that have been set by general media consensus. A candidate may out-debate his or her rival in an objective sense yet still receive negative publicity by failing to match elevated expectations. Putting the most points on the scoreboard, in other words, is rewarded less than covering the spread.
As the debates approach, candidates who spend the rest of the year attacking each other as incompetent, out of touch, and a potential threat to the very survival of the republic suddenly flatter the opposition with compliments that are amusingly exaggerated in their insincerity, attempting to raise expectations for the other side while simultaneously lowering their own. Last time around, Mitt Romney's campaign temporarily paused its repeated denunciations of Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" remark to describe Obama as "one of the most talented political communicators in modern history." In 2000, George W. Bush's aides repeatedly characterized Al Gore as a "world-class debater" while conspicuously worrying to reporters that their own candidate might well be humiliated on the national stage. Eight years before, Bill Clinton's campaign had praised Bush's father as "the most experienced debater since Abraham Lincoln." When Clinton ran for reelection in 1996, one spokesman for Bob Dole reached even farther back through the ages for a comparison, referring to the incumbent as "the greatest debater since the days of the Roman Senate." It is hardly a shock that the most prominent pro-Trump website has suddenly developed a newfound appreciation for Hillary Clinton's debating skills.
The role of expectations in framing press evaluations of presidential debates is sufficiently familiar that we are now regularly subjected to meta-analyses of the "expectations game" in which members of the media evaluate how well the campaigns are manipulating the media. Less commonly discussed, however, is why this practice developed in the first place, or what keeps it intact from one election to the next. How did "expectations" become the primary metric by which candidates are judged?
One reason stems from the media's instinct to recalibrate comparisons between candidates so that each party has an equal shot at achieving success. Because incumbent presidents and other political veterans are widely assumed to enjoy an inherent debating advantage over less experienced opponents, holding them to a higher standard of performance can seem like a fair leveling of the field. Critics charge that this devotion to "balanced coverage" may obscure the existence of imbalance in reality; as we explain in Asymmetric Politics, the common practice of (incorrectly) portraying the two major parties as simple mirror images of each other partially reflects media norms that encourage "same-on-both-sides" analysis.
Secondly, giving the underdog a decent shot at exceeding expectations and thus "winning" the debate helps to fuel a strong media thirst for a thrilling roller coaster of a campaign boasting frequent novel developments and one apparently game-changing plot twist after another. Unlike regular voters, who may well be hearing the candidates speak at length for the first time during the debates, most pundits have long since become bored with both nominees' rehearsed rhetoric and consultant-approved talking points. Journalists appreciate the appeal of a big story—and isn't a surprise winner more interesting than a predictable winner, even if we need to grade on a curve to produce one?
Finally, insistence upon measuring candidate performance against a backdrop of expectations gives the press a central, and even crucial, role in the process. It is the media that set the expectations for the two candidates in the first place, so only the media can determine which candidate did or did not meet them. Hours of post-debate analysis on television, and endless corresponding stories on the internet, are thus devoted to the task of explaining to the American public who won and why.
As viewers of debate coverage in past elections no doubt recall, these judgments are seldom based on substantive matters. Body language, emotional disposition, tone of voice, recitation of prepared one-liners, and similar behavior seem to weigh more heavily than candidates' command of the facts or effective explanation of favored policies. Presidential debates are often treated in advance as uniquely precious national exercises in sober civic deliberation. Afterwards, however, they are mostly reviewed by the critics in the press box as if they were any other television performance—and who among us hasn't occasionally concluded as the credits rolled that an actor on a TV show we just watched might not have been great, but was at least more entertaining than we thought he or she would be?