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The Expectations Game is gibberish in the Iowa caucuses

Illustration: Des Moines Register

Sometimes the political media gets so tangled up in its own underwear that it’s comical. Musings about expectations don’t qualify as news — they should be marked “for entertainment purposes only.”

That’s why I must ridicule Kathie Obradovich’s recent article in the Des Moines Register (also reprinted into the Boston Globe). There are candidate positions. There is vacuous horse-race talk. And then there is this, which is meta-analysis of the horse race — or, more simply, horseshit.

Here’s the truth: If people do better than the poll, it means the the poll is wrong, not that the candidate is strong. So the “Expectations Game” is a navel-gazing, circular media fantasy.

Article in plain text, with my version of the truth in brackets following.

Obradovich: Latest poll sets caucus expectations

There are two ways to win the Iowa caucuses. One is to get more votes than everybody else. The other is to beat that ever-changing and ephemeral opponent called Expectations. [Actually, the way you win the caucuses is to get the most votes. Anything else is just pretend.]

Expectations are, for the most part, whatever the media say they are. It’s also up to the media to decide whether any given candidate cleared that invisible bar. [I agree: expectations are made up based on the media’s fantasy and unreliable polls.]

Sometimes, the actual winner of the caucuses is not the candidate who gets the most points, but the one who beats Expectations. That was the case in 1996, for example, when conservative pundit Pat Buchanan came in a close second to caucus winner Bob Dole. Buchanan beat Expectations and went on to win the New Hampshire primary. [Perhaps Pat Buchanan squeaked by Dole in New Hampshire because the voters there liked him more than they did in Iowa, a midwestern state like Bob Dole’s Kansas. He won three other states. So much for expectations.]

In the Iowa caucuses, polls taken more than two weeks before the votes are counted are still poor predictors of the actual results. The Expectations game, however, is based almost entirely on polls — with a few caveats and provisos about ground organization, debates and advertising. [So you agree the polls and expectations are horseshit — and then add caveats and provisos to cover your ass anyway?]

So let’s look at the new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll through the lens of Expectations in the Republican presidential race. The poll shows a 3 percentage-point race between Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, which raises the stakes for both candidates. No other candidate is within 10 points of the leader. In a close, two-man race, whoever doesn’t win is the loser. [Actually, in any race, whoever wins is the winner, and the other guys loses.]

One could argue that Expectations are so high for Cruz he may need oxygen. He has led two Des Moines Register Iowa Polls in a row, a rare feat in this volatile GOP race. He has corralled support from the most prized coalitions of GOP voters: the very conservative, seniors, born-again Christians and evangelical conservatives. He has endorsements from Congressman Steve King and religious-conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats. Conservative and mainstream Republican activists and opinion leaders have predicted a Cruz victory. [How Cruz does in Iowa is important because it’s a conservative state and he’s a conservative candidate. Not because Expectations are high.]

Trump is an unconventional politician with an unconventional base of support. He leads Cruz with first-time caucusgoers and people who say disrupting government is the most important factor in choosing a candidate. He leads Cruz with people who make more than $100,000 a year. Interestingly, he also leads Cruz with people who call themselves moderate and identify with the GOP mainstream. No candidate has a larger share of voters who have made up their minds than Trump.

Trump has shown the rare ability to both inflate his own Expectations — they’re HUUUUGE — and defy them at the same time. Trump’s unceasing focus on polls and his endless braggadocio invite his supporters to expect a landslide. Anything less would be a disaster! Terrible! Trump would get little extra boost from a come-from-behind win because he’s not casting himself as an underdog.

Having said that, Trump has gleefully stymied much smarter political minds than mine by consistently gaining from situations that would sink most candidates. Trump sticks his foot in his mouth and comes away acting like he’s been dining on filet mignon. So maybe he could sell a caucus loss as the most cunning victory ever. [OK, we’ve now watched you chase your own tail for three paragraphs. The only part I agree with is that there are smarter political minds than you. Here’s my much simpler analysis. Trump’s first win with voters rather than polls would demonstrate that he’s more than an illusion. If he loses here and in New Hampshire, he’s done until after the election, because polls mean nothing — only votes mean something.]

There are some limited opportunities for whoever comes in third place to be Iowa’s E-winner. In the new poll, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson are just 1 percentage point apart. If Rubio nabs third place, he will have beaten a one-time national front-runner in Carson for one of the traditional “three tickets” out of Iowa. He’ll also be the only candidate generally classified as a “mainstream” or establishment choice in the top three, ahead of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. [The “traditional” three tickets out of Iowa don’t apply with this many candidates  — they’re another media mirage. Rubio will go on for a while. Carson will fold. All Iowa will do is to determine whether that happens before or after New Hampshire.  ]

Carson, however, who led polls in Iowa last fall, would need to finish higher than third place to get a boost. He doesn’t have to win, but beating Trump would be a rocket ship for this outsider, anti-establishment candidate. [Won’t happen. Why bother talking about it?]

After fourth place, there may be a few Expectation points awarded for any mainstream candidate that beats Bush. Christie has the best shot at that consolation prize, but John Kasich would also be in the running. Otherwise, the question most candidates will have to answer is why they’re still in the race. [Bush, Kasich, and Christie have visited Iowa fewer times than the other candidates. They’re not counting on it. Placing fourth or lower only matters for candidates that care about Iowa.]

The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll of 500 likely Republican caucusgoers was taken Jan. 7-10 by Selzer & Co.  It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. [That’s a big margin of error, for 500 random folks who answered a phone call. If people do better than the poll, it means the the poll is wrong, not that the candidate is strong.]

Positions = news.

Votes = news.

Polls = pale, distorted reflection.

Horse-race talk = filler.

Expectations analysis = entertainment.

My analysis of expectations game = you’ll have to decide for yourself.


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