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Some quick thoughts on Mitt expectations

January 10. 2012 4:46PM

A few quick thoughts on Mitt Romney and the expectations game in New Hampshire.

There's a lot of talk about a Romney win really being a Romney loss if he doesn't "beat expectations" in New Hampshire. I often think the "expectations" game is just something political experts talk about when they haven't done any actual reporting on a race and therefore all they can discuss are numbers contained in public polls that everyone else has access to. It doesn't matter as much to voters in the next state as it does to insiders who think or hope that politics can be boiled down to hard numbers the way baseball statistics can. Will Romney really "lose" New Hampshire if he wins it by 12 points instead of 19? That would be a Charlie Sheen definition of #losing. Which means, it would be winning.

Still, there's a nugget of truth in the idea that problems could be created for Romney down the road if he does significantly worse than most people think he's going to do. So how well should he do? What should his expectations really be?

That's open to interpretation, of course, but it starts with his performance in 2008. In that primary, he got 75,675 votes. If he gets fewer votes this year, does that mean he's got a problem? Well, it's a bad sign, and here's why (I think). In 2008 Romney ran against a field that most people would say was stronger than this one. McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee were all formidable, and then Paul and Thompson were there to take some more votes away. Also, the big Democratic primary took a lot of independent voters out of play for the Republicans.

This year, there is no Democratic primary, and most people would say that Romney hasn't received as tough a challenge in New Hampshire in this cycle as he did in 2008 from McCain. Add the psychological factor that Republicans are supposed to be energized to beat Obama (I'm not convinced that's a strong factor to bring a lot of people out today, but it's supposedly in the air, so to speak), then Romney really should get more votes today than he did four years ago. If he doesn't, that will signal to party big-shots and Washington experts that he's a "weak frontrunner."

If you win both first round games in the NCAA basketball tournament by one point each, you still move on to the second round. I think that the hard number matters less than his margin of victory. If it's really much closer than anyone expected, then it probably signals to the challengers that he's weak, and therefore they all should keep fighting. Of course, as long as it signals to donors that they should keep donating to the challengers, then it matters more.

But in the end, what probably matters most is what the journalists and the experts say about the election. That's why the campaigns go to such lengths to set expectations and spin results in the first place. They know that what voters in the next state think will be set in large part by how the stories are told and spun in print and on air. And what those voters think about each candidate's chances will help determine how they vote. It's a strange world, driven in part not simply by what happens, but by what people think is supposed to happen. Which isn't supposed to be. Is it?

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