Readers of the New York Times’ website late on the night of the Iowa caucus results were treated to a shifty bit of cognitive dissonance. “Cruz Wins in Iowa, Dealing Trump a Humbling Loss,” read the banner headline. Immediately below, the subhead asserted, “Rubio Finishes in Strong Third Place.”
It seems illogical to conclude that a second-place finish is a “humbling loss” while finishing third—just so we’re clear, worse than second—is “strong.” But here we have a textbook example of that venerable election year phenomenon known as the expectations game. How does the game work? Polls in the lead-up to the caucuses (polls that were, in hindsight, wrong) suggested Donald Trump would win outright, and thus anything less was considered a disappointment. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio “outperformed” his poll expectations (which were also, in hindsight, not a reflection of reality), so he gets proclaimed a victor.
All across the media this twisted logic bloomed. The Washington Post deemed Rubio a “winner” because “he made a strong run at Trump,” while Trump got classified as a “loser” whose second-place finish (again, you understand, ahead of Rubio) might represent “a catastrophic hole that will bring the whole enterprise down.” Politico’s Dylan Byers tweeted that Rubio had secured a “win for [the] establishment” and that Trump had suffered a “clear loss.” Further examples abound.
Rubio himself, in a postcaucus address that sounded a lot like a victory speech, proudly embraced his tertiary status. “So this is the moment they said would never happen,” he began, beaming. “For months they told us we had no chance … but tonight here in Iowa the people sent a very clear message.” Indeed. Very clearly, more of them voted for Trump. A couple thousand more of them.
It’s a collective hallucination. Like we’ve all made a pact to disregard the actual vote tallies. You could plausibly argue that Trump and Rubio finished in a dead heat, since each garnered seven precious Iowa delegates. But Trump as obvious, clear-cut loser? A visitor alighting from a distant solar system might make befuddled inquiries regarding our planet’s conception of math, and ordinal numbers, and “losing.”
The Iowan Trump voter, too, is surely miffed at this willful misinterpretation. Does her Trump vote count less than her neighbor’s vote for Rubio? Yes, polls suggest that Rubio voters decided in the final few days before the caucuses, while Trump voters had made up their minds weeks or months ago—but in our political system, one vote remains one vote no matter how early the voter resolves her allegiances within her own mind. Trump backers might also fairly note that their squad is not some small, ragtag faction. There were 45,000 votes for the cotton candy–haired cretin—more than George W. Bush notched in Iowa in the 2000 caucuses. And a second-place finish is far from a death knell: Eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney finished second in Iowa in 2012.
So why this strange compulsion to invent a storyline that doesn’t conform to the raw data? It could be in our nature: There exists social science evidence suggesting that third place feels somehow better than second place. Third place is redolent of fierce effort narrowly paying off—you’ve barely clawed your way onto the podium and are thrilled merely to be relevant. Second place, by contrast, feels more like “not first place.”
But at its core, the expectations game is a media-created phenomenon. It stems from overemphasis on predictive poll results—which, we’ve been reminded again and again—are notoriously unreliable, particularly in the early stages of a campaign. You can’t really fault the media for reporting poll numbers. Polls offer general guidance about which candidates most intrigue voters and therefore which candidates merit further scrutiny. The problem comes when journalists use those faulty poll numbers to set faulty expectations (Trump’s a newfangled electoral juggernaut!) and then rip into candidates who inevitably fail to meet them (Trump’s a laughingstock!).
It would be less annoying if the expectations weren’t so fluid and arbitrary. What about the fact that Rubio spent substantially more time and money in Iowa than Trump did—shouldn’t that make Rubio’s third-place finish less impressive? Or what about the consideration for the larger time frame: Think back to last summer, when Trump was still a punchline and Rubio was a serious GOP heavyweight being groomed for the throne. Who’s exceeded those expectations over the past several months? Back then, which would have seemed the bigger surprise: Rubio finishing in the top three in Iowa? Or the guy the Huffington Post relegated to their entertainment section finishing second, drawing a yuuuuge number of votes and rolling onward to New Hampshire with a solid edge in the polls there (we think)?
The media’s disregard for cold, hard facts in favor of an imposed narrative construct is far from a motiveless crime. Journalists crave an entertaining story arc, and a good arc requires frequent changes in fortune. Someone newly up, someone newly down—even if the ascendant fellow hasn’t yet reached the heights of the fellow in mild decline. But this season’s expectations game seems especially egregious. I suspect this is partly a function of anti-Trump bias. It’s fair to say that, among media elites, there is general distaste for the short-fingered authoritarian. You can sense the glee brimming within that Times headline—the eagerness to humble Trump by labeling his failure to win “humbling.” (He certainly doesn’t sound humbled now.) Trump-hating Times columnist David Brooks even seized on Trump’s second-place finish to write something of a eulogy. Brooks claims that Trump’s supporters “didn’t show up” (except for the 45,000—almost unprecedented in an Iowa caucus—who did) and marvels at “the amazing surge for Marco Rubio” (which, one more time, to be clear, surged Rubio to 2,000 fewer votes than Trump got).
The most insidious thing about the expectations game is that it might matter, even though it shouldn’t. Without a drumbeat of coverage insisting, in the absence of any tangible evidence, that Rubio was surging this fall—my Slate colleague Josh Voorhees, writing in October, ascribed this to “a bored political press corps”—perhaps the high-heeled perspirator would have done even worse than runner-runner-up in Iowa. Massaged perceptions do help sway the citizenry. When the media peddles the idea that Trump is fading while Rubio is gaining steam (on its face a nonsensical proposition: There has been only one voting contest, only one real data point, and thus there’s no up or down progress to plot), it can become a self-fulfilling notion. Imagined momentum turns into real momentum. It’s only human: People want to align themselves with the go-getter on the make, not with yesterday’s flavor.
Of course, the game cuts both ways. If Trump finishes first in New Hampshire next week, amid another close three-way result, the expectations machinery will clank back into gear and start composing “art of the comeback” headlines (even though Trump has led New Hampshire polls for months). If Rubio finishes third again—remember, that’s a “strong” finish—this time an identical result will mean he’s missed a chance to “consolidate” his Iowa gains. As one of America’s shrewdest strategists once said: “Some things never change. The game is the game.”