Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



Let the Voters Decide

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 9, 2008

When asked who will win the football game, the smart aleck response is "whoever scores the most points." In politics, the smart aleck response to who will win the election could be "whoever wins the most votes." Yet, while the sports fan would actually be correct, the political analyst would not because the winner of the election is not the one with the most votes but the one who wins the expectations game.

The expectations game is exactly what it says it is. Candidates have expectations that they must meet and if the do, it is a win. If they do not meet these expectations, it is a loss. Of course, the cardinal rule of every campaign is to set low expectations. That way you are guaranteed to win. Unfortunately for many campaigns, they are not the ones who set the expectations. That job falls to the media.

The problem with the expectations game has been clearly demonstrated with the IA caucuses and NH primary. Hillary Clinton ran as the inevitable candidate and thus had to win to demonstrate this. Barack Obama pulled off a major victory surprising practically everyone because he did not just win but won by a greater than expected margin. And thus Senator Clinton lost the expectations game. At that point, everyone, including many from her own campaign, started to say that her campaign was in trouble, changes would have to be made, and she might have to drop out.

Now, let's step back a moment. Hillary Clinton has raised over $100 million for her campaign, has large leads in national polls, a highly respected campaign staff, organization in the key states leading through Tsunami Tuesday (Feb. 5), support of the Democratic establishment, and is married to someone many call the Democrat's most brilliant strategist, and her campaign is over after one state votes??????

I don't think so and after the NH primary results no one else does either.

Same story on the GOP side. Mitt Romney invested a lot of money in IA and NH, had the best organization in both states, had a big victory in the IA straw poll this summer, and led in the polls in both states for most of 2007. Yet, now that he placed second in both states his campaign is in trouble.

Let's see. Romney has placed second in two states (IA & NH), first in one (WY), has more money than most other GOP candidates and can write checks to keep his campaign afloat, has actually won more votes than any other GOP candidate, has more delegates than any other GOP candidate, and the race is over. It just doesn't make sense.

While there is a bit more truth to the Romney trouble that is because his campaign strategy is not working out. As a lesser known politician, he needed wins in IA and NH to increase his name recognition, convince others he could win even though he is Mormon, and raise the funds to be competitive the remainder of the race. Still, even without these wins, he is still in a good position.

I do not mean to pick on the press for playing the expectations game. They are reporting what the "insiders" are talking about. And the press is trying to interpret the events for the public who may not pay that much attention. However, the press, by playing and contributing to the expectations game, is devaluing the votes of citizens in other states. For the past few elections, IA and NH (and to a lesser extent SC) have mattered more than other states. That means 48 other states do not have a meaningful role in the nomination of their party's presidential nominee and that is not democratic.

Let's remember, though, that the media does play an important role in the electoral process. They are the conduits by which candidates communicate to voters and they are the ones who most citizens rely on for their information about who to vote for. So let's let the press engage more in what they should be: discussing the policy proposals of the candidates and asking the tough policy questions of the candidates. As for who wins the elections, let the voters decide.