It's Time To Play The 'Debate Expectations' Game!

This is the worst game.

Could there possibly be anything more esoteric than yet another piece about “debate expectations” and the way the false consciousness of the media inevitably overrides the substance of two presidential candidates, making the whole thing an exercise in worse-than-futility? Probably not!

But here we are. So let’s start by inscribing the epitaph on the tombstone of the forthcoming debates, courtesy of Dylan Matthews, who in 2012 dropped this wisdom on us at The Washington Post:

In short, the effects on debates on eventual votes are likely mild, and, in most cases, effectively nil. Moreover, what effects do exist are often caused by factors wholly beyond the candidates’ control, like media coverage, attractiveness, and whether voters are watching a Nats game in the other panel of their TV. 

It’s best to just state that up front, lest anyone continue under the impression that the radical promise of a presidential debate ― the idea that the public might be provided with an array of substantive policy arguments so they’ll have the crucial information they’ll need on Election Day ― is anything but bunk. How the media allows itself to get spun, and by whom, goes a lot further in determining the “winner” of these things.

Matthews has some math that speaks to this:

Arizona’s Kim Fridkin and her colleagues conducted an experiment to test this proposition at the 2004 debate in Tempe, Ariz. They asked 74 voters to watch the debate and say who they thought won. 25 watched the debate without seeing commentary afterwards, 25 watched and saw commentary from NBC News which suggested that George W. Bush won, and 24 watched and saw commentary from CNN which suggested that John Kerry won. It turns out that the effects of cable news spin were enormous. 

And you know that negative opinion you have about horse-race political coverage? Matthews notes that you are correct to have it:

The way that the media talks about the debates also matters. Ohio State’s Ray Pingree, Lousiana State’s Rosanne Scholl and Ohio State’s Andrea Quenette showed 700 students a five-minute clip from a 2004 debate. A third read no news coverage, a third read “horse-race” coverage that framed the debate as a competition between the candidates, and a third read substantive coverage focused on the candidates’ policy differences.

Pingree and his coauthors then asked the students to write out a description of the debate. They found that the descriptions by students who’d read the substantive coverage contained the greatest number of opinions provided with supporting evidence, whereas those who’d read the horse-race coverage wrote descriptions with much less substance. 

“This suggests that the media can trivialize the debate,” writes Matthews. I reckon that very few of you will object to this idea.

So let’s just take this as a given: We, in the media, are going to screw this up. Some of us will do it accidentally, some with malice aforethought. You should avoid us. Maybe you should close this tab right now ― click the little x! It’s right up there!☝️― and unplug your laptop. Ram a power drill through your hard drive and throw it in the trash, along with your television.

I’m sort of not kidding! 

If you ask anyone who covers politics to explain the “expectations game” going into the first presidential debate, you’ll likely get the same answer: The expectations are asymmetric in a way that favors Donald Trump.

See, Hillary Clinton is generally perceived as a capable but flawed politician with a large knowledge base and a decades-long career of crafting and articulating complicated policy ideas. Consequently, Clinton can do everything right in a debate and still fail to impress anyone, because it’s what we all expected of her anyway.

Trump, on the other hand, is widely and correctly perceived as an impulsive and ignorant political neophyte, prone to debasing himself and insulting others. His bar is set at “literally might have a complete psychotic break.” If he doesn’t do that, then he soars over the bar. (And if he does, then hey ― he’s just confirming expectations.)

As Jonathan Chait noted this week at New York magazine, Trump’s advisers have been going to heroic lengths to give the impression that Trump himself is barely preparing for Monday’s debate. And that’s exactly what they should be doing ― setting people’s expectations at rock bottom. Prime the world to expect an utter disaster, so that when Trump makes it through the full evening without giving a purple nurple to a Peace Corps worker, everyone will rave about what a great job he did. So disciplined, so presidential, so much better than expected.

That’s the game. I’ve given it away. But nobody needs me to give it away. It’s transparent to everyone. 

And that’s the vexing thing. The political press, one imagines, has to understand what’s going on here. They’ve seen this sort of strategy time and again. If you were to say to any cable news pundit, “Hey, you know they’re trying to work you, right?” ― well, that pundit would get piss-up indignant with you, because of course they know that. So you’d think that when political journos speak plainly about the asymmetry in the “expectations game,” it means they’re inoculating themselves against the trick.

You’d be wrong. This isn’t the media immunizing itself. This is the media pre-confessing to the crime it plans to commit. 

Look ― there are, of course, a number of media professionals who take a fact-based approach to covering politics, and who want to banish the black miasma of lies that Trump routinely belches out like a smokestack. (Obligatory parenthetical: Yes, Clinton lies too. Trump lies more.) But they’re fighting a two-front war against deceptive politicians and their own colleagues in the media, the worst of whom will giddily degrade the efforts of fact-checkers and insist that their own mystical bullshit is “the real world.”

Here, too, you will likely find an asymmetry. I daresay that if you were to compare the salaries of people who check the facts and people who get paid to weave a phantasmagoric tapestry of “perceptions” and “optics,” you’d learn a very hard lesson about where the incentives lie in the media business.

So with all this said, how should you approach the upcoming debates? Am I advising you to switch off the coverage before the spin begins? Forego the televised spectacle and read a day-after transcript? Watch the whole thing and rage against those who’ll tell you your eyes are lying to you?

No. I am simply trying to help you set some realistic expectations. 

But how can you know that for sure?


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.