Campaign reporting isn't easy. It has to be done quickly - filing stories every day, or in some cases multiple times a day, around repetitive and artificial events at which not much happens. Today, Mitt Romney went to a diner in Nashua, where he repeated the same talking points he delivered to people in a diner in Portsmouth yesterday, where he delivered the same talking points he delivered to people in a diner in Manchester the day before ... It's awfully difficult to come up with a "take" on the nonsense of campaigning that will be remotely interesting to your audience.
Confronted with this problem, reporters do what they can to create conflict and suspense. At times, they're like kids in a schoolyard, yelling, "Fight, fight, fight!" to two other kids staring each other down. Governor, the Speaker says you're a liar, would you respond? C'mon! Give me something!
When the most important outcome of an upcoming event like tomorrow's New Hampshire primary seems all but assured—nobody doubts who the winner is going to be—what do you do? One answer is to create a new standard, to say the real question isn't who wins, but how each person did relative to "expectations." Whose expectations? Why, the media's, of course, the same people who will tell you whether those expectations were met. Brendan Nyhan explains how arbitrary this all is, discussing an article by the New Hampshire Union-Leader's John DiStaso:
However, journalists often exaggerate the effects of supposed over- or underperformance, in part by treating the conventional wisdom about how a candidate performed relative to expectations as some sort of objective fact rather than a social construction. (Note, for instance, how DiStaso’s report takes these expectations as given rather than attributing them to a source.) It’s particularly important to consider just how arbitrary the "expectations" that the media place on candidates can be. DiStaso asserts that if Romney does not win by 10 percentage points or more, it’s a "wide open race." So if Romney wins by 9.9 points, the race is "wide open," but if he wins by 10.1 points, it’s all over?
People often complain that political reporting too much resembles sports reporting, with the obsession over who's up and who's down, who's winning and losing. But at least sports reporting is concerned with actual facts. If the Packers beat the Giants next week by only two points, no headlines are going to read, "Packers Fall Short of Expectations." A win is a win.