With the ballots counted and the delegates calculated, it is now clear that that Barack Obama narrowly won Super Tuesday. For the nomination, he earned a few more pledged delegates. For national reach, he won several more states. For electability, he won a larger share of independents. For the hyped battle over John Edwards' supporters, he won over white men.
Yet Obama lost the one measure that reporters follow most closely: He could not meet their expectations.
The New York Times announced this conclusion in a rather stunning front page headline on Thursday: "Obama Made Some Inroads, But Fervor Fell Short at End." (The web headline was even tougher: "In Vote, Obama Fell Short of Fervor.") While noting that "Mr. Obama more than held his own against Mrs. Clinton" by winning "more states" and some key voting blocs, the article issued a bleak assessment of Obama's ultimate performance:
But once again -- as in New Hampshire -- the result on Tuesday did not match the fervor that had been signaled by Mr. Obama's dramatic march of rallies across the nation leading up to the vote. In that dynamic rests one of the central questions about the Obama candidacy, which may well go the heart of whether he can win the presidency. Is this campaign a series of surges of enthusiasm, often powered by the younger voters who form long lines waiting to hear Mr. Obama speak, that set expectations that are not met at the voting booth? (emphasis added).
Obama has beaten plenty of expectations at the voting booth, of course. On Tuesday, he outperformed state polls that had him down double digits just a few weeks ago. He narrowly beat Clinton in the contest long billed as a nationwide primary, even though he trails her in national polls to this day. In fact, Obama has never once eclipsed Clinton in national polls during the entire 13-month campaign, according to the averages assembled by RealClearPolitics. Before the first contest in January, she led by an average of 20 points. Before Super Tuesday, her lead held strong at 13 points.
Yet apparently some reporters have ditched polls since New Hampshire, basing expectation on even less reliable baselines like "fervor."
The Times bluntly states that Obama's expectations were set by "enthusiasm" at his events, based on crowds and "long lines," producing a "fervor" measurement that "did not match" Tuesday's results.
That is literally the premise of the news article.
How many more state victories would it take to meet the fervor expectations? It does not say. Of course, "fervor" is not a legitimate metric for assessing voting results. It is immeasurable, subjective and wholly beside the point. Political organizers know that big crowds don't guarantee much besides a lot of clean up at event sites. And framing 22 contests as a test of whether a campaign can match its fervor reduces democracy to another game of meeting media expectations.
However, the 20 million Americans who voted on Tuesday did provide meaningful information about this race. Some of it augurs poorly for Obama, though not based on expectations. (I noted that working class voters rallied around Clinton across the country, for example, and media expectations have unfairly hindered Clinton's campaign, too.)
After a year of pre-season campaign coverage obsessed with irrelevant polls, however, it's time to focus on what voters actually did this week -- not on whether they matched our subjective, irrelevant expectations.