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Why Do Presidential Candidates Lower Expectations Before Debates?

10/04/2012 12:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2012

This question originally appeared on Quora.
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By Michael Lee, Public Policy Analyst

Because press coverage is driven by what's "interesting," and because politics is an expectations game.

The focus of the press coverage out of the debates is simply a matter of human nature, about what we find interesting. It's not very interesting when someone that you know is really good at something does well at that task, because you expect it. It's more newsworthy when someone who's very good doesn't do well. And conversely, it's not interesting at all when someone who's not very good at something doesn't do well - but it's really interesting when someone comes from nowhere and achieves major successes.

So each campaign is engaged in a snow job, in an attempt to convince the media that their guy is really not all that great at debating compared to the other guy, in hopes of two outcomes: 1) If the opponent does well, the success is muted because reporters expect it, and 2) If the "low expectations" are exceeded, the news coverage will be all about how amazingly their guy did.

It's a fascinating exercise in human nature, and it's not limited to politics. You see this kind of expectations game in any number of human activities, including athletics. And as a former swimmer in college, I'm going to analogize to the world-class U.S. Olympic Team. Consider this guy: Michael Phelps. His first Olympics was the 2004 Games in Athens. He'd burst onto the international scene with a stunning debut at the 2002 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, and everyone just knew that when he reached the 2004 Games, he was going to turn some heads. And indeed he did, winning 6 gold medals and 2 bronze medals that year. But some people were disappointed that he didn't win all 8 golds!

Keep in mind that he was being hyped as able to beat Mark Spitz's record of 7 gold medals in one Games, and when he didn't do it, there was quite a bit of disappointment mixed in with his congratulations. Phelps, of course, went on to become the most decorated Olympian in history - so that disappointment was certainly misplaced.

Then, consider this young lady: Missy Franklin, a 17-year old with comparatively little international experience, who stunned the world by winning 4 gold medals in London, as well as a bronze, including winning gold in the 100-meter backstroke about 15 minutes after her qualifying race in the 200 freestyle! Franklin made a huge splash because no one expected her to win big, because the most-hyped stories out of the U.S. swim team in London were supposed to be about Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, and about the relays and the ensuing international rivalries.

That said, all of the spin on both sides going into the Presidential debates is a large pile of bovine excrement, and it would do reporters well to avoid it. President Obama is widely known for his excellent rhetorical skills, and Mitt Romney has been campaigning and debating for the Republican nomination since the 2008 primary elections. Neither side should have low expectations going into the debates, and any major gaffes will be national news for days.

But if the debates are without major "newsmaker" moments, if both sides avoid putting their feet in their mouths, if no one gets a question for which they're unprepared, then coverage will be muted, because nothing "interesting" will have happened.

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