Most media stories in recent weeks have been about the upcoming gains Republicans are supposed to make in Congress next week. One might conclude from these stories that Republicans are winning in the expectations game. I think they are losing it.
The expectations game is important, it seems to me, for two reasons. First expectations might influence turnout. I say “might” because I don’t think it is obvious that they will. In all the polls Republicans are more excited about the elections than Democrats. But being overconfident might push voters away from the polls if they think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. I don’t study turnout, but I don’t think the whole psychology of turnout is well understood. We should learn something from exit polls whether the excitement effect has worked for Republicans or not.
Second, and most important, I think the expectations game can influence governance. Media-generated hype about Republican landslides will quickly turn into stories about how Democrats did better than expected if the Republican gains being written about now don’t materialize. Democratic politicians are likely to believe these stories. They will believe that they weathered the storm, that their strategies were effective in changing the hearts of voters. This will lead to less change in Democratic strategies, particularly at the White House, than we would get if Republicans truly do enjoy a landslide.
[As an aside, David Brooks had an unusually partisan piece in the NY Times, the kind he does periodically to try to maintain credibility among the Right. He noted that Democrats love stories about people like Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino – “feeble-minded wackos” who have little chance of winning, rather than the numerous Republican candidates who probably will defeat Democratic incumbents. I don’t know if Democrats are any more self-deluded than Republicans, but it is certainly true that we hear many more stories about ridiculous Republicans than about serious ones. O’Donnell, who has to run ads saying she is not a witch, certainly gets more stories, for instance, than the wretched Barabara Boxer, who actually is one.]
Anyway, I think the Republicans are going to lose the expectations game. I think Democratic pundits are already writing stories in their heads about Democrats exceeding expectations. I can hear Paul Begala already practicing his election night sound bites on CNN: “Despite Anti-Incumbent Sentiments, Democrats Make a Rebound in the Midterm Elections.” Oh Brother.
You heard it here first.