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JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Winning isn't everything in the primaries

As Elaine Kamarck recounts in The Washington Post, winning isn't all that matters in the early contests on the presidential nomination calendar. Candidates seek to beat expectations, and the press and the parties judge the results against what they thought would happen.

In fact, beating expectations can matter even more than the raw results because it affects the amount and tone of the coverage candidates get. Those, in turn, can affect voters in the next state on the calendar.

Almost every smart observer deplores this state of affairs: Shouldn't we just accept the results, rather than interpreting them through the bias of "expectations"?

Here's why the expectations game can make sense -- and how it can go wrong. For good, bad, and ugly:

The good

Done well, the expectations game is an important corrective to the biggest flaw of the sequential nomination process, which is that early states are more important than later states, but that no state is representative of the nation as a whole. By taking into account the particular demographic features or regional placement of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, both the media and party actors are able to adjust the distortions of those states to a national scale.

For example: On the Democratic side, there are far more white liberals among Iowa and New Hampshire voters than in the nation as a whole. It therefore makes sense to set expectations higher for Democratic candidates who depend on the support of white liberals (this year, Bernie Sanders.

Also, candidates may campaign more in some states than others.

That should be factored into expectations, too..

The bad

Unfortunately, the expectations game is tricky, and it's easy to get caught up in the candidates' spin about what they should be "expected" to do in any state, or previous media narratives.

Expectations are relatively easy in general elections, because we know that most Democratic voters will support the Democrat and most Republican voters will choose the Republican.

It's a lot harder, however, to figure out which Republicans should do well in Iowa on Feb. 1. Yes, the caucuses usually turn out more Christian conservatives than can be found in Republican primaries in most states. But what does that mean (for example) for Marco Rubio's proper expectation level? There's no obvious answer.

The ugly

At its worst, the expectations game can wind up as nonsensical as its critics fear. That happens when expectations are set not by objective factors, but by polls -- so that "beating expectations" just becomes a question of doing better than the last round of polls.

In that case, the best that beating expectations might indicate is which campaign has the best get-out-the-vote operation. Most likely, it just randomly rewards candidates who happen to have had bad luck in polling.

Write Jonathan Bernstein, a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics, jbernstein62@bloomberg.net