Public expectations turned Monday’s presidential debate into Clinton’s trap instead of Trump’s. Still, Trump allowed Clinton out of it — and himself to fall into it — all too often Monday night. Nonetheless, Clinton’s underlying strategy to portray Trump as unqualified for the presidency — and herself over-qualified for it — gives Trump ample opportunity to exploit it in the next two debates. If he does, Hillary will have no one but herself to blame.
In today’s world, performance against expectations is everything, even outstripping absolute results. In business, the measure is earnings; in sports, it is wins. However, it is performance against what was expected that determines a company’s stock price or a coach’s tenure. The same performance could be success for one, but failure for another — the determining bar being the subjective one of expectations.
Political elections would seem to contradict this modern expectations standard — particularly presidential ones. After all, you either win or you lose and, if you receive the votes needed to win, then you take office and few look back to view the margin. Ultimately, that is true, but before you reach the final day, the performance-against-expectations standard still prevails. And in this year’s election, performance against expectations may have an unusually large impact on the final outcome.
For just over a year, Donald Trump has consistently defied the expectations set for him.
In a crowded Republican field, he was expected to be no more than a novelty and soon depart. When he stayed, it was expected he would do so only because of his celebrity — he could not actually win. When he began to win, it was expected his support would stay capped in the 30’s and, as the field shrank, he would be overwhelmed. When the field shrank and his support continued to grow and his nomination became assured, it was expected he could go no further.
In the weeks following the conventions, the low expectations for Trump appeared ready to prevail. Once again, he overcame them and going into Monday’s debate was effectively tied with Hillary Clinton nationally and in many battleground states.
Monday’s debate was to be the final and highest presidential hurdle. According to conventional wisdom, standing alone on stage with Clinton, the political establishment’s meticulously prepared policy wonk, Trump would get his long-delayed comeuppance.
Instead, this latest low-setting of expectations proved once again to be Trump’s greatest asset and Hillary’s largest liability. Yes, Trump had his moments, but Clinton had more of them – proving particularly able to lead Trump away from her greatest vulnerabilities. Yet because of expectations, neither candidate likely did enough to change the race’s dynamic.
The good news for Trump, and the bad news for Clinton, is that those skewed expectations remain in place.
His opponents’ setting of expectations so low has been a twofold advantage for Trump. They have served to comparatively elevate his performance. They also have served to lower his opponents’ — not just relatively, but absolutely. His opponents have looked less than themselves because they could not defeat the candidate they dismissed — succumbing to their own appraisal of him and combatting his persona rather than the person.
While Republicans relied on, and eventually failed in, this strategy, no one has pursued it more than Hillary Clinton. Both her 2008 and 2016 campaigns have focused on showcasing Hillary as the smartest, most qualified candidate running — if not in history, as Obama has hyperbolically intoned. Clinton’s juxtaposition with all her opponents — first with Obama eight years ago and Sanders this year — has naturally been that they are comparatively unqualified.
Facing Trump, Clinton has taken this tack to another level. Long before her derogatory dismissal of his supporters as “deplorables,” she publicly held this opinion of Trump. He was beneath being unqualified, as well as contempt. Her surrogates — Obama and even the media — have tirelessly echoed this message.
Yet rather than disqualify him for the presidency, as Clinton evidently intended but failed to do, she set a trap for herself. After Monday, the trap remains set. Having set the bar so low, she leaves Trump the chance to not simply to clear it, but to soar over it. Even if Trump failed to seize that opportunity Monday, it’ll be there for him in the next two debates.
Further, Hillary’s problem goes beyond Trump’s opportunity here. Because she has taken her quest for of self-qualification to such heights, she may have set the expectations bar so high that she won’t be able to clear it in these debates. While any Trump missteps may be forgiven in light of Hillary’s strategy, her own will be comparatively magnified.
In short, Hillary has created a tails-you-win-heads-I-lose scenario for herself. Trump has successfully toppled the low expectations his opponents have set for him throughout this year. Clinton on the other hand has been repeatedly pinned by the higher ones she has set for herself. Monday night’s debate only reinforced that scenario, and it’s not going away.