The Expectations Game: Ages 18 and Up

GREENVILLE, S.C.—While Barack Obama and Clinton (both of them) butt heads in South Carolina, there’s a second, parallel campaign going on: the expectations game.

The rules are simple: If you think you’re going to win, argue that the election matters. If you fear you won’t win, tamp down expectations and argue that the race doesn’t matter anyway. The importance of an election is only as big as the likelihood of you winning it.

Here’s one quintessential salvo: a new e-mail sent out by the Obama camp claiming that Hillary is going “all out” in South Carolina. ” The truth is Hillary Clinton’s campaign is pulling out all the stops to win in South Carolina,” writes Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “And it includes saying and doing just about anything to win.” The e-mail goes on to detail Clinton’s various surrogates, radio ads, and upcoming appearances in the state.

It’s as if to say, Look, she’s trying! Naturally, the Obama campaign wants credit for what most people expect to be a win in South Carolina. (Of course, that’s what they thought about New Hampshire and Nevada.) Plus, it’s impossible for Hillary to refute. She can’t say, “No, South Carolina isn’t important to me.”

What she can do—and what Clinton spokesman Jay Carson did when I mentioned the e-mail to him—is laugh. “Yesterday, they said we’re not campaigning here,” he said. “Now they say we’re going all out. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.”  

The fact is, the battle in South Carolina has been vicious. Hillary filled the airwaves here with an ad accusing Obama of championing Republican ideas; Obama in return unveiled a new radio spot claiming that Clinton would “say anything” to get elected. The battle between Obama and the former president has been well-documented. Now Hillary herself has returned, kicking off a fresh swing with a speech on the economy at Furman University.

And with less than 48 hours before polls open, the theatrics won’t be letting up. At least that’s the expectation.