While analysts pore over the meaning of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses, journalists have already begun to set expectations for the candidates’ performances in New Hampshire.

On the face of it, New Hampshire and Iowa matter little in terms of the actual delegates who will eventually determine who wins the Democratic nomination. The Iowa primary assigns just 45 delegates to the convention, and New Hampshire only 22, out of 4,321 total delegates.

But those states are the playing field on which reporters set the bar for the expected performances of the candidates. Exceed those expectations — as John Kerry and John Edwards did in Iowa — and the press is positive; fail to meet them, and the press warms up the funeral dirge for your chances, as Howard Dean is discovering.

And, like it or not, the expectations game created by the press and attendant pollsters does matter, in part because the primary schedule is now so compressed. Of the delegates needed for nomination, more than 10 percent will be allocated by Feb. 3 and nearly 60 percent by March 3 - just six weeks from now.

The Associated Press kicked off the New Hampshire expectations bowl yesterday even before the Iowa returns were in. David Morgan wrote that “[e]ven if Clark were to finish behind Kerry, analysts say he could still claim a victory,” quoting Linda Fowler of Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center that “a respectable third … would show [Clark] to be a viable candidate for states like South Carolina and Missouri, where he can be expected to do well.”

The results in Iowa appear to have convinced some in the media that Sen. Joe Lieberman may be the next candidate to depart the race. John Harris, writing in The Washington Post, suggests that Lieberman, currently polling fifth in New Hampshire, “needs to light a spark in New Hampshire to avoid [Rep. Dick] Gephardt’s fate” — that is, being forced out of the race. Likewise, Dan Balz writes in a front-page news analysis piece for the Post that “Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who also skipped Iowa, has pinned his hopes on a strong finish in New Hampshire but may find it difficult to reach that goal in the scrambled and enlarged competition in the Granite State.”

Dean’s third-place finish in Iowa has the media setting the bar quite high for his performance in New Hampshire. Reuters reporter Andrew Clark suggests that “[t]he Iowa result was a major blow for Dean, the former Vermont governor who had long set the pace in the Democratic race and now needs a strong finish in New Hampshire to reinvigorate his campaign.”

At least reporters Jodi Wilgoren and Christine Hauser sourced their conclusions. Their article in today’s New York Times states that “[t]hough Dr. Dean has consistently said his campaign is distinguished by its commitment to run in all 50 states through the Democratic convention in July, a senior aide said during the flight that his candidate would, essentially, now live or die in New Hampshire.” And while other reporters have not yet suggested exactly where Dean needs to place in New Hampshire, the Post’s Balz is not bashful about demanding a win from Dean, telling us in a news analysis piece that “[i]t is questionable whether Dean can survive a loss in New Hampshire next week.”

Scott Martelle of the Los Angeles Times summed up the media’s own winnowing process perfectly. Covering John Edwards’ post-caucus celebration last night, he writes that “[t]he room had all the energy of a victory dance, never mind that Edwards didn’t win. When you’re expected to fail, coming close can be good enough.”

The converse, of course, is also true: When you’re expected to do well, coming close just isn’t good enough for an unforgiving press — or for an electorate getting its news through that filter.

—Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.