For days the press has been busily telling us who needs to finish where in the New Hampshire primary to be taken seriously. Now they’ve taken it a step further, setting expectations not just for the primary, but also for tonight’s pre-primary debate.

Dan Balz of The Washington Post informs us that “Dean will have the most on the line Thursday night, and quotes a New Hampshire pollster, who tells him: “Dean has to perform at that debate.”

There’s some truth to that assessment, of course. Dean has been slipping a bit in recent New Hampshire polls, and a strong debate performance could help turn things around. But as reporters well know, the goofy format of the debates, and the presence of seven candidates, makes it next to impossible for any candidate to stand out. With the possible exception of the very-long-shot Al Sharpton, no candidate has so far taken advantage of any of the previous debates to boost his chances.

And Balz offers no evidence that any actual New Hampshire voters are investing tonight’s debate with anything like the importance that Balz and his pollster are.

So Balz’s assessment seems designed to set up a post-debate story that will likely go something like this: “In an underwhelming performance in last night’s debate, Howard Dean failed to live up to this reporter’s yardstick, as laid out yesterday, and continues to look for ways to revive his struggling campaign.” (Not quite in those words, of course, but close enough.)

And there it is. The press sets up an expectation that may or not bear any relevance to voters’ decision; the candidate fails to meet those expectations; and the press calls it a failure. So it goes in the bizarro alternative world campaign reporters call their own.

—Zachary Roth

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.