NEW HAMPSHIRE — After finishing the Iowa caucus in a virtual tie with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney is in a commanding position as the Republican primary campaign heads toward next Tuesday’s primary election here. The former Massachusetts governor holds significant leads in New Hampshire polls and dwarfs Santorum in campaign organization, financial resources, and elite support within the party. The only candidate who can match Romney on those dimensions is Texas governor Rick Perry, who finished a distant fifth in Iowa and considered dropping out of the race before deciding to contest the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.

However, as I wrote earlier this week, journalists have strong incentives to exaggerate the likelihood of a Romney defeat. These incentives often induce reporters and pundits to create unreasonable expectations to heighten the drama. A case in point is a story published Thursday by the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s biggest newspaper, in which senior political reporter John DiStaso asserted that “anything less than a double-digit victory margin would be an under-performance” for Romney and would create a “wide open” race:

Mitt Romney is flying high in New Hampshire in this final week of the campaign. Perhaps too high for his own good.

With the latest New Hampshire polls showing him with more than double the support of his closest rival, Romney can’t escape the expectation that he should not only win the first-in-the-nation primary next Tuesday, but that anything less than a double-digit victory margin would be an under-performance and a sign of weakness in what is supposed to be his stronghold, his catapult to the nomination.

…[I]t should not be conceded that it’s going to be an “all-Romney” election night.

Remember the expectations game.

If someone else breaks out of the pack and comes close to Romney — within 10 percentage points or less — then Romney loses even if he wins. He exits here a damaged front-runner and the race is wide open heading south.

In short, with this kind of polling lead, any win is not a win this time around for Romney. He has to win convincingly.

The “expectations game” is a key part of primary politics. It is in part a real phenomenon involving the reactions of key party actors to candidate performance. If a candidate underperforms relative to expectations, his or her standing with party elites, donors, and even voters may be diminished. The media should cover that process, just as it should cover candidates’ records and the substance beneath campaign rhetoric.

However, journalists often exaggerate the effects of supposed over- or underperformance, in part by treating the conventional wisdom about how a candidate performed relative to expectations as some sort of objective fact rather than a social construction. (Note, for instance, how DiStaso’s report takes these expectations as given rather than attributing them to a source.) It’s particularly important to consider just how arbitrary the “expectations” that the media place on candidates can be. DiStaso asserts that if Romney does not win by 10 percentage points or more, it’s a “wide open race.” So if Romney wins by 9.9 points, the race is “wide open,” but if he wins by 10.1 points, it’s all over?

Presumably DiStaso doesn’t intend to make such a strange claim, but that’s what his article suggests. It’s a useful reminder that reporters would often do well to leave the punditry aside.

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.