The First Presidential Debate: Who Really Lost?


This past week we saw the first of three presidential debates. The consensus was that Governor Mitt Romney, who was engaged and prepared, defeated President Barack Obama, who many described as "checked out." Other media and entertainment voices jested that moderator Lehrer was the biggest loser due to his inability to guide questioning and hold the candidates to time constraints. The real loser, however, wasn't Obama, Lehrer, or even Big Bird. It was you – the voter.

As a student and believer in sales, marketing, and branding, I never grow desensitized to the offensive and repulsive "sales tactics" used by political campaigns. Mudslinging. Attack ads. White-toothed lies. Empty promises. But this year – in the week leading up to the first debate – I became reviled by a tactic I'd never noticed before: Debate Expectation Management.

Ugh! What a detestable term – and strategy! Debate expectation management is a ploy used by political campaigns to prepare voters for an underwhelming performance by their candidate. By lowering voter expectations, the campaign is hedging their bets. The strategy works like this: if their candidate loses, no one is surprised, the media has no big news, and voters won't pay the debate much attention. Alternatively, if their candidate wins the debate, they can hail him as the Cinderella champion in the hopes of generating bold headlines, voter attraction, and a bump in the polls.

Here are a couple of examples of how each side managed expectations leading up to last week's debate:

Romney's aide, Beth Meyers, hedged that, "President Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker, and is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history."

Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, explained, "I mean, if you just look at the assessment of the debates in 2008, that Barack Obama became the nominee of his party, in some ways in spite of his debate performances, and Mitt Romney became the nominee of his party because of them."

Imagine if Apple followed the same PR strategy of lowering expectations with the launch of the iPhone 5. "There are phones on the market, like those by Samsung, that are widely regarded as the most incredible communication devices in modern history, but hopefully the new iPhone 5 will do well, in spite of how our crappy new maps app performs." It would be the worst selling Apple product ever.

Why don't press people for the candidates instead say, "He is prepared and excited to state his plan and commitment to serve the people of this great nation. Regardless of whether the media claims him the winner or loser of the debate, our candidate will be honest, passionate, and grateful for this chance to speak to each voter."

During this time of year when fanatic football fans paint their bodies with team colors and Apple cultists camp out in lines for the next big device, the presidential candidates have the opportunity to run a campaign that sets high expectations for voters and themselves. Instead, I've only observed two campaigns spending hundreds of millions of dollars to "sell" me that their candidate is not the worse man for the job.

What about you and your business? Do you put your heart and soul into your products and services so you can set expectations high and then exceed them? Or do you have to manage customer expectations so they won't be too disappointed if you and your product underperforms?

Will you shoot to be the greatest in the world at what you do, or will you stoop to mudslinging with your competitors in the hopes that customers will choose you as the least worst option?

The path of hedging with low expectations leads undecided customers to seek any reason to choose someone else. The path of exceeding high expectations leads to customer loyalty and a lasting legacy.


Did you pick up on this? Do you agree? Disagree? Add your comment below. And don't forget to follow me on Twitter for more of my ideas on sales, marketing, and branding. - Andy Horner