When the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team capped March Madness with a national championship in 2011, superstar Kemba Walker offered this absurd appraisal of his team’s victory: “We shocked the world.”
It was absurd because UConn is a perennial powerhouse and was playing Butler. Butler! UConn was the higher seed, was favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers, and most definitely did not shock anyone by winning.
But Donald Trump topped Walker on the absurdity scale Saturday when he, too, tried to play the underdog card.
People (pundits) gave me no chance in South Carolina. Now it looks like a possible win. I would be happy with a one vote victory! (HOPE)
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2016
Come on, now. Pretty much everyone called a Trump win in the South Carolina primary. He led in 33 consecutive state polls, dating back to November, and the few that had him down before then were outliers. From the time RealClearPolitics began tracking the South Carolina polling average in September, Trump never trailed.
In 2011, at least, you could find college basketball experts who were picking Butler. But in South Carolina this year, Trump was the consensus favorite.
If Trump has an immovable 35 percent in South Carolina, he is going to win the primary in the state. And if he wins South Carolina....
— Chris Cillizza (@TheFix) February 16, 2016
Trump has a 73% chance to win SC according to our "polls-plus" forecast. 85% according to "polls-only" forecast. https://t.co/VAA1wtvbsd
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) February 16, 2016
I hope everyone is prepared for a solid Trump win the SC and the massive Republican panic that will follow.
— Jonathan Ladd (@jonmladd) February 12, 2016
If Trump does not win SC, it will be surprising https://t.co/ReBUBtobbL
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 12, 2016
Trump was probably on track to win SC big; *now* if he wins it big, it will be after standing up to the Pope & therefore even YUGER
— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) February 18, 2016
As outlandish as Trump's claim was, it was a perfect example of how the expectations game is played. Politicians, like athletes, love to be the subject of an overachiever narrative — and they'll stretch the limits of credulity to put themselves at the center of one.
Ted Cruz did something similar in his primary night address to supporters, saying several times that his campaign was "defying expectations." Ditto for Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side in Nevada on Saturday; he referenced the enormous polling deficit he faced in the state late last year as a way of spinning his five-point defeat into a positive.
"What this entire campaign has been about is the issue of momentum," the Vermont senator said.
Momentum is nice, but it's not what an entire campaign is about. Winning matters, too.
In his own, peculiar way, that might be the point Trump was making — that winning, whatever the margin, is the bottom line. A week before the primary, the RCP average put him up by 18.5 points in South Carolina. But his lead shrank down the stretch, and his margin of victory hovered on the edge of double digits.
That's still a decisive win, but he faced the prospect of a media narrative that would focus — in part, at least — on his underperformance.
So early in the evening, when many of the votes were yet to be counted, Trump tweeted that he "would be happy with a one-vote victory" and tried to sell the notion that pundits had counted him out. It wasn't true, but by pushing a message that was the complete opposite of the underachiever story line, he might have helped moderate the framing of his win.
Whether he did better or worse than expected, Trump won big in South Carolina. That's the story he wanted. And he got it.