As voters headed to the polls to decide the next president on Tuesday, the Trump campaign and its top surrogates have conspicuously sought to set expectations lower than their candidate himself has — and lower than outright victory. Heck, even Trump himself seems to be lowering the bar.
In a morning appearance on "Fox & Friends," Trump said he would win in Iowa and also, he "thinks," Ohio and New Hampshire. Beyond that, though, the usual Trump bluster about winning everything was gone. He said he thought he would do well in states like Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, but he didn't promise victory in the kinds of states that he needs to actually win the presidency.
"We're going to win a lot of states. I mean, who knows what happens ultimately," he said.
Then he quickly checked himself: "We're going to win."
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, also seemed to begin the process of offering excuses for his likely loss — pointing, as expected, to the lack of unity and support from the GOP establishment. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday that he had voted for independent Evan McMullin rather than Trump, and George W. Bush also reportedly abstained from voting for president.
Conway told MSNBC that Trump "didn’t have the full support of the Republican infrastructure" and that it would be "really too bad” if Trump lost because Bush and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn't support him.
(She followed that up with a tweet explaining she wasn't blaming the RNC, but rather other establishment Republicans.)
Earlier in the day on Fox News, Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer seemed to suggest that success would be judged not by victory overall, but by winning states that President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 and doing better than John McCain and Mitt Romney.
"We are going to have more electoral votes tonight than we’ve had in the last two cycles, and I think that’s an important thing to note for all of the media, mainstream media narrative," Spicer said. "We will do very, very well tonight. We will bring millions of people into this process, and I think we’ll see a resounding victory in more and more states that Obama carried twice.”
And deputy Trump campaign manager David Bossie appeared on MSNBC and seemed to admit to the narrow path to victory that his candidate faces. He said the path requires winning North Carolina, Iowa, Florida and Ohio, but seemed to acknowledge the next state wasn't quite so obvious. "And then we start looking at their map," Bossie said.
Lowering expectations is a time-honored tradition in politics — especially among surrogates and operatives who know they'll be judged based on the perceived success of their campaigns. So this could simply be a bunch of Trump surrogates looking out for their political futures.
But it's also true that you don't really need to make excuses and lower the bar if you think you're going to win. The Trump campaign, in contrast to the Romney campaign four years ago, seems to know exactly how high the odds are stacked against them on Election Day.