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When a candidate takes a 'victory lap' without a victory

When a third-place finisher pretends to have scored an amazing victory, something weird is going on.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gestures toward the audience before a television interview before a campaign event, Feb. 2, 2016, at the town hall, in Exeter, N.H. (Photo by Steven Senne/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gestures toward the audience before a television interview before a campaign event, Feb. 2, 2016, at the town hall, in Exeter, N.H.
In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton faced brutal headwinds ahead of the New Hampshire primary. Rocked by controversy and personal allegations, the Arkansas Democrat was written off, dismissed as a candidate who would have to drop out sooner rather than later.
And yet, on Primary Night, there was Clinton, making a memorable declaration: "New Hampshire has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid." What's less memorable is the fact that Clinton actually lost that primary. In fact, Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) beat Clinton in New Hampshire by more than eight points. But because so many assumed Clinton would get crushed, his second-place showing seemed like a triumph.
It serves as a reminder that, as odd as this sounds, candidates don't necessarily have to win to seem like they won.
What we haven't seen, however, is a third-place finisher pretend to have scored an amazing victory. That is, until this week.
After losing to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses Monday night, Marco Rubio told supporters, "This is the moment they said would never happen!" It was, of course, the moment literally everyone said would inevitably happen -- Rubio was supposed to finish third in Iowa and he did.
But pesky details like election results notwithstanding, the Florida senator launched a strategy in which he'd simply act as if he'd won, and expect the political media, which often seems overly fond of Rubio, to simply play along with the charade.
Which is exactly what's happening. Paul Waldman highlighted some gems yesterday

[T]oday's headlines tell us of "Marco Rubio’s very big night in Iowa,” to “Forget Ted Cruz: Marco Rubio is the big winner of the Iowa caucuses,” that “After Iowa, keep your eye on Marco Rubio, not Trump or Cruz,” and “Why the Iowa caucus was a win for Marco Rubio, even though he lost to Ted Cruz."

No wonder Rubio took a "victory lap" yesterday without an actual victory -- which ordinarily would seem like a prerequisite to a victory lap.
Perhaps my favorite headline of all was published by the Wall Street Journal: "Rubio's Rise Amid Trump's Slump." Remember, Rubio and Trump faced off in the same contest, in the same state, at the same time. Trump won more votes. Pundits don't care.
It's true, of course, that expectations shape perceptions, but Ted Cruz was expected to lose Iowa before actually winning the whole contest -- a fact Rubio's cheerleaders have deemed unimportant.
Why in the world is this happening? Waldman tried to explain this bizarre dynamic:

Rubio is a good speaker, is pretty informed about policy, and has a heartwarming personal story about his immigrant parents. When those journalists and commentators say so, and write stories describing how Rubio's campaign is about to blossom, they're expressing their faith in the process. Regardless of their personal ideology, they'd like to believe that this whole chaotic mess eventually winds up in a somewhat rational place. If the GOP nominates Rubio, it's proof that the process works and one of our two great parties has not completely lost its mind. [...] [W]hether they're consciously aware of it or not, most people in the media would probably prefer Trump to fall eventually, after we've all been thoroughly entertained by his candidacy. Rubio as the GOP nominee might not be as much fun, but it makes sense.

I'd argue with Waldman about Rubio being "pretty informed about policy," but otherwise, his take sounds about right.
It's unnerving to see so much of the political world simply pretend on behalf of its preferred candidate, expecting the hype to become self-fulfilling, but there's a decent chance it'll work.