What's behind the debate expectations game?

When was the last time you submitted your resume for a job opening, hoping to get an interview, and downplayed your skills and experience? During presidential election years, the people vying to lead the country have long done it. President Obama, Mitt Romney and their respective running mates are heavily engaged in the game of lowering expectations ahead of debates.

For example, Republican vice presidential nomineePaul Ryan said in a recent interview that Vice President Joe Biden is "probably going to come at me like a cannonball. More pressure because Mitt Romney put such a great performance that the bar is pretty high. There's also pressure because Joe Biden has been doing this for 40 years."

Ryan's spokesperson Brendan Buck also called Biden "as experienced a debater as anyone in national politics" and noted that "this is Congressman Ryan's first time on this big stage."

Prior to last week's presidential debate, President Obama and his campaign went to great lengths to lower expectations. "Governor Romney - he's a good debater," Mr. Obama told a campaign rally in Las Vegas. "I'm just okay."

The game of lowering expectations dates back decades. It's been going on "as long as I've been involved," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who's been involved with presidential politics since 1980.

For instance, during the 1996 election, President Bill Clinton's spokesman Mike McCurry said the president is "feeling a little bit behind and a little bit like he should cram at this point." Clinton's Republican rival Bob Dole publicly downplayed his own skills, telling a campaign rally that Clinton was "so good" that if he simply showed up, he would consider his performance successful.

Related: Full CBS News coverage of the debates

"It's almost embarrassing the way the campaigns praise the other side," Devine, who was also a senior adviser for Al Gore's and John Kerry's presidential runs.

So why do they do it? In short, they think it will make it easier to claim a post-debate win.

"If you can make people think you're not going to perform very well, you can benefit from it," said Jeffrey Staton, associate professor of political science at Emory University.

"It's a common practice because the risk of failing to meet expectations is significant. One way to try and manage that process is to try and get expectations as low as reasonably possible," said Dave Redlawsk, a Rutgers University political science professor who focuses on political psychology.

In 2004, President George W. Bush's strategist Matthew Dowd called his Democratic challenger John Kerry "the best debater since Cicero," one of history's greatest speakers and debaters from the Roman Empire. Kerry did not shy away from his own expectations game, however, reminding voters that President Bush has "won every debate he's ever had."

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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