The Plank

Is Political Momentum A Thing Of The Past?


The emerging CW seems to be that the despite all the handwringing in
2007 about our broken primary process, things have in fact turned out
okay. Just look at the negligible importance of the early states, says Jeff Greenfield:

Remember all the lamentations, the rending of garments, the gnashing of
teeth over the outsize power of two small, unrepresentative states over
the presidential nomination process? Well, never mind. It turns out
that the apparent pattern of 2000 and 2004, when Al Gore and John Kerry
won Iowa and New Hampshire and sailed to the Democratic nominations,
was not a pattern but a two-off.

With different winners in Iowa and New Hampshire for both Republicans
and Democrats, and not a hint of "momentum" to be had (the word may
soon find itself on the ash heap of political nomenclature, along with
"smoke-filled rooms," "party bosses," and "favorite sons"), all the
remaining contenders now have to campaign in the Feb. 5 states.

And here is Mickey Kaus:

Let the record show that the Death of Momentum was entirely foretold at least eight long years ago
by the application of the Feiler Faster Thesis (voters comfortably
process information quickly) coupled with what turned out to be the
Skurnik Two-Electorate Theory (voters who don't follow politics don't
tune in until the very end). As outlined in 2000, late-focusing voters
tune in to what the press is saying in, say, the two days before their
state's election, which is usually something different from what the
press says in the two days after the previous state's election. Four days = no mo' mo. Add in possible affirmative voter rebellion against what the press says--Huck's Hot! Barack Rock Star!--and it's overdetermined. ...

Yes, but it did not have to be this way. For instance, if Clinton
had won Iowa, does anyone doubt that she would have coasted to the
nomination and we would all be cursing the importance of a ridiculous
midwestern caucus? And what if Romney instead of Huckabee had won the
state on the
GOP side? Moreover, Kaus appears to be arguing that Obama didn't get
much momentum from his win. I would argue the opposite, as seen by his
meteoric rise in national and New Hampshire polls in the four days
after Iowa. Now, it's true that Hillary won NH, but only because
of a bizarre set of circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated
(it's also worth mentioning one of the reasons a "backlash" occured was
that Obama was seen as having too much
momentum). And the irony beneath the surface of Kaus' argument is that
Hillary's New Hampshire victory has given her tremendous momentum!
Finally, the most salient example here would be Rudy Giuliani's
campaign, which is about to get humiliated by a third or fourth place
finish in Florida, and which is dead because it got no momentum from
the first few primaries.

It's true that this has been a strange year, but if the current primary format remains in place,
it's safe to say that Iowa's and New Hampshire's importance will almost always loom very

--Isaac Chotiner 

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