About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« Monitoring the Media | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | The Iowa Fallout: A Primer on Momentum, Part 2 »

A Primer on Momentum, Part 1

With the New Year upon us, the pre-election campaign is ending, and a new phase of the cycle is beginning. Candidates will battle one another from Iowa, to New Hampshire and South Carolina, and eventually to Super Tuesday and beyond. Momentum could be the critical factor - a great victory could propel one of the hopefuls beyond the rest of the pack.

For as important as it might be, people seem to know very little about momentum. The word itself is just a metaphor, and the concept it references is often understood in vague and even mystical ways - a candidate wins a primary and momentum "magically" sends him or her to the nomination.

Over the course of the next two days, I hope to offer some clarity and precision on the subject. Today, I will look at what momentum is when it occurs. Monday, I will look at the conditions in which it may occur.

Let's start with a simple definition that we can build on. A candidate has "momentum" when his or her previous electoral results influence subsequent ones. The reference to Newtonian physics actually fits pretty well. Imagine a truck rolling down hill - and you can get a pretty good sense of the "big mo." Of course, momentum can work in the opposite direction. A win can yield more wins, but a loss can yield more losses.

We usually think of momentum from a "macro" perspective. For instance, we imagine the New Hampshire returns influencing the South Carolina returns. But momentum actually has its origins in the minds of individuals. So, our investigation of momentum should begin with them. In particular, we should first ask about the context of their decision-making processes. What are the factors that might make momentum so influential in their thinking?

As we have discussed all year, this context is dominated by voter inattention and ignorance. The average voter pays little attention to politics, and so has little knowledge of it. This is how momentum can have such an effect. An electoral victory is big news to a voter who knows relatively little about the race. He undoubtedly hears about it, and so hears lots of positive information about the winner. As he did not know much to begin with, this information can be critical to his decision-making. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that momentum can have its greatest effect on those who do not pay as much attention to the campaign.

Another important contextual factor is the media. After all, it is not just the results, but also the way they are interpreted, that generates momentum. It is one thing to read, "McCain, 115,490; Bush, 72,262." It is quite another to see, "MCCAIN UPSETS IN GRANITE STATE / Trounces Bush By 19 Points." Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the press are the surprise victors. The media loves electoral surprises - and they cover successful insurgents as though they walk on water.

Another factor is the schedule. If all states voted at once, there could be no momentum as no voter would know about any prior results. On the other hand, if there were one primary every six months - there would be no momentum, either. The influence of the previous contest would dissipate before the next context. Because momentum is a temporary effect, the timing of the contests matters.

With this context in mind, how can a voter be influenced by prior election returns?

Political scientists have identified several ways that momentum can work. The operative word here is "can." Momentum is a difficult concept to study. Good data is hard to find. For starters, elections in which momentum is a major factor are rare. Another problem is that you need a special type of data to study momentum thoroughly. Simple horse race polls will not do. You either need "panel data" or a "rolling cross-section" that investigates voter psychology as the campaign progresses. These are hard to come by. So, we cannot confirm how momentum really works. At best, we can see whether the data is consistent with various types of momentum.

Five such types have some evidence to support them. The first is "strategic voting." Here, a voter switches his vote from his first preference to a latter one based on who appears to have the best chance of winning. Take a simple example. Suppose a Republican prefers candidates in this order: Forbes, McCain, Bush, Dole, Bauer. He sees that Forbes placed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire - and that McCain won the Granite State. He decides that because Forbes has no chance, he should support his second choice. Accordingly, McCain's victory in New Hampshire has helped him win a voter he would not otherwise have won.

Another type of momentum is what Princeton's Larry Bartels calls "cue-taking." Voters, in a cue-taking scenario, lack sufficient information to know which candidate is optimal. Previous electoral results serve as signals from like-minded partisans about the candidates. Cue-taking is like heeding advice from friends, neighbors or co-workers when you can't decide for yourself. It is a way to make a choice amidst uncertainty.

The concept of "contagion" (again borrowing Bartels' language) is related to cue-taking, but it is less conscious. Instead of purposefully following the signals of previous electorates, a voter switches his preference just because the victorious candidate is mentioned more often and more positively. This type of momentum is less thoughtful than cue-taking. Bartels compares it to the spreading of a communicable disease. Voters acquire an inclination to support the candidate because those around them have it.

A fourth type of momentum is the pleasure one derives from supporting a winner. We all like to know that our favorite candidate turned out to be the winner - some voters may even switch their votes to get behind the expected winner.

These four forms of momentum were covered in detail by Larry Bartels, whose Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice remains a core text in the study of the modern presidential campaign. Arizona State's Patrick Kenney and Iowa's Tom W. Rice suggested a fifth type - which they call "inevitability." Here, voters support a candidate because he or she is bound to win. The difference between this and the previous form of momentum is that this does not carry the same psychological satisfaction. You back the inevitable candidate not to get the pleasure of supporting the winner, but because there is no other viable choice.

Again, it is difficult to confirm whether and how any of these forms of momentum operate on the individual voter. The data is just too limited. Nevertheless, Bartels found that momentum does not need to have a direct effect. A voter need not have his vote choice directly influenced by the latest electoral returns. Instead, the returns can influence his evaluations of each candidate, which then influence his vote choice. This would be a process like projection - in which a voter comes to believe that the advantaged candidate possesses all of the qualities he most wants in a leader. This positive reevaluation thus makes the candidate the "obvious" choice for the voter's support. Meanwhile, Penn's Diana Mutz found that momentum can work similar to the way that one person influences another: when a voter learns that an electorate voted differently than he would have, he is induced to reconsider his views and, "think of arguments that might explain those others' positions. By rehearsing these arguments, people engage in a process of self-persuasion whereby their own attitudes move in the direction that have been primed by others' views."

These considerations yield several relevant points for 2008.

First, the media matters. Over the course of this cycle, I have distinguished between the perpetual campaign and the real campaign. For most of the year, the media has been captivated by a drama that average voters barely noticed. This is the perpetual campaign - the endless struggle of the candidates to win the news cycle. It has little effect on vote choice - though pundits often think it does. The real campaign starts when candidates communicate directly with voters, who begin to make up their minds. During this campaign, the media can have a real influence because it interprets electoral returns for voters. The tone of the interpretation can determine whether a candidate will acquire momentum. Suppose, for instance, that Romney finishes second in Iowa. Will it damage his prospects in subsequent contests? It might. One of the factors that will matter is how the media covers it. Was Romney "stunned and decimated, spending millions only to be defeated by the insurgent Huckabee"? Or did Romney, "rally and win a good chunk of evangelicals, despite the impediment that his Mormonism presented"? Both storylines could be consistent with the Iowa results. Which one the press chooses could influence what happens next.

Second, media expectations matter - and candidates will try to manage them. The Huckabee campaign, for instance, does not want the media believing he is assured an Iowa victory. If he wins "as expected," the press might not cover it as glowingly - thus diminishing his bounce. So, Huckabee is out there saying his goal is to finish in the top three. This is why Bill Clinton said he would be amazed if Hillary Clinton wins Iowa. He knows as well as anybody that expectations matter. His second place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 effectively became a victory because of the press coverage.

Third, voters' second choices matter. They definitely matter to Iowa Democrats, who are sometimes forced to compromise at the caucus meeting. But they also matter to voters all across the country - as first choices seem like they can't win, strategic voting might induce voters to fall back on their second choices. The only poll I am aware of that asks about second choices is Cook/RT Strategies, which is currently out-of-date. But you can get some purchase on second choices in other ways. Examine candidates' favorable/unfavorable ratings - those with higher favorables are more likely to be second choices. Also, look at which candidates win on salient personal qualities (trustworthiness, for instance). This can give you a sense of who might be the second choice of a primary electorate.

Fourth, momentum can help some candidates but not others. As mentioned above, the level of information that voters possess matters when it comes to momentum. So, it stands to reason that candidates about whom a lot is known will not benefit from momentum as much. Walter Mondale received no bounce after he won the Iowa caucus in 1984. As a former vice-president, he was well known by the voters. On the other hand, Gary Hart enjoyed a huge bump after he won the New Hampshire primary because voters did not know a lot about him. So - the high profile candidates this season stand to benefit less from big wins. The low profile candidates might get a real boost. Accordingly, you should note the electorate's inability to rate various candidates in the pre-election polls. This is a sign of how much they know about them - and whether they are susceptible to momentum.

Finally, remember that our data limitations make momentum an under-studied concept. It is thus hard to predict when and where it might make an appearance. Those who talk confidently about momentum are actually just speculating.

-Jay Cost