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By Jay Cost

« A Primer on Momentum, Part 1 | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | An Iowa Push? »

The Iowa Fallout: A Primer on Momentum, Part 2

Update, January 5, 2008: With Obama and Huckabee winning Iowa - both parties' nomination battles are up in the air. Accordingly, I thought it appropriate to re-offer this essay, which was originally published on December 30, 2007. In what follows, I review how momentum works on a statewide basis, and try to piece together what big primary victories mean for candidates later on. In light of this week's Iowa results, I hope you will find it worthwhile.


On Friday, I offered the first of a two-part series on momentum. I examined momentum on an individual level, reviewing how voters may be influenced by it. Today, I will discuss whether and how candidates with momentum can win primary and caucus contests.

There are two broad ways to characterize statewide momentum - though, practically speaking, momentum in any given year probably works through a combination of both ways. First, it can build slowly - so that a win in New Hampshire yields a win in South Carolina, which in turn yields a win in Florida, and so on. This would be like a truck rolling downhill, slowly gaining speed. Let's call this piecemeal momentum. The other way it can work is what we'll call all-at-once momentum. A candidate wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and everything follows from that dramatic beginning. This would be less like a rolling truck and more like a space shuttle that uses the launch pad for blast off.

At first glance, piecemeal and all-at-once momentum would look the same - but in fact the causal processes would be different. With piecemeal momentum, a win in New Hampshire would influence South Carolina, which would influence Florida. With all-at-once, a win in New Hampshire would influence South Carolina and Florida, which would really not influence one another. Again, these are broad categories that probably cannot capture specific instances of momentum perfectly. They are just meant to help us frame the conversation. In reality, we might expect a candidate's momentum to be a combination of both - perhaps a huge launch in New Hampshire and Iowa to which subsequent victories add a little bit every time.

Let's start our investigation with piecemeal momentum. Researchers have found it does exist - some candidates do build momentum slowly over time, victory-by-victory. However, Arizona's Barbara Norrander has found that this type of momentum more usually characterizes also-rans rather than nominees. Norrander tracked election returns in all fifty states between 1976 and 1988, and found that those who eventually lost nominations - like Reagan in 1976 or Hart in 1984 - often made use of this momentum. The eventual nominees usually did not; rather, their state-by-state performances were more frequently conditioned by how much money they spent. The exception was George H.W. Bush, who enjoyed the "Big Mo" in 1988 (even though he thought he had it in 1980!). While Norrander's study is somewhat dated, my intuition is that the pattern still holds. Bush '92, Clinton '92, Bush '00, and Kerry '04 did not win by slowly building momentum.

This is not a huge surprise. On Friday, we discussed the importance of the time between contests. For most of the modern era, primaries have been scheduled quite close together. This probably has limited the effect of piecemeal momentum. Norrander and others have shown that nominees win by spending money, and that early victories can bring dollars to cash-starved candidates. This provides an opening for piecemeal momentum to work: an insurgent candidate wins a big victory that he can build on because donors fill his coffers with cash. Indeed, this was one way Jimmy Carter won his party's nomination in 1976. The trouble is that - for most of this era - the next round of contests always comes too quickly for sufficient funds to be raised. Sooner rather than later, the insurgent who won an unlikely victory runs into the frontrunner's expensive firewall.

So, we might infer that, because of this year's hyper-compacted schedule, piecemeal momentum will not be decisive. However, I think such a conclusion is hasty. The case of the 2000 GOP nomination gives me pause. During the 2000 Republican nomination battle, Penn's Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a rolling survey of New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, and the Super Tuesday states. Its results are worth considering.

Bush defeated McCain in the South Carolina primary held on February 19th, 18 days after the New Hampshire primary. Interestingly, when Annenberg began its rolling cross-section of South Carolina, McCain's position in the Palmetto state was about as solid as his position in New Hampshire was on the day of his victory. His problem was that his standing eroded as time wore on. But if South Carolina was scheduled as close to New Hampshire in 2000 as it is in 2008 - 11 days instead of 18 - McCain's standing might have been strong enough to win. A win there, plus his wins in Michigan and Arizona, might have sustained the post-New Hampshire boost he registered in the Super Tuesday states.

In other words, McCain might have been just a few days away from pulling off the rare feat of riding piecemeal momentum to the nomination. And so, we cannot disqualify it from being a factor in 2008. Although, we must admit that it is unlikely. Above all, McCain's campaign in 2000 was based upon a huge, 19-point upset in New Hampshire. It was lightning in a bottle. Even if the schedule is more accommodating this cycle, lightning in a bottle is still hard to capture.

So much for piecemeal momentum. What about all-at-once momentum? This, as I said, is like a space ship launch. The idea is that a candidate wins an early state and is helped for the rest of the way.

For a long while, political scientists have known that you can do a pretty good job predicting the outcome of a nomination battle based on a few basic variables, all of which are known by the end of the pre-election year: national poll position, money raised, television exposure, endorsements, etc. Recently, however, scholars have found that when you add the results of the New Hampshire primary to these models - the predictive power jumps through the roof, from around 60% to upwards of 90% (though the effect is muted when we look at just the Republicans). The implication here is that the second type of momentum - the big win that launches a candidate - is a factor.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. These models predict final shares of the vote - not whether a candidate wins or not. If you look at matters more closely, you see that what New Hampshire has most frequently done is the following. If it backs the frontrunner, he has an easy path to victory - as with Gore in 2000. If it does not back him, he has a harder path - as with Mondale in 1984. The only exception to this rule is Howard Dean in 2004. His loss in New Hampshire (and Iowa, which we will discuss presently) effectively ended his candidacy.

Of course, Dean was a poor frontrunner by many metrics. He wasn't well known. He wasn't well liked. Voters were concerned he was unelectable. The scream. And so on. Dean was easily one of the weakest frontrunners in the modern era.

The fact that he went down in New Hampshire actually does a great deal to clarify the role that the Granite State can play. Clearly, it is a force that is independent of the factors that make up the pre-primary frontrunner (strong national polling, money, etc). When it works in concert with those factors, supporting the frontrunner, it adds to his power. When it works against those factors, supporting an insurgent, it serves as a countervailing force. Usually, the frontrunner has so much power behind him that he can overcome a loss in New Hampshire. But, when a frontrunner is not very powerful - as Dean was not - New Hampshire can stop him.

What about Iowa? Researchers have found that Iowa does not exert the independent force that New Hampshire does. This is how DePaul's Wayne Steger characterized the Iowa caucuses this year in Political Research Quarterly:

The results of the Iowa Caucuses do not significantly affect the prediction of the aggregate primary vote...That the Iowa Caucuses played a crucial role for Jimmy Carter (1976) and John Kerry (2004) is more than offset by the fact that the eventual nominees of both parties have "lost" the Iowa Caucuses in most other years. The New Hampshire primaries, in contrast, have a more consistent effect across nomination campaigns - inflating the chances of candidates who do well while deflating the remaining primary vote shares of candidates who do not.

So, Iowa does not have a direct effect. But, it could affect New Hampshire, which in turn influences the rest of the nation. To investigate this hypothesis, let's consider the following chart, which reviews Iowa, New Hampshire, and nomination victors in contested battles since 1976:

Iowa - New Hampshire - Nominee.JPG

Two observations are relevant. First, Iowa and New Hampshire frequently disagree. They only have agreed four times, which is a sign that Iowa does not usually influence New Hampshire. Two of those four times, 1980 D and 2000 D, were contests where there was a clear frontrunner, so it probably would not be fair to say that Iowa influenced New Hampshire. The other two times were 1976 D and 2004 D. Here, you could make a case that Iowa influenced New Hampshire. And what did those two elections have in common? They both lacked strong frontrunners.

Thus, the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire seems to depend upon the quality of the frontrunners. Iowa can influence New Hampshire, and New Hampshire can upend the campaign dynamic, when the frontrunners are not strong. When the frontrunners are strong - at best, they only slow the march to victory.

This gives us an angle on understanding the role momentum might play this cycle. Clearly, the Republicans have no pre-election year frontrunner - like the Democrats in 1988. This means that momentum definitely could be a factor. As I said, we probably will not see the kind of successful slow-building momentum akin to what McCain almost had in 2000, though it is still possible. What is more likely is momentum that comes from a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire - a candidate then uses those victories to launch himself beyond the rest of a lackluster field.

What about the Democrats? Over the summer, the press had built Hillary Clinton up as inevitable. Now, it sees her as particularly vulnerable. The reality has always been in the middle. She is a roughly average frontrunner with real strengths and real weaknesses - it will thus be hard, but not impossible, to beat her. Clinton's lead in the national polls right now is of middling size relative to past frontrunners: larger than what some frontrunners enjoyed, smaller than what others enjoyed. This is good for her. Furthermore, her supporters tend to be a good sample of the traditional bases of Democratic support. This is also good. But she has weaknesses. She has not dominated fundraising. If you factor out her Senate campaign transfers - you'd have to say that Obama out-raised her (without using federal PAC money). Further, Clinton's negative ratings are higher than previous frontrunners'. As frontrunners go, she is certainly stronger than Dean. But she is weaker than several past frontrunners. She is far from immune to being seriously affected by momentum. Obama could be a particular threat because he - unlike other insurgent candidates - can fight her dollar-for-dollar.

All in all, it is impossible to assign odds on whether momentum will be a factor this cycle. But there are strong indications that it could be. The bottom line is that neither party has a decisive frontrunner - which opens an opportunity for momentum to play a determinative role in who wins these battles.

-Jay Cost