Politicians desperately want it. Journalists brag about seeing it. And some scientists claim it doesn’t even exist. It’s momentum—the idea that strong polls and early primary victories propel candidates to even more strong polls and even more primary victories.
The specter of this mythical political force haunts TV coverage of the primary season. Past research has indicated that the word momentum is uttered 60 times a day on broadcast and cable news. But try applying the concept to the 2020 Democratic primary:
- Pete Buttigieg won Iowa and nearly won New Hampshire. Journalists at Politico, the Boston Herald, and CNN exclaimed that he was gaining momentum. Then he got crushed in Nevada and South Carolina. On Sunday night he suspended his campaign.
- Amy Klobuchar’s third-place finish in New Hampshire minted a crop of cursed portmanteaus: Klomentum, Klobesurge, Klobucharge. But in the real world of real words, no momentum, surge, or charge materialized. She finished sixth in the next two states and dropped out on Monday.
- Bernie Sanders followed up his mildly underwhelming performance in Iowa with a razor-thin win in New Hampshire. Then he trounced the field in Nevada, establishing himself as the hands-down favorite to win the nomination. A week later, Joe Biden crushed him by almost 30 points in South Carolina.
- As for Biden, his primary season has been a roller coaster. He came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. Both losses were devastating enough that coverage of his campaign took on a premortem vibe and pundits confidently predicted he didn’t have a shot (unlike, say, Buttigieg). But his win in South Carolina was so convincing, it not only reestablished him as the co-front-runner but also got two of his moderate rivals to drop out.
If anything, momentum in this primary has punished its possessors as often as it’s rewarded them. Just look at Elizabeth Warren, who raced to the front-runner spot in October and November before immediately plunging in the polls. Warren’s experience suggests that having momentum is often like having the ball in the NBA. Yes, the ball exists, and yes, it’s nice to have it, on account of the whole point of the game is to score. But as any casual fan of basketball knows, the player with the ball receives particularly rough treatment from the opposition. They are swarmed by defenders, scrutinized by announcers and casual fans, and criticized if they make a mistake. Momentum is a sign of success that sends a bat signal to rivals: Come at me. And rivals often do.