Newtmentum Can Be a Good or Bad Thing

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Cliché watch: Back in August, Michael Crowley at Time wondered how Newt Gingrich could make the argument he was headed for success in the polls even as he came in fourth in a straw poll in his home state of Georgia. Crowley's name for the phenomenon: "Newtmentum!" This month, with the continued implosion of other non-Romney candidates, reporters almost jokingly suggested this would be Gingrich's moment in the spotlight, but to demonstrate their skepticism of their own suggestion, they referred to it as the theory of "Newtmentum," a phenomenon distinctly separate from actual momentum. Hot Air sounded out the typical "Newtmentum" skepticism, writing, "Even Gingrich, for all the Newtmentum hype recently, is still crawling along at nine or 10 percent." And yet, Gingrich supporters, too, cling to the term as a battle cry for their arguments that their man might have his day in the sun yet. 

Where it's from: The meme of merging the word "momentum" with candidate names comes from Joe Lieberman during his own 2004 campaign for president. Denying rumors he planned to drop out of the Democratic primary, Lieberman reassured reporters he had "Joementum." But when he subsequently showed no signs of actual momentum, reporters adopted "Joementum" to mean exactly the opposite. ("Alas, Joeverconfidence felled him," wrote Slate's William Saletan.) The pun had some linguistic integrity back then. Joe rhymes with "mo" after all. But reporters have since attached any old candidate name to the suffix "-mentum" to denote an implausible presidential campaign which few think has a chance of success. There was Mittmentum (though mostly in 2008 when he lacked regular, old momentum), and this season, we've seen Bachmentum and Cainmentum, too. 

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Why it's catching on: Newtmentum has caught on in a way Bachmentum never did perhaps because when Michele Bachmann's turn on the Republican roller coaster came along, not everyone was savvy to the pattern we would soon come to know of boom-bust among Romney's potential competition for the nomination. Now the idea that as one candidate fades, we must settle on a new contender has happened so many times as to become parody, so Newt-mentum communicates that journalistic skepticism with which people now greet news that another unlikely front runner may be on the way. And yet, as a CBS poll today confirms, Gingrich's numbers are actually on the rise, so that skepticism may have been, sadly, ill-founded. Now, a search for the #newtmentum hashtag on Twitter will get you results from honest-to-God Newt Gingrich supporters. They've ironically reclaimed an already ironic pun in order to give it the meaning Joe Lieberman once thought it deserved.

Why else? Newt is in fact short for Newton, so maybe it's a veiled reference to Isaac Newton, who spelled out the theory of momentum in his famed second law of physics. Time's Michael Crowley, promoter of the Newt-mentum, also titled one of his posts "Newton's Laws: The Phantom Gingrich Comeback." So maybe these political pun makers are actually just studied science historians.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.