Let’s take another look back at the GOP primary contest. As Shunori pointed out, the race has been an extremely volatile one: each candidate takes his or her turn “building momentum” in the polls, hitting a peak before a gaffe (or series of gaffes) “changes the momentum” and the candidate falls in the polls. This pattern repeats itself over and over, elevating GOP candidates previous written off to frontrunner status (ask anybody in September 2011 if Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would ever take the lead). Why is momentum working this way, when it never has before, and can we expect it to continue after the primary into November?
Clearly, momentum is a media-driven concept, and it’s only getting worse (does it have momentum?). Nearly 2500 articles written this year have mentioned polling momentum, which translates to approximately 33 articles per day so far in 2012. When a candidate is on the rise, the media will write more and more positive articles about him or her until he or she does something dumb, at which point stories start turning negative before they drop off completely. The focus in the media is on campaign strategy and tactics, not content — the media focuses on the shifts in momentum instead of the candidate’s substance.
A perfect example of this phenomenon were the GOP debates: after each debate, pundits discussed how each candidate had “performed,” giving ratings to each one. Only occasionally was there a critique of what each candidate actually said. Seemingly small moments like Rick Perry forgetting what agency he would cut, Newt Gingrich rebuking the moderator or Mitt Romney betting $10,000 became more important than Jon Huntsman’s nuanced stance on China or Ron Paul’s libertarian ideals.
Fivethirtyeight pollster Nate Silver argued before the 2010 midterm elections that, statistically, the concept of momentum is a myth. But his analysis largely relied on data from 2008 and prior election years. In the years that have passed, with the advent of mobile news and an omnipresent, horse-race-focused media, who’s to say this hasn’t changed? Silver admits that the concept of momentum probably applies to primary elections, but he likely never thought it would be as pronounced as we’ve seen so far this year. With tablets, phones, Twitter and more, the true 24-hour news cycle is almost here: perhaps, this has accelerated the concept of “momentum” to the degree it’s at today. The cost of media decentralization — of more journalists but less specialization thanks to new technologies — is a new horce race focus on momentum, and it’s probably not one we want.
When Obama and the eventual nominee square off, should we see expect to see the idea of momentum trail off and more in-depth reporting take its place? My prediction and fear is that we shouldn’t. In February, Obama saw rising poll numbers due to a sunnier economic outlook and a negative GOP battle. But once Republicans began to slam the president for rising gas prices, the media cried “momentum shift!” and those poll numbers began to slide down again. If this is any indication of how the general election will be, we’re in for a long year of momentum.
What’s to prevent the eventual victor from riding a last-minute wave of momentum on election day? Instead of policy, ideology or leadership abilities, the president could be elected thanks to an opponent’s minor slip-up a few days before the election: for that, we have nobody to blame but the media.