Opinion

How the media created, and then killed, political momentum

Feel The Bern! Trump Train! Cruz-mentum! It's all an illusion.

Feel The Bern! Trump Train! Cruz-mentum!

There's so much talk in the 2016 presidential race about momentum — the "Big Mo," as it's been dubbed for a quarter century. But here's the truth: The power of momentum in politics today is an outdated myth — an illusion.

Ted Cruz supposedly had all the momentum after his Iowa victory. Then he got creamed in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Cruz had the Big Mo again after he pulled off a strong win against Donald Trump in Wisconsin. No dice. Now that Trump has won big in New York, has he ridden a tidal wave of momentum to achieve a significant bounce in, say, Pennsylvania or California? Nope. A similar effect is playing out in the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. He won more than a half dozen contests in a row. Then Clinton crushed him in the Empire State. Momentum, shmomentum.

John Kasich's entire candidacy was premised on the idea that strong showings in New Hampshire and Ohio would give him the momentum to outperform in, well, the other 48 states, where he had no infrastructure or reason to win. That hasn't panned out.

Of Marco Rubio, the less said the better. He kept hoping that each primary would deliver that vaunted "momentum" that would push him to the next primary. Instead, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, he kept running until he realized there was nothing under his feet, and crashed back to earth.

Why do political campaigns continue to put such faith in momentum despite the prevailing evidence that it simply doesn't exist?

To answer that question, it's instructive to wind back the clock to the greatest "momentum" story in recent American politics: Bill Clinton's come-from-behind second-place finish in New Hampshire, which ended up propelling him to the Democratic nomination in 1992, and thence to history. People mocked Rubio for giving speeches after second-place finishes where he sounded like he'd won the nomination, but, hey, it worked for Clinton, didn't it?

Well, why did it work? Because the idea of momentum works in tandem with a narrative. Bill Clinton branded himself "the comeback kid." The media bought it. His unexpectedly strong showing prompted voters to give him a second look. Success breeds success. People want to support a guy who's winning.

There used to be a lot of truth to this idea. But no more.

What changed? The media.

After Clinton won New Hampshire in 1992, every channel's evening news and every non-right-leaning newspaper (meaning almost every newspaper) promoted the narrative that Clinton's second-place finish was a big deal. The media telling voters that the candidate has done something unexpected that will give him momentum gets the voters to give the candidate a second look, to view him more favorably (he's winning!), which drives up polls, which gives you another cycle of momentum, and so on.

The media-driven narrative of momentum used to be able to create actual momentum. But that only works when you have a unified media narrative to get the snowball effect started. And a unified media narrative is precisely what America no longer has.

Rubio did nothing to warrant winning a "comeback kid" designation in 2016. But imagine if he had, and then had been christened "the comeback kid" by CNN, and even maybe by Fox News. He still wouldn't be called that by Rush Limbaugh, and certainly not by Breitbart (in the tank for Trump), or The Blaze (in the tank for Cruz), or MSNBC (in the tank against whichever Republican looks most electable).

The media today is fractured, fragmented. A consistent and coherent media narrative is very difficult to form around a candidate. And when it does happen, it's in a way that is much harder to translate into momentum.

Political momentum in 2016 is a myth. And it's likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

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