How it works: Next-in-line and momentum

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

8 January 2012

People waiting in line

Photo: ChrisM70

In June of last year, I mentioned the oft-repeated theory that the Republican Party likes its nominee to be whoever is "next in line":

Unlike Democrats, who are far more susceptible to the thrill of charming newcomers, Republicans have a habit of handing their party's nomination to the candidate next in line. John McCain was a runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary contest, and sure enough, he got the nod in 2008. 1996 candidate Bob Dole had previously challenged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ronald Reagan had come close to securing the nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Richard Nixon in 1968 before winning it in 1980. Nixon himself became the party's nominee after losing the 1960 general election and a contest for the governorship of California in 1962. Democrats will give a shot to a relative newcomer like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but Republicans prefer someone who has been through the process once or twice already.

Eli Lehrer has a plausible explanation for why Republicans "take turns" like this. Rather than party culture, he credits structure:

Nearly every part of the Republican primary process and, indeed, the party’s overall structure gives a massive advantage to people who have run before. The lack of super-delegates (ex officio convention delegates), for example, means that simply becoming well-known in the national media and among national figures conveys much less advantage than it does in Democratic contests. Republicans’ relatively greater reliance on low-dollar direct mail donations, likewise, means that having a well-tested list from a previous run for office conveys a fundraising advantage. Even the structure of grass roots groups on the Right conveys an advantage to those who have run before: the single greatest source of on-the-ground manpower on the Left, unions, are national organizations with top-down structures while the churches, community organizations, and tax reform groups important on the right are rarely centralized. And some right-of-center groups that have central structures–Americans for Prosperity, for example–don’t directly engage in electoral politics.

Mitt Romney will hope those advantages to past runners hold. In an unrelated matter, though still in the realm of intuitive explanations for political phenomena, Nate Silver has a smart guess about how momentum works:

...Voters in Iowa participate early in the process and therefore have less information about the candidates than those who vote later on. Momentum may represent a learning process by which some voters come across salient information about a candidate sooner than others.

If this model is true, the momentum Rick Santorum built leading up to the caucuses yesterday started when a small number of Republicans learned some information about him that convinced them to back him. Then, as time passed, other voters learned that information, and switched their support to him as well. Of course, the increased media exposure this momentum drew in turn informed even more potential supporters about Santorum, adding further to the momentum he'd already accumulated.

The concept as illustrated by this New York Times report:

Mr. Santorum would become openly frustrated when it seemed that every other Republican candidate would enjoy a surge except him. “When’s my bump coming?” he asked Mr. Laudner early last month.

Mr. Laudner replied that when he started to move a little bit, the effect would snowball; if he got to about 10 percent in the polls, “the 1 would be replaced by a 2 very quickly,” Mr. Laudner said.

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Tags: Election 2012, Erin Riley, Iowa Caucus, Mitt Romney, Republican Party, Republican Primary 2012, Rick Santorum

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