Super Tuesday was a good day for Trump. Off the heels of his winner take all victory in South Carolina, and strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump took nearly every state besides Minnesota and Texas on Super Tuesday and is looking to use that delegate lead and media coverage to win Michigan today.
It’s a little perplexing to see Trump doing so well, and it in many ways goes against conventional political wisdom as to how people vote for a president. For example, Paul A., 25, said at Penn Station that he liked Trump because he “brought energy to an otherwise boring race that I would have never really cared about otherwise. He’s likable.” But is that all that is fueling his success?
Despite being outspent nearly 2 to 1 by both Rubio and Cruz, he has carved into their bases of support in the South and with Midwestern evangelicals and very nearly caused the Republican Party to enter open revolt. Though he may seem crass or stupid, the secret to his success lies behind his boisterous and bigoted persona– Trump is an expert campaigner and he has utilized the media to give him the exposure and momentum that other candidates have to buy commercials and send letters to get. Then, after winning big in the early states, Trump plans to ride that wave all the way to the nomination.
Momentum is best defined for politics just as it is in physics – a force in motion takes an equal and opposite force to stop it, and if it doesn’t, that force keeps on going. It is also useful to break it down into two parts. One is how much the voters in later states are impacted by the voters and outcomes of earlier states. The second is the amount of and tone of the media coverage a candidate is getting as a result of those voter outcomes. Both are immensely influential on voters, and voters in swing states especially are tuned in to this. It is why a December 2010 study by Brian Knight and Robert Schiff of Brown University looking at the 2004 Democrat primary showed that Kerry’s early wins blew open a wide lead over Howard Dean and concludes that “early voters had up to five times the influence of late voters in the selection of candidates and helped determine advertising expenditures.”
George H.W. Bush popularized the concept of momentum in political campaigning in his failed 1980 bid for the Republican nomination, saying “now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.” Since then sociologists and psychologists have used momentum to describe many large-scale examples of behavioral changes in response to large-scale events. It’s closely related to the “bandwagon effect,” where ideas and trends are more easily accepted if a large amount of people has already adopted them.
Trump by far has the most media attention in this race. A December study by the nonpartisan Tyndall Report, which tracks media coverage and acts as a watchdog group, showed that in 2015 Trump received 234 minutes of coverage on the big 3 network news (CBS, ABC, and NBC Nightly News). In comparison over the same period Clinton was covered for 113 minutes and Jeb Bush for 53. The Democrats’ anti-establishment candidate, Bernie Sanders, received just a paltry 10 minutes despite occupying much the same role as Trump but on the left side of the political spectrum.