A week before the Iowa caucuses, Rudy Giuliani was still atop the Republican presidential field in the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average of national polls. "Big Mo," however, is about to mow him down.
I learned about momentum as Pat Buchanan's 1996 campaign manager. Buchanan won early contests in Alaska and Louisiana that year, placed second in Iowa and won New Hampshire. In the process, he dashed the hopes of Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose initial strategy held similarities to Giuliani's now.
Heading into summer 1995, Buchanan's imminent victories seemed improbable. Dole held a commanding lead in Iowa, where Gramm ran a distant second. A Des Moines Register poll in May gave Dole 58 percent, Gramm 11 percent and Buchanan 6 percent.
Dole held a similar lead in New Hampshire, where Buchanan ran a distant second. A New Hampshire poll in May gave Dole 44 percent, Buchanan 13 percent and Gramm 7 percent.
Buchanan's problem was twofold: He could not allow Gramm to defeat him in the race to become the conservative alternative to Dole, and he had to beat Dole somewhere early if he was going to eventually beat Dole for the nomination. In practice, that meant Buchanan had to beat expectations (and, hopefully, Gramm, too) in Iowa to gather the momentum to overcome Dole's lead in New Hampshire, where Buchanan had scored a surprising 37 percent against the sitting President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and thus had his own expectations to meet.
Gramm's campaign believed that if Gramm could survive New Hampshire, he could use his huge treasure chest and presumed advantage in the South and West to defeat Dole.
Gramm's campaign manager, Charlie Black, explained this to the Hotline that fall. "Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire act as the filter, so coming out of New Hampshire it's down to no more than three competitive candidates, maybe no more than two," said Black. "We want to make that cut, because then we go into the part of the calendar that is very Gramm-friendly."
At first, it looked like there was only one obvious momentum-changer between spring 1995 and the 1996 Iowa caucuses: the August Iowa Republican Party straw poll in Ames.
To do well there, as in the caucuses, a candidate had to identify supporters and get them to an event to vote.
It turned into a triumph for Gramm. He and Dole exactly tied. Buchanan finished third, the minimum he needed to survive.