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.
But then Gramm made two mistakes. He competed in a straw poll at Alaska's caucuses (which would not bind any delegates) and in caucuses (promoted by his local supporters) in Louisiana (which would bind delegates). Both caucuses were scheduled before Iowa's. Gramm's campaign evidently calculated it could use victories in Alaska and Louisiana (where Dole would not participate) to gain the momentum to actually beat Dole in Iowa, and perhaps deliver a death blow to the frontrunner's campaign.
In fact, the two pre-Iowa events gave Buchanan a chance to deliver a death blow to Gramm's campaign.
Buchanan won Alaska. Steve Forbes, who had entered the race in September (after the Ames straw poll) and had enjoyed a Fred Thompson-like surge, placed second. Gramm took fifth.
"I clearly need to win in Louisiana," Gramm conceded to the Wall Street Journal. But Buchanan had the "Big Mo" -- as well as the right message for the state -- and beat Gramm again.
"I have said from the beginning, if you don't get first, second or third in Iowa that you're not going to win the Republican nomination," Gramm told the Des Moines Register. Gramm took fifth. Two days later he dropped out -- before the Southern and Western primaries he thought would give him the nomination.
Buoyed by his Alaska and Louisiana victories, Buchanan fell just 2,866 votes short of beating Dole in Iowa. That gave him enough momentum to edge out Dole a week later in New Hampshire, but not enough to propel him through the states that followed.
This year, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished first and second in the Ames straw poll. Romney and Huckabee are now competing for one and two in the Iowa caucuses.
Giuliani now sees Florida's Jan. 29 primary as his firewall. But before that distant day comes the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, where he is running fifth in the RCP average of polls, the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, where he is running third, the Jan. 15 Michigan primary, where he is running fourth, and the Jan. 19 South Carolina primary, where he is running fifth.
In Iowa and South Carolina, Huckabee leads. In New Hampshire and Michigan, Romney leads. In New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain, the 2000 Granite State winner, is a close second to Romney and on the rise.
The Republican nominating contest is now a three-way race that does not include the national frontrunner.