||Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He will provide weekly, Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.|
Jeff Greenfield: Concept of momentum loses in Virginia primary
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- John McCain lost to George Bush in Virginia tonight, but there was another big loser: the concept of "momentum."
You know about "momentum": It's the notion that a victory in one state propels a candidate to victory in the next state, much as a snowball tumbling down a mountain gathers more and more mass, until it obliterates everything in its path. First popularized by George "I've-Got-the-Big-Mo" Bush after his victory in Iowa in 1980, it has become a reportorial tic that is almost impossible not to utter during the primary season.
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It also has been totally missing from this year's Republican primary campaign.
Eight days after Gov. Bush won the caucuses, Sen. McCain -- who did not even compete in Iowa -- beat Bush by some 20 points -- the biggest margin of victory in New Hampshire since Ronald Reagan erased Bush The Father's "Big Mo" 20 years earlier. Flush with that victory, McCain journeyed to South Carolina, where post-New Hampshire polls showed him in the lead -- only to be buried by a 11-point Bush victory in South Carolina 19 days later.
The huge momentum generated by that victory lasted roughly 72 hours, or until an invasion of independents and Democrats in Michigan gave McCain an eight-point victory. That, paired with McCain's landslide win in his home state of Arizona, triggered a wave of finger-pointing among key Bush supporters, with much hand-wringing about the campaign's unfocused strategy and misspent resources. Riding that wave of momentum, McCain journeyed South once again, blasting televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in their own backyard -- and went down to a convincing defeat.
So what does this mean for the contests on Super Tuesday?
Nothing! Maybe McCain's assault on the religious right will resonate among more moderate Democrats in New York, Ohio, California, and New England. Maybe the Republican vote will remain with Bush, as it has in almost every state. Maybe the vagaries of the rulebook will prevail, as Bush wins in winner-take-all states, and McCain comes in first in states where delegates are distributed proportionately.
But here's the best bet: this primary season looks a lot like the Reagan-Ford battle of '76, the Carter-Kennedy battle of '80, and the Mondale-Hart battle of '84. In those contests, the candidates swapped victories the way fighters in a close bout exchange winning rounds. It makes predictions even trickier than usual; it also makes the race a lot more interesting.