The Mercurial Political Force: It Rises, It Scatters, It Just Goes Away

(M. Spencer Green - AP)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mo- mehn- tum -- the very word sounds convincing, ending with that hard M, as if the subject is closed.

Campaigns and pundits and reporters speak about it with reverence, as if it's something mystical, a force that cannot be explained but must be obeyed. ("Inevitability," on the other hand, fusses with all those syllables, like it's trying to prove itself.)

Momentum. It turns out everyone's got it! In recent days, Ron Paul has claimed momentum, John McCain has claimed momentum and the John Edwards campaign sent out an e-mail with that single, assertive word in its subject line.

Hillary Clinton: "I think we have tremendous momentum."

Mike Huckabee, yesterday: "We've had an extraordinary momentum . . . [blah-blah-blah] momentum . . . [blah-blah] momentum."

Well, gosh, Ma. We'd better make space in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Question: What exactly is momentum? To judge from pundits and political coverage, it is somewhat like a "bounce," only longer-lasting. It has been referred to as a "wave" that candidates are "paddling" and also as something one can smell. It is inscrutable. Sometimes, for reasons known and unknown, momentum may "peak" too soon. Ooooh . . . He lost his momentum. People say it as if fickle gods have intervened.

The term momentum is like Silly Putty for political consultants, stretchable to fit any meaning. It is based on polls and fundraising and coverage and other things measurable, for sure, but it is also a feeling, which means it's like "buzz" -- completely real, unless it isn't.

"I think that there's such a thing as faux mo," says Jane Hall, an American University professor who studies the media and politics. Hall says faux mo can sometimes be explained by "groupthink" -- all the same political insiders talking to one another, reinforcing the message that a certain candidate did better than "expected." (Than who expected? Than everyone expected!)

Howard Dean had momentum once. As did George H.W. Bush in 1980 ("big mo"), and Joe Lieberman in 2004 (Joe-mentum).

To be sure, not all mo is faux mo. Folks like a winner. Folks trust other folks. As the primary season advances, voters' tastes may coalesce around a candidate, and that candidate may begin to paddle a "wave," if you will. But in December 2007? Judging momentum before a single vote has been cast is a little like reviewing a book before it's been written.

Part of the rush to judge mo is a matter of story line. Humans are inclined to look for patterns in disorder. When we tell stories, we focus on the arc.

Hall, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, says a colleague once put it this way: If a candidate is doing well and his campaign plane gets a flat tire, that's a flat tire. But if the candidate is doing badly when his plane gets a flat, why, that's highly symbolic. It's yet more confirmation that the candidate has lost the mo.

In science, momentum is the product of mass and velocity. It is a way of measuring the impetus of an object. In politics -- at least at this point in the campaign cycle, before the Iowa caucuses -- momentum measures potential energy. It measures hope.

"It means optimism," says Dennis Johnson, a former campaign consultant who teaches political management at George Washington University. "Things seem to be going better."

Seeming is great, but seeming isn't voting.

Science tells us there might be such a thing as perpetual motion were it not for pesky details like gravity or friction. Politics also has outside forces acting on it, so world events and campaign ads and push-polling and a rival's debate performance can all slow a candidate's journey -- just how much and why are unresolved questions. There are no control groups in politics, and no placebos, either. No surefire way to test a theory.

"Inevitability can drive momentum," says Richard Semiatin, who teaches political science at American University. If only we could put such things in test tubes.

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