THE BLOG

Momentumescence

04/24/2008 08:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the aftermath of Pennsylvania, the chin-stroking, basso-intoning, wisdom-spouting Fourth Estate has outdone itself. Let us all be shocked, shocked that this latest iteration of "What It All Means" surpasses, in straws grasped and whole cloth woven, all that has come before. The tectonic plates are moving, we are told. The momentum is shifting.

Which brings us to our reality check of the day: the speciousness of "momentum" -- both the concept and its application. For many years, I have exasperated legions of friends and family (and now, dear readers, you too) with my contention that "momentum" is a bogus construct -- a crutch for "expert" analysts, whether their field is sports or politics. Admittedly, there is a touch of contrarian method to my badness. But there is also - forgive me Lord, for I know not what I say -- a touch of conviction as well.

Sports offer the clearest illustration. Imagine a basketball game in which two teams are trading baskets. Then one team hits two, three, four shots in a row. That team is now "hot." Fair enough. Thereafter, another shot or two is sunk and lo and behold, the defining phrase emerges: The Big Mo, momentum. Magically, some invisible but potent elixir has suffused the arena, deepening and shaping the contest before us. True, there are incontrovertible facts: one team is making baskets and the other is not. But our courtside analyst does not pull down the big bucks for simply counting hits and misses. He or she must tell us what really is happening. Voila! Momentum is happening, that's what! It's too bad Aristotle, the granddaddy expert analyst of us all, referred to "the ether" instead of "the big mo."

(I know. I know. Where am I going with this? Once, I went on an extended riff about I-know-not-what, and my mother-in-law looked at me quizzically and said: "My, you DO go on." Just so.)

But I digress. Let's return to the arena, where our hot team tosses up yet another shot that goes around the rim and.....OUT! The hapless team grabs the rebound, races up the court, and SCORES! Then it happens again. And again. A few more of those and -- you guessed it -- the momentum has shifted!

The point being? Simply that we are forever conflating events -- the raw stuff of experience -- with the constructs we use to describe those events. Only in retrospect do we invoke "momentum"; the events that provoke the comment -- the sinking of six or seven shots in a row -- have already happened. We may think we're explaining. But alas, all we are really doing is labeling.

As it is true for sports, so it is true for politics. Our nattering nabobs have not stopped invoking the "M" word since Tuesday evening. After all, there was airtime to fill, column inches to write. There were narratives to weave and meaning to be imparted. And so we give you... momentum.

One teensy observation, though, if I may: conventional wisdom, buttressed by ample polling, suggested that Senator Clinton had a lead of 20%, 25%, even 30% in Pennsylvania just a few weeks ago. By Tuesday, the punditocracy had ruled that she needed a double-digit victory -- a blow-out exceeding 10% - to set things right. (By the way, isn't "more than 10%" usually less than 20% or 30%? Never mind.) Conversely, it was Senator Obama's task to hold his opponent's margin to less than 10%. As it turned out, the margin was exactly 10%. (Actually, it was less -- roughly 9.5% -- but hey, who's counting? We have meaning to impart.) The outcome landed precisely on the dividing line separating one candidate's success from the other candidate's failure.

So, in closing, I have a request. Can all you analysts go over this momentum thing one more time, please? It would be helpful. I confess, however, that I also have a contradictory request for the experts in both sports and politics: would you consider just shutting up and watching the game?