Hillary Clinton's victories this week barely dented Barack Obama’s delegate lead, but they did wonders for her momentum. That is if you believe in all that momentum stuff. Slate's Tim Noah says momentum is less a political reality than a narrative device for reporters.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I’m Bob Garfield. As of Tuesday morning, the narrative was so easy to digest. Barack Obama’s string of 11 straight primary victories had turned erstwhile frontrunner Hillary Clinton into a tragic, desperate figure who should, for the good of her party, be prepared immediately after the Texas and Ohio vote tallies to concede the race.
But then Clinton screwed up the narrative by beating Barack Obama in Texas and trouncing him in Ohio. She didn’t collect enough delegates to put her ahead of Obama, but she earned something ever so much more valuable – momentum. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Today it was all about momentum for Senator Clinton, so much so that she could finally do something she hasn’t done in a long time – take a nap. MALE CORRESPONDENT: He’s certainly still the frontrunner, no question, but she has the momentum today and she takes it with her to Pennsylvania. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Obama remained positive last night after Hillary Clinton reeled out three straight wins in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island, so who’s got the momentum now? BOB GARFIELD: You know momentum. That’s what Clinton had as the prohibitive Democratic favorite until the Iowa caucuses, but then she lost it to Obama, who was supposed to ride the Big Mo’ into a New Hampshire primary victory, but failed to do that, giving the momentum right back to Clinton, who was to use it to sweep up delegates on Super-duper Tuesday – except that she didn’t, surrendering momentum once again to Obama, who was all but declared the nominee by the media, until Tuesday’s Texas voting, and - well, you know.
Suddenly the narrative isn’t so easy to follow. Tim Noah is senior writer at Slate, and he says enough already with this momentum talk. TIM NOAH: The idea of momentum is very hard to define, and in some degrees is invented out of thin air. For example, after Super Tuesday, most political experts, including a lot of political reporters, said you’re going to see a streak of wins for Obama in a number of primary states where he has an advantage, and then you’re going to have primaries in Ohio and Texas, and Hillary Clinton will probably win those.
These predictions were realized over the last month. He did win those primaries, but then reporters acted surprised [LAUGHS] that he won those primaries. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now that may in some instances be true, but it seems to me it’s equally true that going into Texas and Ohio, in the pre-election polls at least, Hillary Clinton had lost double-digit leads, and Obama, having come off a string of 11 straight primary victories, was viewed as an unstoppable force and there was a lot of reporting about when exactly it is that Hillary Clinton should bow out of the race.[LAUGHS] And then she shows up and, you know, wins pretty big, especially in Ohio. TIM NOAH: Yes, things did tighten up a bit. Obama did close the gap, at least in Texas, but you have to ask yourself, to what extent are we talking about momentum that’s the product of anything other than the press talking up events that they knew were likely in the first place? BOB GARFIELD: It has become clear that neither Clinton nor Obama can conceivably accumulate enough delegates between now and the convention to go into the convention with the nomination locked up.
Hillary Clinton will claim, and has already started doing so, that she has the momentum to carry the party into the general election, and that even if she has fewer total delegates, that she deserves the nod. Does that accurately describe how the idea of momentum is being co-opted by the candidates themselves? TIM NOAH: Well, yes, but it seems to me by now we’ve been burned three times in trying to figure out who had the momentum. I think it’s time we all threw up our hands and said momentum [LAUGHS] doesn’t really seem to be a force here. We should just see who ends up getting the most delegates.
BOB GARFIELD: So doesn’t this put into very sharp relief the entire problem of covering a political race as if it were a horse race? The media as a group have been so bad at prognosticating this cycle. Do you think they will be chastened and just cover each primary and caucus as a discrete element in the future, as opposed to, you know, trying to weave it into a larger narrative? TIM NOAH: Well, they might, but they’re a bit like alcoholics who have a hard time swearing off the bottle. Narrative is just such an important part of journalism, and it’s so much more compelling than arithmetic. It’s also what journalists are good at. BOB GARFIELD: You know, maybe I’m pooh-poohing the idea of momentum, but I guess, you know, it demonstrably has existed in the past. I’m thinking of 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy was late into the race but was doing extremely well and seemed to have an enormous amount of momentum behind him before he was assassinated. Are there other examples, when momentum has categorically been an important factor? TIM NOAH: There are a number of examples. One that comes to mind is Ed Muskie in 1972, who actually didn’t do too badly in the New Hampshire primary, but he didn’t do as well as – I think it was his campaign manager – had predicted.
You know, the thing about momentum is, because it’s intangible, you’re never really [LAUGHS] sure how much of it is the voters responding to events and how much of it is voters responding to the coverage. BOB GARFIELD: Tim, thank you very much. TIM NOAH: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Noah is a senior writer for Slate.