Shmoshmentum

A campaign blog.
Feb. 11 2008 12:59 AM

Shmoshmentum

Barack Obama swept all five contests this weekend—Washington, Nebraska, Maine, Louisiana, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and the whispering has already begun. These aren’t just any victories, people are saying. Nor do they merely give Obama delegates. They also give him … you know … shmoshmentum .

The word is everywhere: The New York Times wrote that "these victories should give him momentum going the primaries on Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C." Talking Points Memo called Maine "another sizable victory in a state that was supposed to act as a check on his momentum after yesterday's trio of landslide wins." The Associated Press said Clinton was now looking to "put a brake on Barack Obama's momentum."

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How quickly they forget. After the CW-busting reversals of New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and Feb. 5 itself, everyone is now talking about shmoshmentum (I can’t in good conscience say the actual word) as if the last month never happened. I expected the press to declare a moratorium on that sort of language after New Hampshire. No such luck.  

Obama’s weekend victories were significant, no doubt. He was slated to win in almost all of the contests, but he won them by wide margins: 68 to 31 percent in Washington, 68 to 32 in Nebraska, and 59 to 41 percent in Maine . That he won so decisively in states with huge white populations is also important, given the narrative that he has trouble attracting lower- and middle-income white voters.

But his wins don’t justify mental relapse among analysts who have seen their assumptions (Obama is dead, Hillary is dead, Obama is dead again) explode repeatedly during this cycle. Momentum has lost its meaning, if it had any to begin with. Normally, it means that one candidate takes enough of a lead that voters think supporting another candidate would be throwing away their vote. But both Clinton and Obama have proven themselves viable. A Hillary supporter won’t think Hillary is suddenly doomed just because Obama wins a few contests in a row, and vice versa. Sure, some voters may consciously or unconsciously support whomever they’ve seen win most recently. But previous primaries have shown that most voters don’t think this way and that to assume they do makes an ass out of you, me, and the entire media establishment.  

Expect the shmoshmentum frenzy to build if Obama takes Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., especially if they are landslide victories. Wins in Hawaii and Wisconsin the following week will work momentucrats into a lather. If that happens, he will have won 10 contests in a row—no small feat. But even then, to talk about shmoshmentum is to discount the upcoming behemoths—Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—which vote in March and April. Those three states alone command 577 delegates—nearly as many as all 10 post-Super Tuesday states Obama will likely have won (595). After February, Hillary could close in on Obama’s lead and more.

So, when you hear people speak of shmoshmentum, close your ears. It’s no more meaningful than it was last month.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.