A Bogus Concept Gathers Momentum

Steve Chapman

10/15/2006 12:38:20 PM - Steve Chapman

Once you read the first sentence of this column, its momentum will carry you from paragraph to paragraph until a few minutes from now, you arrive, blissfully enlightened, at the final word.

No, you say? You may stop reading right now, or halfway through? Well, that's a shame. But it does prove something I've long believed: Momentum is a crock.

This is the opposite of everything we are told. In the political world, we hear that the Democratic Party has powerful momentum going into the Nov. 7 congressional elections. When the Dow has a good day lately, analysts inform us that upward momentum is carrying stocks to record highs. Whenever one team wins a game or jumps out to a lead in the baseball playoffs, the broadcasters detect momentum working in its favor.

The concept is hard to resist. Start a boulder rolling down a hill, and it will keep rolling unless something arrests its progress. Humans make sense of the world by looking for causes and patterns, and when we see something happen, we often assume it will keep happening.

There are plenty of examples when that assumption seems to pan out: A party leading in the polls in October proceeds to win in November. The Dow Jones average rises one week and then rises again the next. The baseball team that wins the first two games goes on to take the best-of-seven series.

But the momentum that people use to explain these events is an illusion. Obviously, trends happen. Some people get disillusioned with the party in power, and then others do the same. But that doesn't mean the first occurrence led inevitably to the second.

Often, a politician's popularity falls one month and rises the next. If momentum were everything, "Dewey Defeats Truman" would have been an accurate headline.

It's true that capturing an early presidential primary will create a flurry of interest in the victor -- which looks suspiciously like momentum. It's not. Part of what happens is that voters winnow their options, discarding those who have no chance of winning and moving toward those who do. Another explanation is that the same factors that cause voters in one state to like a candidate can have the same effect elsewhere.

If anything should create political momentum -- what George Bush the elder called "Big Mo" -- it's winning the New Hampshire presidential primary, the first of each campaign. Yet Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale in 1984, only to lose the nomination. In 1992, Democrat Paul Tsongas beat Bill Clinton, but you know how that turned out. In 1996, Bob Dole lost to Pat Buchanan, who was never heard from again.

Momentum also counts for nothing in the stock market. What happened this week with stock prices does not foretell what will happen next week. Economists generally agree that in a well-functioning capital system, the market is unpredictable.

As they put it, changes in stock prices follow the pattern of a "random walk" -- which is to say no pattern at all. If a stock price goes up today, you can bet it will also go up tomorrow, unless it goes down. Looking backward to guess where it is headed is like driving with your eyes on the rearview mirror.

Sports are particularly susceptible to this alluring metaphor. But it's grossly unreliable. This year, the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals collapsed at the end and barely made the postseason -- giving them, by my count, zero momentum. Each then won the first round of the playoffs.

The Wall Street Journal noted the other day that in the last five postseason series they lost, the New York Yankees took the early lead in each. Where was momentum then? As the former Kansas City and Cincinnati manager Bob Boone once said, "I don't believe in momentum. Momentum changes with one hanging curveball."

When a team wins the first two games of the World Series, true, it usually goes on to win the whole thing. But that's not because of momentum -- that's because it has a two-game lead. If one sprinter begins a 100-yard dash 50 yards from the finish line, she'll probably beat the other runners, even though she has no more momentum at the start.

Looked at carefully, this alleged invisible force is just an empty metaphor that explains nothing. But at this point, it's probably impossible to stamp out. Because you know what it's got on its side.