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Matt Malone, S.J.September 10, 2008

In politics, as in sports, momentum, that invisible, unquantifiable, yet powerful force produced from a succession of wins can make or break a campaign. That’s why George H.W. Bush called it the "Big Mo’".

But how does a candidate gain momentum? Well, he (or she) has to figure out what the voters want in a given election, position himself as the only person who can really deliver it, and then convey that message successfully in every news cycle, by making prudent and inventive choices, advertisements, speeches etc., until voters are convinced that he really is the person that he says he is. Sounds simple, right? Well, in a certain sense, it is. But simple things are frequently the easiest things to mess up, precisely because we all can’t really believe that something so seemingly complicated could actually be so simple.

Professionals, however--those who’ve been through a few campaigns--do understand this. That’s why at the 1992 Clinton campaign headquarters, James Carville, one of Clinton’s top strategists, placed a sign on the wall that read:

Remember:
1. Change vs. more of the same.
2. The economy, stupid.
3. Don’t forget health care.

This was Carville’s recipe for momentum and, with a savvy communications team who won more news cycles than they lost, as well as a little help from Ross Perot, Clinton won the 1992 election. But what’s the recipe for 2008? With a tip of the hat to Mr. Carville, here goes:

1. Change vs. more of the same
2. The economy, stupid
3. Don’t forget the war.

The 2008 election is about the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but primarily it is about which candidate can really deliver change. Obama has known that from Day 1, as they say, and that’s largely why he won his party’s nomination, by consistently presenting himself as the true agent of change who can give Americans this thing they so desperately want.

He has now, however, clearly lost some momentum and it may very well be because in making one of his most important choices he forgot the first and most important ingredient in the recipe. In picking Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama picked a capable, talented and knowledgeable politician. But after 35 years in Washington, D.C. and two failed presidential runs, the first one twenty years ago, Joe Biden does not really say "change."

When Obama picked Biden, McCain saw an opportunity and seized it. What was the opportunity? To position himself as the change agent by making an unconventional choice for his running mate. That he did, and the momentum has shifted to McCain accordingly. McCain has been winning the daily news cycle everyday since the Palin announcement. The momentum can shift again, and it probably will, but there is one thing both candidates know very well: John McCain had several months to capture the momentum from Obama. Obama has just a little over 50 days.

Matt Malone, S.J.

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