On October 4th 2012 we woke up to a chilling prospect. A man who hired for his advisors most of the foreign policy team that thrust America into a disastrous Iraq war; a man who pioneered the outsourcing of American jobs to China; a man who stashed away untold millions of his personal fortune in secret Swiss bank accounts; that man could actually become the next President of the United States. By steamrolling through the first Presidential debate and denying his own positions on key issues, Mitt Romney for several weeks was promoted as the likely next American President.
The media class in America, our political sportscasters, suddenly had that horse race they were always dying to cover, and they guarded it like a dog would a steak bone, lest someone try to take it away from them. In the process they redefined the political vocabulary. Momentum was no longer a vague and transitory phenomenon. Now it could be measured precisely. When it came to the 2012 Presidential race, momentum was determined by comparing the poll numbers for each respective candidate from mid September 2012, after Obama’s high water Democratic Convention bounce peaked; with whatever polling numbers were henceforth recorded daily.
No other poll fluctuations mattered. If Obama went up and Romney went down from one day to another it was immaterial to political reporting on Mitt Romney’s “continued momentum”, So long as Romney showed any continuing sign of retaining more support now then he dad back when pundits were calling his campaign a total train wreck, Romney was said to “have momentum”. Three subsequent nationally televised debates occurred after October 3rd; two more Presidential debates and a Vice Presidential debate. Polling pretty clearly established that the Democrats won all three of them, but no matter said the talking heads. The public was no longer effected by updated public perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama because, they assured us, though President Obama may or may not win “a small bounce”, Mitt Romney had momentum. And momentum trumped anything even “The Donald” could do to change the dynamics of the race.
There was plenty of data indicating that Mitt Romney maxed out his much reported on popularity surge long before the Atlantic Ocean stormed into people’s homes and lives during Hurricane Sandy. Coming into the last two weeks a presidential race that had been predicted to be tight for at least a year previously turned out to be, surprise surprise, tight. With all of the endless talk about “bounces” and “momentum” the pundits neglected the most blatant poll move of all. Call it “the dip”.
For a month or so there between the Republican National Convention and the first Presidential debate, the Mitt Romney campaign almost imploded. For that brief political period Barack Obama’s presidential prospects seemed, in hindsight, artificially strong. Obama’s unexpected strength coincided with that temporary Romney dip. That was the real story, just an aberration from the close race always expected . By fixing on that brief skewed period as the basis for all subsequent comparisons, an ongoing political narrative was born: the myth of Mitt Romney’s potentially unstoppable political momentum. Far more unstoppable than whatever momentum Romney came out of the first debate with however was that myth itself.
Inside the media bubble, “buzz” feeds back on itself until virtually nothing can be heard above the resulting screech: Not a sharp drop in the unemployment rate, not a sharp rise in Consumer Confidence, not an improving housing market, and certainly not a stubborn pattern of swing state polling that showed Barack Obama holding on fast to the leads he needed in enough of them to secure a second term. That “buzz” of course was Romney’s continually referenced momentum. We all have experienced that shrill feedback spike that happens after microphones go ballistic. That loop continues to amplify until someone or something intercedes and cuts off the volume. That something was Hurricane Sandy.
The incessant chorus of pundits amplifying a self reinforcing meme was finally drowned by a force more primal than their mono-tone drone. It was a force that many, including New York City’s Mayor, believe is a harbinger of global climate change, any real discussion of which was itself drowned out during this election by “white noise” emanating from the Tea Party. All of that has receded now, faster than the flood waters that changed the North East coast and the lives of millions of citizens
This week the fever broke and reality set in. America witnessed the legitimate purpose of government in a way mere words can never quite convey. And we watched President Obama once again take charge during a time of real crisis. That is how his first term began. That is how his first term is ending. And it reminds the electorate that we already have the leader we will need to face the next four years. The momentum now belongs to Obama.