Trump has it, Clinton had it, now Sanders has it

Momentum, that is.

Bernie Sanders’ stunning upset in Michigan has given his campaign momentum. Donald Trump had supposedly slowed down. Then he got it back by winning Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii. The word momentum is so commonly thrown around during presidential elections that we asked professor Seppo Iso-Ahola, University of Maryland and author (with a co-author Charles Dotson) of “Psychological Momentum: Why Success Breeds Success” what it actually means.

ResearchGate: What is psychological momentum?

Seppo Iso-Ahola: Psychological momentum is an added or gained psychological power that changes a person’s view of him/herself or of others’ views of him/herself and themselves. It is experienced as a psychological force in which several factors (e.g., confidence and sense of competence) or qualities converge to enable one to perform at a level not ordinarily possible.

Similarly, observers (e.g., spectators in sporting events) perceive performers having or not having psychological momentum and perceive it to be a main determinant of performance.

From both performers’ and observers’ perspective, it is a fluctuating and changing state that is usually short-lived, especially in fast-paced events such as basketball games. But it can also be long-lasting, particularly in such performance situations as golf or presidential primaries.

In general, our theory and data indicate that the more frequent, more lasting and more intense momentums (or any combination thereof) performers can create, the more successful they will be.

RG: Can you explain how psychological momentum works in the context of Presidential primaries?

SI: Psychological momentum requires initial success; it does not come from thin air. The greater or more impactful the initial success, the more likely is the birth of psychological momentum. But while one initial strong success can ignite psychological momentum, more often a sequence of successes is required. So, a candidate can grab momentum by winning Iowa but if it is not followed up quickly with other primary wins, momentum dies. The more sequential successes a candidate accumulates, the more momentum he acquires and builds, and the more it starts feeding itself in an upward spiral with the net result of better performance.

RG: Once a candidate gets momentum, can they lose it?

SI: It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about observers’ perceptions of somebody else having momentum when we talk about presidential primaries.

A candidate can certainly lose momentum by not following up initial success with other successes. One failure does not necessarily kill momentum, but it can slow it down significantly, and if not soon followed up by more success, it can be lost quickly. That’s why success breeds success and that’s why success is essential for perceptions of momentum. It is all about perceptions of momentum. It does not matter whether perceptions are right or wrong. In general, as psychology has taught us, people function and act on the basis of their perceptions.

RG: Which candidates currently have momentum?

SI: As of this writing, obviously, Donald Trump has momentum but there are indications that his momentum may be slowing down given his less than the expected margins of victories in Louisiana and Kentucky and losing two states to Cruz. By no means has he lost his momentum, however. But should this trend continue, then there is a danger that he might be losing it. However, it is hard to believe that he would all of sudden start losing states because people still believe that he has a strong momentum behind him and therefore is perceived to be a winner.

Clinton, similarly, has momentum, and it has been building up for her through her victories. In contrast, Sanders has not been able to put together a string of successes and thereby build the momentum he needs. Success here and there does not make or build momentum.

RG: When a Presidential candidate has momentum how does this change the way the public perceive the candidate? And in turn how does it affect the way they vote?

SI: If a candidate is perceived to have momentum, she/he is then perceived to be a winner. People vote for the one who has momentum and who is perceived to be a winner. Who wants to vote for a loser or the one who is seen or expected to lose? Voters want to feel that they are contributing to success because it makes them feel important and useful for the outcome. They may be wrong but at the moment of voting, they BELIEVE that they are making an important contribution. If you vote for the expected loser (a candidate with no momentum), it feels like an exercise in futility. Who wants to do that?