Barack Obama: How a young guy with a funny name became president of USA (The power of momentum)

If you asked who would become the next president of the USA on 1st January 2008, most people would have said Hillary Clinton. Clinton had the experience, the name recognition, and the funding. No one believed that she could be challenged to become the next Democratic party candidate for the presidency. But by 4th Jan, a young relatively unknown upstart with a lot less money took the lead and never gave it back.

Barack Obama blindsided everyone and won the Iowa Caucus for the Democratic party on 3rd January. He built momentum from there and went on to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and finally the presidency itself.

Clinton and other Democratic party candidates were majorly focused on campaigning for the Super Tuesday – a day in February when 20 states hold their primaries and caucuses together. But Obama focused all his attention on Iowa. Why? Because Iowa was the first state to hold its caucus. He knew that if he lost there, he would lose everywhere – because he was unknown. But if he pulled the miracle and won there, he would have momentum on his side.

The Obama strategy to win

And so, Obama started his campaign for Iowa in 2006. A good 15 months beforehand! He took any and all chances to go and speak at Democratic events in Iowa. He didn’t hesitate speaking to smaller crowds.

While other candidates focused on persuading other Democratic activists in the state, Obama cast his net wide. And spoke to non-democrats as well as youths and independents. He even set up over 50 “Barackstars” – high school chapters of youth who would help him garner support.

Because of Obama’s campaigning, 80,000 more people joined and voted in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 than in 2004! And most of these first time voters voted for him!

After Obama won Iowa, people realized that Clinton was not invincible. Momentum shifted. The amount of donations Obama received boomed. The number of people who rallied behind him rose exponentially. And he kept on winning! 

Early win builds momentum

Data from Premier League football seasons show that the team that scores the first goal ends up winning 70% of the time! Early wins help build momentum. And momentum builds confidence.

Professor of Sports Economics – Alex Krumer and his colleagues found something similar when they tracked the Judo Grandprix held in Tel Aviv, Israel. Candidates who had won their previous round were 69% more likely to win their next round too!

Krumer posits that this could be because when you win an adrenaline based sport, your testosterone levels go up. Improving your chances to win again. Further increasing your testosterone levels!

Not unlike what happened with Obama. When Obama won Iowa, his fame and funding went up. Which helped him win again. Which helped him earn more fame and funding. 

Deconstructing momentum

Momentum is that magical point when things start happening more easily. Success begets success. 

In Physics, you may have learnt that momentum equals velocity times mass. But how do you translate that when you are talking about psychological momentum and not physical momentum?

  • Velocity relates to speed. How quickly can you move ahead
  • Mass relates to difficulty. How easily can you move ahead

It’s all about reducing resistance to flow. 


The financial guru Dave Ramsay helped millions of people get out of debt with his debt snowball strategy. He recommended people to pay their debts down – starting with the smallest debt amount. And not the debt with the highest interest rate.

Smart people argue against the debt snowball strategy because mathematically it doesn’t make sense. But it’s the strategy that most people stick with to actually get out of debt.

Because it gives quick and early wins. It helps build psychological momentum. It keeps a person motivated. And motivation is more important than math when it comes to changing behavior.


It’s a challenge to get a few kids who suffer from ADHD or autism to finish their tasks. Things like making them do their homework or read a book. Some psychiatrists recommend using the “behavioral momentum theory” on them. Ask the child to perform three easy tasks before you ask him to do the task he doesn’t want to do. 

Ask them to tie their shoelaces, and to go to the kitchen to get their favourite snack, and to play a game of cross and noughts, before asking them to do their homework. And their compliance rates will go up! Because their minds will be in a flow. 

The problem with momentum strategy

There is one thing to be cautious of while building momentum. People get addicted to quick wins. So much so that they only go for quick short term wins at the expense of long term goals.

The transition has to happen. You have to ride the momentum and parlay your quick early wins to big wins. You have to take on bigger and better challenges. Otherwise what’s the point of going through the effort to build momentum in the first place?

Action Summary:

  • Action begets action. Success begets success. Momentum builds motivation.
  • Break your projects down into parts and structure it so that you can get your quick early win.