The Politics of Inertia

Voters may want change, but they’re going to get a return to the status quo.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tells a funny story about Ilene St. John on Monday, July 29, 2013, in Morristown, N.J., at a ceremony naming the Morris County clerk of the board's office.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is among the speakers at the RNC meeting, where party leaders will address outreach efforts to women and minority voters, among other things.

"A body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest," so explains the first law of motion. Though Sir Isaac Newton wasn't contemplating political dynamics when he put forth this law, as this year's electoral contests prove, he very well could have been.

Despite widespread dissatisfaction among the American people, the more prominent elections this fall are not expected to usher in much change.  New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie is likely to be reelected by a comfortable margin. After a brief interlude of Republican control, former Senator Frank Lautenberg's seat in New Jersey appears set to return to the Democrats, thanks to the popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker. New York's open mayoral election seems likely to fall to Christine Quinn, a close ally of the current three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

The only place where the candidates are running competitively is the gubernatorial contest in Virginia. But this doesn't seem to warrant celebration. The race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe has been markedly negative and, at this point, it appears to be turning off more voters more than exciting them. While Cuccinelli may have a slight lead among those likely to turn out, the financial corruption scandal revolving around current Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife may further depress his support.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

As Newton might say, inertia prevails unless a body (each contest's established partisan/incumbent advantage) is acted upon by an external force (scandal).

This isn't the first time that Newton's laws have found their way into the political arena. For instance, RealClearPolitics.com's Sean Trende incorporates Newton's third law ("for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction") in his "water balloon theory" of coalition-building. Further, historians have long argued that America's Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, were heavily influenced by Newtonian physics.

Still, inertia is not the most inspiring law. The good news is that it may not last long.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

If an external shock is what's needed to alter the net forces, then those in politics best prepare for a ground-shifting next few months. In addition to the now likely military strike against Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, domestic policy battles – from budget and debt-ceiling deadlines and Obamacare implementation to immigration reform proposals – are poised to escalate considerably post-Labor Day.

Where these fights go and which party ends up on top come January and the start of the 2014 midterm election cycle is a mystery at the moment. About the only thing that seems certain is that the 2014 electoral waters aren't likely to remain as calm as they appear now. A wave is possible. Pull out your foul weather gear; a storm's brewing.

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