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Newton’s First Law of Motion Applied to Political Strategy (With a Brief Excursus on Gaffes)

Have you ever wondered why political strategists — and by extension, the rest of us — are obsessed by polls? It is not because polls tell them what is going to happen. On the contrary, polls can be notoriously unreliable. Consider, to take a recent example, the Wisconsin recall election in June. As the time approached, the polls narrowed and what had a short while earlier seemed like a shoo-in for Scott Walker now seemed up for grabs. I had several anxious emails from politically mature friends in Wisconsin who were on the verge of despair, but, hey, Walker won in a veritable landslide — take away the extensive voter fraud, and you can also take away the word “veritable.” The true margin for Walker was probably something like 60/40.

The case of Scott Walker and the misleading polls touches on a critical reality in modern politics, the reality of inertia. Many people, when they hear the word “inertia,” think it means primarily a resistance to motion or initiative. Isaac Newton had a broader conception of the phenomenon: Yes, “inertia” describes the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest but also (absent countervailing forces) the tendency of a body in motion to remain in motion.

This fundamental law of nature has great, if metaphorical, application in the realm of politics. Among other things, it helps to explain the prominence of polls in the metabolism of our political life.

Polls are odd things. Many of them, let’s face it, are more expressions of hope than fact. And even the best polls — into which category I’d put Rasmussen and (formerly: see below) Gallup — usually have a large element of uncertainty about them.

Why, then, are political strategists as obsessed with polls as a haruspex is with the aviary? Inertia. Strategists and, by extension, journalists and the public at large look to the polls as the Romans looked to the entrails of birds: suitably interpreted, they could foretell the future.

I suspect that among Romans there was as much skepticism about the predictive power of bird guts as, in our saner moments, we entertain about polls. Deep down, we know they are flawed. But polls have this great advantage: by pretending to tell us what will happen, they can create the currents of sentiment that build momentum. Momentum creates inertia. Inertia, as Newton saw, has the aura of inevitably. Hope becomes father to the deed.

This fact helps explain why everyone interested in politics looks closely at the “bounce” politicians receive  after the national conventions. Romney had his at the end of August, then Obama had his after Charlotte.

There was, however, a difference. Poll watchers had noted that both Rasmussen and Gallup were trending towards Romney. The Obama administration did not like this. Rasmussen, an explicitly conservative pollster, was out of reach. Not so Gallup. It was the work of a moment for the Department of Justice to institute an “unrelated” lawsuit against Gallup and for David Axelrod, Obama’s chief enforcer aide, to contact Gallup and, as the Daily Caller put it, attempt to “subtly intimidate the respected polling firm when its numbers were unfavorable to the president.” I hope you  appreciate the word “subtly.”

I do not know what Axelrod said, or how the officials at Gallup responded. I do know that Gallup’s polls, which had been pretty close to Rasmussen’s, suddenly started to diverge and show a trend more favorable to the president. Propter hoc? Or merely post hoc? I’m not sure we’ll ever know for sure.

But my main point here is to highlight the role of polls in establishing or abetting the momentum of inertia. It’s a largely psychological phenomenon that can have a material coefficient. Polls register the perception of momentum; by means of an alchemy we do not fully comprehend, that perception of momentum begets the reality of momentum. Ultimately, it can beget the confidence of inevitably. The reality of inevitability will always elude the politician, as the headline “Dewey Beats Truman” should remind us.  But it remains a coveted advantage, which is why politicians and their handlers so crave it.

And this brings me to my excursus on gaffes. If gaffes were as important as some people think, Joe Biden would long ago have been laughed out of office. And Obama would not be far behind: remember his invocation of the “57” states, or his lament for the “corpsemen”? Here’s the mysterious thing about gaffes: sometimes they are damaging, even fatal, sometimes they matter not at all. What makes the difference? Why was Dan Quayle’s potato(e) gaffe a spud of historic dimensions while Obama’s 57 shades of gray went nowhere damage-wise?