Obama Physics: Inertia And Gravity May Not Be In His Orbit

When all of this is over, Barack Obama's success or failure in his bid for the presidency will still have come down to the unimpeachable laws of physics.

Last weekend Obama was all momentum as the junior senator from Illinois came to Richmond, Va., to accept the endorsement of Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat for whom Obama campaigned during Virginia's 2005 gubernatorial election, and deliver the keynote address at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner before a crowd of 4,000.

Obama's candidacy is certainly in motion. As usual, he received a rock star's reception, this time from the record-breaking crowd at the Richmond Convention Center. As former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner agonizingly put it, he's a "Barack-star."

His address, greeted with generous ovations both before and after, never wandered far from the mantra of his second book, The Audacity of Hope. He said the word "audacity" so many times, in fact, that one wonders whether the portmanteau "Odacity" is an inevitability in this campaign.

Two hours before the dinner, Kaine and Obama appeared on the steps of the governor's mansion for the official announcement, which had been leaked to the press several days earlier. The moment had more symbolism than a Hemingway novel: From where he stood, Obama had a direct view of the state capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson while he was in Paris, which housed the Confederate Congress during the Civil War.

"People have been noticing we've been attracting big crowds," he said. "I'd like to say it's just me. But I think I have come to represent, in the minds of some, turning a new page, and getting beyond the slash and burn, very tactical politics that we've become accustomed to in Washington." ("Tactical" is a dirty word in the gospel according to Barack.)

Obama has perfected the art of appearing humble, and even this comment was struck with a note of caution--that all these expectations are a lot to live up to for the next many months. And that's just until Iowa.

Which comes back to the physics of it all. As University of Virginia politics Prof. Larry J. Sabato is fond of saying, the two most powerful forces in politics are inertia and gravity, in that order.

Another professor of politics, Sir Isaac Newton, described inertia like this in the first of his three laws of motion, published in 1686: "Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it." Translated, that reads, "Objects in motion tend to remain in motion; objects at rest tend to remain at rest. An outside force is required to change that."

More often than not, that outside force is the persistent tug of gravity, another of Newton's laws.

"Every day you have tens of thousands of people criticize you," Sabato said. "No good virtue goes undamaged."

There is a dark side to inertia as well--that objects at rest, like states that consistently vote for one party in presidential races, are very difficult to shake from their complacency.

The point is relevant to Virginia, which since 2001 has elected two Democratic governors and a Democratic senator by close margins but re-elected George W. Bush by eight points in 2004. Virginia last went Democratic in a presidential election in 1964.

But as Kaine noted, the candidates are starting to flock to the Old Dominion in numbers that are unprecedented in recent memory. Both Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, early GOP favorites for the nomination, have been in Richmond recently. (Though there's also the matter of lobbying for the Virginia primary, which occurs a week after the "Super Tuesday" series of 17 primaries and could still be relevant in a tight race.)

"They're coming here for a reason," Kaine said. "They're coming here because they know Virginia will be playing a role in presidential politics." Obama ehoed the sentiment: "Virginia is representative of a fundamental shift that is taking place in American politics," he said, neatly segueing into a campaign bullet point: "I wouldn't describe it simply as a shift from Republican to Democrat. I think it is a shift away from a sharply ideological politics to a pragmatic, common-sense, results-oriented politics."

Sabato remains skeptical.

"Virginia still leans Republican," he said. "Can it go Democratic? Sure, if there's a solid Democratic margin of victory bordering on a landslide."

Politics hasn't been reduced to a natural set of formulas--yet. But Obama's campaign could still learn something from one of Newton's dusty equations, his Law of Universal Gravitation: that all bodies attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them. This only becomes relevant in cases of large masses, like the sun, the planet Earth, or the number of people secretly hoping Obama's campaign will implode.

By Chris Wilson