Larry Sabato, Ph.D.

Decoding the National Political Puzzle

These days, anyone who wants to understand U.S. politics needs a crystal ball. Political analyst Larry Sabato, Ph.D., brought one to his keynote address at NAIOP’s 2020 Chapter Leadership & Legislative Retreat this week in Washington, D.C.

Sabato is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. His books, speeches and nonpartisan newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball help make sense of the national political scene.

Sabato began by discussing the Iowa caucuses, which were held the night before his speech. Because of technical problems, Iowa Democrats hadn’t announced any results of the balloting by the time Sabato spoke, leaving caucus goers wondering what happened to their votes. “This is a total disaster,” Sabato said. “Everyone is claiming victory, even though they all officially have zero votes.” He noted that he has never liked the outsize role Iowa plays in presidential politics, and said this debacle may change the political calendar in future years.

In the meantime, the process will carry on. Sabato said he’s looking ahead to future primary states: New Hampshire next week, South Carolina and Nevada by the end of February, as well as 17 primaries on March 3, also known as “Super Tuesday.” As of now, there’s no real front runner, Sabato said, warning it’s possible the process could continue all the way up to the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee this summer.

In fact, Sabato noted that the lack of results from the Hawkeye State seemed to play right into President Donald Trump’s hands. The president is enjoying the chance to blast Democrats on social media. That, of course, is both a blessing and a curse. “Trump creates a situation that helps Democrats” because of his incessant tweeting, Sabato said. Even Trump supporters sometimes joke that, “Somebody’s got to turn off Twitter.”

In any event, the president will be the center of attention on Tuesday night as he gives the State of the Union address. He’ll have another good day Wednesday, the professor added, when the president is expected to be found not guilty in his impeachment trial in the Senate.

“Impeachment was a total waste” this year, Sabato concluded. “I predict it will have zero effect” on the November presidential election, he said. Further, Sabato was critical of House Democrats for impeaching Trump. “If you know you can’t impeach and convict, censure instead,” Sabato said. He advised future Congresses to make sure impeachment enjoys bipartisan support before going forward with that process.

Sabato also discussed the status of Congressional elections. There are 435 House seats up for election. Sabato’s crystal ball rates only 18 of them as “tossups,” saying that lack of competitive seats highlights the effects of successful gerrymandering in recent years. Polarization has gone national.

The state of play has changed in the Senate as well, Sabato explained. “In the old days, the Senate map this year would favor Democrats,” Sabato said. But in today’s environment, Sabato said voters are more likely to vote a straight ticket: all Republican or all Democratic. Republicans are defending 23 seats (including both in Georgia) while Democrats are only defending 12. After citing several states that could see toss-up Senate races, Sabato predicted that Republicans will hold the Senate.

So, can Democrats retake the White House? Sabato said he thinks they can, but only if they find the right candidate. Sabato said former Vice President Joe Biden has a chance to win nationally, although campaign workers in Iowa (former students of his at U.Va.) admitted to Sabato that there was “no energy” in Biden’s campaign in that state.

On the other hand, “I just don’t think there’s a majority” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sabato said. And former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t seem to be ready. “He’s 38, and I just think it would be really tough for him to win this year,” Sabato said.

However, “I do think [former New York Mayor] Michael Bloomberg has a chance,” Sabato added, and he’s certainly ready to spend plenty of his own money on the race. “The problem for Bloomberg is that he endorsed Rudy Giuliani and both Bushes for president.” The other candidates are sure to spotlight those endorsements, which won’t be popular with Democratic voters.

Sabato noted Trump does have big advantages going into the election: He enjoys a strong economy, a committed base and a favorable Electoral College map. He could win the White House while getting swamped in the popular vote, as he did in 2016. That’s partially because, while Democrats may have a surplus of votes in states like New York and California, Democrats are likely to lose many smaller states. To boost their chances, Democrats should stop spending funds on advertising, and instead use the money to pay voters to move from California to Michigan and other toss-up states, Sabato quipped.

The presidential election, Sabato warned, could well come down to the results in just three states. Sabato shared a state-by-state map that predicts 248 electoral votes for each candidate, with only Arizona (11), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10) undecided. If this plays out, voters in those states may well be bombarded with ads this fall.

Just when Americans might have thought politics couldn’t get any stranger, Iowa happened. Even if the crystal ball is occasionally cloudy, Sabato said we can count on many more surprises throughout 2020.

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