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Larry Sabato, "Sabato's Crystal Ball"

Kip Tabb

Larry Sabato and his Crystal Ball has gained a well-deserved reputation for predicting political trends and the outcomes they presage.

That alone is not much of a reason to check out his lecture—most of political prognostication is staring at numbers and statistics and hazarding an informed and (hoppefully) educated guess. That’s probably pretty exciting stuff to a political junky; for most people…it’s just numbers and statistics.

What sets Sabato apart, aside from the accuracy of his forecasts, is his ability to look at those numbers and communicate something that is real and tangible to his audience.

That and his humor, which ranks up there with the best of political skewering.

In describing what’s happening in the Senate, he told the audience that in a tiebreaker vote, Vice President Pence “…breaks the tie, assuming he can break his gaze on the President.”

Although the humor helped to break up the presentation, the information Sabato presented was thought-provoking and challenged preconceived notions.

In talking about the midterm elections that just passed, Sabato posted a graphic of the largest tsunami ever witnessed—a tsunami that towered over skyscrapers, and he used that graphic to discuss the political implications of the 2018 election.

He began by noting that midterm elections generally favor the party that is out of power and how that relates to wave theories of political change.

“But a small swell doesn’t change very much. And we’ve had quite a few of those elections in several modern presidencies,” he told the audience.

“In a medium wave something major changes,” he went on to say. “Of course that’s what we had. We had the House of Representative flip from the Republicans to the Democrats. And flipped in a pretty substantial way….But they didn’t make any progress in the Senate. In fact they fell back two additional seats.”

He talked about what happened in governors’ races, noting by the numbers Democrats did well, but pointing out that they but did not win Florida or Ohio.

“It’s a mixed bag. I call it a medium wave. It was a Democratic leaning election. It was not a tsunami. A tsunami sweeps everything away. 1994 When Newt Grinch took over…And they happen once or twice a generation.”

In many ways, Sabato’s words were a balm for rattled political nerves. He took on political spending, using a graphic to point out that we spend much more on Halloween than we do on elections.

“I realize halloween costumes brighten people less than politicians,” he observed.

There were concerns raised. According to the numbers Sabato presented, historically with 8% more of the population favoring Democrats over Republicans there should have been a larger than 40 seat swing.

“The answer is gerrymandering,” he said, pointing to the effects of the 2010-2016 elections that allowed state Republican legislatures to gerrymander house districts.

“But notice in Virginia, three districts flipped to the Democrats. You can’t stop popular will…I would argue that’s a good thing. That people find a way to express the change that they want,” he said.

There was also a note of hope about campaigns finance. Democratic anger at President Trump was so profound that the party faithful flooded coffers with small donations, overwhelming the large corporate donations often associated with political influence.

“The big donors and the big interest groups actually had less influence than they usually do,” he said.

In his lecture, Sabato was an equal opportunity dismisser of political spin.

A large map showing the geographic spread of the Republican Party across the United States seemed to suggest the Republican were ideally situated to control political policy.

“When Republican see this they, see the sea of red. When they see that they say, ‘My God. It was a landslide.’ Well, it was a landslide in rural areas. The problem for Republicans is… trees, rocks, acres and cows cannot yet vote.”

He also takes Democrats to task, noting that they gained about 330 state legislative seats, which sounds great—except that is down from a loss of 900 legislative seats in the 2010 midterm election. As he points out, that is only one third of the way back to where they once were.

Sabato also brings a historic perspective to the political process we are witnessing and what he describes is sometimes fascinating and surprising.

Florida may be the ultimate swing state, vacillating between Democratic victory followed by a Republican victory. The voting history of the state points out how narrow that divide has been over time.

“When you add up all the votes cast, 100 million (total) votes cast for president in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected to 2016 when Donald Trump was elected…the two parties were separated by about 10,000. That’s how competitive Florida is,” he said.

His analysis, as objective as it is, does include personal opinion, and ultimately that may be one of the most compelling features of his lecture.

“We have become so polarized,” he said. “People tend to vote for the same party. It shows no signs of ending. In fact it is strengthening in a lot of ways. It worries me. We don’t want this gulf to continue growing. We’re all going to have to make an effort. It’s both sides.”

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