Election 2008: The Road Ahead

Larry J. Sabato
Senior Scholar, School of Policy, Planning and Development, University of Southern California
Friday, February 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

The University of Virginia's Larry J. Sabato, who directs analysis of politics at the Crystal Ball Web site of the school's Center for Politics, was online Friday, Feb. 8 at noon ET to take your questions on the primaries this weekend and the Potomac Primary on Tuesday and provides his outlook for the rest of the race.

The transcript follows.

Sabato is the founder of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1978. He has written more than 20 books, including " A More Perfect Constitution," and co-anchored the BBC's coverage of the 2006 election.


Larry J. Sabato: Hello everyone. What an incredibly exciting political season. I am going to have to change my class slogan from "politics is a good thing" to "politics is a great thing." Hope everyone is enjoying it, whatever your choice of candidates.


Winchester, Va.: How do you rate Virginia? It looks like clear Obama territory to me. Reasonably large black population, and lots of high-income voters in Northern Virginia. I'm told repeatedly that Clinton probably will win here. How do you see it?

Larry J. Sabato: The only recent survey I've seen is a Survey USA poll that has Obama up in Virginia very substantially -- but the Clinton campaign has targeted Virginia, and that may make some difference. Right now Obama is winning the lion's share of African Americans (who will be from 25 percent to 35 percent of the Election Day turnout), and he's about splitting white voters with Clinton. If that holds, it's an easy Obama win. But Clinton may be able to pump up the women's vote, especially in Northern Virginia, and the vote of those aged 60-plus. She's also making a play for younger voters, an Obama strength. I know that because she is coming to my 450-person University of Virginia Intro to American Politics class on election eve (Monday). Just for the record, we simultaneously invited (by e-mail) all candidates of both parties on a first-come, first-served basis. The Clinton people were fast on the draw, and they got the class.


Richardson, Texas: Do you think that the right wing of the Republican Party is really going to stay home and not vote in the general election? I say this because I believe that during the general election, Sen. McCain is going to have move closer to the middle on some issues in order to win and by doing so probably will enrage the right wing.

Larry J. Sabato: I've learned in the four decades in which politics has been my obsession not to believe what people say in February, or even September, about a November election. Most Republicans will come home to McCain, and most Democrats will come home to the eventual Democratic nominee -- whatever they are claiming now. The tug of party loyalty is stronger than we think. If nothing else, people will cast a vote against the other party. Also, we don't measure torque in the voting booth. You can punch the card lightly or with enthusiasm -- and the vote counts the same.


New York: Prof. Sabato: I enjoyed reading your book, though I'm not sure I agreed with all your proposals. I'm interested in how you feel your proposal for rearranging the primaries into regional primaries would have affected this years election? Would we have seen a different outcome? As best as I can see it, It would have made it less likely that Mayor Giuliani would have flamed out so spectacularly.

Larry J. Sabato: Thanks much. Hey, here's a surprise for you: I'm not sure I agree with all the proposals in my new book, "A More Perfect Constitution." I decided to take a stand on some close calls and make the best possible case for them, in part because my main goal for the book was to get Americans -- and especially young people -- to think more deeply and carefully about the Constitution. Sometimes to educate you must provoke. My University of Virginia students will be writing their semester essays on why I was wrong on any half-dozen reforms of their choice! As for your point on primaries, I would argue that the main effect of my suggested reforms would have been to make the process more rational and orderly, and that it would have reduced the length of the campaign (by means of the Jan. 1 lottery and the April start-date for the first regional primary). It was not designed to help or hurt any candidate; in fact, I believe my system would have been more fair to all the major (and even minor) candidates.


Cambridge, Mass.: Why is it that Obama has been doing better in caucuses? Organizing by his campaign? The nature of the caucus process? Demographics of the participants? Is there reason to believe that he will do well again in Saturday's Maine caucuses?

Larry J. Sabato: Obama is where most (not all) the excitement is in this campaign. He's a rock star, and he tends to motivate voters -- especially the young ones -- to walk through fire for him. By their very nature caucuses mainly involve people willing to devote a substantial amount of time to politics. In many cases, they must witness publicly for their candidate. This requires intensity and dedication. That's why Obama wins most caucuses. Primaries only require perhaps a half hour or an hour to drive to the polls, wait in line and vote -- or even easier, the absentee process. You can argue forever about which method of voting is better. I think it's good to have a mixture -- which is what we have, on the whole.


Not quite: "You can punch the card lightly or with enthusiasm -- and the vote counts the same." Unless "lightly" produces only a hanging chad...

Larry J. Sabato: Only competent voters come to chats, so I'm not worried!


Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you think Tom Tancredo will run as an independent? Even if he does, or if Ron Paul or Lou Dobbs or some of the other candidates being mentioned run, do you think they have the potential of denying the Republican Party any electoral votes even if such a candidate only gets a small percentage of the votes?

Larry J. Sabato: We're all waiting to see whether McCain's nomination generates one or more conservative independents. Will there be a Nader 2000 of the right in 2008? They don't need high name identification or tons of money -- they simply have to be a parking place for a few million votes that could deny McCain the presidency in a close vote. There's lots of talk, but so far little action. But it's early.


Washington: There was talk of Romney possibly running again in 2012. Obviously he has the money to do so, but how feasible would that actually be?

Larry J. Sabato: Romney mentioned Reagan 1976 in his "suspension" speech -- no accident there. Who knows this early whether such a race would be feasible? Go back to the newspapers of August 1976, after Reagan lost to Ford. Just about everyone wrote Reagan off -- too old for 1980, Carter would be running and winning his second term, etc. We all know how that turned out. Let's not pretend we can forecast tomorrow, much less four years from now.


Fairfax, Va: Where are all of these political donations come from? Last time I checked we were in a recession, yet people are giving in record amounts.

Larry J. Sabato: There are more than 200 million adult Americans, and easily 50 million are in a position to give something, even if it's $25 or $50. Then there are several million who can max out to multiple candidates and never miss it.


Stockholm, Sweden: Mr. Sabato, you just said, "I've learned over the four decades ... not to believe what people say in February, or even September..." So how many Democrats who say they wouldn't do it will vote for Hillary in the general if she wins the primary? My thought is that if W can win when he is hated by a large portion of the population, anybody can.

Larry J. Sabato: Many, many -- by November, the political campaign and the fall debates will have reminded millions of Democrats and Republicans why they identify with their party. It almost always happens that way. Exceptions: Goldwater in 1964 (Republicans), McGovern in 1972 (Democrats).


Denver: If Obama sweep Nebraska, Louisiana, Washington, Maine and the mid-Atlantic caucuses and primaries, do you think momentum gives him a chance to win less voter-friendly Ohio and Texas?

Larry J. Sabato: Momentum this year has been measured in hours, instead of the usual days or weeks. Too much happens in a day for the public's memory to dwell too long on any win. Having said that, if Obama does indeed win most all the February contests -- uh oh, that nasty expectations game again -- then it might help him in Texas and Ohio. Because of the size of the Latino vote in Texas, Obama will have a better chance in Ohio, clearly.


Bowie, Md.: Is the front-loading of the primary system because the conventions have turned to week-long lovefests with no importance? The last real drama (other naming a veep) at any convention was the Democrats in 1980, who looked divided and unfocused compared to the Republican photo-op, so now you can't have any controversy there.

Larry J. Sabato: Well, the '84 Democratic convention was pretty exciting, both because the Mondale-Hart race was close, and Mondale chose the first woman vice presidential  nominee. Maybe 2008 will be an exception, the way things are going, but these "lovefests" still serve a vital civic educational role. If you're on here chatting with me, you follow politics all the time, but we forget that tens of millions of Americans don't follow politics much. They get a big dose of it from the conventions -- the conventions allow them to catch up. To put it in student terms, the conventions are "cram sessions" for those who haven't studied!


Norfolk, Va.: I actually think that Mike Huckabee could have a brighter political future than Mitt Romney does. Romney underachieved as a candidate, as did Giuliani and Thompson; Huckabee overachieved. He should get a TV show on Fox News to keep his name in the headlines, suck up to big Republican donors, talk with top policy intellectuals so he can actually know something about issues, and develop a less-sectarian message without losing his authenticity ... and -- boom! -- he's a strong candidate for 2012.

Larry J. Sabato: You've come up with a good plan for Huckabee! That assumes he doesn't get the vice presidential slot or a cabinet post, if there's a McCain administration. One thing we all can compliment Huckabee on is his delightful sense of humor. Too many candidates take themselves entirely too seriously.


Annandale, Va.: I had planned to vote for John Edwards before he dropped out. He still will be on the ballot in Virginia. Will voting for him anyway benefit him or give him any sort of leverage or power later on? Or should I just give up and decided between the other two?

Larry J. Sabato: I never tell people how to vote. If you think Edwards can cross the 15 percent threshold, then your vote might help to get him a delegate that he can use as a bargaining chip. But I have to be honest with you: The chance of Edwards' crossing the 15 percent threshold in Virginia at this point is about the same as you winning a write-in campaign for president.


Lexington, Va.: Larry -- thanks for your books. Keep 'em coming. Now that John Edwards has left the race, do you think Mudcat Saunders will take an active role in shaping the rural and Appalachia political strategies for Clinton or Obama? How about Mark Warner? I was disappointed that John Kerry didn't seem to have much of a strategy for those regions/voters in 2004. Thanks.

Larry J. Sabato: You are most kind. Thanks. I believe Mudcat endorsed Obama after Edwards dropped out. Warner hasn't endorsed, but his wife is campaigning for Obama -- read that any way you like. The rural strategy is important for Democrats because they need to cut GOP margins in that demographic sector to win statewide more often. Similarly, the GOP needs to focus more on upscale suburbs, where they have lost their old edge.


Boston: Does it worry you that Obama (and probably Hillary as well) have spent far less time in Washington than any of our presidents in the past fifty years?

Larry J. Sabato: I'm at the age where I leave the worrying to younger people! But there is an enduring truth in American politics: Often the voters prefer candidates who can't navigate the streets in Washington. If it takes the president a few years to find the bathrooms, then maybe -- the voters say to themselves -- he or she isn't already corrupt, and it will take some time before the big bad District leads the president astray. This is naive but powerful.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good morning, Mr. Sabato. Since 1952 there have been four Presidential elections run in years when the incumbent president was unpopular. In none of them did the candidate of the incumbent president's party even come close to getting 50 percent of the vote. Given that history, how unpopular president Bush has been lately and how closely Sen. McCain has tied himself to the administration, is there any reason to think McCain could win this November, no matter whom the Democrats nominate? Could any Republican?

Larry J. Sabato: I hope you will take a look at my Crystal Ball essay released this morning.

That's precisely what I suggested -- a president who has been in the polling 30s for about two years is a terrible burden on his party's nominee. Obviously, McCain will use his 2000 race with Bush to put distance between himself and the president, but that only goes so far. McCain had better hope that somehow, Bush gets well above 40 percent by November's election.


Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Sabato, here in the D.C. area we are starting to see campaign commercials. In Obama's ad he says (paraphrasing) that he will end the Iraq war and bring the troops home. My question is ... why does he call it a "war"? Would it be better to term it an "occupation?" If the Democrats started saying "we need to end the occupation in Iraq and bring the troops home," would that help deflate the "surrender" rhetoric from the right?

Larry J. Sabato: Send that suggestion in to your friendly neighborhood Democratic political consultant. Remember to charge a big fat fee like all of them do for similar ideas.


Alexandria, Va.: What do you think the impact of robocalls are on elections? Do they work? We have thousands of members who are sick and tired of having their privacy invaded, called in the middle of the night, called without disclosure of who made the call, and blocking the caller id.

Larry J. Sabato: Like all good campaign technologies, robocalls started out like gangbusters. The newest thing on the block worked. Now they are so overused that I am convinced they have become counterproductive. Next up: Overused e-mail and text messaging. Count on it.


Summit, N.J.: What's your analysis of which Democrat would be stronger against McCain? In the primaries so far, Obama has drawn more independents than Hillary, which would counter a McCain strength, but he hasn't done as well among working-class voters -- the kind of people who became Reagan Democrats in the 1980s and might be willing to cross over to McCain.

Larry J. Sabato: I'm not smart enough to know. You can make a good argument either way. The polls today say Obama runs better against McCain than Clinton does. Will that still be true in November? Who the heck could possibly game that out? I'll let the partisans fight that one.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Would you expect either nominee to resign from the Senate to run, like Dole did in '96?

Larry J. Sabato: No. It didn't work for Dole, and it won't have much of a positive effect for any of these current senators either. With all due respect to senators, isn't it interesting that they are gone for weeks at a time and no one misses them? You can't say that about governors or mayors. Our expectations are higher and so is the accountability.


Laurel, Md.: Has there ever been a presidential election between two current Senators? How well will that body function for the next year?

Larry J. Sabato: No, never.

Does the Senate function? I haven't noticed that.


Maryland: Hello. Both McCain and Obama talk about their ability to reach across the aisle and work with those in the other party to get things done. Although the possibility of this happening is probably less than zero, would a shocking McCain/Obama ticket be electable? Of course, party loyalists in both parties probably never would forgive McCain or Obama for doing it, but I think it would be an incredible act of trying to bring the country together.

Larry J. Sabato: It will take more Bourbon than the whole state of Kentucky produces to arrange that ticket.


Re: Crystal Ball: But wouldn't you agree that -- among the choices Republicans could have put up against a Democrat in 2008 -- McCain has probably the best shot at winning? I agree that Bush's unpopularity creates headwinds for Republicans; perhaps the primary choice of McCain was more enlightened than many give it credit for. It seems to me that among the candidates for the nomination, he alone has the capacity to draw distinctions between himself and Bush, and be as tarred as the other candidates would have been.

Larry J. Sabato: Sure. Whatever you think of McCain personally -- and he can be obstreperous and even mean -- he is probably the only Republican who has a shot in November. The underlying trends of 2008 are firmly Democratic. That doesn't mean the Democrats can't blow the election -- they have lots of practice.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you know if the conventions will be covered on "real TV" this year (like they used to be, back in the '60s), or just on places like C-SPAN, with the rest of the media joining in only for key speeches, etc.? I would love to see the daily brouhahas on the Democratic side, what with the banished delegation issues, the platform-building, etc.

Larry J. Sabato: The days of the big networks covering gavel-to-gavel are long gone. I grew up on those in the 1950s and 1960s, so naturally I bemoan it, but the networks will give a handful of primetime hours each to the two conventions, and leave the full coverage to C-SPAN and the 24-hour news cables. That's the best we can hope for. Still, if the parties are disunited and make real news, then we will get more network coverage. Bad news is news, good news isn't.


Larry J. Sabato: Well, my allotted time is up, and I only got to a third of the questions. Apologies -- especially to my Wahoo friends and former students who wrote in, but I've got to get moving to other events this afternoon. More on another occasion, and thanks for participating. I enjoyed it.


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