Sabatos Crystal Ball


Obama Maintains Clear Lead, Democrats Gain More Ground in Congress

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 23rd, 2008


Back in 2002 and 2004, the Crystal Ball brought misery to Democrats and joy to Republicans, as we projected the solid GOP victories that occurred in those years. The cycle of politics is not to be denied, and so in 2006 and now in 2008, there is a role reversal. With each passing week, we send Democratic spirits soaring ever higher and depress our Republican readers further.

Yin and yang. The tide goes out, and it comes in. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. And all that stuff.

Just remember, don’t credit or blame the weather forecaster for the weather.

Before we give our latest updates for the Electoral College, Congress, and the governors, let’s focus briefly on what is happening in the voter turnout arena. We’ve been monitoring early voting in states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Colorado and it is abundantly clear that registered Democrats are turning out at extraordinary rates, at least so far, and Republicans are not. Take the Tar Heel State, for example. Already 629,296 people have voted early, well above the pace of 2004. Democrats are over 56% of the 2008 total, compared to just 45% in 2004. African-Americans are about 30% of the early vote total, compared to only 17% in 2004. (Our thanks to Crystal Ball contributor Justin Sizemore for this data.) True enough, registered Democrats could be voting for McCain, and if you are a Republican and want to whistle past the graveyard, feel free to believe that. Also true: Late votes count just as much as early votes, but the early voting disparity between the parties in many states is another indication of the “enthusiasm gap” favoring Democrats–a phenomenon we have observed and written about here at the Crystal Ball since the start of the nominating season in early January.

In the nation as a whole, there are approximately 212 million people who are age 18 and over, a universe that constitutes “potential voters” in the presidential election. It is looking increasingly likely that a massive turnout is occurring, with voting already underway in some form almost everywhere. In 2000 we saw 105.4 million people vote in the Bush-Gore contest, a mere 51.2% of the potential electorate. By 2004, when Bush faced off against John Kerry, the turnout soared to 122.3 million, about 60% of the potential voters. This year we will be surprised if turnout isn’t between 135 million and 140 million out of the 212 million universe of voters. A turnout like this, representing two-thirds of the electorate, would even exceed that of 1960, when 63% of adult Americans voted (age 21 and up, at that time). The 1960 turnout represented the modern high water mark for voter turnout.

At least theoretically, people of all ideological stripes can celebrate this renaissance in voter participation. Naturally, the actual results will cause some to regret it!


Now, let’s take a look at our Electoral College update. Just two states have changed categories, which might come as a surprise to people who follow the breathless news reports about all the supposedly dramatic ups and downs in the campaign. At this late juncture, most of it is meaningless background noise. For example, we’re long past the point when the vice presidential candidates are going to affect very much. Whatever impact they have has already been “priced in” to the presidential candidates’ standing. Palin’s goofs and Biden’s gaffes are sideshows, for the most part.

(A proprietary note: Given the likely Democratic victory, we want first dibs on seeking a publisher’s contract for The Book of Biden Gaffes or The Sayings of Vice President Joe (Not the Plumber). Over four or eight years, given Biden’s reliable ability to disconnect his brain from his mouth, we suspect the volume will grow to the length of War and Peace.)

Of the two shifts, by far the most significant is VIRGINIA, which we are moving from pure toss-up to LEANS OBAMA. We have been very cautious about the Old Dominion, in part because it’s been our home for the better part of six decades. More than most, we know how tough this state can be for a Democratic presidential candidate. But while we continue to disbelieve the national polls showing Obama winning Virginia by 10 percentage points, we now believe that Obama has built a small edge of two or three points in the state. The reasons are clear: Bush, the disastrous economy, the demographic growth of Northern Virginia and its strong Democratic tilt, the momentum built up by recent Democratic victories (Mark Warner in 2001 and soon 2008, Tim Kaine in 2005, and Jim Webb in 2006), and the remarkable voter registration and voter contact efforts of a literal army of Obama staffers and volunteers in the state for a full year.

But it is more than that. The McCain campaign and the state GOP appear to have had a death wish. McCain’s staff refused to believe Virginia was truly competitive for too long, and the McCain-Palin visits were few. McCain’s brother called Northern Virginians “Commies” and one of McCain’s most prominent spokespersons said they were not the “real Virginia.” Generally, it is difficult to win the votes of people you are insulting.

The Virginia Republican party is also completely outclassed by the state’s Democrats in money and organization. The GOP is being run by a very young, fire-breathing chairman who publicly drew an absurd link between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden–drawing angry rebukes from the top echelon of the McCain campaign as well as virtually all the senior Republican elected officials in the state. Republicans in Virginia have simply not adapted to the new moderate reality of this Mid-Atlantic state, the twelfth largest in the nation. They insist on running too far to the right, as though this were the Virginia of the Old South. It’s not selling anymore.

We’ll see whether changes in the last dozen days alter this picture. Virginia is still close. It is not absolutely a done deal for Obama yet.

The second shift is NORTH DAKOTA, from Leans McCain to Toss-Up. This may be a temporary change of color, but we have seen too many polls that are tied in North Dakota to ignore. We also discussed the state situation with two prominent North Dakotans in high public office, one from each party. Both thought McCain would eke it out, but they agreed that an Obama upset is not impossible. Think about this: North Dakota, won by George W. Bush by over 27 percentage points in 2004, is being discussed here as highly competitive. McCain may well win in the end but this one shouldn’t even be vaguely close.

With the shifts of Virginia and North Dakota, Obama now has 318 electoral votes and McCain has 171. There are 46 electoral votes in our toss-up category.


Our previous updates from last week and early October are still essentially valid. Here’s what it boils down to. We think Democrats will certainly pick up VA and NM, and very probably CO and NH. The NC and OR Senate seats are also leaning to the Democrats, though they are close races. Should the Democrats win all of these, they will have 57 seats in the new Senate. There are two complete toss-ups, in MN and MS. And two seats, in KY and GA, are unexpectedly close, with Republican incumbents barely leading their Democratic challengers. The only Democratic senator targeted, LA’s Mary Landrieu, now appears likely to win a third term. Then there is Alaska. If Sen. Ted Stevens is convicted–the case is with the jury–he is out on his ear. If he is found not guilty, we’ll see whether Alaskans consider this verdict to be exoneration or outrage. If the former, he will get another six-year term at the age of 84. If the latter, Democrat Mark Begich will win. (Isn’t it a strange irony that a D.C. jury that has no voting representation in Congress may decide whether the Democrats win a Senate seat in far-off Alaska?)

So we believe Democrats are on track to win anywhere from 57 to 60 Senate seats. If they really get lucky, and there is a true party wave, they could conceivably move up to 62 by sweeping the board and upsetting the KY and GA incumbents. We’re not there yet. At the moment, Democrats are most likely to end up with 58 or 59 seats. Gee, isn’t this getting very close to the magic 60?

And we hate to bring this up, but Georgia has a requirement that the winner receive 50% plus one. The contest between Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) and Jim Martin (D) includes a Libertarian candidate receiving up to 8 percent of the vote in polls. If neither Chambliss nor Martin can cross the 50% threshold, there will be a run-off election between them on Dec. 2nd. Could the battle for the 60th Democratic Senate seat extend the length of the eternal Campaign ’08?

State Incumbent Rating
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor Safe Democratic
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden Safe Democratic
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin Safe Democratic
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin Safe Democratic
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu New Likely Democratic
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry Safe Democratic
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin Safe Democratic
Montana Sen. Max Baucus Safe Democratic
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg Safe Democratic
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed Safe Democratic
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson Safe Democratic
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller Safe Democratic
State Incumbent Likely Result
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions Safe Republican
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens New Toss-up
Colorado OPEN (Sen. Wayne Allard retiring)

Mark Udall (D) vs. Bob Schaffer (R)
Likely Democratic
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss Barely Leans Republican
Idaho OPEN (Sen. Larry Craig retiring)

Larry LaRocco (D) vs. Jim Risch (R)
Safe Republican
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts Safe Republican
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell Barely Leans Republican
Maine Sen. Susan Collins Leans Republican
Nebraska OPEN (Sen. Chuck Hagel retiring)

Scott Kleeb (D) vs. Mike Johanns (R)
Safe Republican
New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu Leans Democratic (Pick-up)
New Mexico OPEN (Sen. Pete Domenici retiring)

Tom Udall (D) vs. Steve Pearce (R)
New Likely Democratic
North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole New Leans Democratic
Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman New Toss-up
Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran Safe Republican
Mississippi (special) OPEN (Sen. Trent Lott retiring)

Ronnie Musgrove (D) vs. Roger Wicker (R)
New Toss-up
Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith New Leans Democratic
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe Safe Republican
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham Safe Republican
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander Safe Republican
Texas Sen. John Cornyn Safe Republican
Virginia OPEN (Sen. John Warner retiring)

Mark Warner (D) vs. Jim Gilmore (R)
Certain Democratic Pick-up
Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi Safe Republican
Wyoming (special) Sen. John Barrasso (appointed) Safe Republican


We are essentially holding steady on our ratings in this category (see our last gubernatorial article and below). We now believe Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN) is likely to win reelection; previously we had merely leaned the contest to him. We are also more convinced than ever that Democrat Jay Nixon will win in MO, switching the statehouse to his party. Next week we will finally call the two remaining Governor’s contests, in NC and WA. If this were an off-year, we’d call NC right now for Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R). He has out-campaigned and out-debated Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue (D). But NC is unusually Democratic this year, both for President and Senate. Could Perdue benefit from Obama’s coattails here? It’s her best chance–and again, what irony. A Democratic presidential candidate might actually help his party’s gubernatorial nominee, instead of hurting. In WA, the large Obama margin is making it exceedingly tough on Republican Dino Rossi in his re-match with Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire. Again, if this were an off-year election, we’d bet on Rossi. Unless conditions change rapidly, we believe Gregoire will pull out a second term.

State Incumbent Rating
Delaware OPEN

Jack Markell (D) vs. Bill Lee (R)
Likely Democratic
Montana Brian Schweitzer Safe Democratic
North Carolina OPEN

Beverly Perdue (D) vs. Pat McCrory (R)
New Hampshire John Lynch Safe Democratic
Washington Christine Gregoire Toss-up
West Virginia Joe Manchin III Safe Democratic
State Incumbent Likely Result
Indiana Mitch Daniels New Likely Republican
Missouri OPEN

Jay Nixon (D) vs. Kenny Hulshof (R)
New Likely Democratic
North Dakota John Hoeven Safe Republican
Utah Jon Huntsman, Jr. Safe Republican
Vermont Jim Douglas Safe Republican