Sabato Predicts Obama Landslide, Big Democratic Gains in Congress

November 02, 2008

November 1, 2008 — Unlike the University of Virginia's overtime loss to Miami on Saturday afternoon, the presidential race won't be close when the votes are counted on Tuesday.

It will be a landslide victory for Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato predicted at a pre-game lecture on Saturday morning.

Sabato's forecast is that Obama will win 364 electoral votes, leaving John McCain with 174. His projection puts Obama ahead by more than most other pundits, he noted, but is in line with the substantial Obama victory that he predicted back in July.

This election will be "between a tide and a tidal wave for Democrats," Sabato said during a pre-game "More than the Score" presentation to more than 200 gathered in Newcomb Hall, including Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, plus viewers in two overflow rooms and at nine U.Va. alumni clubs from New York City to Houston.

Democrats will end up with 260 to 270 of the 435 House seats and 58 to 60 Senate seats, which will be the largest Democratic majority in the Senate since the two years following Jimmy Carter's election in 1976.

Much has been made of the need for 60 votes in the Senate to end potential filibusters.  But the Democrats can expect support from three liberal Republican senators — Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — so they don't really need 60 Democrats to get things done, Sabato said.

If the Democrats make good on their promises, and if the economy improves over the next two years, they'll be rewarded in the 2010 midterms, when five vulnerable Republican senators will be up for reelection.  If the economy doesn't improve by 2010, the Republicans may regain some seats in the House, but the Democrats are building a large enough majority in the House that it will require a series of favorable elections for the Republicans to retake control, he predicted.

Sabato, Robert Kent Gooch Professor and University Professor of Politics at the University, directs U.Va.'s Center for Politics. He was named the most accurate prognosticator of the 2006 elections by FOX News, MSNBC, CNBC and the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He will post his final predictions for all Congressional races and the Electoral College Monday afternoon on his Crystal Ball site.

Major factors have been working against McCain, Sabato explained. In all of American history, no unpopular two-term president has ever been able to hand off the presidency to a member of his own party. (Presidential popularity before the advent of public opinion polling can be estimated based on contemporary news accounts and other sources, he noted.)

President Bush is the most unpopular president since opinion polls were first taken during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His approval rating has been between 20 and 40 percent for three years, and now stands at 20 percent.  For perspective, President Richard Nixon's rating was 26 percent on the day he resigned. 

Also, the incumbent's party "cannot get elected if you have a recession during the election year," Sabato said.

In the wake of the stock market's swoon in September and October, Americans are opening their bank and IRA statements and clearly seeing that they are worse off now than four years ago, he said. Such stark economic news has largely overshadowed any other major issues that might influence a presidential election, including war, scandals and hot-button social issues.

Meanwhile, Obama has successfully kept the focus on the economy. "He's a Harvard lawyer; it took him a while to get it," Sabato quipped.

Obama has continued to paint McCain's election as a third term for Bush, all the while outspending his opponent. An enthusiasm gap has enabled Obama and the Democrats to execute better voter turnout and registration operations, which has already delivered millions of early votes.  And the Obama campaign significantly broadened the number of states that are being aggressively contested. 

As a result, Sabato said, Obama will have the best Electoral College showing by a Democrat since 1964. Every blue state from 2004 will stay blue, including Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and Obama has locked up the previously red states of Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Obama would win Arizona if that were not McCain's home state, forming a Western bulkhead for Democrats.

The major swing states of Florida and Ohio are leaning Obama, as are North Carolina and Virginia. The virtually static Electoral College map of 2000 and 2004 will be history, Sabato said.

Obama's voting blocs include young voters, who favor him by 20 percentage points. Two-thirds of Hispanics will vote for him, as will 97 percent of blacks and 70 percent of voters described as highly educated, upper income.  He also leads among swing independent voters, white women and Asian-Americans, as well as narrowing McCain's lead among working class men.

As a summary of this election, Sabato shared a picture of McCain hugging Bush and apparently crying on Bush's shoulder. Sabato advised Republicans to get ready to console themselves as the results come in on Tuesday.

For those who lament the seemingly endless campaign and the $5 billion spent on it (up from $1 billion in 2000), Sabato offered this: Americans spent $6 billion for Halloween candy.

For the man whose motto is "Politics is a good thing," there's no question which is a more important investment.

— By Brevy Cannon