Sabato's Crystal Ball

Eight Decades of Debate

A brief history of presidential primary clashes

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 30th, 2015

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Next week begins what has become a regular presidential primary tradition: the debates. As a way of previewing them, we decided to look back at the history of primary debates. Readers may be surprised to learn that primary debates existed before the advent of televised general election debates in 1960. Less surprising is that the number of debates has been steadily increasing over time, although it appears that both parties will have fewer in 2016 than they did in their last competitive primary seasons (2012 for Republicans, 2008 for Democrats).

The Democrats have not yet released their schedule, but they plan to hold six debates, including one in each of the first four nominating states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Republican schedule is firmer, with nine debates scheduled so far and three others pending. The early states will each get a debate, as well as some later voting states in locations such as Simi Valley, CA (home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) on Sept. 16 and Boulder, CO on Oct. 28. (USA Today is keeping an updated schedule of the debates.)

According to several authoritative sources and our own research, there have been 167 Democratic and Republican presidential primary debates, dating back to 1948. The GOP accounted for 73 of them (44%) and the Democrats had a total of 94 (56%). We have a number of observations about the history of these events, followed by Tables 3 and 4 at the end of the article, which list the primary debates we included in this study.

1. Presidential primary debates pre-date presidential general election debates

The four 1960 general election debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon are perhaps the most famous in American history, and they began what eventually became a modern tradition — televised presidential face-offs. While there were no general election debates in 1964, 1968, and 1972, beginning in 1976 the debates became a permanent part of the fall presidential campaign. However, presidential primary debates actually pre-date those held during the general election. Republican presidential candidates Gov. Thomas Dewey (NY) and former Gov. Harold Stassen (MN) held the first modern debate in 1948. The debate, conducted over radio in advance of the Oregon primary, focused on a single question: whether the Communist Party should be outlawed in the United States (Dewey said no, Stassen said yes). Dewey, previously the 1944 Republican nominee, won the nomination again in 1948, losing in a famous upset to President Harry Truman in November.

The first Democratic primary debate was in 1956, between former Gov. Adlai Stevenson (IL) and Sen. Estes Kefauver (TN) before the Florida primary. It was the first nationally televised presidential debate, although the reviews for the debate were poor because Kefauver and Stevenson took “virtually identical positions on almost every issue discussed,” as the New York Times reported. Stevenson would become the Democratic nominee for a second straight time in 1956, and the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket would go on to lose in a landslide to President Dwight Eisenhower.

Four years later, Kennedy would get some practice for his debates with Nixon in two primary debates — one with Sen. Hubert Humphrey (MN) before the pivotal West Virginia primary, and another with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (TX) in front of the Massachusetts and Texas delegations during the Democratic National Convention. Of course, Kennedy won the nomination and chose Johnson as his running mate.

2. Primary debates can produce memorable moments

Given how many primary debates we have recorded here — 167 total — at first blush it’s hard to think of many classic moments. Realistically, the vast majority of these debates probably meant very little. However, there are some memorable, if not always consequential, moments.

Most recently, then-Gov. Rick Perry’s (R-TX) “oops” back in 2011 will be long remembered as a notable blunder, although his candidacy appeared doomed before he failed to remember the third federal department he planned to eliminate (more on that in the next item).

During the 2008 race, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in what seemed like an interminable string of head-to-head debates — but only four actually featured just the two of them. (Compare that to 2000, when eventual Democratic nominee Al Gore participated in nine separate one-on-one debates with former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.) In thinking back on the Clinton-Obama debates, the most remarkable moment we can recall was during a New Hampshire debate that also featured then-Gov. Bill Richardson (NM) and former Sen. John Edwards (NC). Obama said Clinton was “likeable enough,” in a tone that clearly made it seem like a putdown.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton (D-AR) and then-former and now-current-Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) engaged in some stirring back-and-forth zingers in 1992, highlighted by Clinton taking issue with a Brown attack on his integrity — “How dare you call me the prince of sleaze?” Clinton pointedly asked of Brown — and defending his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. A Brown-Clinton debate also featured Clinton’s now-famous and much lampooned admission that he had tried marijuana in college but “did not inhale.”

During his ultimately successful 1984 battle with Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO), former Vice President Walter Mondale (D-MN) referenced a Wendy’s commercial to question Hart’s policy chops: “Where’s the beef?” he asked.

In 1980, former Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) paid for a debate in Nashua, NH, allowing him to declare, “I am paying for this microphone,” aimed at a moderator. The debate was supposed to be a one-on-one clash between frontrunners Reagan and then-former CIA director George H.W. Bush (R-TX), but four other candidates showed up, surprising Bush, who thought it would just be himself and Reagan. The other candidates did not end up participating, leaving just Reagan and Bush to debate, but “Bush was perceived as a poor sport, and his candidacy never recovered,” according to The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential Primaries, by a group of communication studies professors.

3. Primary debates can move the numbers

While general election debates get much more attention, primary debates can potentially be more influential on the actual voting than general election debates.

Why? Polarized party identification means most viewers just tune into general election debates to root for their side, like a sporting contest. But everybody in a primary debate is on the same side as the voters. The primary voters have to make a choice without party ID as a voting cue. Thus, what candidates say and how they say it can really matter.

An example, alluded to above, was an early moment in the 2012 cycle. Perry was leading the Republican field at the time when he suggested that the critics of the Texas DREAM Act were heartless, angering illegal immigration critics. By the time his “oops” moment came about a month and a half later, Perry had slipped to fourth and was quickly becoming an afterthought. See the chart below from RealClearPolitics — Perry’s DREAM Act defense clearly was a bigger blow than “oops.” However, we should note that it’s probably an oversimplification to attribute his decline solely to the debate, since Perry’s much-ballyhooed campaign was deficient in other respects. Perry’s late start and poor health at the time also contributed to his disappointing effort.

Chart 1: Rick Perry’s national GOP primary polling during 2012 cycle (in blue)

Source: RealClearPolitics

More broadly, look at that chart: National primary polls can swing violently, whereas general election polls, especially in this partisan era, tend to be somewhat less volatile. That’s in part because, as we noted earlier, voters don’t have a party cue to rely on in primaries.

Writing before the 2000 elections, political scientists Samuel J. Best and Clark Hubbard studied primary debates and concluded, in a chapter of In Pursuit of the White House 2000, that “televised primary debates can exercise considerable influence on voter preferences.” Several recent primary debates reinforce this conclusion.

4. Carson and Trump’s predecessors

Of the 10 candidates likely to appear at the first Republican debate next week, two will have no prior elective experience: businessman Donald Trump and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson (a third, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, might also appear in a future debate if her polling improves). This is not uncommon — many of the presidential debates have featured candidates who had never won an election.

Democrats, 1976: Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy brother-in-law who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1972 and the first director of the Peace Corps, never won an election for public office.

Democrats, 1984 and 1988: Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson made two high-profile runs for president in the 1980s but has never held public office, unless one counts his one-term stint as a symbolic, unpaid “shadow senator” from Washington, DC in the 1990s.

Republicans, 1988: Alexander Haig served as secretary of state and in many other high-level civilian and military positions but never won elected office. Neither did televangelist Pat Robertson, who nonetheless finished second in that year’s Iowa caucuses, ahead of eventual nominee George H.W. Bush.

Republicans, 1996: GOP debates that year featured four different candidates who had never won elected office: former White House official and commentator Pat Buchanan; publisher Steve Forbes; frequent candidate and conservative activist Alan Keyes (Keyes would later lose to Barack Obama in the latter’s 2004 Senate election); and businessman Morry Taylor.

Republicans, 2000: Forbes and Keyes participated in debates, as did former Reagan administration official and conservative activist Gary Bauer.

Democrats, 2004: Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton was a candidate but has never won an election; neither had dark horse candidate and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO.

Republicans, 2008: Keyes.

Republicans, 2012: Businessman Herman “9-9-9” Cain, who rode some well-received debate performances to a brief lead in national polls in late 2011 before dropping out of the race due to stories about his alleged marital infidelity.

None of these candidates lacking electoral experience came close to winning their party’s nomination. The last presidential nominee who had not held elected office prior to winning the presidency was Dwight Eisenhower, a national hero who had brilliantly commanded Allied forces in Europe during World War II.

5. Incumbent presidents skip primary debates

No sitting president has participated in a primary debate, despite the fact that several incumbent presidents have faced major primary challenges in the debate era. Unelected President Gerald Ford did not debate Reagan during the latter’s nearly-successful challenge in 1976. Nor did President Jimmy Carter debate Sen. Ted Kennedy (MA) during the latter’s high-profile bid in 1980.

More recently, President George H.W. Bush did not debate Buchanan in 1992. While Buchanan did not come close to winning the nomination, his strong performance against Bush in the New Hampshire primary proved to be an ominous sign for the incumbent, who lost to Clinton later that year.

6. The eventual winner participates in debates

Since 1972, every non-incumbent major party presidential nominee has appeared in a primary debate, and many of these nominees participated in all or nearly all of the contests included on our list. However, frontrunners do occasionally skip early debates. Reagan passed on an Iowa debate in 1980 only to see George H.W. Bush beat him in the caucuses there, setting up the microphone moment in New Hampshire. George W. Bush passed on the first few debates in the 2000 cycle but ended up steamrolling to the nomination, despite his landslide loss to Sen. John McCain (AZ) in New Hampshire.

7. Back-to-back debates not uncommon

The Crystal Ball team — and, we suspect, much of the political world — has had more leisurely weekends than Jan. 7-8, 2012, when that debate-laden Republican primary season featured GOP debates on consecutive days in New Hampshire, one in Manchester on Saturday night followed by a morning debate in Concord. We were surprised to find that such a punishing schedule was not unique to 2012. On the Republican side, 2000 and 2008 also included debates conducted on consecutive days. Similar to 2012, the 2008 debates were both in New Hampshire, while the 2000 back-to-back debates were in New Hampshire one day followed by South Carolina the next.

The Democratic side also featured these grueling back-to-backs: Texas followed by Minnesota in 1988; two Brown-Clinton debates on consecutive April days in New York City in 1992; and, incredibly, a Saturday, Feb. 29, 1992 debate in Colorado followed by a Sunday, March 1 double-header in Georgia and Maryland. The three states represented “the major prizes in a crucial round of primaries and caucuses” the following Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times. The triple-decker of debates preceded a three-way split result: Clinton won Georgia, Brown won Colorado, and former Sen. Paul Tsongas (MA) won Maryland.

As of now, there are no back-to-back debates scheduled for this cycle. For our own mental health — and for the sanity of the candidates and their staffs — we hope it stays that way.

8. Where have the most primary debates taken place?

Unsurprisingly, the first two states in the primary and caucus process — Iowa and New Hampshire — have hosted the most pre-nomination debates. Granite State sites have held 35 versus the Hawkeye State’s 23. Next in line is South Carolina, which checks in at 16 debates. Outside of the early states, the other three states in double digits are California (14), New York (11), and Florida (10).

Table 1: Number of primary debates held in each state

Digging deeper into the data, what about the cities and/or metropolitan areas that have held the most debates? First place is Des Moines, IA: the state capital and its suburbs have hosted 20 debates. Following closely behind is Manchester, NH, and its environs with 18 debates. The only other city to host more than 10 debates is New York City, which has hosted all 11 of the confabs to take place in the Empire State.

Table 2: Metropolitan areas that have held at least five primary debates

Do the parties have favorites? Des Moines has held the most Democratic debates (12) and the second-most Republican debates (eight). Manchester has hosted the most GOP sparring sessions (nine). Second among the Democrats is New York, which has hosted 10 Democratic debates. Los Angeles has also held a large number of Democratic debates, with eight having taken place in its environs. Third among Republican sites is Columbia, SC, which has hosted six debates.

9. The number and timing of primary debates

Until the 1988 cycle, there were no debates prior to the calendar year of the presidential election. However, since 2004, a majority of primary debates has occurred before the New Year. This has partially been a result of an earlier primary schedule, but also the increased, lengthier media attention on the process. Campaigns seem to be getting elongated across the board, and the presidential primary season is no exception. Below is a line graph (Chart 2) of the number of debates by time of year (or an average if both parties held debates).

Chart 2: Number of primary debates at different times in campaign season, 1948-2012

Note: Data for 1988, 2000, and 2008 are averages of the Democratic and Republican totals as both parties held debates in those cycles.

We can see an obvious increase in the number of face-offs taking place the year before a presidential battle. The most extreme example occurred on the Democratic side at the start of the 2008 presidential cycle, when eight Democrats sparred in Orangeburg, SC on April 26, 2007 — the earliest any primary debate has happened. As the timing of primaries and caucuses has moved forward and conventions have ceased to be the actual decision points for party nominations, the number of debates taking place beyond March 1 has dropped to nearly zero in the five most recent cycles. Given the lengthy primary battle between them, it is surprising Clinton and Obama only had one head-to-head debate after March 1 in the 2008 cycle (in Philadelphia on April 16, 2008). And although Mitt Romney did not clinch the delegate total necessary for his nomination in 2012 until May 22 of that year, there wasn’t another debate after the Feb. 22 competition in Mesa, AZ.

In terms of total debates, the open-seat presidential years of 1988, 2000, and 2008 saw the most as both parties held numerous candidate clashes. Chart 3 details the totals. Besides those three cycles, the only other one to have at least 20 debates was 2012, when the GOP primary alone featured 20 debates. No wonder the RNC sought to limit the verbal gymnastics this time around.

Chart 3: Number of primary debates by party, 1948-2012

10. The 2016 Republican race could set a record for primary debate participants — if the networks allow it, that is

Overall, Democrats have averaged nearly five candidates per debate, while Republicans have averaged about six. But as shown in Chart 4, there isn’t really much of a pattern once we enter the McGovern-Fraser primary reform period (starting with the 1972 cycle). The graph lays out the average number of participants in debates as well as the maximum number to appear in any debate that cycle.

Chart 4: Maximum and average number of debate participants for both parties in primary debates

Most striking is the fact that no debate for either party has ever had more than 10 participants. Republicans had debates in 1996 and 2008 with 10, and Democrats joined them in 2004. Given the 10-candidate limit imposed by the cable networks for the initial primetime Republican debates this cycle, the record high will not be broken, for the moment. Should any network prove brave enough, the large GOP field could fill a debate stage with more than 10 participants.

Interestingly, although the Republicans had a radio debate in 1948, the GOP wouldn’t hold another confab for 32 years. But from 1980 to 1996, there was a steady increase in the average number of Republican participants in years where the party had debates, including the first instance of 10 candidates in the first debate of the 1996 cycle in October 1995. Since then, the average and maximum number of debate participants has vacillated up and down.

On the Democratic side, the average number of candidates in debates increased up until 1984, a cycle where the maximum number of candidates on stage was eight. But Democrats’ debate participant figures sagged after that, falling all the way to just two for all nine of the party’s debates in 2000 as Gore and Bradley were the party’s only major candidates. With the potential challenge of facing George W. Bush, a record 10 Democrats appeared in one debate during the 2004 cycle and the party of Jefferson and Jackson (well, kind of) averaged 7.5 participants per debate that year. But the Democratic totals fell off again in 2008, maxing out at eight again, with an average of 5.6.

With that, here’s our list of the 167 presidential primary debates from 1948 through 2012. For information on how we built this list, see the notes below the two tables.

Tables 3 and 4: Republican and Democratic presidential primary debates, 1948-2012

Notes: For debates from 1948-2000, we used lists from The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential Primaries and In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees. For debates from 2004 through 2012, we used The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara and our own research. Particularly for the last three cycles, we made some judgment calls about which debates to include or exclude; generally, if the debate was televised and included at least some of the leading candidates, we included it on our list. If you believe we are missing a debate or have other comments or questions about how we built this list, please e-mail us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu. Taylor Hardin, an Alabama state official, stood in for Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) during a 1972 Democratic debate.

Sources: The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara; The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential Primaries; In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees; Crystal Ball research.


A Small Senate Battlefield

Control of upper chamber likely to come down to about a quarter of 2016’s races

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 23rd, 2015

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Since we last took a comprehensive look at the 2016 Senate races, a slew of new candidates have jumped in, some promising contenders have dropped out, and intraparty competition has intensified.

Sounds dramatic. Yet what most strikes us is the overall stability, thus far at least, of the Senate picture.

First, Democrats have a plausible but narrow path to a minimal majority, requiring a net gain of four seats if a Democratic vice president is also elected, or five seats if the GOP wins the White House. But as we note below, Democrats need to win the lion’s share of the small number of truly competitive seats on this cycle’s map.

Second, because the route to a Democratic majority is fraught with peril and obstacles aplenty, the Republicans are still more likely to keep the majority than the Democrats are to win it, though it would be a considerable surprise if the GOP’s 54-46 seat margin wasn’t reduced by at least a seat or two. Not losing any net seats probably requires the Republican nominee to not only win the presidency, but capture more than 300 electoral votes in doing so — something no Republican has done since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Third, if the Republican presidential ticket is triumphant, even if just by a hair, it will be exceptionally difficult, perhaps impossible, for the Democrats to take over the Senate; the wind would be at the backs of GOP Senate candidates even in the handful of blue states where a Republican holds the Senate seat.

Fourth, if the Democratic presidential ticket is elected, Democrats in the tightest Senate races will benefit — nearly all the key Senate races at this point are in plausible presidential battlefields (with the exception of Illinois, which almost certainly will comfortably support the Democratic White House nominee). While it is possible for the Democrat to win the presidency and the Republicans to hold the Senate, it becomes ever more perilous for the GOP majority as the Democratic presidential vote margin grows. In other words, a Democratic squeaker win for the presidency might not capture the Senate, but a victory of several percentage points may well do the trick.

Fifth, to this point, Republican Senate incumbents have mostly avoided serious, divisive primary challenges from the right. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) may prove to be exceptions, but both begin as solid favorites. After the internecine battles that bruised Republican Senate nominees the last several cycles, this more tranquil environment must surely thrill the GOP leadership — not to mention the Republican incumbents up for reelection. And remember, for all the hype last year, no incumbent GOP senator lost a primary in 2014.

Sixth, Democrats are getting a taste of factional fighting in several states. California and Maryland are Democratic enough that the eventual party nominee will likely be fine — although Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) is proof that the principle has exceptions, at least in a low-turnout midterm election. It’s in Florida where Democrats need to worry, with good reason. We’ll explain later on.

All this aside, the Crystal Ball does have two ratings changes in important Senate contests. We are moving Illinois from Toss Up to Leans Democratic, and we are moving North Carolina from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. An update on these critical races and other key Senate matchups follow.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating changes

Illinois: Kirk’s coattail conundrum

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has a serious mountain to climb if he wants to hold onto the seat he won in 2010. And that peak’s name is “presidential coattail.”

There are seven Republican-held seats in states that President Barack Obama won in 2012 that are up for election in 2016. Of those, Illinois is the most Democratic by presidential vote, and it’s not close. In 2012, Obama won 58.6% of the two-party vote in the Land of Lincoln (a noticeable drop from 62.7% in 2008; he likely benefited more from being a home-state candidate in 2008 than 2012). The next closest of the seven states in question is Wisconsin, where Obama won 53.5% of the two-party vote in 2012. That five-point difference demonstrates just how Democratic Illinois is, and it means that Kirk is going to have to run well ahead of the eventual GOP presidential nominee to have any chance of winning.

But history doesn’t provide a great deal of encouragement for the Kirk campaign. As we discussed back in March, the vote percentages in Senate races have become increasingly correlated with the presidential result. Correspondingly, the same party increasingly wins both contests in a given state. In fact, the percentage of straight-ticket results in concurrent presidential and Senate elections grew from 69% in 1992 to 81% in 2012.

If we dig into the results most germane to Kirk’s chances — Republican incumbents seeking reelection in blue states during presidential cycles — the numbers tell a mixed but fairly bleak story for Kirk. Going back to the 2000 election, 17 blue-state Republican incumbents have run for reelection. The data for these senators are laid out in Table 2; all figures in the tables are based on the two-party vote for Senate and president in those four presidential cycles.

Table 2: Incumbent Republican senators seeking reelection in states won by the Democratic presidential nominee, 2000-2012

Note: *Signifies appointed incumbent; senators colored in orange lost reelection.

On the one hand, these 17 incumbents ran an average of 8.7 points ahead of the GOP presidential nominee in the two-party vote. Only two of them didn’t run ahead of the presidential ticket. Those data points suggest that Kirk does have a shot at holding on — and we should reiterate that he does. On the other hand, only eight of the 17 Republican incumbents won reelection, and the median incumbent only ran 5.7 points ahead, perhaps a more useful number with such a small sample size. (Averages can shift dramatically if there are very large or small observations in the data set; for example, Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords ran 27.5 points ahead of George W. Bush in the 2000 cycle.)

So how much of Illinois’ vote will the Democratic presidential nominee win in 2016? Impossible to say exactly, of course, but John Kerry won 55.2% of the state’s two-party vote in 2004, which serves as a useful measuring stick — it’s the lowest Democratic take in the 2000-2012 period. If Kirk were to perform at the median level of recent times, he would be running 5.7 points ahead of 44.8% for the Republican presidential ticket’s two-party vote, which would put him at 50.5%, just ahead of his Democratic opponent’s 49.5%. Safe to say, Kirk will have very little margin for error to win.

Given our previous Toss-up rating, we can still see Kirk overcoming Democratic coattails. After all, prior to being elected to the Senate, Kirk held a Democratic-leaning House district in suburban Chicago and has long had a moderate profile, the only kind a Republican statewide official can really have in a fairly blue state like Illinois in a presidential year. But now some recent statements have put Kirk in hot water, giving Democrats plenty of ammunition to work with. Some examples include referring to unmarried Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as his “bro with no ho,” and his interest in making sure “that the black community is not the one we drive faster through.” Using a poor choice of words once is one thing; doing so repeatedly — he recently said Obama wants “to get nukes to Iran” — has become all too common for Kirk. Part of the reason we’re moving Illinois now — after all, Kirk’s coattail problem is not new — is that we feel Kirk needs to run a near-perfect race to win, and he has not shown that ability thus far.

It remains to be seen who will face off against Kirk next November, but Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8) is the favorite in the Democratic nomination race. Former Chicago Urban League President and CEO Andrea Zopp (D) is going to try to give Duckworth a fight in the primary, but the congresswoman has the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a signal that she is the choice of much of the party establishment. We still have some uncertainty about Duckworth’s strength as a statewide candidate, but Kirk’s foot-in-mouth troubles and the state’s Democratic lean surely help her chances. But we’ll keep an eye on intraparty strife here — the Duckworth-Zopp faceoff could get nasty.

With Illinois’ new Leans Democratic rating, it joins Wisconsin as the two Republican-held Senate seats where we currently view Democrats as small favorites in 2016. In the Badger State, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) will almost certainly face ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in a rematch of their 2010 contest, but Johnson may be too conservative for his state in a presidential cycle. He too will have to deal with Democratic coattails in a state that hasn’t backed a GOP presidential nominee since 1984. Kirk has a better ideological profile for his Democratic-leaning state than Johnson does for his, but the Land of Lincoln is a darker shade of blue.

North Carolina: Nobody wants a piece of Burr

The good news for Republicans is that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) looks stronger than ever in the Tar Heel State, which has led us to move his contest to Likely Republican. Burr’s improved position comes mainly because the state’s top Democrats have thus far passed on the race. Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who narrowly lost to now-Sen. Thom Tillis (R) in 2014, and state Treasurer Janet Cowell (D) have both opted against Senate bids. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (D), another potential Democratic recruit, has also said he won’t run.

Although there’s time left for someone to change his or her mind — à la now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who initially passed on a 2014 run only to end up winning a U.S. Senate seat — Burr’s fundraising head start will make a challenge less and less attractive as time goes on. While polling has often showed the low-key Burr to be surprisingly unknown for a man first elected statewide in 2004, horserace hypotheticals have routinely shown him leading all comers in 2016.

While the DSCC is projecting confidence about the party’s ability to take on Burr, the fact remains: Democrats have no candidate. Moreover, North Carolina has a slight Republican lean at the presidential level, which should assist Burr. Since 2000, of the 52 Republican Senate incumbents who have faced a Democratic challenger in a reelection bid, 38 have run ahead of the presidential nominee in the two-party vote. Unless Democrats can field a strong candidate — Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) ran behind John McCain while losing to Hagan in 2008, for example — Burr may be the next to accomplish this feat. Keep an eye on this race, though — we won’t hesitate to make the rating more competitive if a strong challenger emerges. Yet history shows Burr is a politician who has exceeded expectations in both of his prior Senate contests.

The rest of the Senate picture

Moving Illinois out of the Toss-up column leaves only two pure coin flips among the 34 Senate races being contested this year: open seats in Florida and Nevada. Recent developments have made each race even more intriguing.

In the Sunshine State, Democrats are miffed that Rep. Alan Grayson (D, FL-9) has entered the primary against establishment favorite Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18). Murphy represents a Mitt Romney-won congressional district and is cultivating the same moderate image that has helped recently successful statewide Florida Democrats, such as durable incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and the consistently successful Bob Graham (D), a former senator and governor. Grayson, meanwhile, represents safe Democratic territory and is best known for bomb-throwing rhetoric and personal foibles. Murphy’s path to victory is to emphasize the personal, like Grayson’s bombastic comments, recent messy marriage annulment, and financial questions, while Grayson will aggressively run to Murphy’s left. In addition to voting with Republicans on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, Murphy is a former Republican. Grayson probably starts with a small lead thanks to better name ID, but it’s a Toss-up primary — both represent just 1/27th of the big state in the House, so they both have lots of work to do. Murphy’s the next great hope for Democrats in Florida: If he is to emerge, he’ll have to earn it despite his broad national and state party backing. Or perhaps, in the person of Grayson, Florida will give Democrats their Todd Akin (R-MO) or Richard Mourdock (R-IN) — recent Republican Senate nominees who won tough primaries only to appear extreme and fall apart in the general election.

One wild card: The Florida Supreme Court has ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to redraw the state’s congressional map. On balance, the changes might lead to the Democrats netting a seat in Florida, but the already GOP-leaning panhandle district of freshman Rep. Gwen Graham (D, FL-2) may be redrawn in a way that makes it unwinnable for her. Might she jump into the Senate race, too? Among Florida politicos, Graham is viewed by many as potentially the Democrats’ most formidable candidate. The first-term representative and daughter of the aforementioned Bob Graham has a moderate profile like Murphy’s. Ironically, if she does enter the Senate race, it could ultimately help Grayson — and the GOP. Graham is also a potential Democratic gubernatorial contender in 2018, or perhaps she could run for Nelson’s Senate seat if he decides to retire next cycle (though Nelson has insisted he’ll run again; he’s currently recovering from surgery for prostate cancer).

The pending Florida re-map is having an effect on the Republican Senate primary, too. Rep. David Jolly’s (R, FL-13) swing district is likely to become more Democratic after redistricting, so he is now running for Senate.* Similar to Graham on the Democratic side, Florida insiders view Jolly as the strongest general election candidate in the crowded Republican field. Besides Jolly, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, FL-6), Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R), and businessman and veteran Todd Wilcox (R) have all declared their candidacies. Additionally, Rep. Jeff Miller (R, FL-1) is a likely entrant, while former state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) is also considering a bid. DeSantis is a favorite of anti-establishment conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, and Democrats would like to run against him because they believe they can categorize him as a right-wing candidate. Meanwhile, the DeSantis team is hopeful that he can become a consensus candidate in the GOP primary, starting with their base of support on the right and making inroads with the party establishment. A model might be now-Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), who over the course of last year’s primary campaign appealed to both the outsider right and the party establishment as competitors fell by the wayside. As Florida doesn’t use a runoff system with party primaries (the state eliminated the practice before the 2002 election cycle), it won’t take a high percentage to win the GOP nomination if there are four or more credible candidates.

Florida could decide control of the Senate and the White House next year, and at this point, it’s anyone’s game in both statewide races.

In the Silver State, there’s not much primary intrigue. Former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) should be the Democratic nominee, and Rep. Joe Heck (R, NV-3), who represents a swing seat, also appears to have a clear path to his party’s nomination. Masto was probably the Democrats’ best recruit, and Heck was the next-best GOP alternative to popular Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who never appeared close to running.

Assuming they keep the White House — a big assumption — Democrats would need to net four seats to win the Senate, and the key word is “net.” Holding their own vulnerable seats is the first step. Nevada will be tight; Democrats are favored in the other nine seats they already control on this cycle’s slate, although Colorado just Leans Democratic. Still, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) must be thrilled that Republicans have been unable to entice a top-tier contender into the race. But just like North Carolina, it’s early. We could imagine moving Colorado to Likely Democratic using the same logic that moved North Carolina to Likely Republican, but Colorado could end up being more of a presidential toss-up than North Carolina. A GOP trend in fall 2016 might make the path for Republicans in Colorado easier than it seems to be now. However, that’s speculation, and the hard evidence for the moment shows that Bennet, just like Burr, has seen his position improve.

If Democrats hold Colorado and Nevada, their best offensive targets are, as mentioned above, Illinois and Wisconsin. Winning those two would get them halfway to their goal, and taking Florida would get Democrats three-quarters of the way.

Republicans remain favorites — though only slightly in a few — in every other race on the board. If Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) challenges Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire, that contest would become a Toss-up. Republicans are releasing internal polls and running ads against Hassan to try to dissuade her from running. She is in the midst of a budget battle that might last months, but as the clear Democratic frontrunner, Hassan can freeze the field into next year if she wants. Ayotte would probably be a decent favorite against any other Democrat unless the state votes substantially Democratic for president.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have been seeking an alternative to 2010 nominee Joe Sestak (D) to run against Sen. Pat Toomey (R), and it appears one has finally emerged: Katie McGinty (D), chief of staff for Gov. Tom Wolf (D), is expected to resign her position on Thursday and declare her Senate candidacy sometime in the next few weeks. Given the Democratic establishment’s distaste for Sestak, the Democratic primary could be acrimonious and expensive, perhaps serving as a nice undercard to the Florida Democratic primary. Still, McGinty doesn’t exactly have a sterling electoral track record: She got just 7.7% in last year’s gubernatorial primary, finishing last among four candidates and 50 points behind Wolf. Sestak remains a favorite to win his party’s nomination, making a Toomey-Sestak rematch the likeliest outcome. A Hillary Clinton presidential victory could help make Sestak a senator despite his poor reputation with state and national Democrats, who see him as aloof and difficult to work with.

A Quinnipiac poll has shown former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) leading Sen. Rob Portman (R) in Ohio, but we’re skeptical. The race should be quite competitive, and Clinton could help Strickland over the finish line, but we still see the well-funded Portman with a small edge. Ohio is a place where Obama’s absence from the ticket could cost Democrats a couple points worth of black turnout in places like Cleveland and Cincinnati, which might be the difference between winning and losing. Strickland still needs to win a primary against Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D), though there’s not much indication that Strickland is in any trouble. However, we’re hearing growing dissatisfaction from some Ohio Democrats about the state and national party’s efforts to push Sittenfeld out of the race.

Beyond that, Democrats will hope for primary chaos in places like Arizona, where McCain is being challenged by far-right state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and where Democrats have a strong potential nominee in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1), and Indiana, where ex-Rep. Baron Hill (D) hopes a crowded primary produces a subpar, damaged GOP nominee. Missouri is another fringe Democratic target, but the veteran, wily Sen. Roy Blunt (R) would have to make some serious mistakes to open the door for his likely opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D).

States not mentioned so far do not, at the moment, offer much intrigue for next year’s general election. As of now, only eight of 34 Senate contests feature the competitive Leaning or Toss-up ratings. Democrats need to win six of those eight to force a 50-50 tie in the Senate, which they hope a Democratic vice president will break in their favor.

Map 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Senate ratings

*As noted on Twitter and on our Crystal Ball website, we are not making any preemptive House rating changes in response to the Florida redistricting fiasco. We will wait for a new map to emerge before we do that. However, we are moving Jolly’s FL-13 from Likely Republican to Toss-up, because it is now an open seat divided evenly between the parties. Most observers believe the district will get more Democratic in redistricting, and it appears that former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) will likely run for the redrawn seat. Crist, a St. Petersburg resident, remains popular in the Tampa Bay area. Either or both of those developments could push the seat further toward the Democrats — stay tuned.

Table 3: Crystal Ball House ratings change


The Debates and the Bushes

Recent articles in Politico Magazine look at two aspects of the 2016 Republican presidential race

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics July 23rd, 2015

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U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is a regular contributor to Politico Magazine, and this week we offer a snippet and link to his two most recent pieces for the publication. The first article, which appeared in Politico Magazine on July 16, 2015, offers a more inclusive Republican debate format compared to the one proposed by the cable news channels. The second column, which appeared in the magazine on July 20, 2015, reviews the Bush family’s track record of speaking empathetically while campaigning negatively and explains why we can probably expect Jeb Bush’s 2016 bid to follow a similar course.

The Editors

Let Them Debate!

It will be easy this year to identify the biggest losers in the GOP debates. They will be the candidates who aren’t on the stage.

With a record 17 prominent candidates vying for the Republican nomination (so far), no system for determining admission to the debate stage will please everyone. But the GOP can certainly do better than the statistically unsound procedures announced by Fox News and CNN. These rules will senselessly reward gimmicky candidates like reality-TV star Donald Trump and punish serious, viable ones like Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

To qualify for Fox’s August debate and CNN’s September one, recent national polls must rank a Republican candidate in the top 10. Those who fail to make the cut will attend separate debates guaranteed to have a fraction of the viewership and a fraction of the potential payoff.

As polling experts of all ideological stripes have pointed out, the margin of error in surveys is so large that it is statistically impossible to determine who should fill the last two or three spots in the top 10. Effectively, all the polling bottom-dwellers (those who have one percent to four percent) are tied — and a good chunk of the field is now in this category. Just this week, the Ted Cruz campaign, whose candidate is ranked eighth according to the Real Clear Politics average but is in a decent position to make the first debate, questioned Fox News’ debate standards and suggested it select candidates only through polls that interviewed more than 1,000 primary voters and were conducted via telephone.

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

* * *

Jeb Bush Is Meaner Than He Looks

Like father, like son — or perhaps it’s the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Whatever cliché you prefer, one of the useful things about dynasties is that patterns emerge over time. With the Clintons, for instance, we know to pay attention to every modifying word and each verb tense they use (the meaning of “is” and such). The whole truth usually has to be dragged out of them — or discovered independently.

Similarly, an examination of the Bush family legacy in campaigning makes clear that Jeb Bush’s “Mr. Nice Guy” routine isn’t likely to last all that long. Most presidential candidates have a streak of ruthlessness in them — even the nice guys. Make that especially the nice guys. They’re mild-mannered and courteous in public, so someone else has to do the dirty work of winning for them.

Jeb Bush will prove this again. It’s an easy prediction that he’ll follow his brother and father in bushwhacking any opponent standing between him and the presidency. With the Bushes, do not take too seriously their assertions of personal sweetness.

George H.W. Bush called for “a kinder, gentler nation” while accepting the Republican presidential nomination in August 1988. George W. Bush set the goal of “compassionate conservatism” when his turn came in 2000. And now, Jeb Bush promises to “show [his] heart” during his 2016 campaign — one he says he wants to be full of “hugging and kissing.”

The Bushes have the empathetic pitch down pat, but beware the brass knuckles hiding beneath the velvet glove of their rhetoric. Jeb Bush is likely to have far more money than any other rival, especially because of his Right to Rise super PAC, which has collected $103 million already. This committee is run by the shrewd and talented Mike Murphy, who has declared he will “weaponize” Bush’s fundraising advantage.

To read the rest of this article, please click here.