Sabato's Crystal Ball

A Look Back, a Look Forward

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics November 9th, 2004

What an election! Whether you liked or disliked the outcome, surely you must agree that this contest will be remembered by history. We have not seen such intensity since 1968, and not coincidentally, the turnout of eligible adult Americans appears to have been larger in 2004 than any presidential year since…1968.

We’re proud of our record at the Crystal Ball, having forecast 525 of 530 contests correctly–a 99 percent accuracy rating. We missed one Senate race, one House race, one governor’s race, and two states in the Electoral College, and like all political analysts reading the election returns, we are kicking ourselves for getting those wrong! But it was our best year ever, and we are thrilled.

Now it’s on to the 2004 post-election book. We’ll soon have an announcement about ARMAGEDDON: The Bush-Kerry Contest (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005). A terrific cast of first-rate academics, journalists, and political observers has joined forces to produce the analysis for this forthcoming volume. At the appropriate time, we’ll send you the details so you can order a copy, should you be so inclined.

We will save our analysis for that venue, but don’t forget several points:

  1. The Perfect Majority Theorem: The “perfect majority” is 51 percent, exactly what George W. Bush received. Why is it perfect? Super-majorities such as those received by LBJ(1964), Nixon(1972), and Reagan(1984) inevitably deteriorate over time because of internal stresses and contradictory demands that cannot be satisfied. By contrast, a 51 percent majority is easier to maintain, makes governing easier, and increases a party’s chances of winning the next election. It may seem counterintuitive, but the theorem holds in practice under most conditions.
  2. Mobilization in a democracy begets counter-mobilization. The 2004 election now becomes Exhibit A in proving this time-tested axiom. Both the Republicans and Democrats sense that 2004 would be a competitive year with high stakes, and they separately went to work to register new voters and get new and old voters to the polls. Reports of success by one party fed intensified efforts by the other party, and on it went for a year or more. The result was higher turnout and enhanced interest in the election–through no overarching advantage for either party from this aspect of campaigning.
  3. Bush as Truman. Our regular readers are no doubt sick of our comparisons to 1948, but of all the twentieth century presidential elections, we would insist that 1948 is the closest to 2004. In both cases, an incumbent who fell behind for a good bit of the election year threw himself into the campaign, and the “regular guy” incumbent managed to convince a skeptical public, by a few percentage points, that his course was superior to a sometimes aloof challenger’s. All the other incumbents who fell behind in the election year in the modern era have lost reelection. Truman and Bush are the only members of a very special presidential club.

There is only one aspect of this election that has disappointed us. It has been a full week since Nov. 2, and virtually no stories yet have focused on the upcoming 2006 elections! Where are your priorities, America?

While we are taking a break for a while at the Crystal Ball so that we can produce our 2004 book, we want to leave you with a tantalizing look ahead. The elections for 33 Senate seats and 36 governorships–plus Virginia and New Jersey in 2005–have already begun. And who knows? Even with shameful partisan redistricting in most of the states, maybe we’ll be able to fill up our Nifty Fifty for 2006 out of 435 House seats. (Imagine, we might not be able to find just fifty competitive House contests in a universe of 435!) Also, keep in mind that 2006 represents the sixth year of the George W. Bush presidency, and as such, there just might be a “sixth year itch,” where voters turn to the out-of-power party in surprising numbers. In recent times Dwight Eisenhower (1958), JFK/LBJ (1966), Nixon/Ford (1974), and Ronald Reagan (1986) experienced the dreaded itch. But it isn’t a mandate of politics. Bill Clinton avoided it entirely in 1998, thanks to a Democratic life provided by GOP impeachment efforts. (Of course, Clinton had his sixth year itch in the second year, 1994.) All in all, it’s far too early to say whether the phenomenon will be observed anew in 2006; rather, at this moment, it is simply a possibility, and it might be observed more in governorships than Senate or House contests.

As the table below shows, term limits automatically give us open governorships in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, and Ohio. (Virginia, with its one-term limit, is also open in 2005, and New Jersey is probably open, too, assuming State Senate President/Acting Governor Richard Codey defers to his party’s preferred choice, Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Corzine.) We also have possible or likely retirements in Alaska (Frank Murkowski-R), Iowa (Tom Vilsack-D), New York (George Pataki-R), and Texas (Rick Perry-R). At the moment, the other incumbents appear to be running, and some of the possible retirees might try again, too.


2006 Senate Races

State Incumbent Party
Arizona John Kyl Republican
California Dianne Feinstein Democrat
Connecticut Joseph Lieberman Democrat
Delaware Thomas Carper Democrat
Florida Bill Nelson Democrat
Hawaii Daniel Akaka Democrat
Maine Olympia Snowe Republican
Maryland Paul Sarbanes Democrat
Massachusetts Edward Kennedy Democrat
Michigan Debbie Stabenow Democrat
Minnesota Mark Dayton Democrat
Mississippi Trent Lott Republican
Missouri James Talent Republican
Montana Conrad Burns Republican
Nevada John Ensign Republican
New Jersey Jon Corzine Democrat
New Mexico Jeff Bingaman Democrat
New York Hillary Clinton Democrat
North Dakota Kent Conrad Democrat
Ohio Mike DeWine Republican
Pennsylvania Rick Santorum Republican
Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee Republican
Tennessee Bill Frist Republican
Texas Kay Hutchison Republican
Utah Orrin Hatch Republican
Vermont James Jeffords Independent
Virginia George Allen Republican
Washington Maria Cantwell Democrat
West Virginia Robert Byrd Democrat
Wisconsin Herb Kohl Democrat
Wyoming Craig Thomas Republican


2006 Governor’s Seats

State Incumbent Party
Alabama Bob Riley Republican
Alaska Frank Murkowski Republican
Arizona Janet Napolitano Democrat
Arkansas Mike Huckabee Republican
California Arnold Schwarzenegger Republican
Colorado Bill Owens Republican
Connecticut M. Jodi Rell Republican
Florida Jeb Bush Republican
Georgia Sonny Perdue Republican
Hawaii Linda Lingle Republican
Idaho Dirk Kempthorne Republican
Illinois Rod Blagojevich Democrat
Iowa Tom Vilsack Democrat
Kansas Kathleen Sebelius Democrat
Maine John Baldacci Democrat
Maryland Robert Ehrlich Republican
Massachusetts Mitt Romney Republican
Michigan Jennifer Granholm Democrat
Minnesota Tim Pawlenty Republican
Nebraska Mike Johanns Republican
Nevada Kenny Guinn Republican
New Hampshire John Lynch Democrat
New Mexico Bill Richardson Democrat
New York George Pataki Republican
Ohio Bob Taft Republican
Oklahoma Brad Henry Democrat
Oregon Ted Kulongoski Democrat
Pennsylvania Ed Rendell Democrat
Rhode Island Donald Carcieri Republican
South Carolina Mark Sanford Republican
South Dakota Mike Rounds Republican
Tennessee Phil Bredesen Democrat
Texas Rick Perry Republican
Vermont James Douglas Republican
Wisconsin Jim Doyle Democrat
Wyoming Dave Freudenthal Democrat

On the Senate side of the ledger, we see 10 possible retirees: Akaka (D-HI), Lugar (R-IN), Sarbanes (D-MD), Lott (R-MS), Burns (R-MT), Frist (R-TN), Hutchison (R-TX), Kohl (D-WI), Byrd (D-WV), and Thomas (R-WY). Any open seat generates competitiveness above the norm. And of course, there could be surprise retirees who have not even hinted at it.

Finally, the following senators begin the election cycle as vulnerable, though we caution that even many vulnerable senators win reelection in the end:

All right, that should hold you, dear readers. We’ve enjoyed sharing this election cycle with you, and we hope you’ve enjoyed the Crystal Ball–a totally free, no-advertising, completely non-partisan politics site brought to you by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. See you soon, right back in this space! LJS