Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

Geoffrey Skelley, Political Analyst September 20th, 2012

The Little Things Matter

Many politicians may not want to admit it, but much of political success is built on timing and luck. In what is probably going to be a close election on Nov. 6, every small turn of fortune for each candidate could serve as the little push that puts one over the top on Election Day.

Looking back at some recent events, who appears to be the luckier candidate at the moment, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

To some unknown degree, each of these developments probably helps Obama a little bit. But will they matter in the end? We just don’t know yet.

It is important to remember that we are still 47 days from the election. Romney may get some little boosts of his own during this time. The most obvious would be for the economic numbers, such as the Nov. 2 jobs report, to be weak enough to push some last minute undecideds off the fence into the Romney column four days later on Election Day.

Senate Shockers reader responses

Some readers suggested some additions to our lengthy list of unexpected results in Senate races since 1972.

One reader, John, thought the 1978 Minnesota race between David Durenberger (R) and one-time Minneapolis-then-Los Angeles Lakers owner Bob Short (D) should have been mentioned. Durenberger defeated Short to finish up the late Hubert Humphrey’s term, where odds would seem to have favored the Democrat at the start. The margin of this race led us to not include this race — Durenberger won 61.4% to Short’s 34.5%. While there were other blowouts on our list, most were where a long-time incumbent was defeated (i.e. George McGovern). It didn’t help the more-conservative Short that he narrowly beat the liberals’ preferred candidate, then-Rep. Donald Fraser, in the Democratic primary, prompting some Democrats to cross over to vote for the moderate Durenberger in the general election. But still, this race is somewhat analogous to the Massachusetts special election in 2010 where Scott Brown won “Ted Kennedy’s seat”; in this case, the liberal Humphrey’s seat ended up in Republican hands.

Another reader, Juan, argued that the 1976 race in New Mexico deserved inclusion on our list. In that case, two-term incumbent Sen. Joseph Montoya (D) lost to former Apollo astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (R) by a 14-point margin. While Montoya had never crushed his opposition in his two previous elections, he had won comfortably enough that a more than double digit loss seemed unlikely at the outset. However, Montoya faced ethical questions at the end of his tenure, making it easier for Schmitt to provide contrast as a heroic astronaut with the slogan “Honesty for a change.”

Some Twitter users suggested now-Sen. John Thune’s (R) 2004 victory over Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in South Dakota. We didn’t include that race because it was close for months before the election, which meant that either outcome couldn’t have been that much of a shock.

As avid fans of political history, we appreciate our readers writing in to suggest these other upsets.