Sabato's Crystal Ball

President Too Close to Call; Democrats Hold Senate Edge Prior to Final Weekend

Final predictions in Electoral College, other races, coming Monday

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U.Va. Center for Politics November 1st, 2012

Remarkably, after a year of intense campaigning, this election is not in the bag for either major-party candidate. It remains on the edge of the butter knife; the state polling averages tilt the Electoral College slightly to President Obama, and the RealClearPolitics national polling average moved into an exact tie late Wednesday afternoon. On top of it all, a fierce Super Storm intervened, acting as a circuit-breaker that stopped campaigning dead in its tracks for several days in the election’s last week.

Have Obama’s presidential actions in the wake of the storm, so highly praised by Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, had an effect? Will Friday’s unemployment report — whatever it may show — push the small percentage of remaining undecideds off the fence and toward one of the candidates? This election is going down to the wire, and we will issue our final Electoral College predictions, as we often do, on Monday, the day before the election.

In our private conversations with Democratic and Republican leaders, we see two diametrically opposed visions of the electorate — almost parallel universes — and two visions of how the election will shake out. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats AND the Republicans are confident of victory for their party in what is a close presidential contest. Democrats see favorable demographics and sturdy leads in enough states to get Obama over the magic 270-vote mark, while Republicans discern rumblings of a 1980-style wave that will not only ruin Obama, but also drown Democratic Senate candidates and ruin the reputations of many pollsters, particularly on the state level.

We still see eight true battlegrounds right now, the same ones we have focused our readers on for over one year, with just one addition: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin (the latter added after Paul Ryan’s pick for VP).

Here’s how we size up all eight states at the moment:

COLORADO (Pre-convention RealClearPolitics polling average on Aug. 26: Obama 47.6%, Romney 46.0%; current average: Obama 48.2%, Romney 47.7%) — We’ve been hearing that Romney is slightly up in Colorado, but it’s still a toss-up. Colorado is probably more important to Romney than Obama in the Electoral College, although if Obama loses Ohio and Colorado he probably won’t win. TOSS-UP

FLORIDA (Pre-convention average: Obama, Romney tied at 46.3%; current average: Romney 49.1%, Obama 47.9%) — We’ve thought for weeks that Romney held the upper hand in Florida, but note that Romney spent his Wednesday in the Sunshine State; if it were truly locked up for him, there would be other, better places for him to go at campaign’s end. LEANS REPUBLICAN

IOWA (Pre-convention average: Obama 45.3%, Romney 44.3%; current average: Obama 47.8%, Romney 46.5%) — Newspaper endorsements typically aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but sometimes — when they are unpredictable — they can have a measurable effect. That’s the way we feel about the Des Moines Register’s splashy endorsement of Mitt Romney on Sunday, its first GOP presidential pick since Richard Nixon in 1972. The endorsement — and, more importantly, the paucity of public polling in the state — lead us to call Iowa a TOSS-UP.

NEVADA (Pre-convention average: Obama 49.0%, Romney 44.8%; Current average: Obama 50.0%, Romney 47.6%) — We know a lot about Nevada because of its robust early voting. Swingy Washoe County (Reno) is about even in early voting, and the Democrats are building a big advantage in Clark County (Las Vegas). That should be enough to cancel out the remaining conservative parts of the state. Despite enthusiastic backing for Romney among the state’s Mormon population, we continue to believe Obama leads here. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

NEW HAMPSHIRE (Pre-convention average: Obama 48.3%, Romney 44.8%; Current average: Obama 48.7%, Romney 47.7%) — With its small bounty of electoral votes, the Granite State could mean nothing — or everything — on Election Day. (Had Al Gore won it in 2000, he would have been president, whatever happened in Florida.) Democrats are confident of holding it, but we see it as too close to call. TOSS-UP

OHIO (Pre-convention average: Obama 46.8%, Romney 45.2%; Current average: Obama 48.9%, Romney 46.6%) — Gov. John Kasich (R) proclaimed the other day that Mitt Romney would carry the Buckeye State, but the weight of polling evidence and many on-the-ground reports we have received suggest otherwise. In all likelihood Obama retains a lead of a point or two — though our sources differ as to whether the president’s edge is sturdy or fragile. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

VIRGINIA (Pre-convention average: Obama 47.3%, Romney 46.7%; Current average Romney 47.9%, Obama 47.4%) — We essentially feel the same way about Virginia that we feel about Ohio, except in reverse: here, Romney probably has a very small lead — though Obama’s Ohio polling lead is more robust than Romney’s Virginia advantage. Once again, our best, frankest sources are emphatic but in opposite directions. Republicans insist Romney will win Virginia, and Democrats appear almost equally sure in the other direction. TOSS-UP

WISCONSIN (Pre-convention average: Obama 48.2%, Romney 46.8%; Current average: Obama 49.8%, Romney 45.8%) — Obama got a big polling boost Wednesday when the respected Marquette Law School Poll found Obama up eight points in Wisconsin, up from one point just two weeks ago. (Wednesday was, in general, a good polling day for the president.) However, some Republicans seem to think that Wisconsin might be a better target than Ohio, so we want to see what the GOP throws into the Badger State at the end. TOSS-UP

Map 1: Updated Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings



Notice we are not including Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania on this list, even though some insist that Romney is now broadening the map (Obama in the case of the Tar Heel State). Out of an abundance of caution, we are moving Michigan to leans Democratic. We continue to believe that the outcomes in these states are not very much in doubt (North Carolina should go to Romney, and the other four should go to Obama).

However, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, in an excellent column, crystallized something we’ve been thinking about: Given Obama’s weakness among white voters, it’s possible that a state like Michigan or Minnesota or Oregon could drift into Romney’s column if he ends up winning a solid national victory. “The election isn’t just coming down to Ohio,” Kraushaar wrote. “There’s plenty of evidence that, given Obama’s struggles with white working-class voters, he could face some unexpected headwinds in states that have been in the Democratic column during presidential years since at least 1988.” We might not go that far ourselves — we see the ad spending in these states as largely a sideshow — but in this very odd and wild election, it’s wise to consider all reasonable possibilities.

Democrats hold late Senate advantage

Earlier we called the House for the Republicans. Now we are willing to call the Senate for the Democrats — as long as the presidential race doesn’t break heavily for Romney in the last days. Our current Senate projection is 52 Democrats to 46 Republicans, with two leftover toss-ups: Arizona and Wisconsin.

Here’s how the math works: 30 Democratic senators and 37 Republican senators are not up for reelection this year. In this year’s 33 contests, Democrats are likely or safe winners in 15 states: California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. That includes two independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, whom we have upgraded to likely Democratic/independent. (We are operating under the assumption that King will caucus with the Democrats.) Meanwhile, Republicans are safe or likely winners in Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Despite some recent tightening in Nebraska and Republican ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel’s expected endorsement of the Democrat, we don’t see ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) beating state Sen. Deb Fischer in Republican Nebraska.

That leaves a Senate of 45 Democrats, 43 Republicans and 12 truly competitive contests. Our calls here:

ARIZONA: Ex-Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) is running a very strong race, and there’s not much daylight between him and Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in most surveys, public or private, that we’ve seen. TOSS-UP

CONNECTICUT: Party ID and Obama coattail has taken over in Connecticut, where Linda McMahon (R) appears likely to come up short in the second consecutive Senate election despite her millions and a better campaign this time (including strong TV ads), this time to Rep. Chris Murphy (D). LEANS DEMOCRATIC

INDIANA: Despite a lousy campaign, Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) was on track to defeat Rep. Joe Donnelly (D). Now, after Mourdock’s Akin-esque gaffe about abortion and rape, Donnelly’s numbers have gone up. We’re certainly not 100% sure, and maybe Romney’s big expected Hoosier margin will pull Mourdock in despite himself, but now Donnelly seems to us to be the favorite. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

MASSACHUSETTS: The same phenomenon propelling Murphy to victory in the Nutmeg State is boosting Elizabeth Warren (D) over Sen. Scott Brown (R). President Obama is sweeping Massachusetts, and his coattails are too long for Brown to survive. There are already rumblings that Sen. John Kerry (D) could be passed over for secretary of state in a hypothetical second Obama administration to prevent Brown from winning the seat in yet another special election. Brown could also run for governor in 2014 (Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is not running for reelection) if he loses. One way or the other, we suspect Brown will be back. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

MISSOURI: Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is this year’s Senate Lazarus; Rep. Todd Akin (R) is this year’s Icarus. Republicans found the one Republican who could lose to McCaskill, who was halfway out the Senate door in this increasingly conservative state. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

MONTANA: The race between Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) remains close, and Libertarian Dan Cox could be a spoiler (see story below). We still narrowly like Rehberg’s chances, but we might revisit this one in our Monday update, especially in light of breaking news regarding Rehberg and a 2009 boat crash. LEANS REPUBLICAN

NEVADA: While President Obama is probably leading here, so apparently is appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R). There probably will be too many Obama-Heller voters for Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) to overcome. LEANS REPUBLICAN

NORTH DAKOTA: Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has run an excellent race against a sub-par GOP nominee, but we’re hearing that this might be a bridge too far for any Democrat. Rep. Rick Berg (R) may just narrowly pull it out, and he’ll benefit from Romney’s landslide victory (though he won’t share in it). LEANS REPUBLICAN

OHIO: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is running ahead of President Obama in Ohio, and Treasurer Josh Mandel’s (R) campaign has been such a disaster that typically mainline Republican newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch have endorsed the liberal Brown. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

PENNSYLVANIA: Despite a real scare from Tom Smith (R) and a lackluster campaign effort, Sen. Bob Casey (D) should limp to a second term. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

VIRGINIA: Ex-Sen. George Allen (R) needs a fairly substantial Romney tide in Virginia to send him back to the Senate, as ex-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) appears to be running a few points ahead of Obama here. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

WISCONSIN: Give it to Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) and national Democrats for running a good race here, but ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) might still pull out a win. A lot depends on the top of the ticket, and this one — which has swung back and forth like the runaway New York City crane in Sandy’s aftermath — is too close to call at the moment. TOSS-UP

We’ll try to call the two toss-ups on Monday, and we might also revisit some of these other ratings — the squishiest “lean Democratic” seats are probably Indiana and Virginia, and the shakiest “lean Republican” seats are probably Montana and North Dakota.

Map 2: Updated Crystal Ball Senate ratings



If we’re right in the Senate (small Democratic edge) and in the House (we will tweak some races Monday, but we do not expect the overall projection of Democrats +5 and solid overall GOP control to change much), and IF President Obama wins a second term, it is possible that we will have spent $6 billion or $7 billion on the 2012 campaigns in order to produce a status quo government, with each party controlling the pieces of the federal government they started with. Whether this would work any better the second time around, we’ll just have to see.

Updating the gubernatorial races

The one other layer of this election is of course the 11 governorships on the ballot. Our calls are as follows: Delaware, Missouri, and Vermont are safe or likely for the Democrats, and Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Utah are safe or likely for the Republicans. Note that the one party change state here is North Carolina, switching from D to R. That leaves four competitive races:

MONTANA: The race to succeed Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is still too close to call; Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) is the more agile candidate, but ex-Rep. Rick Hill (R) will have Romney coattails, even if he might be short on funds in the race’s final days. TOSS-UP

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Maggie Hassan (D) has a leg up on Ovide Lamontagne (R), who we’ve long suspected might be just a bit too conservative for quirky, libertarian New Hampshire. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

WASHINGTON: The Evergreen State race has tightened, but we still slot Rep. Jay Inslee (D) as a narrow favorite over Attorney General Rob McKenna (R). LEANS DEMOCRATIC

WEST VIRGINIA: The rematch between Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) and businessman Bill Maloney (R) doesn’t seem as competitive as it was during last year’s special election. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

We will try to pick Montana on Monday, and also potentially revisit New Hampshire and Washington.

Depending on the call in Montana, Republicans would control 30 or 31 of the 50 statehouses, leaving them one or two short of matching their post-World War II high, 32 governorships, last achieved in 1998. Earlier in the Crystal Ball, Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures examined the 6,034 state legislative seats up for grabs on Tuesday, and we’ll see substantial changes there, too.

Look for our special, final Crystal Ball of the 2012 election season on Monday, where we plan to call all the remaining states and races in this utterly unforgettable election. It’s been a wild ride, and our overriding hope — for us, for you, and for the nation — is that the election doesn’t go into overtime with an inconclusive result.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College, Senate and gubernatorial ratings changes