Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Brutal Bottom Line

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 4th, 2004

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President

It’s all about Bush, the incumbent, especially after John Kerry’s success in the first presidential debate in shifting the focus back to the performance of the Bush administration. The people will vote “thumbs up/thumbs down” based on Bush’s handling of the twin challenges of a shaky economy and a continuing war in Iraq. Just as with his father’s presidency, “Dubya” has faced a difficult election year. Off and on, Bush has some good news to trumpet on the economy: hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created in the past year, and most other basic economic indicators appear to be turning upwards. However, Bush’s achievements on the economy are not clear cut, and more importantly they have been overshadowed for much of the year by the somewhat unpopular Iraq war and its aftermath. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners shook the administration to its foundation, and the 9/11 Commission was a coup for the Democrats–with most of the riveting testimony and the final report used to undermine Bush’s claims to successful leadership in the war on terror. On the other hand, the handover of authority from Americans to Iraqis on June 28 appeared to have quieted the situation somewhat–though Iraq has recently shot to the top of the agenda again, due to extreme violence there. Should Iraq continue to deteriorate and dominate the news leading up to Election Day, “Dubya” could possibly be the second one-term Bush. Of course, Bush has been lucky even on Iraq, in that Democratic candidate John Kerry has been anything but clear about his position on the war there, and what, if anything, he could really do differently.

In addition to Iraq and the economy, two other major concerns are much on the American voter’s mind. First, the war on terror is of great moment, not least because the biggest question mark in the election is whether terrorists will be able to pull off some diabolical plans within America’s borders. Many senior government leaders privately fear that this may be inevitable with unpredictable consequences for both George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. Second, the enormous controversy over gay marriage has been gaining steam, not least because of the “coming out” of Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey who announced his resignation (effective Nov. 15) on Aug. 12 in the midst of a sleezey personal scandal and a thoroughly corrupt administration. There are now referenda or initiatives on gay marriage scheduled in nine states, including such critical battlegrounds as Ohio, Arkansas and Oregon. This is an issue that probably favors Bush, just as most of most of the social issues do.

By and large, 2004 is not about the Democrats, but Bush has still had some success already in typecasting John Kerry as a classic liberal, elitist Massachusetts Democrat. Kerry’s weaknesses, and a recovering economy, can give Bush hope. At the same time, everything so far suggests that the 2004 presidential contest will be exceedingly competitive, hard-fought (nasty, that is), and possibly close. (Since America has not had two consecutive close presidential elections since the four elections between 1876 and 1888, we wonder if November will really turn out to be a squeaker.)

Bush’s often-shaky poll numbers, his father’s bitter defeat in 1992, and his own unexpected, near-death experience in 2000 suggests that neither the White House–nor any of the rest of us–can take anything for granted on the road to Nov. 2. This election is a barnburner, easily the equal of the two arguably most historic elections since World War II, that of 1968 and 1980. The only predictions we make with any confidence are: Ralph Nader will do considerably worse as an independent candidate than his 2.7 percent showing in 2000; voter turnout will increase considerably–perhaps even skyrocketing; and, at least 40 of the 50 states will remain either Red or Blue, retaining the same color they chose in 2000. Only about half of all Americans age 18 and over voted for president 1988, 1996 and 2000. But we believe at a minimum 55 percent of Americans will vote in November 2004, equal to the percentage achieved–mainly because of Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992.

As we enter the last month before the election, it is clear that while John Kerry won the spring and early summer, Bush won August and the first-half of September because of the Swift Boat Vets controversy and the considerable success of the Republican National Convention. The president entered the final six weeks of campaign 2004 with about a 5-percent lead in the polls, but with large challenges to follow: Iraq, possible terrorist action before the election, the debates, the October jobs numbers, and other unknown issues that will surely emerge to affect the election results. Sure enough, Bush may have squandered his lead with his loss to John Kerry in the first presidential debate, but the slim victory by Cheney in the vice-presidential debate and a stronger showing by Bush in the town hall meeting debate in St. Louis has stopped the bleeding. There can be no doubt that this is a highly competitive and unpredictable election, and going into the final three weeks it’s anbody’s game.

Senate

Barring a Republican disaster (Bush losing reelection after continuing economic deterioration and/or a Vietnam-style quagmire in Iraq), the GOP has a fair chance to hold the Senate and perhaps pick up a seat or two. However, recent developments–such as the opening-up of the Colorado seat, as well as GOP vulnerabilities in Alaska, Illinois and Oklahoma–have given Democrats a decent chance to retake control (perhaps 40 percent). If Kerry wins the presidency handily, the surprise of election night might be the Democratic takeover of the Senate.

So far the following Senate seats up in 2004 seem particularly vulnerable:

For the Democrats

For the Republicans

At present the Republicans are nearly guaranteed to take over the Georgia seat, and appear likely to win the South Carolina seat. Democrats may be slightly favored in North Carolina and perhaps Louisiana. The South Dakota race, involving Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D), is extremely tight, with Republican John Thune close on the heels of Daschle. On the Republican side, the GOP has already essentially lost Illinois, with Democrat Barack Obama certain to win that seat. In all likelihood, Democrats will pick up a minimum of one seat among Alaska, Colorado and Oklahoma, and they could easily pick up two. Only in a Democratic landslide will Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) lose his seat. Similarly, Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is probaly ok, but this race must be watched closely. As with the presidential race in the state, the Senate contest in Florida is a total toss-up.

House

Barring a Republican presidential disaster, the GOP has a very good chance to hold the House with approximately the same margin plus a few additional seats. With the Texas redistricting now approved by the courts, the Republicans should be able to add four to six new seats just from the Lone Star State. This may be enough to help the GOP keep control of the House through the rest of the decade. However, should Kerry win the presidency by a surprisingly large margin in November, all bets are off, and even the House–in a gigantic upset–could fall to the Democrats, as far-fetched as that appears today.

Governorships

We are tempted to say it doesn’t matter much one way or the other, since 2004 has very few significant governorships on the ballot. But whatever the party result of this next group of statehouses may end up being, it looks again (as in 2002) as though the governorships are headed for significant turnover–much greater than we will see in either house of Congress. Currently, the Crystal Ball believes that when all the votes are counted in 2004, the party balance will not be terribly different than the current 28 R to 22 D. Either party could net a couple of additional state houses.