Gridlock is good for America. Virginia could emerge as the nation’s critical swing state. Electronic voting is error-prone, and democracy would benefit from a return to paper ballots. These are just a few of the observations made by political pundit Larry Sabato this week as he visited an honors forum at the Alexandria campus of the Northern Virginia Community College.
“In politics, it’s what people believe to be true that matters — not what’s really true,” Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said. “Perception drives politics.”
Sabato is frequently quoted in newspapers, and he is a regular television presence on the cable shouting-match shows. His books are routinely assigned in graduate-level political science classes, and his quick-witted style has made him one of Virginia’s political celebrities. His newsletter, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, makes a habit of predicting the political tea leaves — and his visit to Alexandria had no shortage of prognostications.
“In the Senate, Democrats could pick up three or four seats — not enough to take over,” Sabato said. “In the House, Democrats could pick up anywhere between 12 to 15 seats. They need 15 to win the majority.”
Sabato had many other premonitions about American politics. If the Democrats manage to take the House, he said, tight margins will prevent them from accomplishing anything. Sen. George Allen is using his re-election campaign to launch a bid for the White House. Demographic changes could spell trouble for conservative Republicans, who can’t seem to woo Latinos into the Grand Old Party. Declining population trends in New England could pose major problems to Democrats, who depend on the region for turnout. And President Bush’s domestic agenda is dead.
“This lame duck is quacking,” Sabato said. “And that’s dangerous when you’ve got a vice president that’s armed.”
BEFORE SABATO spoke, English Professor Robert Brunner addressed the honors forum. He implored teachers and students to use the beginning of the semester as a time to set higher standards for themselves. His inspiring speech challenged those in attendance to use the next semester as a turning point.
"The academic year is still as fresh as the morning snow,” Brunner said. “Let your goals bring out the best in you.”
Brunner recalled a Victorian literature professor made his life difficult when he was in college. In the heady world of the 1960s, the “stuffy” old man seemed out of touch with the “volatile” world that was unfolding. He reminded students that they will face their own challenges.
“We either kill our mentors or we leave them behind,” Brunner said.
Sabato was clearly moved by Brunner’s speech, but wanted to take issue with part of it.
“I enjoyed your soliloquy,” Sabato said. “I just don’t want my students to hear that bit about killing their mentors.”
The audience erupted into laughter, and Sabato kept them on the edge of their seats for the remainder of the hour. He spoke about knowing Sen. Allen as a student at the University of Virginia, the perils of writing a free newsletter, the finite nature of political capital and the similarities between the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq.
“It’s Vietnam without the jungle,” Sabato said. “And Robert MacNamara is back in the form of Donald Rumsfeld.”
He showed a series of maps to illustrate the tenuous balance of power between the Democrats and Republicans. Using the 2004 presidential election results as a standard, Sabato displayed the Electoral College results in that familiar red and blue format that became part of the American imagination in Election 2000. Then he showed a series of distorted maps, correcting for population disparities between populous blue states and rural red states. The difference was striking — one that he said will have a bearing on the November elections.
“The media is trying to tell you that this is a national election, but it’s not,” Sabato said. “We have a patchwork of local elections.”
He went over several demographic trends that he says will influence American politics over the next few generations. One that he said will hurt Democrats is a steadily falling population trend in New England, which he said will lose electoral points after the next census. Another trend — one he said would hurt Republicans — is the rising number of Latino voters. Despite their repeated efforts, Republicans can’t seem to win over this group. Sabato predicted that the Republicans have to change this trend by 2050 if they hope to ever win another national election after that.
“We’re a multicultural nation,” Sabato said. “The white nation is gone.”
AFTER THE SPEECH, students milled about and teachers chatted with one another. Sabato headed back to Charlottesville to teach an afternoon class, and Brunner thanked people for coming. In the hall outside Room 132 of the Bisdorf Building, Janet Hall reflected on the afternoon forum.
“He was entertaining and thoughtful,” said Hall, a former English professor at the community college. “I was just trying to take it all in.”
She said that Sabato’s most salient point was the one about the shifting demographic trends.
“These are things that the next generation is going to have to deal with,” Hall said. “And so it’s important for people like Larry Sabato to bring them up and get people to think about them.”