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The Crystal Ball's Final Calls

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The time has finally come in this two-year election cycle to make the final calls. Thanks to everyone who has helped us by providing background info, tips, private polls, observations, and constructive criticism. We operate on the proverbial shoestring and we’re outside the Beltway (a plus and a minus), so we can always use the assistance.

Our tradition is that we make a prediction in every contest. We’ve been studying these states, districts, and candidates for many years, and we feel entitled! We’re proud of our record over the years, but inevitably we will be wrong with some calls. Apologies for those in advance.

Students sometimes ask how I ever got into this game. I first published a state-by-state set of predictions in 1978. To my surprise, the exercise turned out well. In 1980 I won a DC-based election pool, and with that cash incentive, I was hooked. (No, I haven’t bet on elections in decades, and professional prognosticators shouldn’t.)

HOUSE

The Crystal Ball was the first nonpartisan ratings service to call the House for the Republicans this year. Before Labor Day we issued a projection of +47 net gains for the Republicans. We based this both on a district-by-district analysis and also a careful review of the underlying election variables, from the generic ballot to presidential job approval to likely statewide coattail.

We believe +47 was the right call, though at the time the number was considered startling to most. The likely switch of the House to the GOP was fiercely disputed by Democrats at that time. Many other nonpartisan prognosticators had estimated Republican gains as being below the 39 net required for a GOP takeover.

Even at this late date, we see no need to do anything but tweak the total R gains, based on more complete information now available to all. Thus, we are raising the total to +55 net R seats . We consider 47 to be in the ballpark still, but more of a floor than a ceiling. In fact, if you’ll go back to our pre-Labor Day analysis, that’s exactly what we suggested +47 would end up being.

The new total matches our district-by-district chart:

Sabato 10282010 A

SENATE

The Crystal Ball has operated within a very narrow range all year. When others were projecting GOP Senate gains of just +3-4, we were already at +6. Depending on the primary results and other circumstances, we’ve landed between +6 and +9 in the last half-year. We have never gotten to +10, the number needed for Republican takeover of the Senate, and we do not do so in this final forecast either. To us, the number of GOP gains looks to be +8 . Ten was always a stretch.

We believe the GOP will hold all its open seats (FL, KY, MO, NH, OH). This is quite an accomplishment in itself, since the early assumption was that at least a couple would switch sides. In addition, Republicans will probably pick up most of the following: AR, CO, IL, IN, NV, ND, PA, and WI. The closest appear to be CO, IL, NV, and PA. These races, especially the first three, are so tight that a strong breeze could change the result, so the GOP may well come up one or two short in this category. By the way, if Republicans do win the +8 we have projected, then they only have to unexpectedly pick off two of the following states to take control: CA, CT, WA, or WV. CT seems least likely, WA most likely–but any of the foursome would be an upset.

In our pre-Labor Day analysis, however, we noted a historical anomaly: Since World War II, the House has changed parties six times, and in every case, the Senate switched, too. In five of the six cases, most prognosticators did not see the Senate turnover coming. (Only in 2006 did some guess correctly, including the Crystal Ball.) So if we have a big surprise on election night, this could be it, despite the pre-election odds against it.

Sabato 10282010 B

Note on Alaska: We were skeptical about the possible success of a write-in candidacy by Sen. Lisa Murkowski—which would be the first triumphant one since Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1954—but Joe Miller’s constant gaffes and controversies have actually put Murkowski in a position to win. It could be close and take many days to determine the winner, but it does not matter since Democrat Scott McAdams will not win and either Miller or Murkowski would sit in the Republican caucus. It matters to Alaskans whether Miller or Murkowski takes the seat, but not to the Crystal Ball’s tally.

We will continue to monitor the closest races all the way through election eve. If we decide to change a rating, we will post it on this website. We will also take another look at tight races for Governor and House.

GOVERNORS

The Crystal Ball was the first to project a likely GOP pick-up of +8 statehouses. While a few gubernatorial contests have teetered back and forth, we haven’t wavered far from that number, settling at +8-9 Republican gains , while recognizing that the final tally could vary by one in either direction.

The Republicans are likely to pick up 14 governorships: FL, IL, IA, KS, ME, MI, NM, OH, OK, OR, PA, TN, WI, and WY. The Democrats appear to be gaining 5 statehouses: CA, CT, HI, MN, and VT. The closest of these are CA, CT, IL, MN, OR, and VT. In each case we have had highly reliable, well-placed sources insist that our frontrunner could end up on the short end come Tuesday. So again, we will keep an eagle eye on these states over the weekend, for a possible Monday update.

Sabato 10282010 C

Note on Georgia: Under Georgia law, the winner must get 50% plus one. There is some chance Deal will not reach that mark, but most believe he will. If he does not, a runoff will be held a month later and Deal will be heavily favored.

Note on Vermont: Vermont, like Georgia, has a 50% plus one rule. Dubie may lead Shumlin in the vote on Election Day, but will probably be under 50%. Instead of a runoff, as in Georgia, Vermont law would then require the legislature to choose a winner by secret ballot. As long as Shumlin is reasonably close to Dubie, the heavily Democratic legislature will probably pick Shumlin. However, this contest has been described to us repeatedly as a squeaker, one way or another.

The Crystal Ball has also projected that Republicans will gain 500+ new state legislative berths, and will probably capture at least a dozen additional state legislative chambers.

All of this has considerable implications for the redistricting process in 2011.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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