CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Who’s going to win the presidential election? How did we wind up with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Is Democrat Jim Justice or Republican Bill Cole going to be West Virginia’s next governor? Is voter fraud a real thing?
These were some of the questions that Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, tried to answer Wednesday night in Charleston.
With West Virginia and the nation in the middle of a huge election season, hundreds of West Virginians showed up at the University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium to listen to Sabato, who has a long history of using political modeling to correctly predict elections.
Throughout his discussion, Sabato informed the crowd of the results of his political prognostications, while interspersing his findings with one-liners and jabs at a number of politicians.
He joked that third party presidential candidate Jill Stein had to go to North Dakota to get arrested during the Dakota pipeline protest in order to get any media attention. He got chuckles out of the crowd when he said that his microphone was working, unlike Trump who blamed his bad debate skills Monday night on the sound system. And he quipped about going to Jim Justice’s Greenbrier resort, where he saw an assigned parking spot for the governor already.
He told the large crowd that right now, his “Crystal Ball” model has Clinton with a two to three percentage point lead over Trump in the national election.
Following the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Sabato said Clinton got a huge bump from the primetime events, but in the weeks since, the race has tightened significantly in his model, and others.
With the first presidential debate in the books, Sabato said most data showed that Clinton won handily. He said it was “a boost of enthusiasm” that Clinton needed.
In his joking manner, Sabato compared Trump’s debate performance to some of his college students at the University of Virginia.
“They have a degree in BS, and they think they can use that degree on the midterm,” Sabato said, adding that next time Trump will probably prepare some more.
Still, debate reactions won’t swing the election much, he said. About 90 percent of the electorate in the country, he said, already have made up their minds on who they are going to vote for, meaning only a small slice of the country are undecided voters.
Sabato stated the obvious to the crowd of West Virginians: Trump is far more popular in the Mountain State than Clinton. He said West Virginia could end up being the most pro-Trump state in the country.
“I don’t know if Idaho is going to beat you, or if Wyoming is going to beat you. Or if you are going to beat them all,” Sabato said.
That support is to be expected based statistically on the type of voters that Trump is attracting: white, male, blue-collar and less-educated individuals.
But while those demographics are playing well in West Virginia and parts of the Rust Belt, Sabato pointed out that they could harm Trump’s chances in other parts of the country.
Most polls and election models show Trump failing miserably when it comes to Hispanic, black and women voters.
With a never-ending stream of inflammatory comments made against a Hispanic judge, numerous women and other minority groups, Trump is not doing well with the growing percentage of the U.S. population that is not white or male.
When he won in 2004, President George W. Bush got around 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, Sabato said. Mitt Romney captured around 27 percent of that voting population against Obama. Trump is polling with less than 20 percent of that sought-after segment of the electorate.
The models also have Trump losing the majority of white, college-educated voters to Clinton, which would be the first time that a Republican hasn’t carried that demographic in decades.
Still, most states can already be predicted for either candidate, Sabato said. A little less than a dozen states can actually be considered swing states in this election, he said.
“The presidential winner is going to learn a lot about 10 states,” Sabato said.
Florida, right now, could go either way. Pennsylvania and Virginia are looking like Clinton states. Ohio is leaning Trump, as is Iowa.
But any of those states could change depending on any number of factors between now and November, Sabato said.
An economic hiccup could swing votes. A domestic terrorist attack could bump support in one direction — but if people are blown up in other parts of the world, American voters, historically, really don’t care, he said.
Going into this year’s election, Sabato said the Republican Party had a significant advantage simply because the Democratic Party has controlled the White House for eight years, but he said the Republican electorate really didn’t allow the party to capitalize on that opportunity.
The Republican Party, he said, has taken “a real chance on Trump.” He suggested they could have been well ahead in the general election if they had chosen Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
It’s still yet to be seen whether Trump’s popularity in West Virginia will translate into Cole, a businessman and state Senate President, taking over the governor’s mansion.
Sabato’s model currently has West Virginia’s governors race as a toss-up between Cole and Justice, the billionaire-turned-politician who has run a conservative campaign. Cole’s best chance, Sabato said, is to ride the coattails of Trump, which he has tried to do by running campaign ads featuring the “Bill Cole-Donald Trump team.”
“The polls have Justice ahead, but that’s before the election day coattail effect,” Sabato said.
Throughout his presentation, Sabato referenced the acrimony that the majority of the nation has towards both presidential candidates. At one point, he displayed a photo of a bumper sticker that someone had sent him that read: “My candidate is an idiot. Your candidate is worse.”
For those bemoaning the choice between Clinton and Trump, Sabato said they should be blaming people who didn’t go to the polls during the primary.
Fourteen million people chose Clinton and Trump as the candidates for the presidency, Sabato said, and while that may seem large, he said it is a small minority of the population, especially considering that 135 million people are expected to vote in November.
“A tiny minority are picking the candidates,” Sabato said, adding that maybe if more people were involved the country would not be deciding between these two highly unfavorable politicians.
Sabato also made an adamant statement on the controversial issue of voter fraud, which conservative lawmakers have used as the reason to pass voter identification and other restrictive laws that disproportionately affect Democratic voters. Many of those laws have wound up in court.
“Does it occur? Yes,” Sabato said. “Is it widespread? No.”
Sabato said he is totally opposed to fraud and “all other evil,” but if he was working on voting issues in the United States, he said his focus would not be on requiring voter identification at the polls.