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Willy Walker Talks 2020 Election With Larry Sabato

Willy Walker Talks 2020 Election With Larry Sabato
President Donald Trump addressing reporters outside the White House on March 13, 2018.

In the wake of the largest nationwide protests in decades, and with the majority of the states still in the throes of a pandemic, the political ground has shifted considerably in the last few months. 

President Donaly Trump's widely criticized role in combating the coronavirus has led to hope among Democrats that they might be able to build on the momentum that they gained in 2018 to not only keep the House of Representatives, but recapture the White House and even flip the Senate blue in 2020.

On the latest Walker & Dunlop weekly Walker Webcast, Larry Sabato, a renowned political analyst and the president of the University of Virginia Center For Politics, discussed the paths to victory for both parties and weighed in on what the latest polls suggest what might happen come Nov. 3.

At the moment, things generally look promising for the Democrats, said Sabato, whose "Crystal Ball" newsletter has been tracking elections and making predictions since 2002. It seems likely that Democrats may be able to expand on their majority in the House. Vice President Joe Biden leads Trump in polling among residents and likely voters in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump carried in 2016 and that may prove crucial to a second victory.

Those leads have some Democratic strategists expanding their horizons, looking to make gains in states like Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and even Texas, which only six months ago looked as though they were firmly in the Republican column. 

"But it's still easy to imagine Trump finding a path to winning the electoral college, even if he loses the popular vote by a larger margin than the one he lost to Hillary Clinton with," Sabato said. "Polls can tell you very accurately about the popular vote, but precisely how you take the popular vote and apply it to the electoral college is still an unsolved problem."

Democrats also want to make gains in the Republican-held Senate, and tight races in Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina will likely make the difference in which party holds the upper house in January.

If the Democrats could pull off a sweep of the presidency, the House and the Senate, Sabato said, it may not last longer than two years, since midterm elections have historically favored the party not in the White House.

"If Nancy Pelosi serves again as Speaker of the House, as she said she will, this could be the valedictory term," Sabato said."

Willy Walker Talks 2020 Election With Larry Sabato
Larry Sabato, president of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, on the Walker & Dunlop Walker Webcast

But Sabato stressed above all just how much time is left before Nov. 3, and how much can change.

"Only a fool would project November elections in July, or even on Labor Day," Sabato said. "Every day is a dog year. There's such velocity in the news. You would be a fool to think that since we've already had three or four black swan events so far in 2020, there won’t be any more before Election Day."

While there have been backlashes against pollsters and analysts after many of them — Sabato included — miscalled the 2016 presidential election, Sabato encouraged more trust in today's polls. While the best pollsters have for decades weighted their results based on race, gender and income level, since 2016, they have begun to weight results by education level, a powerful predictor of political leaning.

One aspect of the race that could make 2020 different than any modern election is the lack of true political conventions. The two major American parties typically see spikes in enthusiasm and polling data after their respective conventions, and pollsters have a field day comparing the size and duration of each party's "Convention Bump." But with the Democrats preparing for a virtual convention and the sheriff of Jacksonville, Florida, saying the city is unprepared to host the Republican National Convention, there may not be anything to compare.

"Even under ideal conditions, you only have a minority of the people watching these conventions when they're televised," Sabato said. "Under this system, I can’t imagine a majority of people will watch these things. You get no bounce from a non-convention."

On the webcast, Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker suggested that the lack of live, in-person events were a larger problem for the Trump campaign, which relied on high-energy rallies to propel Donald Trump into the White House. While Sabato agreed that the rallies typically energize the Republican base and President Trump himself, it is wrong to think that a more "virtual" election would favor Democrats.

Willy Walker Talks 2020 Election With Larry Sabato
Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on a webinar with Larry Sabato

"We could see the smallest percentage of Americans ever turning out to vote at the polls, with a very large percentage voting by mail or absentee ballot," Sabato said. "I find it weird that President Trump has tried to claim that mail-in voting is rigged because he has likely benefited by mail-in voting. Ask any local Republican chairman, they'll tell you that."

Older Americans, who leaned Republican in 2016, are the voters more likely to cast their votes by mail, Sabato said, adding that the only reason he could think of for Trump to cast doubt on mail-in voting was to prepare the public for a claim that the election was rigged against him in case he loses.

In recent news appearances, Trump has refused to say that he will hand over the reins in January if beaten in the November election. If the electoral college count is close between Trump and Biden, Sabato said, there is the possibility of a protracted recount, court and legislative battles in swing states. Even though the military and the Secret Service immediately fall under the new president's control on Jan. 20, there is the possibility of a standoff if Trump simply refuses to vacate the White House.

"If the electoral vote count is close, or disputed, watch out," Sabato said. "It would essentially be a coup."

Even for a veteran political researcher like Sabato, the possibility of an election without a peaceful transfer of power was a frightening thought.

"It's worried all of us in the political sphere, and I hope everybody's wrong," Sabato said. "If he loses, let's hope he follows the Constitution and does what he is supposed to do because it's too horrible to imagine. But I can't close the door on any possibility at this point, because I've seen things that I never would have believed were possible four years ago."

Next Wednesday, Walker will host a discussion about the proposed stimulus bill featuring the leaders of the three largest real estate industry groups: National Multifamily Housing Council President Doug Bibby, Mortgage Bankers Association President and CEO Bob Broeksmit and Real Estate Roundtable CEO Jeff DeBoer. Register here.

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.