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Compared to 2016, this year there are more polls, higher-quality polls and pollsters who are driven to get it right, Sabato told Frey Lecture attendees.

Flyer shows a flag in the background with a man's hand holding a mock ballet with Sabato lecture details on it. Sabato delivered the College of Arts & Sciences' Frey Lecture last week on election predictions.


With nearly 600 (virtual) attendees present for UNC’s 2020 Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professor lecture, Larry Sabato, popular political analyst and one of the nation’s leading elections forecasters, said he predicts former Vice President Joseph Biden will be the next president of the United States.

Sabato made his prediction virtually from the University of Virginia, in conversation with UNC political science professor Jason Roberts during the Frey Lecture, one of the highest honors bestowed by UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences to distinguished public figures. The Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, Sabato is also the founder and director of the Center for Politics, a New York Times bestselling author, frequent news commentator and four-time Emmy winner. This year marks the 26th year of the lecture series, which has welcomed speakers such as Kip Thorne, Nina Totenberg, Fareed Zakaria, E.L. Doctorow, Ted Turner, Alice Walker and Harry Belafonte. Last spring’s scheduled lecture with Henry Louis Gates Jr. is being rescheduled for 2021.

As of the Oct. 28 lecture, his official predictions, which are based on polling averages and extensive research, give Biden 290 electoral votes and President Donald Trump 163. He said 85 electoral votes, including the 15 from North Carolina, are still too difficult to forecast. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidential election.

Though, he acknowledged, there are always surprises. In 2016, Sabato, along with many analysts across the nation, incorrectly predicted a win for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump (see “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” on “Sabato’s Crystal Ball”), but he says this year there are more polls, higher-quality polls and pollsters who are driven to get it right.

Sabato's prediction map from last week shows a prediction of 290 electoral votes for Democrats and 163 for Republicans with 85 states as toss-ups.“Those of us in polling and predictions have PTSD,” he said. “Marquette Law School has a long-standing poll that has been accurate in almost all races except for 2016. I remember looking at that toward the end of the campaign and thinking, ‘Well, you know, I’m hearing that Wisconsin may be closer than expected, but Marquette has always been right.’ But, just because you’ve always been right doesn’t mean you’re going to be right.”

Sabato said whether North Carolina would go red or blue this year was “a real puzzle.”

“Most of the good surveys recently have had Biden up by one or two points. Well, that’s nothing, and if you’ve got a hidden Trump vote … and yes, I know the last several studies have shown there is no hidden Trump vote, but I don’t believe that. Given North Carolina’s history, and given the disproportionate number of voters in rural areas who are white, non-college, I’m a little suspicious of the polling average that has Biden up even by a little bit.”

Sabato walked attendees through several forecasting maps as he offered well-studied analysis on consequential states like Georgia and Florida and dug into U.S. Senate races, especially those states expected to flip parties. Sabato said North Carolina’s Senate race remained a toss-up, though he didn’t think the campaign of challenger Cal Cunningham (running against incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis) was particularly hurt by recent scandals, as Americans across both parties are “scandaled out.”

“Tillis hasn’t led a nonpartisan poll in months. I think scandal is much less influential in our political decisions than it once was, and it could be saving Cunningham.”

Sabato had some final advice for election night: plenty of popcorn and patience. Unless there’s a landslide, he said it’s unlikely that Americans will have an answer by Nov. 4.

“I hope that people will put up three cards next to the television so they can’t miss them. And the cards will read, ‘patience, patience, patience,’” he said. “We may have election week; we may have election month. And I don’t even want to think about election season.”

Find a recording of the event here.

By Courtney Mitchell, The Well

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