Crystal Ball live: Politics, big ideas, and election 2020
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 22, 2019
Jamelle Bouie, Chris Matthews, Karl Rove, Amy Walter, Larry Sabato (moderator)
By Haley Nolde
Right out of the gate, Larry Sabato, founder and director of the UVA Center for Politics, vowed to drag a prediction out of his panelists in a keynote conversation at PrezFest 2019: Who will win the Democratic nomination in 2020? Witty volleys between Sabato and Chris Matthews, two of the most seasoned political minds and lively TV pundits, won big laughs from the crowd in Old Cabell Hall for the event, “Crystal Ball Live: Politics, Big Ideas, and Election 2020.”
Peppering the discussion with astute insights, interesting stats, and political asides were guests Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush; Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report; Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for The New York Times and political analyst for CBS News; and Matthews, host of the nightly MSNBC talk show, Hardball.
Walter liked the chances for former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner of the moment. She conceded that “he may not be the most exciting guy in the race,” and then offered an analogy: “To me, Joe Biden is the equivalent of one of those nice but casual restaurants you take your whole family to because everybody can find something they like. It’s not the greatest meal you’ve ever had. You’re not leaving hungry, but you didn’t take a risk.”
The group failed to see much promise in what Sabato called “the bottom 15” of the deep candidate pool. Indeed, making any predictions “with 24,000 candidates is a fool’s errand right now,” said Rove. What’s certain, he said, is that the deciders of the election would not be the base of either party, but independents and moderates in the middle.
Bouie put early odds on Biden as well. “I think the desire to beat Trump will be overriding. And I think Biden may not be ideal, but he gets that all Democrats want is to get Trump out, and he has tailored his message specifically to that.” In so doing, Bouie added, Biden is quietly rejecting the urging of Democratic leadership to bring voters along with policy. And if another primary candidate wants to best Biden, Bouie said, they’ll have to get tough on him. “If they don’t do that, if they continue to stay in their lanes, then I think Biden, he just wins it.”
With so many Democratic competitors, Matthews asked, “Will it be like Gulliver’s Travels, with 20 or 30 Democrats holding down Biden?” He may be tough to topple, Matthews added, because so far “Biden’s done everything right. His big weapon, an astounding weapon, is Dr. Jill Biden… If she campaigns for him, it’s going to be quite a fight.”
Among people committed to the hard left, Matthews asserted, Elizabeth Warren is beating Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris has made critical mistakes. Drawing on his long history in political journalism, Matthews recalled divisions within the party during the 1972 Democratic National Convention, “We used to say about the new Democratic coalition: November doesn’t count. Call it what you want, but they really want to beat the middle and take over the party. They’ll even lose the general.” Now, Matthews added, “They don’t want Biden to win the general, they want to beat the modern Democrats. You understand what drives them politically: Beat the grownups.”
When Sabato pivoted to examine President Trump’s odds, the panelists served up their thoughts on what he might to do win.
“I think we’ll all be surprised if Trump gets reelected,” Matthews said. “The reason is, less than 40 percent of the country say they like him… so that means Trump has to run a negative campaign.” He’s likely to employ what Matthews said is an old trick, which presumes that “voters can only think about three things in the booth, so you make sure they’re all about your opponent, and they’re all negative.” Right now, the three lightning rods are open borders, late-term abortion, and socialism, he said. “That’s the trifecta, if you’re running against the left.”
Walter predicted that Trump will hope for a repeat of a 2016 phenomenon. Vast numbers of voters didn’t like Trump, and also didn’t like Hillary Clinton. “They hated what they had to choose between, but ultimately they broke for Trump,” she said. “He’ll hope that happens again.”
“If he was able to just stop tweeting,” Bouie observed, “take the phone and put it in the water… and stop tweeting and do traditional presidential stuff for not even 2019, for June to October, to just shut the hell up, he would win reelection.”
Rove had Trump banking on voters’ fear of the unknown. “He’s not going to change, but he can say, ‘You don’t like me, but I’m the devil you got. You really want that other devil that you don’t know?’ He can get reelected that way.”
A question from the audience brought up impeachment, a topic on which Bouie garnered more laughs. “I will say that the logic of the Democratic argument points toward impeachment. It is strange as merely a matter of rhetoric to consistently say, ‘The president broke the law, the president is threatening the Constitution, the president xyz; then when someone asks, ‘Oh, are you going to do the thing the Constitution empowers you to do in that case?’ and you say, ‘I mean, Noooo…’
Bouie wrapped up the session with a reminder of persistent challenges to voting rights.
“We have to remember that not every member of the Republic has equal access to the polls,” he said. “That is going to affect the outcome. We saw that in 2016. Who can actually get the ballot will matter just as much as what people want to happen.”