Larry Sabato Thinks Elizabeth Warren's Got This

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the prominent election outcome forecaster run by Larry Sabato, moved the Massachusetts Senate race from “toss-up” to “leaning Democratic” Thursday. The explanation:

Our reasoning? Not only has Warren moved slightly ahead in the poll average (by 1.7 points according to RealClearPolitics as of Wednesday afternoon), but Massachusetts is positioned to vote so heavily Democratic for president that coattail could take down Brown on Election Day. A recent CBS News article estimated that Brown may need 300,000 voters to split their tickets on Nov. 6 for him to eke out a narrow victory — and that may be just a bit too much for Brown to hope for.

One problem we see with that reasoning is that it’s a bit outdated. The CBS News article came September 21, long before the presidential debate changed the dynamics of the race between Romney and Obama. A WBUR poll this week showed Obama’s lead in Massachusetts narrow by 12 points. He’s not in danger of losing, of course, but as Jason Schwartz explained Wednesday, the degree to which the state’s voters get excited to turn out and vote for the president affects Warren. She needs a base that is enthusiastic to show up to the polls, and an lackluster Democratic presidential race doesn’t help. 

On the other hand, zooming out from this week’s news, Sabato brings up a problem that many of the pundits who have suggested this race isn’t as close as it seems have always noted: the difference between fundamentals and polls. The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Toobin wrote about Warren’s natural turnout advantage, which might be so great as to dwarf any minor moves in Obama’s in-state approval:

In the 2010 special election, Brown received some 1.1 million votes, about 52 percent of the approximately 2.3 million cast. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama received about 62 percent of the 3 million votes cast in Massachusetts. John McCain received 1.1 million votes, almost exactly the same number as Brown did two years later. Assuming a similar turnout in the Presidential election year, there will be about 700,000 voters whom Brown has never faced, and they all voted for Obama.

And as Jerold Duquette, a political science at Central Connecticut State University who has long seen the race as Warren’s to lose, explains in a blog post Thursday:

The seesawing polls reflect the media narrative of the race. The ground game, on the other hand, is what brings actual voters to the polls. Based on yesterday’s ground game execution in what many Bay Staters consider the Commonwealth’s far western territory, Brown remains a clear underdog in the race.

He says that because Warren seemed to have far more supporters outside Wednesday’s debate venue than Brown. Sabato may be a bit late to the game in noticing the Obama-coattails problem for Brown, but now that he’s here, he’s got plenty of company.