COVER- Life of Larry: How Sabato faces the election

One by one they line up to ask him to peer into the future.

Who's going to control the Senate after Election Day?

The seer speaks: "The best Republicans can hope for is 52 seats. They're going to lose seats in Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Rhode Island. The fact that Virginia is close tells you everything. I still think George Allen's going to win, but Senator 'Macaca' is not going to be President of the United States."

Eight or nine deep, they wait patiently to tap into one of the most famously prophetic minds in politics.

If the Democrats win the House, what kind of Speaker will Nancy Pelosi be?

"Privately, a senior Republican whose name you'd recognize told me it's a 25-30 seat loss in the House. But in politics, you win by losing sometimes and lose by winning. Nancy Pelosi's constituency is way to the left of the mainstream, so the Republicans will have a devil to run against in '08."

Like believers before an oracle, they listen with bated breath.

What do you think of Barack Obama's chances if he decides to run for President in 2008?

"His aide tells me that there's a 35 percent chance that he'll run, which tells me it's 50-50. If he runs, he could shoot straight past Hillary Clinton to the nomination."

 Whether it's the national media, Washington insiders, or men and women gathered at a meeting of Navy intelligence officers in suburban Richmond, American political insiders know that for an informed assessment of past, current, and future events, one man stands head and moustache above his colleagues. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen articulated in verse last year: "Need a quote / do not tarry / Call UVA and ask for Larry."

Wake-up call

On Friday morning, October 20, Larry Sabato is ready to roll when his assistant arrives at 6am to fetch him from his home on UVA's Lawn. Never mind that he'd been up until 1am penning 2,500+ words about the upcoming midterm elections for subscribers to his "Crystal Ball" e-mail service.

"Election season," he says, as he climbs into the back of a rented Ford Explorer, "is not my sleeping season. People want to know 'What does it all mean?' No one really knows, but some of us are better at pretending."

The detail and accuracy with which Sabato has been "pretending" to know for nearly 30 years have made him one of the most respected political analysts in the country and explain why the Department of the Navy has paid an undisclosed amount of money (which Sabato donates to UVA) to hear him this morning at a resort in Glen Allen. (The Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau quotes a rate of up to $10,000 for a local engagement, though Sabato often makes such appearances for free.) 

Of course, he didn't earn his reputation as what the Wall Street Journal calls "the most quoted professor in all the land" without maintaining a frenetic pace. On this particular Friday morning, he arose at 5am to study any overnight political developments and get a head start on the more than 500 e-mails he will receive today on his BlackBerry– a device to which he says he's so addicted that he affectionately calls it his "CrackBerry."

Over the course of the day, he'll speak with dozens of reporters, covering topics from the Ohio governor's race ("Ken Blackwell could have lost gracefully, but it's too late for that now," he tells a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer) to Hollywood celebrities' impact on the 2008 presidential contest ("It may be the 'in' thing in Hollywood to donate to Hillary, but if Democrats pick another candidate, they'll switch in a heartbeat," he tells the Los Angeles Daily News). 

All the talking is in addition to rifling through hundreds of pages of material to stay on top of the latest news, writing to meet a fast-approaching deadline for the latest chapter in his upcoming book (titled either The U.S. Constitution: Revised Edition or Where We Went Wrong and How to Fix It) and preparing to teach his weekly two-hour Campaigns and Elections seminar. 

The 54-year-old bachelor says he decided "a long time ago" to concentrate on his career at the expense of everything else.

"I made a choice to go all out professionally, and I stuck with it," he says. "How do you have a child, keep your spouse happy, and go all out professionally? I don't know how you do it." 

He even admits his busy lifestyle may be cutting his life short. 

"It takes a physical toll, and I have terrible habits," he says. "I don't focus on sleep or proper exercise. I've never had a problem skipping meals, not eating for days. I just focus on what I do. Eventually, it will catch up with me."

A lifelong affair

When the work does catch up with him, it will undoubtedly find Sabato in the arms of his first love– politics. And like every love story, the professor can pinpoint the moment it began.

"I watched the Democratic National Convention on television with my dad in 1960," he recalls. "All these adults were acting like kids, waving signs, yelling, carrying on. Looking back, they were probably drunk, but when you're young, you seize on something, so politics became my hobby."

So Sabato worked on his first campaign at the tender age of seven, handing out leaflets for John F. Kennedy in his native Norfolk. "That was the ace sacrament for Catholics back then," he jokes. 

From then on, his involvement in politics (not to mention his collection of political buttons) mushroomed. He actively supported Robert F. Kennedy's run for the presidency in 1968.

And later that year, he was approached by Democratic state senator Henry Howell, who invited the 15-year-old to join his team for his upcoming run at the governor's mansion. Though Howell failed to win the nomination in 1969, the campaign was the beginning of a nine-year partnership and a lifelong friendship between the young upstart and the veteran pol.

"He taught me the value of the soundbite, and I learned at the feet of the master," Sabato says. "His slogan was 'Keep the big boys honest,' and I remember once he drove up in front of a bunch of reporters in a long black Cadillac. When the reporters started laughing and calling him on the hypocrisy, he said, 'It takes a big car to keep up with the big boys.' He was just great copy."

In 1971, Sabato worked as the youth coordinator in Howell's successful independent run for lieutenant governor as well as in his campaign for governor in 1973. For all his years in politics, Sabato still recalls election night 1973 as one of his highest moments– and one of his lowest.

"When NBC all but declared Henry the victor, an intense sense of joy and satisfaction lifted us up to the mountaintop," says Sabato, who was then a UVA fourth-year. "As rural votes trickled in and Henry gradually fell slightly behind in the wee hours, shock and depression set in. We fell from the mountaintop to the floor of the valley in too short a time. Henry ended up losing [to Mills Godwin] by 15,000 votes out of 1,029,000. I was numb for weeks."

Following Howell's next unsuccessful run for governor, in 1977 (in which Sabato, as transition coordinator, wrote "the most useless document ever"), the 26-year-old, recently returned from a stint in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, decided to leave the hurly-burly of election politics and join the faculty at the University of Virginia. 

He was hardly an unfamiliar presence on Grounds. As a third-year, he ran unopposed for student council president; he resided on the Lawn as a fourth-year. Even then, Sabato was ubiquitous– according to a 1974 Cavalier Daily poll, more students could identify Sabato as student council president than could name Edgar Shannon as University president. Considering his experience with Howell and his ability to self-promote, many believed he was destined for lifetime of campaigns. However, Sabato says that his priorities had changed.

"I had grown up," says Sabato. "I had to get a job because my parents were depending on me to support them in the future– not the other way around."

He appears to have done pretty well by telling it like it is– or how it should be. America's leading pundit is the author of over 20 books including Feeding Frenzy, which brought that bit of shark terminology into the political vernacular.

Sabato's writings and his speaking fees have earned him enough money that he became the first UVA professor to make a $1 million donation to his alma mater, in this case a grant for youth outreach at his Center for Politics (where this reporter once served as a youthful intern).

Sabato says the secret to his continuing relevance has been his ability to remain professionally unbiased.

"Absolutely nobody knows how I vote," he says. "I've voted for Republicans, I've voted for Democrats, and I've voted for Thomas Jefferson for just about every elective office."

Yet, with so much Democratic affiliation early on, his nonpartisan reputation has come under fire, and the call for his head has never been louder than in the case of a September 25 appearance on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. Amid reports in online magazine Salon that as a UVA undergrad, Senator George Allen often used "the n-word" to describe African-Americans, Matthews asked Sabato– a classmate of Allen's– whether it was true.

"I'm going to stay with what I know is the case," Sabato replied, "and the fact is that he did use the n-word, whether he's denying it now or not." When Matthews pressed whether he'd actually heard the word cross Allen's lips, Sabato would say only, "There are the two choices, and you've just presented them, and we've had a nice talk."

Two days later, Sabato admitted to the Hampton Roads Daily Press that he had not personally heard Allen use the racial epithet, but he said, "I'm confident in the reliable sources who have contacted me."

The remarks set off a firestorm, and many see them as an indication Sabato is not as unbiased as he claims. Among those who have their doubts about Sabato's motives is Allen's wife, Susan.

"I think it's important to remember that pundits say all sorts of things, and some show their cards more than others," she said at a recent campaign stop in Keswick. "What Mr. Sabato was trying to say could not have come close to the man I know and the man Virginians know. Hearsay should not be quotable." 

Sabato, who relentlessly scolded former Democratic Senator Chuck Robb for attending cocaine parties while governor, remains unrepentant about the recent brouhaha.

"I will never please partisans because I don't want to, and it's not my role," he says. "I'll never be a partisan because partisans only want to hear their talking points read with the proper inflection."

Coach Larry

Talking points, proper inflection, and all the other tricks of the political trade are what 20 UVA students are currently learning in Sabato's Campaigns and Elections seminar. Sabato has taught the class every year he's been at UVA, and in spite of the whirl of his other duties, he remains a hands-on professor. 

"I love teaching," he says. "I've never understood why someone would become a professor if he didn't like students. Students will say anything and tell you exactly what they think."

The topic of discussion during the class on Monday, October 23 is political advertising. As he has since he began teaching the class in the '70s, Sabato has divided the students into teams working for imaginary Republican state senator John Robinson and imaginary Democratic congresswoman Stephanie Lancaster in their campaigns to become the next U.S. Senator from the equally fictitious midwestern state of Columbia. 

Taking into account the detailed candidate biographies Sabato has written, in addition to the changing conditions of actual 2006 Congressional battles, the students have been charged with scripting television spots that either build up their candidate or tear down the opponent.

Knowing full well that his students all have experience working on campaigns and that they aspire to someday be either candidates or strategists themselves, Sabato critiques their techniques. He's more like a basketball coach at court side than a professor in a classroom.

"People don't care, and if they hear that," he tells one student of his assigned "positive bio" spot, "they're going to go make popcorn." 

"I know you don't like hokey, but if it's hokey, you know it's working," he says of another policy-heavy ad. "Schmaltz sells!"

"Find words that sound more like sadness than anger. That's why you say 'The President is employing unwise tactics' or 'John Robinson and George Bush just don't get it,'" he says of a "negative issues" ad. 

One student in the class who knows a thing or two about how an incriminating 30-second clip can change a campaign is S.R. Sidarth, though he's better known to the world by the name George Allen called him: "Macaca." 

"He wrote the shortest [class entrance] essay I've ever accepted: 'I am Macaca,'" says Sabato. "He's incredibly bright. He's a double major in engineering and politics– with extremely high SAT scores. George Allen picked on the wrong person."

However, even the key figure in one of the year's biggest political stories has something to learn from Sabato. Sidarth has written an ad blasting a candidate about the recently proposed fence along the Mexican border.

"I'm not sure how well that's going to play in Columbia," Sabato tells Sidarth. "I'm sure there are plenty of Columbians saying, 'Good! Build a fence!'"

At the conclusion of class at 9:45pm, the professor invites the group to his Pavilion IV home to watch Monday Night Football. For the six who take him up on this weekly offer, he makes popcorn over the stove, offers cold Blue Moon and Starr Hill beer to those of age, and scoops up mango Häagen-Dazs ice cream.

The game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys turns out to be merely a pretense. The students end up talking politics until after midnight. What many political junkies may not realize is how students help Sabato's career.

"My best intelligence comes from former students," he says. "I have students on both the Democrat and Republican sides, and they tell me which races are hot, which races are getting cold. The key to my career has been staying put. If I had taken any of the other jobs I've been offered, I wouldn't have this alumni core."

By his own calculation, Sabato has taught over 14,000 students over the years, and they know better than most how candid their professor can be– most notably with the members of the media. So why then do they feel so comfortable sharing so much information with him?

"They know I'll guard their identities," he says. "But they also know that I can say things they'd love to say but can't because of their jobs. I have an obligation to unveil the truth. Some analysts offer babble that anyone off the street could say, but have they fulfilled their responsibility?"

It's showtime

Responsibility and his hope to bring a bit of it to the popular discourse are two reasons Sabato says he's happy to do as many media appearances as possible. He believes analysts on the 24-hour cable news networks– and one commentator in particular– often mislead their viewers.  

"Sean Hannity is campaigning for Republicans and then brings them on his show," he says. "You have to figure out what you are. Are you a partisan hack? A reporter? A commentator? What are you?"

But Sabato apparently doesn't tar all conservative cable news personalities with the same brush. 

On October 24, he happily appeared at the live-from-UVA broadcast of Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show, Tucker. 

"Most political scientists have read too much Foucault to know what a declarative sentence is," Carlson says. "Larry can explain relatively complex topics in relatively simple terms. He's a great communicator, and we're in the business of communicating ideas."

Upon arriving on the makeshift set outside the Rotunda at 6:42pm, Sabato is greeted by roughly 150 UVA students with a wild ovation and a chant of "SA-BA-TO!" 

Carlson appears surprised by all the enthusiasm. "You must be the most popular man in this part of Virginia!" he says. Minutes later, Sabato is in full-on pundit mode.

On Arnold Schwarzenegger's sizable lead over state treasurer Phil Angelides in the California governor's race: "It's Arnold, first of all, but it's also the old A versus B. You may not like A, but you like B even less."

On Democrat Eliot Spitzer's impending victory over property tax foe John Faso in the New York governor's race: "The Republicans have gone too far to the right in New York. They've won with candidates like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki, and now Eliot Spitzer is going to be one of the most liberal governors in the country."

On how the governor's races mark a sea change in national politics: "Bill Ritter's going to be the first Democratic governor of Colorado in eight years. Mike Beebe's going to be the new Democratic governor of Arkansas. Deval Patrick's going to be the first Democratic governor of Massachusetts since 1991. This is more important than the Senate races for how these states will vote in the presidential race in 2008." 

And then it's over. One more television appearance among the hundreds in his career, one more loud ovation upon his exit. He shakes Carlson's hand and retires to Pavilion IV– undoubtedly to catch up on more e-mails, more reading, more writing, more preparation for the looming Election Day. Such a solitary evening might drive another man crazy, but being holed up in his home on the Lawn and buried in his work is where Sabato says he feels most comfortable.

"I actually avoid situations where I know I will meet new people," he says. "I don't have any more room in my life."

Larry Sabato joined Tucker Carlson on October 24 for his MSNBC program Tucker.

Sabato rifles through the Washington Post before his 8am talk in Glen Allen.

Sabato estimates that he's taught over 14,000 students in his nearly 30 years of teaching.

Sabato will unveil his predictions for the 2006 midterm elections at a November 2 event at UVA's Newcomb Hall.

Even as an undergrad, Sabato was a visible presence on Grounds as student council president. He is seen here receiving the first ever call on the University's new intra-campus telephone service in 1974.

Sabato remains one of the most oft-quoted professors in the country. A LexisNexis search reveals 140 mentions of "Sabato" in the last 90 days.