Larry Sabato on the Politics of Public Health

August 30, 2018|12:16 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Larry Sabato
Larry Sabato

In a year filled with politics, primaries, polls, and elections, everyone turns to longtime political analyst and veteran election prognosticator Larry Sabato. A Rhodes Scholar and author of more than twenty books on political analysis and history, Sabato is the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and creator of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a free newsletter and must-read for all political junkies.

Next month, Sabato will give a keynote address to attendees at ASTHO’s Policy Summit, a focused convening that precedes September’s annual meeting. In an interview with ASTHO, Sabato looks at the beginnings of his career in politics, forecasts the November elections, and offers advice on how to advocate for evidence-based public health during politically polarized and tumultuous times.

You have been involved in politics and civic engagement since a young age, working on Virginia gubernatorial campaigns and serving as student body president at the University of Virginia. Was there someone (or something) that inspired you to pursue a career in politics? 

I got involved in politics for two reasons. My father was a World War II veteran and always reminded me that Hitler won two elections because people weren’t paying attention—eventually costing tens of millions of lives. In addition, I was from a Catholic family, so in 1960, when I was seven, I became very interested in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and went door-to-door in my home city of Norfolk, VA. I was hooked for life.

As an author, academic, director of the Center for Politics, and brain trust behind Sabato’s Crystal Ball, you must stay pretty busy—especially around this time of year, with elections on the horizon. Tell me a little about your average day. How do you juggle all of these responsibilities?

How do I juggle it? Badly. Election seasons are seven-days-a-week nonstop. Each day starts even earlier than it used to—Trump’s tweets must be read! Luckily, I have a wonderful staff at the Center for Politics and the Crystal Ball. My Crystal Ball people, including student interns, keep up with changes in all of the top contests for the Senate, House, and state governors. My personal assistant, Tim Robinson, makes all of the arrangements for trips and arranges the schedule. And so on. Truth is, for everything I do, there are five other requests.

This November will be a time of transition for ASTHO and our members, with the election of new governors (and new cabinets). Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the outcome of the 2018 elections? Do you think the House will flip? What about the Senate?

This is an off-year midterm election. With only a couple exceptions in modern history, that has meant that the White House party—this year, the Republican party—has lost seats in the House of Representatives. That’s nearly inevitable in 2018. However, as I write this, it is simply too soon to estimate the number of Democratic pick-ups. Democrats need 23 seats to take over; they are almost guaranteed to get at least 12-15. That number could grow substantially—but it could also fall back. October surprises are now the norm.

As for the Senate, that’s a completely different story. Twenty-six of the 35 seats up for election this year must be defended by Democrats, and that includes 10 seats in states won by President Trump in 2016. Democrats have their work cut out for them if they are going to win the Senate. It’s at least as likely that Republicans will add Senate seats. As for governors, there will be Democratic gains in both gubernatorial and state legislature elections. It will be a mixed bag, but the net gains will be Democratic.

We are undergoing a shift in our political landscape, with both sides becoming more partisan. How do you see this increasing polarization affecting key public health funding? What about the future of the Affordable Care Act?

One of the most regrettable trends I’ve seen in recent decades is the decline of compromise and the polarization of politics—both in and out of Congress. Democrats and Republicans don’t seem to agree on much anymore. This has affected most policy debates. ACA is strongly identified with President Obama and the Democrats. That means that almost all Republicans will vote to repeal it or water it down whenever they’re given a chance. So far, the act has survived—in part—but nothing is a given. Healthcare is not unique. Everything from immigration to education to national security issues find little consensus.

As a non-partisan organization representing health departments in both red and blue states, how do you recommend navigating these politically turbulent times?

Personal relationships help, as well as neutral language wherever it exists. Think about a legislator’s constituency and their primary party base. Today, few legislators are threatened in the general election, but if they upset the party base, they can be dispatched in a primary. You must take that into consideration as you navigate.

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