A Nerve Center of Democracy

Take an inside look at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and its efforts to foster an active and informed citizenry in a chaotic election year.

/ 10.5.16

The Primaries

It’s Super Tuesday in an historic election year, and the foyer of the UVA Center for Politics is overflowing with enough pizza to feed the army of students, faculty and staff watching the primary results roll in. Screens large and small broadcast the tallies from every major network as occasional cheers and groans erupt from the crowd of students assembled in the conference room.

Students assembled in a conference room on Super Tuesday.

UVA Professor of Politics and Center Director Larry Sabato is in his element. The veteran political commentator breezes in and out of his office, alternating between discussing the results with his students and fielding numerous interview requests via telephone and videoconference.

Larry Sabato, in his element.

Throughout the day, he answers calls to discuss Donald Trump’s growing momentum in the Republican primaries.

“Well, Chris, you’d have to call Trump the favorite,” Sabato tells MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. “I’m not going to call him the prohibitive favorite yet because the votes aren’t in from today. We can probably call him the prohibitive favorite on the night of March 15 if he ends up winning Florida and knocking Rubio out, and Ohio and knocking Kasich out.”

Sabato is the public face of the Center for Politics, but its work and mission stretch far beyond his regular appearances on the nightly news. He founded the center in 1998 to promote Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a vibrant and informed democracy. Today, its educational programs help citizens engage in the political process at all levels and champion the power of democracy around the world.

At its core, the center makes sure the public always has access to unbiased information about the state of politics in America.

“When you take political history and you put it into context and connect it to the present day, you give people useful tools that help inform them about current events,” Sabato said. “That’s much of what we do.”

The Crystal Ball

As Sabato finishes up a telephone call, political experts Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley begin poring over multiple computer screens to watch county-by-county coverage of the March 1 Virginia primaries. They speculate on outcomes as Loudoun County hangs in the balance.

Geoffrey Skelley, a political expert, pores over polling results displayed on two large computer screens.

Kondik, who serves as the center’s director of communications, and Skelley, the media relations coordinator, have also made names for themselves as trusted resources for the center’s signature offering of nonpartisan political analysis.

“The public in a lot of cases is just looking for information that appears level-headed and balanced in the sense that there’s not an agenda behind it, so reporters are also looking for that,” Skelley said.

Their efforts can be seen regularly in the center’s best-known product, Sabato’s Crystal Ball. In this weekly newsletter, Sabato, Kondik, Skelley and occasional outside contributors break down presidential elections, every Senate and gubernatorial race, and tight races for the House of Representatives. Prior to every Election Day, the Crystal Ball staff predicts winners and has maintained an accuracy rating in the high 90th percentile since its formal debut in 2002.

On busy nights like Super Tuesday and the days after the presidential debates, Skelley and Kondik field as many interview requests as Sabato, sometimes taking upwards of 10 interviews apiece for print, radio and television.

Just after 8 p.m., Kondik excuses himself to do a brief interview with Canadian television. Hunched over his smartphone in an empty upstairs office, he calls into the show via FaceTime. Although the international community has always taken an interest in American politics, the foreign media has been especially fascinated with the 2016 election.

Kyle Kondik, a political expert, prepares to call into a television interview using his smartphone.

There’s a brief lull after Kondik’s interview, and the Crystal Ball team gathers in Sabato’s office to watch CNN. Hillary Clinton has taken Virginia with more than 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote, and it looks as if the Republican primary in Virginia will soon be called for Donald Trump. Phones around the room begin to buzz.

“When you take political history and you put it into context and connect it to the present day, you give people useful tools that help inform them about current events,” Sabato said. “That’s much of what we do.”

Civic Engagement Starts in Kindergarten

Three and a half months after Super Tuesday, the Center for Politics is again filled with boisterous excitement, although the crowd is noticeably shorter this time around. Gleeful elementary and middle school-age students spill onto the back lawn, chatting and laughing as they participate in the center’s Kid Power Day, a field day that blends outdoor activities with civics education.

Kid Power Day is one of many programs of the center’s Youth Leadership Initiative. The focus of this June afternoon is the Continental Congress. Students learn about the challenges America’s founders faced through games like “Representation Tug-of-War” and the Federalist versus Anti-Federalist water balloon toss.

“I see the role of the Youth Leadership Initiative as trying to introduce the skills of democracy – which are discourse, debate and compromise – to a new generation in the hopes that they will carry it forward,” said Meg Heubeck, the initiative’s director of instruction.

Kids and adults enjoy the back lawn during the center’s Kid Power Day.

While Kid Power Day is mostly for local students, the Youth Leadership Initiative has a global reach. Online, it provides free civics education tools to more than 95,000 K-12 teachers nationwide and nearly 200 schools abroad. Everything is easy to download and designed to help kids learn to be engaged, responsible citizens.

“One of my favorites is an activity we have called ‘Talking Turkey: Taking the ‘dis’ out of civil discourse,’” said Heubeck. “It’s actually a PTA or PTO program where you try to get kids and parents to talk about politics. It gives you ground rules like make sure you listen, don’t say anything until the other person is finished, ask probing questions and don’t take things personally.”

Even as she’s coordinating summer programs and teacher conferences, Heubeck and her dedicated team of student interns prepared for the Youth Leadership Initiative’s largest annual event: its Mock Election. In October, thousands of students cast digital ballots that are replicas of the real ballots used in their states’ upcoming elections.

Students sit at computers, casting digital ballots in the Youth Leadership Initiative’s Mock Election.

When the final tallies are announced, students have a chance to see how their voice impacted the outcome both at the school level and in the nationwide mock election.

Instilling the importance of an informed and active citizenry is a cornerstone of the center’s mission, and they don’t do it only for American school children. Just a few weeks after Kid Power Day, the center hosts 30 students from Belarus for a weeklong exploration of democracy and American politics. The Belarusians are the 17th international group to visit Charlottesville as part of the center’s Global Perspectives on Democracy program.

“We don’t host countries that live on easy street. Generally we work with groups from countries like Belarus that have real challenges,” said Daman Irby, the center’s director for global initiatives. “We want them to leave empowered and excited to try and make a difference and to not give up when they inevitably face those challenges.”

The program is run jointly by the center and the U.S. Department of State and hosts events in the United States and abroad. In addition to the group from Belarus, delegations of students and community leaders from Argentina, Chile and Mongolia scheduled trips to Charlottesville in 2016.

Partnering with the State Department has become a wide-ranging and mutually beneficial relationship for the Center for Politics.

The center also works with the State Department to expose UVA students and community members to global perspectives on politics and policy. Its Ambassador Series, which is free and open to the public, brings various ambassadors to the U.S. to Charlottesville to speak. Speakers in the 2015-16 academic year included the ambassador from Germany, just in time to discuss his country’s action on the refugee crisis, and the ambassador to the U.K. ahead of the Brexit vote. The series typically includes four to five ambassadors each school year. Some are from other democracies and some are not.

The ambassador from Germany interacts with students.
An ambassador presents at a lectern as a part of the center’s Ambassador Series.

“We always keep it so the audience is free to ask whatever they want and the questions have been very good,” said Kondik.

“With the strong support of the University, I’ve dedicated the last years of my career to trying to improve civic education, from kindergarten all the way up to senior citizens,” said Sabato. “Education and citizen participation are the twin pillars that support good government.”

Into the Belly of the Beast

As dog days of summer hit Charlottesville in late July, the Crystal Ball team leaves its headquarters to begin reporting from the eye of the political storm in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Sabato, Kondik and Skelley are live on the ground at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

Sabata, Kondik, Skelley and another walk the halls of a national convention.

Kondik is in particularly high demand in Ohio because of the recent publication of his book, “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.” Journalists are eager to have him speculate on the voting behavior of the swing state hosting the Republican National Convention.

“So Ohio - some have referred to it as the first American state because [of] settlement patterns back in the early 1800s when it was founded. You had New Englanders in the northeastern part of the state. You had Southerners in the southern part of the state. It was a collection of the nation, as it was, in the 1800s,” Kondik said to NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “And as the nation changed, Ohio changed, too. And so it’s always been this good microcosm of the nation.”

Sabato, meanwhile, continues his steady schedule of appearances on national and international media. CNN, Fox News and BBC Radio are among the Cleveland interviews. In Philadelphia, the exercise repeats.

When they’re not speaking with reporters, members of the Crystal Ball team provide a running commentary to their followers on social media and post regular updates to their website.

Sabato checks his smartphone in the empty convention center before the Republican National Convention.

Kondik and Skelley also answer the State Department’s call to provide nonpartisan briefings to the foreign press corps. Both give presentations on the nuances of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and the impact each event is likely to have on the electorate.

Once the conventions wrap, the three commentators prepare for the brief August lull while Americans vacation and turn their attention to the Olympics.

Election Years Past and Present

As fall arrives, the Crystal Ball writers begin updating their electoral map with greater frequency. Presidential debates in September again engulf their building in the same chaotic energy that ruled on Super Tuesday.

Sabato, Kondik and Skelley are in high demand in the days following the first presidential debates. In his national media appearances, Sabato names Clinton the unequivocal winner but predicts only a tiny bump in her poll numbers as a direct result of the first debate.

“I’ve watched – repeatedly – every single presidential debate since they started in 1960 and this was most one-sided debate ever. It doesn’t even come close,” he told CNBC’s “Power Lunch.”

He explained that any post-debate poll jump for Clinton was likely to be small because there simply aren’t that many undecided or wavering third party voters left for her to pick up. Sabato also cautioned that things could change if Trump improves his performance in the two remaining debates.

In the final weeks before Election Day, the center’s staff absorbs every moment, preparing new analyses and documenting it all in precise detail. They regularly adjust the Crystal Ball’s predictive electoral map to account for new actions by Clinton and Trump. The historically high unpopularity of both candidates accounts for the movement of several states in or out of “Safe Democrat” or “Safe Republican” categories.

Much of the information shared in the Crystal Ball will help springboard the traditional book the center publishes after every midterm and presidential election.

“We’re trying to create a historical record but do it in an interesting way that’s readable, as opposed to a lot of other election analyses which can be very dry,” said Sabato.

The center has only been around for two decades, but it’s illuminating a historical record that stretches back into American history. The center now regularly produces historical video documentaries that coincide with a free MOOC, or massive open online course. The documentary “The Kennedy Half Century” won an Emmy in 2014 while the accompanying MOOC was nominated for an Emmy—the only MOOC to ever earn such an honor—and, to date, has attracted almost 200,000 subscribers to the online course.

So far the historical documentaries only cover through 1976, but it’s fair to say that the unusual events of the 2016 election will one day earn a place in the canon. Like all the center’s analyses of current campaigns, the historical documentaries focus on presenting only the facts and no opinions on the merits of past candidates. Sabato prefers that his audiences, like his students, are free to make up their own minds.

“Each of our programs offers benefits in the short term but we’re also focused on the long game,” said Sabato. “I’ve seen the differences these opportunities create for our students, and I’ve also seen the positive impact our students make on the system.”

The Home Stretch

The March primaries are now far in the past. The election year cycle has progressed through its conventions, beyond Labor Day when many Americans only begin to pay close attention, and through to the presidential debates.

Having immersed themselves in it all, Sabato and his center colleagues prepare for the final sprint towards November. Candidate gaffes, stump speeches and maybe even a few eleventh hour surprises lay ahead. Election Day looms large on the horizon.

“Each of our programs offers benefits in the short term but we’re also focused on the long game,” said Sabato. “I’ve seen the differences these opportunities create for our students, and I’ve also seen the positive impact our students make on the system.”