Monthly Archives: October 2020

Election 2020: Day -3

Within the past 24 hours the Presidential election has hit about as close to home as it’s going to get, where here by ‘home’ I mean Woodbury MN, the suburb of St. Paul where we have a house and where my wife is registered to vote. (I’m still registered to vote in Chicago, where we own a condo.)

First, as I noted yesterday both Presidential candidates made appearances in locations a comfortable driving distance of the house: Biden at the state fairgrounds parking lot in St. Paul, and Trump at the Rochester MN airport. This happened on the same day that Minnesota set a new daily record for newly reported COVID-19 cases, exceeding 3000 new cases for the first day ever.

Trump originally had intended to have a full rally at a private business site half an hour west of Rochester. However Minnesota does currently have a restriction on public gatherings in excess of 250 people, and in the end Trump’s event complied with that requirement (although hundreds more supporters lined fences in an attempt to get a glimpse of the President). Trump was clearly livid, though, criticizing not only his opponent but also Minnesota Governor Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Ellison, both of whom are Democrats.

I know we’ve gotten inured to the things this President says on a daily basis, and they’ve ceased being shocking. But, since I’m writing for posterity here to commemorate these times, let’s pause and remember that four days before the election, in a public event at a state he’s probably going to lose, the President of the United States said this: “Keith Ellison and Joe Biden want to imprison you in your homes while letting anarchists, agitators and vandals roam free as they try to destroy your cities and states.” And this: “Biden is a grimy, sleazy and corrupt career politician.” And this: “Under the Biden lockdown, which he talks about and cherishes, countless Americans will die from suicide, drug overdoses and deferred medical care at a level like you haven’t seen before. There will be no school, no graduations, no weddings, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no 4th of July, no Easter, no nothing. There will be no future for America’s youth.”

Second, this morning Tiffany Trump was hosting an official ‘Breakfast with Tiffany’ campaign event in Woodbury, and the event was taking place at our favorite restaurant in Minnesota’s 9th-largest city, Angelina’s Kitchen. Naturally, some of the locals are calling for a boycott of the restaurant. While I am a big believer in the notion of taking a business-owner’s political views into account when determining whether to patronize a business, personally I’m going to give them a pass here. It’s hard to criticize a restaurant owner for looking for any possible source of incremental revenue during these difficult times. And besides, if I stopped patronizing Angelina’s Kitchen, I don’t know where else I’d want to go in this exurb to eat…

COVID-19 continues to be the big story three days out from the election, even if President Trump continues to assert at every opportunity, as he said yesterday in Rochester, that we’re “rounding the turn on the pandemic with or without the vaccine.” This afternoon British Prime Minister Johnson announced new plans for a four-week lockdown throughout England, although schools will remain open. The school district in Woodbury MN announced yesterday that students in grades 6-12 will shift from a hybrid model to distance learning in mid-November, due to worsening case rate numbers in the county; for now my 3rd-grade stepson will continue to be in a hybrid model, but that may need to change at some point. The U.S. death count has remained fairly steady over September and October, with the 7-day average remaining in the range of 700-800 deaths per day, but in recent days that average has again drifted up above the 800 mark. The U.S. case count has reached levels not previously seen, with a new daily case count record set two days ago and then broken yesterday.

Nothing earth-shattering in the past 24 hours in terms of political polls. There is an interesting new article from FiveThirtyEight that tries to put some order around the critical question of, when can we expect each state’s vote count to be reasonably complete? They’ve put the states into three buckets based on how much of that state’s vote we should expect will be counted/reported on election night itself: “nearly all”, “most but not some”, or “only some”. Some highlights of their classification:

  • Nearly all includes Florida. Nebraska is also here, which should give us early clarity on Omaha’s single electoral vote. New Hampshire is the only other state in this category where the Presidential race is in modest doubt. However Montana, of interest for its Senate race, is here.
  • Most but not all includes all the Midwestern states of interest (IA, MI, MN, OH, WI), the non-Florida Southern states of interest (GA, NC, TX), and also Arizona and Colorado.
  • Only some includes all-important Pennsylvania, as well as Nevada.

Election 2020: Day -4

I’ll start with a couple of pieces of Minnesota-related news today, which tends to catch my eye since it’s the state in which my wife is registered to vote.

First, this afternoon both Trump and Biden are holding events in Minnesota, Biden in St. Paul (a drive-in rally at the state fairgrounds) and Trump in Rochester (with a 250-person attendance limit due to current state limitations on public gatherings). I’d commented previously that Minnesota is one of the few states where Trump is on the offense, although polling and modeling suggests that by now Trump’s chances of winning the state are somewhere between slim (FiveThirtyEight thinks 7%) and none (The Economist thinks <1%).

That makes me wonder, what is Biden seeing that makes him want to invest the time to stop in Minnesota, even if it is conveniently wedged between other Upper Midwest stops today? The Senate race has been not been viewed as particularly competitive, even before Republican challenger Jason Lewis’ recent health issues. Perhaps he’s trying to help boost Democrats’ chances of flipping the Minnesota state senate, in the hopes of giving the party total control of the state going into a post-census redistricting year? (Right now Minnesota is an increasingly-rare example of a state where the Governor and House are in one party’s hands while the Senate is controlled by the other party.) It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Second, last night the 8th Circuit ruled that any Minnesota mail-in ballots received after 8pm on election day will need to be set aside, in order to preserve the ability for later litigation to determine whether or not they should be counted. This is part of a theme of Republican election-related litigation across multiple states, arguing that changes to election rules by state administrative officials that were not ratified by state legislatures violate Article II Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. (As such, it seems possible that these ballots might eventually get counted with respect to state races, but not with respect to federal races). There is a fascinating legal question here about what the meaning of the word “Legislature” in the U.S. Constitution is; however it is regrettable that this legal argument has only become so visible mere days before an election that is generally acknowledged to be exceptionally important.

In non-Minnesota news, early voting levels in Texas have already exceeded the total number of ballots cast in 2016, with today being the last day for early voting under Texas law. This sounds astonishing. However, I was surprised to learn that almost three-quarters of the total votes cast in Texas in 2016 came through early voting.

In yesterday’s post I threw around some numbers from FiveThirtyEight‘s election models. There’s another widely publicized probabilistic election model floating around, from The Economist. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast how these two models are viewing the key races with 4 days to go. As such I pulled some data from both websites within minutes of each other, mid-afternoon on day -4, and here’s what I found.

President. Economist is more bullish than 538 about Biden’s overall chances, with Biden at 96% to win, versus 90% now (up from 88% yesterday) for 538.

I think a major driver of the difference is how the two models view Pennsylvania. While 538 has Biden’s chances in PA at 86%, Economist has Biden at 94%. And as discussed in yesterday’s post, Pennsylvania appears to be a very critical state.

A related driver is that 538 seems to see greater chances of Trump prevailing in several other states that both models view as strong Biden states, like New Hampshire (Economist 98%, 538 89%), Minnesota (Economist >99%, 538 93%), Nevada (Economist 94%, 538 90%), Michigan (Economist 98%, 538 96%), and Wisconsin (Economist 97%, 538 94%).

When it comes to the true battleground states, the two models’ views are fairly well-aligned, but again there’s some tendency for the Economist’s model to compress probabilities towards the likelier outcome. All numbers here are expressed in terms of Biden’s probability of winning:

  • Florida: Economist 77%, 538 66%
  • Arizona: Economist 76%, 538 69%
  • North Carolina: Economist 70%, 538 66%
  • Georgia: Economist 58%, 538 58%
  • Iowa: Economist 45%, 538 46%
  • Ohio: Economist 38%, 538 45%
  • Texas: Economist 26%, 538 35%

Unfortunately the Economist’s model does not appear to produce a forecast for Nebraska’s 2nd District, which as discussed in yesterday’s post could possibly be important in some scenarios; the 538 model currently has this as Biden 78%.

Senate. Similarly, The Economist is a little more bullish than FiveThirtyEight about the Democrats’ chances of prevailing.

There are several races where there’s general agreement about what’s going to happen, but the 538 model is less certain about the outcome than the Economist model. All numbers here are expressed in terms of the probability of the seat flipping parties:

  • Alabama (D-Jones): Economist 99%, 538 81%
  • Colorado (R-Gardner): Economist 95%, 538 85%
  • Arizona (R-McSally): Economist 88%, 538 81%
  • Mississippi (R-Hyde-Smith): Economist 9%, 538 14%
  • Michigan (D-Peters): Economist 4%, 538 17%
  • Minnesota (D-Smith): Economist 2%, 538 7%

On the other hand the two models are aligned with respect to New Mexico’s open Democratic seat, as well as McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, thinking there’s only a 3% to 5% chance either of those seats will flip.

For most of the seats that are in greater doubt, in general The Economist’s model likes the Democrats’ chances better than FiveThirtyEight’s model. Again all numbers below are expressed in terms of the probability of the seat flipping parties:

  • North Carolina (R-Tillis): Economist 72%, 538 63%
  • Maine (R-Collins): Economist 71%, 538 59%
  • Georgia (R-Perdue): Economist 60%, 538 42%
  • Iowa (R-Ernst): Economist 57%, 538 54%
  • South Carolina (R-Graham): Economist 35%, 538 23%
  • Texas (R-Cornyn): Economist 20%, 538 14%

One exception here is Montana (R-Daines), where both models have the seat at 34% to flip. And then there’s the second seat in Georgia, Loeffler’s seat. As I mentioned yesterday, this “jungle general” seat appears destined to go to a runoff, between Warnock (D) and either Loeffler (R) or Collins (R). As such, trying to forecast what’s going to happen here seems particularly difficult, as you’d need to forecast voter enthusiasm for the runoff election, which could depend on how important the outcome is or isn’t with respect to the total Senate picture. Both models have this seat in the 60-63% range to flip, but I would take that with even more of a grain of salt than the other predictions.

All told, the two models generate fairly similar aggregate conclusions: The Economist thinks the Democrats are at 82% to recapture Senate control, while FiveThirtyEight has the Democrats at 77%.

Election 2020: Day -5

We in the US are entering a very interesting period: “Election Day” is now only five days away, but there seems to be little chance that the night of the election will bring any sense of finality the way it has traditionally (2000 aside) — not with uncertainties about when mail-in and early votes will be counted in which states, compounded with uncertainties about the potential transition of power. I don’t know if we’re entering “Election Week”, or “Election Month”, or “Election Quarter”.

As such I thought it would be a suitable time to start recording my perspectives on these events as they unfold, to have something to look back upon. Since this is the first post in a planned series, I need to start by sharing the context of our times.

The generally accepted wisdom is that Biden is a heavy favorite to win the Presidency; not a prohibitive favorite like Reagan in 1984, but certainly in a better position than Clinton was against Trump four years earlier. On average, national polls show Biden with a 9-point lead, although there are outlier polls; for instance Rasmussen, which has consistently exhibited a ‘house edge’ towards Trump, has the national race as Biden +1 today versus Trump +1 three days ago. Due to clumping in how Biden’s vote is distributed, Trump is felt to have a similar structural advantage in the Electoral College to what he had four years ago, when a Trump -2 result in the nationwide vote converted to 306 electoral votes.

Moving to the Electoral College calculus, Biden appears to have two main paths to winning – what Nate Silver referred to in an article yesterday as Plan A1 and Plan A2. Plan A1, which has gotten more attention, is: flip Pennsylvania. Biden has had a consistent polling lead in his birth state, which went Trump +0.7 in 2016; the current polling average is Biden +5. If Biden wins Pennsylvania, it appears to be very difficult for Trump to get to 270 electoral votes.

Plan A2 is: flip Arizona, and also the Omaha congressional district (NE-2). Arizona went Trump +3.5 in 2016, but the state has been changing; the Democrats captured a Senate seat in 2018 and the current polling average is Biden +3.5. Omaha’s sole electoral vote (Nebraska being one of two states that is not winner-take-all) went Trump +2 in 2016, but what little polling has been done specific to that district has shown Biden leads of 7 to 11 points, and FiveThirtyEight’s current forecast for the district is Biden +6. One can construct a plausible map in which Trump wins Pennsylvania and otherwise has a good night, but Biden wins Arizona and Omaha to pull out a 270-268 victory. Which helps explain why Trump took the time two days ago to do one of his trademark rallies in Omaha, only 7 days before the election.

But of course there are plenty of other states in play. For starters, it seems increasingly likely that Biden will flip both Wisconsin and Michigan. Wisconsin had unexpectedly gone Trump +1 in 2016, but there was a credible poll yesterday that had it at Biden +17. While that may be an overbid – FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is currently Biden +8 – the reality is that Wisconsin is currently one of the very worst states in the country with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is surely hurting Trump’s chances there. That same poll had Michigan, which unexpectedly went Trump +0.25 in 2016, as Biden +7. This is very consistent with what other polls have shown throughout the campaign, and FiveThirtyEight’s current forecast for Michigan is Biden +8.

More interestingly, there are several states that Trump won in 2016 where things seem very tight: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. If any of these break for Biden then Trump’s chances would be slim. Silver recently referred to these as Biden’s “multiple Plan Cs”. While Trump has attempted to play some offense in states that went for Clinton in 2016 – Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire – the contour of the campaign has largely been Biden on offense and Trump on defense. If everything breaks in Biden’s favor, it’s possible to imagine him getting over 400 electoral votes.

However all of this model-driven speculation, while fun, ignores some important dynamics. Early voting and mail-in voting are both at levels not previously seen, due to a combination of voter enthusiasm and concerns about in-person voting due to the pandemic. This raises the usual level of questions about whether pollsters have accurately captured this year’s electorate. But in addition, there will be tremendous inconsistency across states as to which type of votes will be tallied when; and this has the risk of impacting the public perception of what is actually happening in a given state’s election results.

It is easy to imagine a scenario where, given a state’s election procedures, and given differences between the parties’ electorates with respect to voting method, one candidate appears to be ahead on election night but the other candidate ultimately takes a lead that is outside the mandatory recount threshold. Would the public accept such a result as legitimate, or would they suspect that hanky-panky by electoral officials occurred? These public perception concerns have been exacerbated by comments already made by both President Trump and SCOTUS Justice Kavanaugh, suggesting that this type of situation inherently raises questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process.

So, we may be in for a long haul here, with no clear winner established on the night of the election, with results coming in over days if not weeks, and with considerable potential for judicial activity not just in one state (as in 2000) but in multiple states simultaneously.

And then there are also Senate and House elections to consider. It is generally agreed that the Democrats will retain control of the House, with most observers believing they have an opportunity to expand their majority. The Senate landscape in 2020 did not initially look promising for the Democrats, who need a net gain of 3 seats to get to 50. The conventional wisdom in mid-summer was that while there was a clear path for the Democrats to win the seats in Arizona (McSally), Colorado (Gardner), and Maine (Collins), it was very likely that the Democrats would lose their windfall seat (from the Roy Moore debacle) in Alabama (Jones), and it was far from clear what other seat could successfully be put in play.

However, much has happened since then; and while it could easily still all go wrong for the Democrats and they could end at 49 (or even lower, e.g., if Collins pulls off a comeback), right now the modal outcome of FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is a tie between 51 and 52 Democratic seats. Republican incumbents in Alaska (Sullivan), Georgia (Perdue), Iowa (Ernst), Montana (Daines), North Carolina (Tillis), and South Carolina (Graham) are all in much tighter-than-expected races. In addition there’s a close race in Kansas for an open seat, and the “jungle general” race in Georgia to fill the remainder of Loeffler’s term appears destined to go to a runoff between the Democrat Warnock and either Loeffler or Republican Congressman Collins. And even states like Kentucky (McConnell), Mississippi (Hyde-Smith), and Texas (Cornyn) no longer look completely safe for the incumbent, although the same could be said in the other direction for Michigan (Peters), where the African-American Republican challenger could create some ballot-splitting.

As such there will be quite a bit to watch for outside of the Presidential election, including the possibility that Senate control could hinge on a runoff election in Georgia. And there will also be the usual array of state-level actions to follow; of particular interest to me is the so-called “fair tax” amendment in Illinois, which seeks to overturn a clause in the state constitution that prohibits graduated tax rates.