washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

November 11: Biden’s Popular Vote Win Is Impressive

Comparing the 2020 presidential election results to its precedents, I wrote up this impression for New York:

Joe Biden’s national popular vote lead over Donald Trump, and his percentage of the total vote, is beginning to look pretty impressive despite how close the Electoral College vote has remained, — and also despite Trump’s increasingly empty claims that he somehow actually won. Biden currently leads Trump by over five million votes, or by 3.4 percent of the total. Both numbers are certain to go higher. His popular vote percentage lead is already higher than that of the popular vote winner in 2016, 2004, 2000, 1976, 1968 and 1960. And with the exception of the two earlier Democratic tickets on which Biden appeared (2008 and 2012), the 50.8 percent of the national popular vote the Biden-Harris ticket has won is higher than that of any Democratic ticket since 1964. And that total could soon eclipse the 51.1 percent Obama and Biden received in 2012.

Biden’s percentage of the national popular vote is also higher than that of any Republican presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over John Kerry is remembered as a close race, but not one that was seriously contested. W. won 50.7 percent of the popular vote, prevailing by a 2.4 percent margin. For that matter, the endlessly touted political genius Ronald Reagan took only 50.7 percent of the popular vote when he won the presidency in 1980. The man he beat, Jimmy Carter, was for many years the last Democrat (and the only Democrat since LBJ) to win a popular vote majority (until Obama — and Biden — did so in 2008), He won 50.1 percent of the vote in 1976.

To be sure, Biden didn’t win by anything like a landslide, but efforts to minimize his popular vote numbers don’t bear comparison to other candidates in our often highly competitive two-party system.


Biden’s Popular Vote Win Is Impressive

Comparing the 2020 presidential election results to its precedents, I wrote up this impression for New York:

Joe Biden’s national popular vote lead over Donald Trump, and his percentage of the total vote, is beginning to look pretty impressive despite how close the Electoral College vote has remained, — and also despite Trump’s increasingly empty claims that he somehow actually won. Biden currently leads Trump by over five million votes, or by 3.4 percent of the total. Both numbers are certain to go higher. His popular vote percentage lead is already higher than that of the popular vote winner in 2016, 2004, 2000, 1976, 1968 and 1960. And with the exception of the two earlier Democratic tickets on which Biden appeared (2008 and 2012), the 50.8 percent of the national popular vote the Biden-Harris ticket has won is higher than that of any Democratic ticket since 1964. And that total could soon eclipse the 51.1 percent Obama and Biden received in 2012.

Biden’s percentage of the national popular vote is also higher than that of any Republican presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over John Kerry is remembered as a close race, but not one that was seriously contested. W. won 50.7 percent of the popular vote, prevailing by a 2.4 percent margin. For that matter, the endlessly touted political genius Ronald Reagan took only 50.7 percent of the popular vote when he won the presidency in 1980. The man he beat, Jimmy Carter, was for many years the last Democrat (and the only Democrat since LBJ) to win a popular vote majority (until Obama — and Biden — did so in 2008), He won 50.1 percent of the vote in 1976.

To be sure, Biden didn’t win by anything like a landslide, but efforts to minimize his popular vote numbers don’t bear comparison to other candidates in our often highly competitive two-party system.


November 9: Biden Was the Essential Winner

After the presidential contest was finally called, I had this take on its ultimate meaning at New York:

After all the madness of this plague year, and a surprising if hardly unprecedented Election Night full of uncertainty, the presidential election produced the most predictable outcome available. The least-controversial candidate the Democratic Party could have nominated defeated an unpopular incumbent at a time when the country feared for the future and craved stability.

President Trump and his partisans — if they ever come clean and stop raving about voter fraud — will certainly argue that he was robbed of a second term by the “China virus” and its impact on the “greatest economy ever” that he claimed as a personal accomplishment. But the president’s job-approval rating was the lowest this year in January, before the pandemic began, and reached its highest point in March, when the first big wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths had already hit. Trump’s reelection bid made the voting inevitably a referendum on his presidency, and the negative judgment Americans rendered on his performance never varied enough to matter for the ultimate outcome. His strategy of polarizing the electorate, energizing his base, and demonizing the opposition never varied, either; those waiting for a Trump “pivot” to a positive case for his record or a clear-cut presentation of his agenda waited in vain.

It became obvious well before Election Day that Trump’s only realistic hope for reelection was to hold down turnout among the majority unhappy with his performance and then seek via legal and political chicanery to eke out an Electoral College win by the kind of small miracle he achieved in 2016 or by contesting the results. Far and away the most consistent presidential message of the entire 2020 cycle was his relentless series of attacks on voting by mail, which succeeded in convincing many millions of Republicans to vote in person on Election Day and to suspect mail ballots as presumptively illegitimate. But when Trump pulled the trigger late on Election Night by claiming a premature win, he simply did not have the credibility to bring along his party and Fox News into a coup attempt.

President-elect Biden, as is increasingly obvious, is going to have a very tough row to hoe. Democrats will have to win two January runoffs to control the Senate. If they fail to do so that could make executive and judicial confirmations problematic and place any comprehensive progressive agenda, including the crucial step of filibuster reform, beyond his reach. Democrats also lost ground in the House. Beginning with a Senate runoff (or possibly runoffs) in Georgia in January, we will enter a 2022 midterm cycle in which emboldened Republicans will give no quarter and Biden will have no honeymoon. Democratic intra-party tensions that were briefly submerged by the drive to topple Trump will reemerge, particularly if it appears the new president will not seriously consider running for a second term.

But make no mistake: Biden did topple Trump, albeit by a much narrower margin than recently expected, and in the end that’s all that he really promised Democrats. Big policy ambitions ranging from urgent climate-change activism to health-care reform to voting rights and an assault on economic inequality will take a back seat to efforts to get a grip on the pandemic and avoid all sorts of catastrophes. Demographic change is still on the Democratic Party’s side, even though, as we have learned yet again, its progress can be uneven. Biden is arguably the perfect transitional figure for his party and his country.


Biden Was the Essential Winner

After the presidential contest was finally called, I had this take on its ultimate meaning at New York:

After all the madness of this plague year, and a surprising if hardly unprecedented Election Night full of uncertainty, the presidential election produced the most predictable outcome available. The least-controversial candidate the Democratic Party could have nominated defeated an unpopular incumbent at a time when the country feared for the future and craved stability.

President Trump and his partisans — if they ever come clean and stop raving about voter fraud — will certainly argue that he was robbed of a second term by the “China virus” and its impact on the “greatest economy ever” that he claimed as a personal accomplishment. But the president’s job-approval rating was the lowest this year in January, before the pandemic began, and reached its highest point in March, when the first big wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths had already hit. Trump’s reelection bid made the voting inevitably a referendum on his presidency, and the negative judgment Americans rendered on his performance never varied enough to matter for the ultimate outcome. His strategy of polarizing the electorate, energizing his base, and demonizing the opposition never varied, either; those waiting for a Trump “pivot” to a positive case for his record or a clear-cut presentation of his agenda waited in vain.

It became obvious well before Election Day that Trump’s only realistic hope for reelection was to hold down turnout among the majority unhappy with his performance and then seek via legal and political chicanery to eke out an Electoral College win by the kind of small miracle he achieved in 2016 or by contesting the results. Far and away the most consistent presidential message of the entire 2020 cycle was his relentless series of attacks on voting by mail, which succeeded in convincing many millions of Republicans to vote in person on Election Day and to suspect mail ballots as presumptively illegitimate. But when Trump pulled the trigger late on Election Night by claiming a premature win, he simply did not have the credibility to bring along his party and Fox News into a coup attempt.

President-elect Biden, as is increasingly obvious, is going to have a very tough row to hoe. Democrats will have to win two January runoffs to control the Senate. If they fail to do so that could make executive and judicial confirmations problematic and place any comprehensive progressive agenda, including the crucial step of filibuster reform, beyond his reach. Democrats also lost ground in the House. Beginning with a Senate runoff (or possibly runoffs) in Georgia in January, we will enter a 2022 midterm cycle in which emboldened Republicans will give no quarter and Biden will have no honeymoon. Democratic intra-party tensions that were briefly submerged by the drive to topple Trump will reemerge, particularly if it appears the new president will not seriously consider running for a second term.

But make no mistake: Biden did topple Trump, albeit by a much narrower margin than recently expected, and in the end that’s all that he really promised Democrats. Big policy ambitions ranging from urgent climate-change activism to health-care reform to voting rights and an assault on economic inequality will take a back seat to efforts to get a grip on the pandemic and avoid all sorts of catastrophes. Demographic change is still on the Democratic Party’s side, even though, as we have learned yet again, its progress can be uneven. Biden is arguably the perfect transitional figure for his party and his country.


November 5: Senate Control Likely To Come Down to Two Georgia Runoffs in January

Because I’ve been predicting this for a while, I was prepared for the strange trajectory of this year’s battle for control of the Senate, and wrote about it quickly at New York:

All the talk about Mitch McConnell savoring continued control of the Senate and laying plans to keep a Biden administration from accomplishing a damn thing may have been a tad premature. Yes, Republicans stymied Democrats hopes of flipping Senate seats in Iowa, Maine and several other states. Pending late returns in North Carolina (where GOP incumbent Thom Tillis is running ahead of Donald Trump and leads Cal Cunningham by 96,000 votes with mail ballots still trickling in), and Alaska (where another GOP incumbent, Dan Sullivan has a big lead over Al Gross with mail ballot counting won’t even begin until next week), Democrats have only gained one net seat in the upper chamber, and need two more to control the Senate assuming Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker as vice president).

But here’s the big breaking news: In Georgia, David Perdue’s vote total in his race against Jon Ossoff has slipped below 50 percent, and with heavily Democratic mail ballots the main votes still out, he’s not going to get a majority back.

[T]hanks to Georgia’s strange and unique majority-vote requirement for general election wins, Republican Perdue will face Democrat Ossoff in a January 5, 2021 runoff for the Senate seat despite Purdue’s comfortable 100,000-plus vote lead. (Outstanding mail ballots will undoubtedly reduce that lead and put 50 percent far out of reach for Purdue.) Libertarian Shane Hazel’s 2.3 percent of the vote is the main reason neither of the major-party candidates will be able to put it away this week, this month, or indeed, this year.

A January runoff was already in the works for Georgia’s other Senate seat, where 20 candidates competed in a November 3 non-partisan “jungle primary” special election to complete the term to which Republican Johnny Isakson (who resigned for health reasons last year) was elected in 2016. Since no one received the required majority, the top two finishers, Democrat Raphael Warnock (with 33 percent of the vote at present) and appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler (26 percent) will advance to the runoff.

The Republicans, Perdue and Loeffler, will probably be favored initially. For one thing, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to turn out for a runoff that’s not held in conjunction with other elections. That was the case in the two previous Senate general-election runoffs in Georgia: in 1992 when Republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler after narrowly denying him a majority on Election Day; and in 2008 when incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss beat Democrat Jim Martin by a landslide after barely edging ahead of him on Election Day.

Republicans will also claim an advantage based on their narrow Election Day leads (which are growing narrower by the hour as mail ballots are counted). In particular, it will be noted that much of the sound and fury in the special election involved two Republicans, Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, who has already endorsed the incumbent he scorned for so many months as a RINO and a corrupt plutocrat. But if you add up the votes of all the Republicans and all the Democrats in the special election, the Republican totals barely exceed the totals for Democrats. So all else being equal, both runoffs should be very competitive.

But that’s not taking into account the insanely intense scrutiny Georgia will now get from the entire political world between now and January 5, given the enormous stakes involved. Every unspent campaign dollar and every newly unemployed campaign operative will migrate to the Peach State for a holiday season wherein Senate ads will compete with Christmas pageantry and COVID precautions for the attention of Georgia voters. You could argue that the runoffs will be particularly crucial to Democrats who know that Senate control is absolutely essential if a Biden administration (which is at this moment a near-certain prospect) is to have a prayer of getting its executive and judicial appointees confirmed and enacting any sort of legislative agenda.


Senate Control Likely To Come Down to Two Georgia Runoffs In January

Because I’ve been predicting this for a while, I was prepared for the strange trajectory of this year’s battle for control of the Senate, and wrote about it quickly at New York:

All the talk about Mitch McConnell savoring continued control of the Senate and laying plans to keep a Biden administration from accomplishing a damn thing may have been a tad premature. Yes, Republicans stymied Democrats hopes of flipping Senate seats in Iowa, Maine and several other states. Pending late returns in North Carolina (where GOP incumbent Thom Tillis is running ahead of Donald Trump and leads Cal Cunningham by 96,000 votes with mail ballots still trickling in), and Alaska (where another GOP incumbent, Dan Sullivan has a big lead over Al Gross with mail ballot counting won’t even begin until next week), Democrats have only gained one net seat in the upper chamber, and need two more to control the Senate assuming Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker as vice president).

But here’s the big breaking news: In Georgia, David Perdue’s vote total in his race against Jon Ossoff has slipped below 50 percent, and with heavily Democratic mail ballots the main votes still out, he’s not going to get a majority back.

[T]hanks to Georgia’s strange and unique majority-vote requirement for general election wins, Republican Perdue will face Democrat Ossoff in a January 5, 2021 runoff for the Senate seat despite Purdue’s comfortable 100,000-plus vote lead. (Outstanding mail ballots will undoubtedly reduce that lead and put 50 percent far out of reach for Purdue.) Libertarian Shane Hazel’s 2.3 percent of the vote is the main reason neither of the major-party candidates will be able to put it away this week, this month, or indeed, this year.

A January runoff was already in the works for Georgia’s other Senate seat, where 20 candidates competed in a November 3 non-partisan “jungle primary” special election to complete the term to which Republican Johnny Isakson (who resigned for health reasons last year) was elected in 2016. Since no one received the required majority, the top two finishers, Democrat Raphael Warnock (with 33 percent of the vote at present) and appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler (26 percent) will advance to the runoff.

The Republicans, Perdue and Loeffler, will probably be favored initially. For one thing, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to turn out for a runoff that’s not held in conjunction with other elections. That was the case in the two previous Senate general-election runoffs in Georgia: in 1992 when Republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler after narrowly denying him a majority on Election Day; and in 2008 when incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss beat Democrat Jim Martin by a landslide after barely edging ahead of him on Election Day.

Republicans will also claim an advantage based on their narrow Election Day leads (which are growing narrower by the hour as mail ballots are counted). In particular, it will be noted that much of the sound and fury in the special election involved two Republicans, Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, who has already endorsed the incumbent he scorned for so many months as a RINO and a corrupt plutocrat. But if you add up the votes of all the Republicans and all the Democrats in the special election, the Republican totals barely exceed the totals for Democrats. So all else being equal, both runoffs should be very competitive.

But that’s not taking into account the insanely intense scrutiny Georgia will now get from the entire political world between now and January 5, given the enormous stakes involved. Every unspent campaign dollar and every newly unemployed campaign operative will migrate to the Peach State for a holiday season wherein Senate ads will compete with Christmas pageantry and COVID precautions for the attention of Georgia voters. You could argue that the runoffs will be particularly crucial to Democrats who know that Senate control is absolutely essential if a Biden administration (which is at this moment a near-certain prospect) is to have a prayer of getting its executive and judicial appointees confirmed and enacting any sort of legislative agenda.


October 29: The Messy Task of “Calling” the Results of the 2020 Elections

After a lot of digging around for information, I wrote up a quick primer for New York on the problems the usual sources of authoritative information will face in “calling” the 2020 election results, particularly on Election Night:

You are undoubtedly aware that Election Night on November 3 could be unlike any other we’ve seen before. Heavy, heavy pandemic-driven voting by mail; laws in some states allowing mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted afterwards; problems (legal or logistical) many states will have in efficiently processing a glut of mail ballots could produce a much slower count nationally than is normal. But at the same time, a big partisan split in how and when voters choose to vote could produce some herky-jerky results. Democrats fear that Republicans’ preference to vote in person on Election Day will create an ephemeral lead for Donald Trump that he will use to prematurely declare victory.

Americans are accustomed to being told who has won major elections quickly. With the exception of the infamous 2000 contest, we’ve known the winner of every presidential election in this and the last century by the day after Election Day. In the post-1960 era of exit polling and media network competition to “call” races, we usually know much earlier than that, sometimes moments after polls close in enough states where the overall “winner” can claim the necessary 270 electoral votes to be president.

Who “Calls” Elections, Anyway?

We generally think of the authenticators of presidential, congressional, and statewide election results as the major television-broadcast and cable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox) along with independent media services, preeminently the Associated Press, now supplemented by outfits emphasizing speedy results like Decision Desk HQ. All these authorities employ “decision desks” of election wizards, typically locked away in deliberate isolation from their employers and other potential sources of influence, who utilize carefully developed “models” to make projections (or, in the AP’s case, “declarations”) of who will ultimately win each contest. For presidential elections, of course, these “calls” are state by state (and also district by district, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, which let each congressional district cast one electoral vote) to reflect the reality that electoral votes determine the overall winner. None of these worthies will “call” the presidential race until they have “called” enough states to give the winner the requisite 270 electoral votes.

In addition to the “official” arbiters of the results, other media organizations will be collecting data for their own “unofficial” analysis, some of it quite influential, as anyone who associates Election Night 2016 with the infamous New York Times “needle” can tell you.

Anyone, of course, with access to a camera, a microphone, or a social-media account can “announce” an election result, real or imagined, and it is important to keep in mind that what we think of as “official” authenticators of the results are not necessarily authoritative to everyone. Let’s go ahead and look at the “red mirage” scenario, in which Donald Trump claims victory at midnight on November 3 based on sure-to-be-reversed leads in very partial results. It’s extremely unlikely that any of the television networks or the AP would verify such a claim. But whatever Fox News’ official “decision desk” decides to do or not do (and the network has gone out of its way to insist upon its independence), it’s likely that highly influential Fox News pundits would echo Trump’s claims anyway, along with vast armies of social-media warriors and Russian bots.

So it’s possible that “official” and “unofficial” calls of the election will compete for attention, with the unwillingness of the “official” outlets to make pronouncements based on incomplete data perhaps undermining their authority.

How Can You Do Exit Polling in a Year Like This One?

Back in the day, when voting by mail was rare and exceptional, Election Night “calls” depended on models that verified exit-poll data of people who had cast ballots in person with raw votes from key precincts, making quick decisions possible in all but really close races. Since 2004, exit polls have been conducted by Edison Media Research, backed by a consortium of media companies (currently ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN).

Exit polls have a good recent record of reliability, but there have been serious problems historically. In 2002, the whole system broke down and no exit-poll data was released, and in 2004, exit polls significantly overestimated Democratic voting, leading John Kerry’s staff to prematurely celebrate a victory he never actually won.

The steady growth of voting by mail has been a particular problem for exit-poll-based decision models. That’s one reason the AP and Fox News withdrew from the Edison consortium in 2018, deciding to rely entirely on the preelection polling everyone uses to get a handle on those who vote by mail. With mail ballots spiking this year, and with the partisan skew in voting methodologies, the particular value of exit polls (often used to interpret elections results as well as to project them) may decline further. Often the major media organizations will publish exit-poll findings (not the horse-race numbers but highly suggestive answers to questions other than candidate preference) even before polls close, but this year it may be necessary to take them with a shaker of salt.

Aside from the doubts the pandemic has sowed in the adequacy of exit-poll data, it has affected the mechanics, too. Here’s a description from ABC News of how exit interviews will work this year:

“Some exit polling procedures have been modified this year to help ensure a safe experience for the interviewers and voters. Typically, the exit poll interviewer walks right up to the selected voter and hands them the exit poll questionnaire and a pen. This approach has been modified.

“This year, the interviewer, who will be wearing a mask at all times, will approach the voter from a distance of at least 6 feet. Voters who agree to fill out the exit poll will be directed to a nearby table to get the questionnaire and a single use golf pencil.”

While ABC assures us that “these procedures were tested successfully during the recent primaries,” you do have to wonder if they will affect interview participation patterns in a general election where groups of voters across the country may react differently to the risks involved.

When Is the Presidential Race Likely to Be Called?

Again, the “official” arbiters of election results have, since at least 1980, followed the practice of refraining from any “call” of the presidential election until individual state “calls” have been made awarding one candidate or the other 270 electoral votes. In a highly informative interview with FiveThirtyEight, ABC’s Dan Merkle admits that the virtual certainty of slow counts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin makes it very unlikely that a winner will be indicated before November 4, if not later.

This is an important point to keep in mind. There has been a lot of talk about results from faster-counting states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina telling us what we need to know about the ultimate outcome. It’s true that if Joe Biden wins all three on Election Night, the odds of him ultimately winning are prohibitively high. But if Biden hasn’t nailed down 270 electoral votes, he won’t be officially “called” the winner, even if the pundits are all concluding Trump is done.

The time gap between the first “takes” on Election Night on the results and their ultimate authentication is a window for great mischief, particularly on the part of a president who has repeatedly said he cannot lose unless the results are “rigged.” And if the race really is very close, with the results legitimately in doubt, Americans may relive the twilight experience of 2000, when every morning we woke up to wonder if we had dreamed Election Night had never quite ended.


The Messy Task of “Calling” the Results of the 2020 Elections

After a lot of digging around for information, I wrote up a quick primer for New York on the problems the usual sources of authoritative information will face in “calling” the 2020 election results, particularly on Election Night:

You are undoubtedly aware that Election Night on November 3 could be unlike any other we’ve seen before. Heavy, heavy pandemic-driven voting by mail; laws in some states allowing mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted afterwards; problems (legal or logistical) many states will have in efficiently processing a glut of mail ballots could produce a much slower count nationally than is normal. But at the same time, a big partisan split in how and when voters choose to vote could produce some herky-jerky results. Democrats fear that Republicans’ preference to vote in person on Election Day will create an ephemeral lead for Donald Trump that he will use to prematurely declare victory.

Americans are accustomed to being told who has won major elections quickly. With the exception of the infamous 2000 contest, we’ve known the winner of every presidential election in this and the last century by the day after Election Day. In the post-1960 era of exit polling and media network competition to “call” races, we usually know much earlier than that, sometimes moments after polls close in enough states where the overall “winner” can claim the necessary 270 electoral votes to be president.

Who “Calls” Elections, Anyway?

We generally think of the authenticators of presidential, congressional, and statewide election results as the major television-broadcast and cable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox) along with independent media services, preeminently the Associated Press, now supplemented by outfits emphasizing speedy results like Decision Desk HQ. All these authorities employ “decision desks” of election wizards, typically locked away in deliberate isolation from their employers and other potential sources of influence, who utilize carefully developed “models” to make projections (or, in the AP’s case, “declarations”) of who will ultimately win each contest. For presidential elections, of course, these “calls” are state by state (and also district by district, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, which let each congressional district cast one electoral vote) to reflect the reality that electoral votes determine the overall winner. None of these worthies will “call” the presidential race until they have “called” enough states to give the winner the requisite 270 electoral votes.

In addition to the “official” arbiters of the results, other media organizations will be collecting data for their own “unofficial” analysis, some of it quite influential, as anyone who associates Election Night 2016 with the infamous New York Times “needle” can tell you.

Anyone, of course, with access to a camera, a microphone, or a social-media account can “announce” an election result, real or imagined, and it is important to keep in mind that what we think of as “official” authenticators of the results are not necessarily authoritative to everyone. Let’s go ahead and look at the “red mirage” scenario, in which Donald Trump claims victory at midnight on November 3 based on sure-to-be-reversed leads in very partial results. It’s extremely unlikely that any of the television networks or the AP would verify such a claim. But whatever Fox News’ official “decision desk” decides to do or not do (and the network has gone out of its way to insist upon its independence), it’s likely that highly influential Fox News pundits would echo Trump’s claims anyway, along with vast armies of social-media warriors and Russian bots.

So it’s possible that “official” and “unofficial” calls of the election will compete for attention, with the unwillingness of the “official” outlets to make pronouncements based on incomplete data perhaps undermining their authority.

How Can You Do Exit Polling in a Year Like This One?

Back in the day, when voting by mail was rare and exceptional, Election Night “calls” depended on models that verified exit-poll data of people who had cast ballots in person with raw votes from key precincts, making quick decisions possible in all but really close races. Since 2004, exit polls have been conducted by Edison Media Research, backed by a consortium of media companies (currently ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN).

Exit polls have a good recent record of reliability, but there have been serious problems historically. In 2002, the whole system broke down and no exit-poll data was released, and in 2004, exit polls significantly overestimated Democratic voting, leading John Kerry’s staff to prematurely celebrate a victory he never actually won.

The steady growth of voting by mail has been a particular problem for exit-poll-based decision models. That’s one reason the AP and Fox News withdrew from the Edison consortium in 2018, deciding to rely entirely on the preelection polling everyone uses to get a handle on those who vote by mail. With mail ballots spiking this year, and with the partisan skew in voting methodologies, the particular value of exit polls (often used to interpret elections results as well as to project them) may decline further. Often the major media organizations will publish exit-poll findings (not the horse-race numbers but highly suggestive answers to questions other than candidate preference) even before polls close, but this year it may be necessary to take them with a shaker of salt.

Aside from the doubts the pandemic has sowed in the adequacy of exit-poll data, it has affected the mechanics, too. Here’s a description from ABC News of how exit interviews will work this year:

“Some exit polling procedures have been modified this year to help ensure a safe experience for the interviewers and voters. Typically, the exit poll interviewer walks right up to the selected voter and hands them the exit poll questionnaire and a pen. This approach has been modified.

“This year, the interviewer, who will be wearing a mask at all times, will approach the voter from a distance of at least 6 feet. Voters who agree to fill out the exit poll will be directed to a nearby table to get the questionnaire and a single use golf pencil.”

While ABC assures us that “these procedures were tested successfully during the recent primaries,” you do have to wonder if they will affect interview participation patterns in a general election where groups of voters across the country may react differently to the risks involved.

When Is the Presidential Race Likely to Be Called?

Again, the “official” arbiters of election results have, since at least 1980, followed the practice of refraining from any “call” of the presidential election until individual state “calls” have been made awarding one candidate or the other 270 electoral votes. In a highly informative interview with FiveThirtyEight, ABC’s Dan Merkle admits that the virtual certainty of slow counts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin makes it very unlikely that a winner will be indicated before November 4, if not later.

This is an important point to keep in mind. There has been a lot of talk about results from faster-counting states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina telling us what we need to know about the ultimate outcome. It’s true that if Joe Biden wins all three on Election Night, the odds of him ultimately winning are prohibitively high. But if Biden hasn’t nailed down 270 electoral votes, he won’t be officially “called” the winner, even if the pundits are all concluding Trump is done.

The time gap between the first “takes” on Election Night on the results and their ultimate authentication is a window for great mischief, particularly on the part of a president who has repeatedly said he cannot lose unless the results are “rigged.” And if the race really is very close, with the results legitimately in doubt, Americans may relive the twilight experience of 2000, when every morning we woke up to wonder if we had dreamed Election Night had never quite ended.


October 28: Trump’s 2020 Strategic Failure

Stepping back from the chaos to look at how the president’s reelection strategy has been implemented, I offered some tentative final thoughts at New York:

[A] week from November 3 and many months into the strangest general-election campaign ever, with both debates over and all the messages sent or set in stone, it’s not too early to make one important judgment: Donald J. Trump has failed to make this contest “about” Biden (or the “socialist Democrat” party), rather than about his own performance as president. To put it in strategic terms, Team Trump’s efforts to turn a “referendum” election into a “choice” election have not only failed but arguably backfired: To the extent that persuadable voters look at the candidates instead of at Trump’s record, the comparison is working against him.

It’s a truism of political science that presidential reelection bids turn on perceptions of the incumbent’s performance above all else. With extremely rare exceptions, presidents with positive job-approval ratings (Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012) get reelected, while those with negative ratings (Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992) don’t. Trump’s approval ratings in 2020 (generally in the low-to-mid 40s) haven’t been that far below W.’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2012, but to an extraordinary extent, Trump’s numbers have been inelastic. So it’s not surprising that in looking forward to 2020 the Trump reelection strategy focused on turning polarization to the candidate’s favor rather than reducing it to broaden his coalition. The idea was to pursue the president’s time-tested divisive themes of cultural and partisan grievances to rev up his base while pressing swing voters to choose between the status quo and a caricature of the opposition.

At the beginning of 2020, it looked as though it could all work out for Trump. The economy was improving steadily enough to boost his job-approval numbers to near their historic ceiling. The failed Democratic drive to remove him from office via impeachment had solidified his base, focused his supporters on vengeance, and contributed to his campaign’s depiction of Democrats as a gang of extremists bent on a coup d’état. The occasionally fractious Democratic presidential nominating contest encouraged Team Trump that it might be able to batten on the opposition party’s divisions, and/or might face a nominee who was vulnerable to “socialism” charges.

But then two things happened almost simultaneously: Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and the coronavirus became a pandemic that Trump instantly and irrevocably mishandled. The former development made it more difficult to caricature the opposition party as extremist, while the latter put a firm cap on Trump’s popularity and closed off any alternative strategy.

The trajectory of the campaign has made it clear that Trump’s efforts to demonize Joe Biden and his party have failed. The claim that Biden is senile was essential to the twin charges that he is dangerously incompetent and a puppet of the “radical left” of the Democratic Party (or perhaps the front man for the “communist” and “monster” Kamala Harris). In the two debates, however (the most salient opportunities for comparing the two septuagenarians), Biden was, on balance, the more coherent and self-possessed of the two. And while Trump did score some points in the final debates concerning Biden’s record on criminal-justice reform, the former vice-president easily parried the “socialist” attack line by calmly pointing out that Trump must be confusing his platform with those of the progressive rivals he vanquished.

The major strategic adjustment Trump made since Biden’s nomination has been to depict him as Hillary Clinton Redux, a creature of the same bipartisan Establishment that Trump campaigned against in 2016. A corollary of this dubious effort to regain an outsider position has been the president’s tedious attacks on the looters and murderers of “Democrat cities,” who are apparently itching to cross the invisible barricades erected by Trump to sack and pillage the pristine suburbs. More broadly, the “China virus,” Black Lives Matter activists, antifa “thugs,” and Fake Media traitors are alien forces that have somehow taken control of Great-Again America with only the besieged president willing to rescue her. But as Tim Alberta notes at Politico, this just doesn’t work for an incumbent:

“Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Had Trump focused his reelection campaign on rebuilding his approval rating via (a) a pivot toward accepting responsibility and articulating a national strategy on COVID-19 and (b) making a credible case that the economy will come roaring back after the pandemic has subsided, not through some forced “reopening,” he might have lifted his approval rating and come closer to victory in a referendum election. At the same time, he might have done a better job of winning a “choice” election had he focused relentlessly on weak points of Biden’s agenda and Biden’s own record rather than trying to force him into an “extremist” template that just doesn’t fit him. A more disciplined and realistic comparative campaign might also have avoided the absurd effort by the most consistently incoherent and mendacious politician in American history to accuse Joe Biden of incoherence and lies.

As it is, the president’s campaign seems to have fallen between two stools: He hasn’t made a convincing case that he deserves a second term, and he has barely laid a glove on Biden. His very slim hopes for reelection now depend on an outsize turnout among the voters who have been with him from the beginning.


Trump’s 2020 Strategic Failure

Stepping back from the chaos to look at how the president’s reelection strategy has been implemented, I offered some tentative final thoughts at New York:

[A] week from November 3 and many months into the strangest general-election campaign ever, with both debates over and all the messages sent or set in stone, it’s not too early to make one important judgment: Donald J. Trump has failed to make this contest “about” Biden (or the “socialist Democrat” party), rather than about his own performance as president. To put it in strategic terms, Team Trump’s efforts to turn a “referendum” election into a “choice” election have not only failed but arguably backfired: To the extent that persuadable voters look at the candidates instead of at Trump’s record, the comparison is working against him.

It’s a truism of political science that presidential reelection bids turn on perceptions of the incumbent’s performance above all else. With extremely rare exceptions, presidents with positive job-approval ratings (Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012) get reelected, while those with negative ratings (Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992) don’t. Trump’s approval ratings in 2020 (generally in the low-to-mid 40s) haven’t been that far below W.’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2012, but to an extraordinary extent, Trump’s numbers have been inelastic. So it’s not surprising that in looking forward to 2020 the Trump reelection strategy focused on turning polarization to the candidate’s favor rather than reducing it to broaden his coalition. The idea was to pursue the president’s time-tested divisive themes of cultural and partisan grievances to rev up his base while pressing swing voters to choose between the status quo and a caricature of the opposition.

At the beginning of 2020, it looked as though it could all work out for Trump. The economy was improving steadily enough to boost his job-approval numbers to near their historic ceiling. The failed Democratic drive to remove him from office via impeachment had solidified his base, focused his supporters on vengeance, and contributed to his campaign’s depiction of Democrats as a gang of extremists bent on a coup d’état. The occasionally fractious Democratic presidential nominating contest encouraged Team Trump that it might be able to batten on the opposition party’s divisions, and/or might face a nominee who was vulnerable to “socialism” charges.

But then two things happened almost simultaneously: Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and the coronavirus became a pandemic that Trump instantly and irrevocably mishandled. The former development made it more difficult to caricature the opposition party as extremist, while the latter put a firm cap on Trump’s popularity and closed off any alternative strategy.

The trajectory of the campaign has made it clear that Trump’s efforts to demonize Joe Biden and his party have failed. The claim that Biden is senile was essential to the twin charges that he is dangerously incompetent and a puppet of the “radical left” of the Democratic Party (or perhaps the front man for the “communist” and “monster” Kamala Harris). In the two debates, however (the most salient opportunities for comparing the two septuagenarians), Biden was, on balance, the more coherent and self-possessed of the two. And while Trump did score some points in the final debates concerning Biden’s record on criminal-justice reform, the former vice-president easily parried the “socialist” attack line by calmly pointing out that Trump must be confusing his platform with those of the progressive rivals he vanquished.

The major strategic adjustment Trump made since Biden’s nomination has been to depict him as Hillary Clinton Redux, a creature of the same bipartisan Establishment that Trump campaigned against in 2016. A corollary of this dubious effort to regain an outsider position has been the president’s tedious attacks on the looters and murderers of “Democrat cities,” who are apparently itching to cross the invisible barricades erected by Trump to sack and pillage the pristine suburbs. More broadly, the “China virus,” Black Lives Matter activists, antifa “thugs,” and Fake Media traitors are alien forces that have somehow taken control of Great-Again America with only the besieged president willing to rescue her. But as Tim Alberta notes at Politico, this just doesn’t work for an incumbent:

“Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Had Trump focused his reelection campaign on rebuilding his approval rating via (a) a pivot toward accepting responsibility and articulating a national strategy on COVID-19 and (b) making a credible case that the economy will come roaring back after the pandemic has subsided, not through some forced “reopening,” he might have lifted his approval rating and come closer to victory in a referendum election. At the same time, he might have done a better job of winning a “choice” election had he focused relentlessly on weak points of Biden’s agenda and Biden’s own record rather than trying to force him into an “extremist” template that just doesn’t fit him. A more disciplined and realistic comparative campaign might also have avoided the absurd effort by the most consistently incoherent and mendacious politician in American history to accuse Joe Biden of incoherence and lies.

As it is, the president’s campaign seems to have fallen between two stools: He hasn’t made a convincing case that he deserves a second term, and he has barely laid a glove on Biden. His very slim hopes for reelection now depend on an outsize turnout among the voters who have been with him from the beginning.