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Two paths forward for the American press


As the results of the 2020 election come fully into view, I am asking myself what will happen with the American press after Donald Trump leaves the White House.

Most of the commentary on this question has centered on the media’s addiction to, and commercial dependence on the Trump phenomenon, as if the infamous quip from CBS Chairman Les Moonves — “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” — might now run in reverse. (It may not be good for the media, but it’s damn good for the United States!)

The industry calls it the Trump Bump. What happens to it when he leaves office is not on my list of concerns. As a division of a larger company (now AT&T) CNN has generated more than $1 billion in operating profit in recent years. If profits suffer because Joe Biden is not as exciting as Donald Trump, I’m sure the analysts on Wall Street can handle any interpretive tasks that might arise.

What happens now in the political imagination of the press, and to its practices that Trump broke; how journalists can build it back better after the siege lifts; the dangers of reverting to form after form failed them, and us— these are things that do concern me.

This post describes two paths forward for the professionals who report on politics for the “mainstream” media (I refer here to its national wing: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, The Atlantic, Time magazine…) The first path is a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office. A recent dispatch from that world: Biden is bringing back the daily briefing. Yay! The second path is a democratic breakthrough in journalism after what Masha Gessen calls an “autocratic attempt,” which failed in the 2020 elections.

Powerful forces favor a restoration. It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.

In Washington the setting will feel excessively familiar. A Democratic president trying to enact an ambitious agenda against Republicans in Congress who would rather do nothing, unless it involves tax cuts. All the old cliches will be within easy reach. Divided government. Partisan warfare. Gridlock in Washington. The extremes on both sides. Democrats in disarray. Republicans being mean again. Why can’t they compromise? Plus a new one: Dueling realities.

Several layers down in the construction of normalcy is the position from which the national press likes to narrate the story of politics. Party on the left, party on the right. Each with an “extreme” and a “moderate” wing that can come into confict. Savvy journalists sit in the middle, sizing up the state of play, posing tough questions and checking fudged facts with equal aggression toward both sides.

Trump screwed with the “both sides” system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back. You can hear it in these thoughts from Dean Baquet, top editor of the New York Times, who was quoted in a recent Vanity Fair article: (“News media begins to contemplate a post-Trump White House.”)

“If I’m CNN, if there’s a transition, I’m going to sit down with Daniel Dale and say, ‘This was great. Let’s be just as aggressive on a Democratic administration.’ Frankly, a Democratic administration doesn’t warrant as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. No politician has warranted as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. But let’s talk about other ways to use this important journalistic tool.”

Several things going on here. Baquet recognizes Trump as an outlier. You can’t compare Biden’s clumsy patter to Trump’s zone flooding, and he doesn’t try. But you can also hear the wish: for the opportunity to be just as aggressive toward a Democratic administration, even though the facts, as it were, do not warrant it. Here’s Daniel Dale on August 25 making this very point:

The Republican National Convention started off with a parade of dishonesty, in stark contrast with last week’s Democratic convention. While CNN also watched and fact-checked the Democrats, those four nights combined didn’t have the number of misleading and false claims made on the first night of the Republicans’ convention.

Just as aggressive? Well, a man can dream. The longing for symmetry is not a wholly conscious thing, anyway. I doubt the Times editor who crafted this headline quite knew what they were doing: It was later taken down after online criticism, but I can imagine the headline’s author feeling quite bewildered about that. In Times journalism, it is utterly natural to set off one “extreme” with another: Black Lives Matter at one pole, QAnon at the other. The formal requirements of symmetry permit and encourage this.

In reality, the Congresswoman from QAnon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, didn’t “meet” Black Lives Matter any more than she “met” mainstream liberalism or movement conservatives, but setting it up this way feels right to Times people, just as the criticism they got for “false equivalence” probably feels overblown. The “study in contrasts” I recommended to them was different: reality-based office holders vs. the other kind, of which Marjorie Taylor Greene is a fine example. But that way of picturing the political world — reality-based vs. the denialists — isn’t the regular order to which editors like Baquet wish to return.

Which brings me to a second path forward for the American press.

Many presidents have tried to remove restraints on executive power. The restraint Trump tried to remove was reality itself. This was part of what Masha Gessen (following Bálint Magyar) calls an “autocratic attempt,” the stage in the process of a country’s takeover by an autocrat when things in motion are still reversible by democratic means. Many dangers remain, but two weeks out from the election, it is fair to say that a majority of Americans put a stop to Trump’s attempted subversion of their democracy.

And they were assisted by American journalists. Now in saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that people in the news media did as much as, say, the poll workers, or the public officials who ran the elections in 50 states, or the police who kept order and prevented michief, or the voters themselves, who turned out in record numbers.

Americans overcame Trump’s autocratic attempt, preventing it from advancing to the second stage, the autocratic breakthrough, “when it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully,” as Gessen writes, “because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves.”

It was a narrow escape. Journalists assisted. Again, I say that not to inflate their role, but to recognize that at some point in the final weeks before the vote, and especially after Trump declared that the election had been stolen from him, a critical masss in the press finally acted on what so many Americans had been trying to tell them for years: That this was a civic emergency, and American democracy really was endangered by Trump. That describing it as a propaganda presidency wasn’t campaign rhetoric or partisan reflex. That we really could lose the Republic in the sense Benjamin Franklin meant when, according to legend, he emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked by the citizens of Philadelphia what kind of government we have. “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

It was easier to see this from abroad. Ian Dunt is the editor of and the author of a book on Brexit. I am going to quote an extended portion of his column dated November 6, 2020 because it describes well the moment I am talking about. “This time, journalism was prepared,” Dunt writes.

You got a very strong impression of the editorial meetings which had taken place before the election. They had clearly grappled with how to manage what Trump was going to try and do. Instead of the usual formulations of saying his comments were ‘controversial’, or ‘contested’, or ‘rejected by experts’, they said what they actually were: Lies. Attempts to take away the democratic rights of voters. Attacks on the most basic foundations of what constitutes a legitimate state.

They worked tirelessly to protect and even lionise the local officials and vote-counters who were being branded conspirators by the White House. They constantly explained, in clear terms, how the electoral process worked, what was counted where and why, which safeguards there were, how there were Republican representatives at the counts alongside Democrats and independent observers, why the litigation the Trump administration was pursuing was baseless and being rejected by the courts.

Strict balance in this context would be self-annihilating. It would give equal voice to those who want to destroy democracy and those who want to protect it. But if the former are victorious, there will be no ability to hear ‘both sides’ in the future. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. Empirical truth – how a count is conducted, whether there is merit to a claim against it, the credibility of a statement – finally became the active principle of journalistic coverage again.

Listen to the words once more. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. That is the breakthrough American journalists had during the 2020 election. And it wasn’t the crew at any one network or newsroom.

Press scholar Sarah Oates describes a similar moment on the night of November 5th. “As votes mounted to oust the president from office, Trump appeared for rambling, repetitive accusations of electoral fraud based on the flimsiest of evidence. One by one, many networks decided to stop airing the press conference. Instead, some returned to their studio announcers to criticize the president for lying.”

This, she says, “is the moment when U.S. media norms, under enormous pressure from Trump-led disinformation, switched.” Newsrooms exchanged a “libertarian” model, in which they are conduits from information sources to the public, for a more direct defense of democracy. Oates writes:

Journalists had come to realize that the game was rigged. Trump and his supporters were parasites in the libertarian media system, taking advantage of how they could assert disinformation and still get covered. What changed is that journalists realized that the libertarian model dictates that media must cover the news – but should avoid propaganda. By accepting and embracing that messages from the White House were now propaganda and not news, the networks were liberated to stop the flow of disinformation for the good of democracy.

She calls this a “revolutionary decision,” and “a seismic shift under enormous provocation.” (Of course it helped that Trump appeared to be losing, and would be gone in 75 days.)

CNN did not stop airing the president’s ramblings the night of November 5th. But a more direct defense of democracy came through anyway. Here are the words of Jake Tapper reacting to Trump’s declaration that the election was fraudulent.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What a sad night for the United States of America to hear their president say that. To falsely accuse people of trying to steal the election, to try to attack democracy that way with this feast of falsehoods, lie after lie after lie about the election being stolen. No evidence for what he’s saying, just smears about the integrity of vote counting in state after state.

And here is Abby Phillip a few minutes later:

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This president clearly knows that this is not going to end well for him, or he believes that. And he’s trying to take the rest of the country down with him. He’s trying to take the voting system down with him. The Democratic process down with him. And beyond being completely selfish, it also is just wrong.

So here is what I mean by another way forward:

Trump’s attempt on the Republic was defeated by a coalition of the American people, mostly Democrats, some disaffected Republicans, and a majority of independents. The press helped to prevent an autocratic breakthrough, especially in the tense days after the voting stopped and before the victor emerged with clarity. As Ian Dunt said, “journalism was ready.”

This was a powerful moment for the people who report on politics. It did not destroy them. It made them stronger, and restored some pride. It also illuminated a different path for political journalism after Trump leaves office. Instead of lapsing back into routines and enjoying the restoration of an old order, the press could continue with its democratic breakthrough.

For it is by no means clear that the Republic will be kept when 70 million people voted for Donald Trump after they knew what he was, or when the Republicans seem determined to compete for power by limiting the franchise and ruling as a minority party.

To continue with its moment of breakthrough, the American press will need new leadership. It will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case. And there’s one more thing.

In his New York Times column on the media business after Trump, Ben Smith talks to the current editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, who is thinking of retiring after the election. Pearlstine says the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past: “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously.” In other words, democracy begins at home. If newsrooms themselves become more democratic — more representive, diverse, and differently led — that could keep the breakthrough going.

No, I won’t be betting on it. But I will be watching for it.

The post Two paths forward for the American press appeared first on PressThink.

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Ten Years

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The ten-year cancerversary is traditionally the Cursed Artifact Granting Immortality anniversary.
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A friend of ours was diagnosed with leukemia right around the time Gleevec was approved. He went from not expecting to see his daughter finish elementary school to watching her post-graduate success, and appreciates every day which once seemed so unlikely.
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7 days ago
I'm not crying, you are...
7 days ago
It’s true. I am.
7 days ago
Wow! Sweet!
7 days ago
Do facemask still offer 100% protection if a few tears fall into them?
Nashville, Tennessee
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Probably as a facemask gets wetter it gets BETER at stopping aerosols that spread virus but worse at allowing you to actualy breathe, at a guess
8 days ago
The ten-year cancerversary is traditionally the Cursed Artifact Granting Immortality anniversary.
8 days ago
Dude, XKCD is not supposed to make me well up!
7 days ago
Big tears.

The people who broke local journalism can't be the ones to save it (opinion) • The Mendocino VoiceThe Mendocino Voice

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Editor’s Note: The following is an op-ed column. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Mendocino Voice. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to

SACRAMENTO, 11/11/20 — It was a brutal year for journalism. More than 200 news organizations cut or furloughed staff and at least 50 outlets completely closed in the past few months. Some of this is due to the pandemic, but mismanagement, online advertising and opportunism by venture capital firms share the blame. 

Setting aside the talking heads on cable news, most of us understand the essential work of journalism in our towns and cities to be covering school board meetings, examining county budgets and tracking local utility rates. But this latest round of cuts means there are fewer and fewer reporters covering public meetings, let alone doing the community-knitting work of printing portraits of high school seniors, broadcasting sports scores or interviewing artists. 

The pandemic has intensified the debate about how to best save these basic functions of the press. But the loudest voices in this debate are industry insiders, legacy outlets and technology companies — the same people who triggered the crisis we are in today. The clock is ticking; how resources are divvied up now will shape journalism for decades to come. The longer we line up behind establishment solutions to revive local news, the harder it will be to nurture the media communities desperately need and deserve. 

For example, many journalists have thrown their weight behind the Local News and Emergency Information Act. It would allow U.S newspaper and broadcasting chains to compete for Paycheck Protection Plan loans. Chains are a huge part of the industry: two-thirds of all daily newspapers are owned by just 25 companies and an estimated 37 percent of full-power local television stations are owned by five companies. These are not the kind of entities that should have access to federal relief funds for the nation’s most vulnerable businesses. Reporters who work at chain newspapers do critical work — there are better ways to support them than this bill.

Here in California, columnist Ken Doctor announced plans to “rebuild” local news nationally, starting in Santa Cruz County with a digital startup backed by Google and the Knight Foundation. His new outlet was profiled by The New York Times before it ever published an article. Doctor told Poynter of his big idea: “I would love to have a good news source for me and my friends.” But a member-supported local news outlet in Santa Cruz — Santa Cruz Local — already exists, and no doubt would benefit from some of the resources that a well-connected person like Doctor marshalls. Santa Cruz Local is a small, scrappy newsroom with three staffers, founded by former reporters of the local newspaper. Since 2019, it has delivered deep reporting on local government and has grown to more than 600 members.

Or take Google spending $15 million on a six-week Support Local News campaign in June and July that bought full-page advertisements in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Dallas Morning News. The tech giant did not release a full list of who received the ad buys or why. The ads encouraged people to donate to, subscribe to and advertise with their local news organization. The price tag for this awareness campaign is nearly three times the amount of money the tech giant gave out in innovation grants to media outlets last year. Its next grant cycle is giving away $300,000 grants to support revenue programs for outlets that “elevate underrepresented audiences.” Fifteen million dollars would have paid for fifty such grants. 

We argue that efforts to fund and improve local news must follow the leadership of community members — not grant officers or industry insiders — who know what news they need and what sources can be trusted to deliver it. There’s precedent for this: In New Jersey, an organization called Free Press met with thousands of people to discuss how proceeds from the FCC’s spectrum auction could support local news and civic engagement. This process created a public charity that gives grants to improve the civic health of communities through information — including but not limited to professional journalism. 

We take such a grassroots approach in our work at The Listening Post Collective, a nonprofit community news project. We research how people get and share useful news and information in places like New Orleans, Omaha, Puerto Rico, and Oakland. We identify and direct support toward local news projects that appear in community spaces and languages. Where those efforts don’t already exist, we’ve been funding startups run by local residents to address needs they observe. could be filled by organizers, teachers, journalists, public agencies and libraries, that use phone trees, WhatsApp groups, newsletters, flyers, newspapers, broadcasts and video — to deliver verified facts and even watchdog journalism.

Last year in Fresno, Calif. we spoke with hundreds of residents about how they get and share local news. Many people had ideas for how to fill reporting gaps and stay better informed: neighborhood civic calendars, live newscasts at school meetings and food giveaways; Spanish-language news bulletins for rural communities and more. Those findings were shared back with participants at a public event, and we followed that up with a request for proposals on how to fill in local information gaps. Ten people applied and we gave grants to news startups like bilingual newspaper The Ivanhoe Sol and uSpark Valley, a social media-based outlet for Millenial and Gen Z readers. We also gave grants to a reporter who covers the local Black community, and a community-run Facebook group that puts local news into Spanish.

Our research in Fresno and elsewhere shows that people get verified news and information from a variety of sources, not just traditional outlets. That’s why federal legislation in support of local news must be targeted to protect a diversity of news services and positions. Unlike #SaveTheNews, the proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act does this. It would give employers tax credits for wages they pay to someone doing the works of journalism. Free Press suggests an emergency grant fund to preserve payroll and benefits for newsroom employees; none of the money could be used for “securities, dividend payments, executive compensation, debt service, mergers and acquisitions.” These ideas prioritize the mission of journalism — finding and sharing accurate information that helps us make decisions — rather than bailing out models that have failed us. Other longer-term solutions might include large-scale public subsidies, municipal newspapers and media reparations.

Finally, instead of letting tech giants pick and choose who gets money to build the news of the future, outlets should be working together to regulate them. A tax on revenue from targeted ads — one of the most ruinous forces in our democracy — could go into a fund to support the kind of journalism our democracy requires. The relatively small amounts Google dishes out in grants to publishers feels like PR for a company nervous about regulation that could force it to pay much more, as is underway in Australia.

Even in this season of crisis, the seeds for a more ethical, responsive and community-driven journalism are growing. Strategies for rebuilding healthy information environments should come from the bottom up.

The preceding article was an opinion piece, or letter to the editor, and was published as submitted. It was not necessarily edited for punctuation, capitalization, spelling etc. While, we reserve the right to copyedit and fact-check opinion pieces, and letters to the editor — and to annotate such pieces with fact-checking — we do not habitually do so.

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Dave Grohl's Epic Drum Battle With 10-Year-Old Nandi Bushell

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For Grohl, the challenge helped reorient his priorities during this bizarre year. “What I realized was more than any sort of technical contest, this was something that was bringing people a lot of joy at a time where everyone could use a little bit,” he said, adding, “it actually changed the way I look at what my band does in this time.”

Since the challenge began, Foo Fighters have recorded stripped-down live sets and comical fake commercials, all with the goal of maintaining their connection to their audience. “If that’s going to bring people five, 15, 20 minutes of happiness in one day, then that’s what we should be doing,” he said.

Bushell’s father, John, expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s a wonderful experience and our hearts, as parents, are lifted just as much as the people who are watching the videos.”

Toward the end of the interview with Grohl, Bushell joined the video call to finally meet her hero. “I feel like I’m meeting a Beatle,” Grohl said when her face popped onto the screen. (Another coincidence: Both drummers were first attracted to the instrument after listening to the actual Beatles.) The two had never interacted directly before, and as you might expect, Bushell was a little star-struck. But Grohl is regarded as one of the friendliest people in music, and before long, she was showing him around her home, with appearances from the whole family.

Eventually they made plans to write a song together (a fast-tempo one, per Bushell’s request) and play onstage whenever Foo Fighters are allowed to tour in Britain. “But it has to be at the end of the set because you’re going to steal the show,” he said.

As for the next step of the challenge, the ball is in Grohl’s court. “I had an idea for how to respond to your last song, but I haven’t done it yet,” he said. “It’s a big project. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a good one.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Bushell replied.

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A Pretty Convincing Win For Biden — And A Mediocre Performance For Down-Ballot Democrats

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I’m Here To Remind You That Trump Can Still Win

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It’s tempting to write this story in the form of narrative fiction: “On a frigid early December morning in Washington, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that disputed mail ballots in Pennsylvania—” You know, that kind of thing. But given the stakes in this election, I think it’s important to be prosaic and sober-minded instead.

So let’s state a few basic facts: The reasons that President Trump’s chances in our forecast are about 10 percent and not zero:

  • As in 2016, Trump could potentially benefit from the Electoral College. Projected margins in the tipping-point states are considerably tighter than the margins in the national popular vote.
  • More specifically, Joe Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania — the most likely tipping-point state, according to our forecast — is solid but not spectacular: about 5 points in our polling average.
  • Without Pennsylvania, Biden does have some paths to victory, but there’s no one alternative state he can feel especially secure about.
  • While a lot of theories about why Trump can win (e.g., those about “shy” Trump voters) are probably wrong, systematic polling errors do occur, and it’s hard to predict them ahead of time or to anticipate the reasons in advance.
  • There is some chance that Trump could “win” illegitimately. To a large extent, these scenarios are beyond the scope of our forecast.
  • There’s also some chance of a recount (about 4 percent) or an Electoral College tie (around 0.5 percent), according to our forecast.

Before we proceed further, a short philosophical note. I hate it when people use phrases — to be fair, we often use phrases like these ourselves! — such as “Nate Silver is giving Biden a 90 percent chance” or “FiveThirtyEight still gives Trump a 10 percent chance.” We aren’t giving anybody anything. Instead, as former FiveThirtyEight politics host Jody Avrigan puts it, what we’re doing is “mapping uncertainty.” In other words, if Biden leads by about 9 points in national polls, 8 points in Wisconsin, 5 points in Pennsylvania, 2 points in Florida, etc., how does that translate into a probability of victory? That’s what our model is trying to figure out.

What the deluge of final polls can tell us | FiveThirtyEight Politics PodcastWhat the deluge of final polls can tell us | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

And indeed — although nobody needs any reminders of this after 2016 — Trump can win. All the election models are bullish on Biden, but they are united in that a Trump win is still plausible despite his seemingly steep deficit in polls.

A huge part of why our model and others’ think Trump can still win is the Electoral College. Trump has only a 3 percent chance of winning the popular vote in our model. Other models put his chances at less than 1 percent. It’s very likely that Democrats will win the popular vote for the seventh time in the last eight elections.

But while a roughly 8-point deficit in the popular vote is hard to overcome — as of this writing, at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, our model forecasts Biden to win the popular vote by 7.8 percentage points — a 5-point gap is a lot easier to close. And that’s our current forecast in Pennsylvania: Biden wins by 4.7 points. Note the roughly 3-point gap between the popular vote and the outcome in Pennsylvania, the most likely tipping-point state. That’s similar to 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by around 2 points but lost the tipping-point state, Wisconsin, by just a little under 1 point.

Or if you want a more sophisticated version of this, we can look at how often Biden is projected to win the Electoral College from various potential margins in the popular vote:1

Biden needs a popular vote cushion

Probability of winning the Electoral College based on various popular vote outcomes, according to the FiveThirtyEight presidential forecast as of Nov. 1

Popular vote margin Trump Biden 269-269 tie
Biden +6 to +7 <1% >99% <1%
Biden +5 to +6 3 97 <1
Biden +4 to +5 10 89 2
Biden +3 to +4 30 67 3
Biden +2 to +3 57 41 2
Biden +1 to +2 75 23 2
TIE to Biden +1 89 10 1
TIE to Trump +1 98 2 <1
Trump +1 to +2 >99 <1 <1

If Biden wins the popular vote by 2 to 3 percentage points, the Electoral College is roughly a toss-up. But if Biden wins the popular vote by less than 2 points, Trump is a fairly heavy favorite to win the election. Even popular vote margins of up to 6 points are not entirely safe for Biden if his votes are distributed in exactly the wrong way. So you can see why an 8- or 9-point lead in the popular vote shouldn’t make Biden feel that secure; despite being a landslide margin, it’s also only a few points removed from the inflection point where the Electoral College starts to become competitive.

Biden’s position would simply be a whole lot safer if one of two things were true: If either the polling in Pennsylvania were like that in Wisconsin and Michigan, where he has a larger lead … or if another state such as Florida were also polling more like Pennsylvania to give Biden a clear Plan B. But neither of those things are true. The gap between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan has actually grown in the waning days of the election. And no state has emerged out of the pack of Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia to be Biden’s clear Plan B (Biden is forecasted to win each state by between 1 and 3 points). Arizona is probably Biden’s best bet in this group, but winning it would also require him to win either Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District or Maine’s 2nd Congressional District to break a 269-269 Electoral College tie; he’s favored in both districts but they aren’t sure things.

Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania is narrow

Forecasted vote share margins for Biden, according to the FiveThirtyEight presidential forecast as of Nov. 1

State margin
New Mexico +12.8
Virginia +12.1
Colorado +12.0
Maine +11.9
New Hampshire +10.4
Minnesota +9.0
Michigan +8.2
Wisconsin +7.7
Nevada +5.9
Pennsylvania +4.8
Arizona +2.9
Florida +2.1
North Carolina +1.9
Georgia +0.8
Ohio -0.0
Texas -1.8
Iowa -1.9

Moreover, because polling errors are somewhat correlated from state to state, if Biden loses Pennsylvania, he would no longer be a favorite in states such as Florida and Georgia — where he’s narrowly ahead now — because it would be a sign that Trump had outperformed his polls again. Of course, this only goes so far: In 2016, Trump massively outperformed his polls in the Midwest, but there wasn’t much of a polling error in Arizona. Still, losing Pennsylvania would take Biden from favorite to underdog.

Pennsylvania will tell us a lot

Biden’s chances of winning if he wins or loses Pennsylvania, according to the FiveThirtyEight presidential forecast as of Nov. 1

Biden’s chances of winning
State If he wins Pennsylvania… If he loses Pennsylvania…
Minnesota >99% 76%
Michigan >99 73
Wisconsin 98 66
Maine 95 63
Nevada 92 57
New Hampshire 95 53
Arizona 76 38
Florida 74 27
Georgia 63 23
North Carolina 74 18
Texas 41 10
Iowa 43 6
Ohio 58 4

You’ll notice that I’ve mostly been focusing here on the whats and not the hows or the whys. In other words, I’m describing what combinations of states could plausibly produce winning maps for Trump given the possibility of a polling error, but not describing why such a polling error might occur.

To some extent, that’s on purpose. If pollsters knew what the source of a polling error might be, they’d presumably try to fix it. Many pollsters are weighting by education now, something many didn’t do in 2016, and that was a big source of error that year. Another big source of error in 2016 was the large number of undecided voters, who broke toward Trump in the Midwest. To some extent, that one isn’t on the pollsters, since polls aren’t really supposed to try to predict the vote of people who say they’re undecided. Nonetheless, that’s much less of an issue this year, because there are far fewer undecided voters.

There are, however, some new potential sources of error this year. One of them is the huge growth in people who are voting early or by mail. It’s not only that more people are using these methods, but also that — unlike in the past, when they were relatively bipartisan — Democrats are far more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. Republicans are much more likely to vote in person on Election Day, conversely, while early in-person voting falls somewhere in between.

One issue for pollsters here could be the rate of ballot spoilage. Because of processing delays, some mail ballots won’t be received by states’ deadlines. And voters might not complete the instructions correctly, as we’ve already seen in Pennsylvania with the issue of “naked ballots”, that is, voters forgetting to enclose their ballot in its extra, secrecy envelope.

So imagine, for instance, that in a certain state, the vote is divided evenly at 50-50 in a poll between Biden and Trump. But two-thirds of Biden voters are voting by mail, whereas two-thirds of Trump’s supporters are voting in person, and the rate of mail ballot spoilage is 3 percent. That would be enough for Trump to win 50.8 to 49.2, meaning that you had a polling error of 1 or 2 points.

However, there are several mitigating factors here. First, 3 percent is probably on the high side for mail ballot rejection rates; other estimates hover at closer to 1 percent, although the number could be higher this year with so many first-time mail voters. Second, some ballots are also spoiled during in-person voting because of errors with voting technologies (think about hanging chads, for instance). Third, there is considerable evidence that Democrats mailed in their ballots early, which could put them less at risk of spoilage. According to the United States Elections Project, the party registration on mail ballots received so far favors Democrats by 24 percentage points. But for mail ballots requested but not yet received — those that might trickle in late — the partisan gap is just 11 points in Democrats’ favor. Polls find that Democrats are also more likely to drop off their ballots at drop boxes, which reduces the risk a ballot is rejected.

In addition, there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s worthwhile to lock in a vote. If someone has already voted, they’re 100 percent likely to vote (and 98 or 99 percent likely to have their vote counted, depending on the rate of ballot spoilage). What about someone who says they’re planning to vote on Election Day but hasn’t done so yet? They’re certainly not 100 percent likely to vote. Something could come up on Election Day — they get stuck late at work, they blow out a tire, they feel sick, they don’t bother because they think their candidate is losing. Indeed, even some of the people that pollsters deem to be the most likely voters don’t wind up voting. If 2 percent of mail voters have their votes rejected, but 5 percent of “likely” Election Day voters don’t wind up voting, then polls could underestimate Democrats.

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a post about how Trump could beat his polls? Well, the point is just that mail voting creates additional uncertainty this year, and it’s easy to imagine how that could help out Trump or Biden.

Another potential source of anxiety for pollsters is the Hispanic vote. Polls show Trump having made significant gains relative to 2016 with Hispanic voters — and to a lesser extent with Black voters, especially Black men. This is not enough to offset gains that Biden has made with white voters, however, including white voters both with and without a college degree.

But are these changes real? Both white voters and Hispanic voters without a college degree can be hard groups to reach on the phone. It can also be hard to get a representative sample — if, for example, you don’t get enough Cuban American voters in Florida, or if you aren’t reaching enough Hispanic Americans who primarily speak Spanish. Hispanic voters and white voters without a college degree can also work somewhat at cross-purposes to one another when you’re weighting a poll, because while white voters without a college degree are more Republican than whites with a college degree, the opposite is true for Hispanics.

Overall, I don’t particularly think there is any reason to distrust the polls here. If anything, polls have tended to underestimate Democratic support in recent elections in states such as Nevada that had a large number of Hispanic voters. Still, suppose that Trump’s growth in Hispanic support is real, while Biden’s gains among white voters without a college degree are not, for whatever reason. That could lead to a rough night for Biden: The lack of white non-college support could cost him Pennsylvania, while a mediocre performance among Hispanics could keep Arizona and Florida in Trump’s column. Maybe Biden would eke out a win in Georgia or North Carolina, but that’s a much narrower path then he’d planned on.

And what about those “shy” Trump voters? There’s no particularly good evidence that Trump voters are likely to conceal their intentions to pollsters. Nor — if we want to expand the sample size a bit — is there any reason to believe that nationalist or right-wing parties tend to beat their polls in other countries.

Conversely, there is quite a bit of evidence that most of Biden’s polling gains relative to Clinton come from vote-switchers, rather than from an expectation of higher Democratic turnout. If a respondent tells a pollster that they voted for Trump in 2016 but will be voting for Biden this year — and there aren’t a lot of those people, but a few make a big difference — it’s hard to consider them a “shy” Trump voter.

Still, the theory isn’t completely crazy. Social desirability bias — not wanting to provide an answer you think the person on the other side of the line won’t like — has been a problem in some other polling contexts. The point is that even if you mostly aren’t worried about “shy” Trump voters — or think it’s equally likely that there are “shy” Biden voters! — that’s different than being 100 percent sure that the theory isn’t true. And if we’re trying to account for how 10 percent chances happen, we have to accept that sometimes it’s because our assumptions are wrong.

Finally, there are the factors our model doesn’t try to account for, such as the many, many things we’re tracking on our election administration blog: attempts to disqualify various groups of ballots, voter intimidation, polling-place irregularities, and so forth. Plus, there’s a good chance that Trump will try to declare a premature victory.

It isn’t terribly easy to sort out the heat from the light here. But it may sometimes be worth putting magnitudes on things. Problems at one polling place are not going to have nearly as much of an impact as a Republican attempt to throw out 120,000 ballots cast in Texas’s Harris County, for instance. Yet, as much of an affront to democracy as that would be, even that would still only amount to around 1 percent of the vote in one state. Let’s up the ante: What about Republican legislatures trying to send alternative slates of electors to the Electoral College? Now, that could have a really big impact, although it’s not clear how likely it is.

It’s also worth recognizing that there is another side to this, too. There is — long overdue in my view — far more attention paid to voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement than there used to be. (We’ve certainly made a big effort to put far more resources into those stories at FiveThirtyEight.)

But … is it actually harder now to vote than it has been in the past? It depends on the state, but in most states, the answer is no. According to the Brennan Center’s annual reports, recent years have seen more efforts to expand voting rights than to restrict them. And the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an expansion of voting options, some temporary and some permanent. If it’s still too hard to vote for disadvantaged groups — but it’s easier than it used to be — that could lead to a net increase in turnout for Democrats relative to past elections. The FiveThirtyEight model does try to account for changes to voting laws in each state; that’s part of the reason why it’s relatively bearish on Biden in Texas, for example, which has some of the strictest laws in the country.

So when I say that there are certain things outside the scope of the model — well, the truth is a little bit messier than that. One reason that we make relatively conservative assumptions, such as by using fat-tailed distributions, is to account for “unknown unknowns.”

Here’s what it seems safe to say, though. In an election that is very close, a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court is likely to side with Trump. Our model shows a 4 percent chance of an election that winds up with one or more decisive states within 0.5 percentage points, close enough to trigger a recount. If you want to round up Trump’s odds slightly by assuming he wins the lion’s share of those 4 percent of cases, plus most of the 0.5 percent of the time that the election ends up in an Electoral College tie, I wouldn’t strenuously object to that. Mostly, though, I’d just be worried about the meltdown that could occur if a recount or a tie comes up. The odds are against it, but the stakes are awfully high.

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22 days ago
Boston, MA
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