Monday, July 13, 2020

Texas Is Officially A Battleground State

Gen. George Patton famously told his soldiers in World War II, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” A corollary for presidential elections might be “The object of elections is not to fight on home turf but to carry the fight the fight to the other guy’s base.” In the election of 2020, Joe Biden seems to be having all the success at turning Trump states into battlegrounds. The latest polling shows that even Texas is in danger of turning blue.
Both new polls were released Sunday and both should send shivers up the spines of Republicans. The good news for Republicans is that a CBS/YouGov poll shows the president with a bare, one-point lead in the Lone Star State. The bad news is that a Dallas Morning News poll shows Biden with a five-point lead, which is outside the margin of error.
Bad polling for the president always brings out the people who rhetorically ask, “What about the polling in 2016?” so I’ll acknowledge that polls are imperfect snapshots of a point in time. They are not predictive, but they do show trends, especially if you follow the polling average over time. Incidentally, the Real Clear Politics polling average for Texas shows that Biden and Trump are tied. That’s bad news for Republicans any way you slice it.
Even if Trump doesn’t end up losing Texas to Biden, the close nature of the race there means that the Trump campaign will have to divert resources there to stem the bleeding, just as they recently had to do in Georgia. And resources are becoming relatively scarce with the Biden campaign raking in more contributions than Team Trump.
The details of both polls are public which allows us to tinker under the hood to find out what the problem(s) is (are) for Team Trump. I’m going to concentrate on the Dallas Morning News poll, which has a larger sample size and is made up of likely voters instead of the registered voters sampled by CBS. These factors imply that it is a better sample.
The first sign of a problem is that Trump’s approval is underwater. Texans disapprove of the president’s job performance by a 50-44 margin. This is despite the fact that the state’s governor and lieutenant governor have positive net approvals. Gov. Abbott’s numbers are 49 percent favorable to 40 percent unfavorable. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is less popular but still positive with 40 percent favorable and 38 unfavorable.
Trump also fares worse than Sen. John Cornyn, who is up for re-election. Cornyn, the incumbent Republican, outpolls his probable Democratic challenger, M.J. Hegar, 42-29 percent.
Clearly, the problem is with Donald Trump rather than the Republican Party as a whole. But what is the specific problem?
We have a YUGE clue in the fact that Texas voters disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic by 51-41 percent. Another shocker is that 43 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a higher favorability than for either the Tea Party or the NRA, both of which scored 35 percent favorable. In Texas.
Further, 37 percent of the likely voters say that the federal government’s response to Coronavirus and the protests has influenced their vote for president. It’s a fair assumption that most of these voters moved away from Trump.
Lest you think that the poll was confined to progressive neighborhoods of Austin, only 15 percent favored socialism while 51 percent disapproved.
Demographic data shows that the poll’s sample looks like Texas. Racially, it was 61 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, and 14 percent black. Ideologically the group was 51 percent conservative, 26 percent moderate, and 31 percent liberal. Forty-two percent were Republican, 39 percent Democrat, and 19 percent were neither. Most of these categories are very close to 2016 exit polling. The exception is an increase in Democrats which could easily be explained by moderates aligning with the Democratic Party over the past four years.
The CBS poll adds some additional data to our troubleshooting. By almost a two-to-one margin (63-37 percent), voters dislike how Trump handles himself personally while Biden breaks almost even on the question (48-52 percent).
Seventy-three percent said that things in the country were going badly versus 27 percent who thought they were going well. Among those who were unhappy with the direction of the country, 49 percent said that the most important way to address the problems were to have “competent leadership that manages crises.”
Again, the pandemic raises the largest red flags. Seventy-seven percent consider it a crisis or serious problem and 61 percent say that handling of the outbreak is going badly for Texas. Another 61 percent say that they state moved too quickly in reopening and most (63 percent) say it was because of pressure from the Trump Administration.
Slightly more think that Donald Trump’s economic policies are helping than hurting the country (47-42 percent). Voters were evenly split on Trump’s handling of the protests with rough thirds saying that they were more likely to vote for him (30 percent), less likely (33 percent), and no difference (37 percent). Slightly more voters turned against Biden over the protests than turned towards him (32-27 percent).
There are many warning signs for the Trump campaign but none is flashing more vibrantly than the possibility that Texas could go blue. The factor most pushing Texas voters towards Joe Biden is Donald Trump’s poor handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
If the Trump Administration wants to have any hope of salvaging the election, they need to reverse course and acknowledge the severity of the pandemic. Pretending that the virus isn’t serious and pushing the nation to reopen is not making the concerns of most voters go away. The only way to resolve the crisis favorably is to rise to the occasion, tell people the truth (which they already know), and lead them in the mitigation strategies that will bring the virus under control.
Originally published on The Resurgent

Sunday, July 12, 2020

To Return To School Or Not To Return To School, That Is The Question


It’s July. Usually, this is the time of year that a parent’s fancy turns to thoughts of the kids going back to school. This year, with Coronavirus running rampant around the country, a great many parents are hesitant about the prospect of sending their kids back to classrooms that are potentially infested with COVID-19.
The president, vice president, and many governors are urging school boards to get kids back into class, but in many areas of the country active Coronavirus cases are at much higher levels now than they were when schools were closed back in March. This raises legitimate questions about whether it is safe for both students and teachers to assemble in close proximity to each other in brick-and-mortar classrooms with recirculated air systems. Whether schools will be able to enforce social distancing and mask requirements is also an open question as one Illinois nurse humorously illustrated on Facebook.
On one side of the argument are people who claim, quite rightly, that life must go on. A vaccine may still be years away (although if the truth be known, many of the people who take this position would refuse a vaccine even if it was available) and the country cannot simply shelter-in-place until either a vaccine or treatment is ready.
The send-them-to-school proponents also argue that there is evidence that children are not profligate spreaders of COVID-19. Statistically, children are the lowest risk demographic for Coronavirus.
new study released on July 10 found that “children infrequently transmit Covid-19 to each other or to adults and that many schools, provided they follow appropriate social distancing guidelines and take into account rates of transmission in their community, can and should reopen in the fall” [emphasis mine]. One obvious problem is that the children who are most likely to be sent back to school are probably those whose parents are most likely to completely disregard social distancing and mask guidelines. Many of these children will be the sons and daughters of the Karens who flip out when asked to wear a mask in the grocery store. (I don’t have anything against Karens per se. I’ve known several and they don’t usually fit the stereotype.)
A second issue is that low-risk is not the same as no-risk. Young children can and do contract and die from Coronavirus. There is also a condition, Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome Temporally associated with SARS-CoV-2 (PIMS-TS), that affects some children exposed to COVID-19. PIMS-TS is thought to be rare but can be fatal and may leave long term coronary damage in survivors. The uncertainty about PIMS-TS underscores that there is still a lot that is not known or understood about COVID-19 in general.
While children are generally less susceptible to COVID, even the age of the child makes a difference. Statistics of US Coronavirus deaths show that older children, such as those in their late teens, are at substantially higher risk than young children under five. This is a far smaller risk than for senior adults but it is substantially greater than for other diseases such as the flu. If social distancing breaks down and students do contract COVID-19, an even bigger risk may be that they take it home with them and infect parents and grandparents who at higher risk. These adults may spread the virus throughout their workplaces and community.
There is also a substantial risk to teachers and other school employees. Many teachers are in high-risk age categories and may have other aggravating factors as well. As one teacher posted to her Facebook page, “Let me say this loud for those in the back—Teachers are not responsible for the recovery of the economy, babysitting children, or ‘getting us back to normal.’ Stop trying to guilt us into risking our lives for the government’s failure to act.”
That’s a fair point. Not much seems to have been done in the past four months to limit the spread of Coronavirus or prepare for new surges of cases. In fact, the opposite seems true. In July, the US is still experiencing a PPE shortage despite the lead time of the past four months.
Add to that the possibility that the virus is more easily spread in enclosed places with central air conditioning systems. Several studies have indicated that the virus may be thriving in the Southern summer because the heat is driving people into air-conditioned buildings which may be able to spread aerosol droplets containing the virus over greater distances.
In April and May, we flattened the curve and then we fattened it in June. Now many states are reporting that their hospital systems are threatened to be overwhelmed by the onslaught of 60,000 new cases every day. When schools closed in mid-March, the US was reporting about 1,000 new cases every day. Some of the increase can be explained by more testing, which was woefully inadequate in March, but rising positivity rates in many states confirm that Coronavirus has again gone viral (pun intended).
Essential workers have been going to work since the onset of the pandemic in March, but many of these essential workers have more personal protective equipment than teachers would have. Many essential workers also are better able to social distance and don’t have to be as close to others for as long as a teacher in a classroom full of children.
If a teacher is exposed to or contracts Coronavirus, we can expect that they will have to self-quarantine for two weeks. That will mean that the class will be under the control of a substitute teacher, who may or may not be qualified to lead the class. Even if the teacher is asymptomatic and can teach from home via Zoom, an adult will still have to be present to control the class. (My hat is off to subs. I subbed for a few days while I was laid off several years ago. It remains the hardest work I’ve ever done.)
Another factor is that parents of many young children have few options for childcare as they go back to work. This is especially true since many workers will be working fewer hours and/or taking pay cuts due to the economic impacts of Coronavirus. Daycare is expensive, especially for low-income single-parents. Many rely on schools to keep their young children during the day and at after-school programs so that they can earn a paycheck. Whether schools open or not will directly impact the finances of countless American families.
Muddying the waters further is that many of these families will have an incentive to send their children to school, even if they are sick. Parents lose income or use sick days to stay home with sick children. If a child gets exposed to COVID-19 at school, the entire family will most likely be expected to self-quarantine. That will come at the cost of more economic hardship.
The reason for mulling over the pros and cons of going back to school is that it is not a hypothetical question for my family. Here in Georgia, the new school year starts in August and the local school system in which my two children are enrolled announced its plan for the 2020-2021 school year a few days ago. Under the plan, students will have three options on how to go back to school.
The first option is to have children attend traditional “in-person” classes in schools. Under this option, the school system says that children who are sick will not be penalized for missing classes and should be kept home. They also note that face coverings would be required on buses and temperatures would be checked at the beginning of each school day. There was no mention of a requirement for masks or social distancing in classrooms.
The second option is virtual or digital school. The school system offers two online options for students, which require an 18-week commitment for upper-level grades and nine weeks for K-6 students. A local teacher would be assigned to monitor progress and “help with any questions.”
The third option is for parents to homeschool their children. Unlike the first two options, this would require withdrawing students from the county school system.
Public opinion on going back to school is mixed, even in my heavily Republican county. An informal poll on a Facebook group dedicated to the county issues so far shows that most people are opposed to reopening schools and think that they will be forced to close again by more than a two-to-one margin over those in favor of sending the kids back.
I don’t believe that closing schools was an error in March. As any parent or teacher can tell you, schools are hotbeds of infection even when there is no pandemic. School closures were one of the mitigation strategies that helped to contain the spread of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Of course, Coronavirus is not the flu, as I’ve said many times. It is much worse in most respects but children are at lower risk.
At this point, we haven’t made a decision on whether to send our kids back to school. We take the safety of our family and the threat of Coronavirus seriously, but we also have not been holed up at home since March. Going out is a calculated risk and all factors must be weighed.
I do appreciate the fact that our school system is giving parents the option to decide what is best for their family. That won’t be true for everyone around the country.
Originally published on The Resurgent

Friday, July 10, 2020

The US Is Losing The Battle Against Coronavirus

In March, most of the country entered shelter-in-place to slow the spread of Coronavirus and flatten the curve. The strategy seemed to be working, even as several states reopened in May. New cases and daily deaths both plateaued and began to decline.
Then came June.
In June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd. In addition to widespread demonstrations and rioting, many other Americans seemed to experience mitigation fatigue and stopped practicing social distancing and mask-wearing, forgetting that the virus was still present even though its spread had been reduced.
The mitigation was undermined from both the left and the right. Socially conscious doctors and commentators undermined their credibility by telling the country that social distancing was less important than taking to the streets to protest racism. Alarmists on the right attacked the severity of the virus and tore into recommendations for social distancing and masks as infringements on personal liberties. Both helped to revitalize the virus.
I live in Georgia, the first state to reopen. There were dire predictions of a spike in Coronavirus cases when Gov. Kemp allowed businesses to resume operations at the end of April. That did not happen immediately and I can offer some insight on why.
Even though Gov. Kemp declared the state open for business, Georgians weren’t ready to go back into stores and restaurants. Most voted with their feet and stayed home. Many businesses stayed closed or open only for curb service even though they were allowed to be open. When people ventured out, most wore masks. I described all this back in May after I ventured out to eat with my family for the first time in months. Gradually, Georgians became more relaxed and many stopped social distancing and wearing masks.
Now Georgia and other states are paying the price. The US has seen the number of new cases explode. From less than 20,000 new cases per day, the US is now reporting more than 60,000 cases every day. That number is increasing on an almost daily basis.
Some take solace in the fact that the US is doing more testing for the virus, arguing that there are more cases only because there are more tests but that the daily death toll has not increased. These notions are wrong for two reasons.
First, it is true that more tests would yield more positive results as we find more asymptomatic cases. This explains some but not all of the new cases. The rate of positive tests is also increasing even as the number of tests increases. This suggests that the virus is once again spreading rapidly. Johns Hopkins testing data shows that 33 states and Puerto Rico are above the five percent positivity rate recommended as the maximum for reopening.
Second, deaths are a lagging indicator. Coronavirus takes several weeks to kill its victims. The new surge in COVID-19 cases began about the middle of June, therefore the death rate should only now be starting to tick upwards. If we look at the statistics, that is exactly what we see. The seven-day moving average of US Coronavirus deaths started to show an uptick about July 7.
Back in March, I detailed a simple mathematical model created by Inan Drogan. The model assumed a 0.8 percent death rate and that a Coronavirus case takes 24 days to result in a death. Using these assumptions, Drogan forecasted a death toll of 12,800 by April 7. Looking back, the forecast was close but on the low side with the US death toll at 15,743 that day.
I’ll also point out here that July 7, when the US Coronavirus death rate began to increase, is 24 days after June 13. This corresponds very closely with the beginning of the surge in Coronavirus cases.
Epidemiologist Ellie Murray pointed out in The Atlantic that increased testing may also contribute to an increased lag between identifying the case and the patient’s death. More testing means that many cases are identified earlier than they were in the spring. This could prolong the period between identification and death.
There are other signs that a big surge in COVID-19 deaths is coming. Many states are reporting increases in hospital admissions and a diminishing ICU capacity. ArizonaGeorgiaFlorida, and Texas are among the states where Coronavirus cases are threatening to overwhelm hospital systems. Many of the patients filling these hospital and ICU beds will ultimately succumb to the virus in a few weeks.
The increase in deaths may also be somewhat delayed by the fact that many of the new confirmed cases are among young people, who are more resistant to the virus. Contrary to the belief of many, “more resistant” is not the same as being immune or invulnerable.
“We see people in their 20s and 30s in our ICUs gasping for air because they have COVID-19,” James McDeavitt, the dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said in the Wall Street Journal. McDeavitt notes that even young patients who are asymptomatic or nearly so can still suffer long-term organ damage, particularly to the lungs, as well as pass the disease to people who are more vulnerable.
Even though younger people do have a lower mortality rate from COVID-19 than older patients, the mortality rate for young adults is far greater than zero. Some percentage of these younger patients will die from the virus, others will suffer long-term or permanent complications, and still others will recover but spread the virus to others before they do. We can expect daily deaths to increase at an increasing rate as young carriers pass the virus to people who are at higher risk of death.
There is some good news, however. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic reports on two studies that show Coronavirus hospital patients are dying at a lower rate. Atlanta’s 11 Alive reported that therapies using convalescent plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients and the drug remdesivir are showing promise. Those treatments were not available three months ago. The data is incomplete but a hopeful sign that doctors are finding ways to help the body fight off the virus.
But that hope hinges on keeping the curve flattened to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Flattening the curve depends on slowing the rate of infection and that, in turn, hinges on maintaining disciplined social distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing.
Here in Georgia, I’ve noticed that even without new orders from the governor many businesses are returning to mitigation strategies from March and April. I’m once again seeing more masks when I venture out. Some of the new cautionary measures are regulatory, such as mask mandates in Atlanta and Texas, but many people are acting on their own to protect their own health as well as the health of their neighbors.
I’ve said many times but it bears repeating that there are only two ways to return to normal. One is with a vaccine or treatment and the other is by letting the virus run its course. The difference between the two is hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.
If we want to minimize the cost of the pandemic, both terms of lost lives and a damaged economy, we are going to have to embrace mitigation strategies for the foreseeable future. To get the pandemic under control, Americans of all political persuasions need to take the virus seriously.
Stop listening to bad advice from politicians and pundits and start listening to the medical experts. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep your distance.
Originally published on The Resurgent

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Rasmussen Poll: Trump Opponents Don’t Care Who Runs Against Him

Rasmussen tends to be one of the more Trump-friendly pollsters so when they deliver a warning shot the Administration, Republicans should pay attention. That is the case with a new poll released today that helped to explain why Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden are not taking gaining ground.
The new Rasmussen poll found that 44 percent of voters are likely to vote for President Trump while 51 percent say that they plan to vote against him. Remember that, at seven points down, this is one of the better polls for Trump. The Real Clear Politics average currently gives Biden an 8.7-point advantage with many polls showing the Democratic challenger with a double-digit lead. Trump has not led in a poll since February and there has not been a tie since April.
When the Biden votes are considered more closely, 63 percent said that there vote was more against Trump than for another candidate. Only 32 percent said that their vote was intended to be for the challenger. This is good news for Democrats and presents a challenge for Republicans.
While Joe Biden was the overwhelming choice of Democratic primary voters, polling shows that many voters have reservations about him. Last week, another Rasmussen poll found that 38 percent of voters think Biden has dementia. That includes 20 percent of Democrats.
Yet, the astounding truth is that a candidate who is widely believed to be suffering from dementia is holding an average nine-point lead over the incumbent president. The two polls can be explained by the intense dislike for President Trump from a majority of voters. Even Rasmussen’s Trump approval index shows the president 10 points underwater (which is better than the 14.8-point deficit in the Real Clear Politics average).
Team Biden seems to have made the right choice (or perhaps the pandemic made it for them) in keeping the Biden campaign as a low-key affair. If Joe Biden stays out of sight, he can’t make any (or at least as many) embarrassing gaffes.
Meanwhile, the Democrats just have to bide their time until November as Donald Trump destroys himself and the Republican Party on a daily basis. The Trump Administration faces three simultaneous crises in the pandemic, its associated economic problems, and the racial divide. The president is not handling any of these crises well.
Pew polling gives an edge to Biden on every issue except the economy. Even there, Trump has lost ground and now clings to a bare, two-point majority in the Real Clear Politics average.
The verdict is in: Voters don’t like Trump. Of course, that isn’t really news since he lost the popular vote in 2016 even as he won the election. The news flash is that the more voters see of Donald Trump, the less they seem to like him.
The best-case scenario would be if the Trump campaign could adopt the Democratic tactic of being neither seen nor heard. Unfortunately for the GOP, that is much more difficult to accomplish for a sitting president in a time of crisis than it is for his challenger. In any case, Donald Trump is a man who is as unable to stay out of the limelight as he is to change his behavior.
I wrote back in March, “The good news for Republicans is that the focus has been on Donald Trump. The bad news is that the focus has been on Donald Trump.” That has proven to be true. With the multiple crises keeping President Trump at the forefront of the news, voters are not liking what they see and are voting with their feet as they move to support Biden.
The problem is simple. The solution is not. What are Republicans to do with the most unpopular incumbent of the last half-century, a man who not only threatens to cost the party the White House but control of the Senate as well?
I could point out that the Republican convention has not formally anointed Trump as the party’s standard-bearer yet, but it wouldn’t do any good. Republicans had their chance to dump Trump back in January and didn’t take it. By November, they will probably wish they had.
Originally published on The Resurgent

Today Was A Good Day For Religious Liberty At The Supreme Court

In a long-awaited decision, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor in a case that dates back to the Obama Administration’s controversial contraception mandate. The Court found that the Administrative Procedures Act did not conflict the with the Court’s previous ruling that established two interim rules for answering religious exemption questions.
The first rule held that church exemptions were expanded to include an employer who “objects . . . based on its sincerely held religious beliefs,” “to its establishing, maintaining, providing, offering, or arranging [for] overage or payments for some or all contraceptive services.” The second rule established a “similar ‘moral exemption’ for employers with sincerely held moral objections to providing some or all forms of contraceptive coverage.”
The 7-2 decision was authored by Clarence Thomas and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Justice Kagan authored a concurring opinion which, was joined by Justice Breyer. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent was joined by Sotomayor.
The ruling is a good one and was not unexpected. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires the government to use the least intrusive means when religious freedom must be limited for the public good. It is difficult to argue that the needs of the nation require that Catholic nuns, who take a vow of chastity, must buy health insurance with birth control, which is against their longstanding religious beliefs.
It turned out to be a really good day for religious liberty at the Supreme Court because the Little Sisters ruling was followed by another favorable decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School. This case asked whether religious schools could terminate employees using the “ministerial exception” even if they did not hold a ministerial job title.
The Court ruled that religious school teachers are ministers even if they do not hold a job title that includes the word “minister.” The ruling, written by Justice Alito, noted that teachers at religious schools “performed vital religious duties, such as educating their students in the Catholic faith and guiding their students to live their lives in accordance with that faith” and that the “schools expressly saw them as playing a vital role in carrying out the church’s mission.”
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined Alito in another 7-2 decision. Justices Thomas filed concurrences, which was joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justice Sotomayor was joined in her dissent by Justice Ginsburg.
The Guadalupe ruling was also a good one. It is axiomatic that religious institutions should be able to exercise control over who they employ in positions of leadership and instruction.
Other rulings are still to come. These include the eagerly-awaited decisions on President Trump’s tax returns.

Originally published on The Resurgent