Thursday, August 13, 2020

FiveThirtyEight’s New Election Model Gives Trump A Better Chance Than You Might Think

 The FiveThirtyEight political analytics group has just unveiled its computer model for the 2020 presidential election. As you might expect from a casual glance at the polling, the model favors Democrat Joe Biden, but you might be surprised at how large a chance the model gives Trump of pulling off another upset victory.

The model, which is accessible publicly on the FiveThirtyEight website, differs from polls in that it does attempt to predict an outcome rather than simply recording a snapshot of public opinion at a given time. To do that, the creators of the model take polling as well as a number of other factors into account. For those interested in the nuts and bolts of the project, two of the model’s creators, Nate Silver and Galen Druke, discuss the assumptions of the model on a podcast that you can listen to here.

One important difference between the computer model and traditional polling is that the model takes the Electoral College into consideration. If you merely looked at national polling in 2016, you would have assumed that Hillary Clinton would emerge victorious… which she did in the popular vote. The rub was that Donald Trump eked out a slim victory in a handful of states that allowed him to sway the Electoral College result.

Once the model was built, FiveThirtyEight simulated the election 40,000 times and considered a variety of possible outcomes. The modeling shows that Joe Biden currently has a 72 percent chance of winning the Electoral College. While that reflects a substantial advantage, it does mean that Donald Trump can be expected to win in about one out of every four scenarios, which is a much greater chance than you might think from looking at raw polling data on sites like Real Clear Politics where Biden leads in the polling average by 7.5 points.

“It’s way too soon to count Trump out,” Nate Silver wrote in an accompanying article.

“While the polls have been stable so far this year, it’s still only August,” Silver said. “The debates and the conventions have yet to occur. Biden only named his running mate yesterday. And the campaign is being conducted amidst a pandemic the likes of which the United States has not seen in more than 100 years, which is also causing an unprecedented and volatile economy.”

“Nor has it been that uncommon, historically, for polls to shift fairly radically from mid-August until Election Day,” he added. “Furthermore, there are some reasons to think the election will tighten, and President Trump is likely to have an advantage in a close election because of the Electoral College.”

Currently, the model predicts that Biden will win 324 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 214. The predicted popular vote outcome favors Biden by a 53-46 percent margin. Joe Biden is also estimated to have a 30 percent chance of a double-digit popular vote victory.

The model also identifies states to watch that are particularly close. These states will not surprise people who have been paying attention to polling thus far. FiveThirtyEight’s battleground states are include North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Of those battlegrounds, Biden is forecast to win Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona, which would put him over the top in the Electoral College.

Inevitably, the question of 2016 comes up. People ask why polls and models should be trusted when they showed Hillary winning in 2016. The answer is that the failures of 2016 polling have been greatly exaggerated. National polling almost exactly matched the national popular vote. That did not decide the election, however.

State-level polling is always more suspect and variable, especially in close races. In 2016, 13 states were decided by less than five percentage points and state-level polling, in what the American Association for Public Opinion Research called a “historically bad year” in its post mortem of the election polling, had an average error of 5.1 points. This error was attributed to several factors including an actual movement of voters from Clinton to Trump in the last week before the election, an over-representation of college graduates, and the fact that late-deciders broke predominantly for Trump.

Despite the subsequent claims that “everyone” gave Hillary Clinton a 99 percent chance of winning the 2016 election, FiveThirtyEight’s model that year gave Clinton a 71 percent chance of winning, which left Trump with a 28 percent chance of an upset. Ironically, that is almost identical to current odds.

Trump supporters should not be too confident that the president will overcome the odds again, however. Silver points out that much Trump’s chance comes from the fact that the election is still a long way away.

“If we lie to our model and tell it that the election is going to be held today,” Silver says, “It spits out that Biden has a 93 percent chance of winning. In other words, a Trump victory would require a much bigger polling error than what we saw in 2016.”

“We should be clear: Trump’s current position in the polls is poor,” he adds, noting, “Biden is currently ahead in our polling averages in FloridaWisconsinMichiganPennsylvaniaArizonaOhio and in the second congressional district in Nebraska — all places that Clinton lost in 2016.”

Trump’s hope is that between now and the election, something will happen to change public opinion and shift the polls in his favor. The pandemic and the associated economic downturn are the largest wild cards for the next few months.

One bit of good news for Trump supporters is that the Electoral College seems to favor Trump again. The model gives Biden a 71 percent chance of winning the Electoral College compared with his 81 percent chance of winning the popular vote.

While the outcome of the election looks dim for Donald Trump in mid-August, a lot can change in the next two-and-a-half months. That’s particularly true in 2020 where it seems that nothing is going normal. Watch the FiveThirtyEight model over the coming weeks to see which way the odds move.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Georgia School Where Students Went Maskless Is Closed Again Due To COVID-19 Outbreak

 North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia made headlines last week when it became one of the first schools in the nation to reopen. Much of the coverage revolved around photos posted online that showed crowded hallways with few masks in sight. Now, the school is closing for at least two days amid an outbreak with nine positive cases of Coronavirus.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that six students and three staffers tested positive for Coronavirus. In a letter to parents dated August 9, the district superintendent said that the school would be closed on Monday and Tuesday of this week for cleaning and disinfecting. There is no mention of a general quarantine or isolation or the possibility that even more students an faculty may be presymptomatic or asymptomatic but untested.

“Tuesday evening parents and students will be notified of whether Digital Learning will continue, or if in-person instruction may resume,” the letter said, leaving open the possibility that the school may remain closed for longer than the initial two days.

“I apologize for any inconvenience this schedule change may cause, but hopefully we all can agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,” the superintendent said in the letter.

The photos of the packed hallway went viral after they were posted by Hannah Waters, a 15-year-old sophomore. The school suspended Waters for posting the pictures but later rescinded the suspension.

The Georgia Department of Public Health statistics for Paulding County, a rural bedroom community on the northwest side of Atlanta, show that COVID-19 was at its peak when schools reopened. Transmission was at very low levels until the beginning of July when it surged to more than 30 new cases per day. By the time schools reopened in early August, the seven-day moving average was above 30 cases per day. Now, a fourth of the county’s 1,678 total cases were reported within the past two weeks.

The US seems to be the only nation attempting to reopen schools with virus transmission still at high levels. Denmark reopened its schools in April using a “bubble” model in which students stayed in separate groups of 12, Time reports. South Korean schools reopened in May but many closed again after another surge in virus cases. Likewise, Israel reopened its schools in May using the “bubble” tactic. This mitigation strategy was dropped in June and was followed by a new outbreak. Data showed that schools were one of the second largest sources of new infections.

Here in the US, the Trump Administration has been pushing for schools to reopen for in-person classes despite the CDC’s warning that “full-sized, in-person classes, activities and events” represent the highest risk. The CDC advises that “groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix,” and that “students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects.” Many school districts seem unwilling or unable to follow the recommendations.

Schools that follow CDC guidelines and that are in areas with lower rates of community spread might have better luck with reopening than Paulding County, but the Georgia district’s abortive attempt at reopening underscores the fact that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for handling a pandemic. A nation of more than 300 million people and with widely varying rates of viral spread will need to tailor strategies to the local situation.

I don’t think that the fact of the pandemic is hurting Donald Trump’s approval rating as much his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat. Trump’s advice on the outbreak has been almost uniformly bad and that includes his push to reopen all schools and threat to cut funding for those who balk. The decision to reopen should be made based on local conditions and not for fear of losing federal dollars.

Mr. Trump obviously prefers to get the nation back to normal before the election but pretending the pandemic is not happening won’t make it or the associated economic crisis go away. If the president’s push to get the country and schools back to business-as-usual goes poorly, he is likely to be hurt worse at the polls than if he had squarely faced the crisis and told the American people the truth about the need to slow the spread of the virus. Americans can see the danger and the need for mitigations even if the president cannot.

Originally published on The Resurgent

The Triple Threat: Election Interference By China, Iran, and Russia Is Back

 On Friday, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told us what most of us already knew. Evanina detailed threats from Russia, China, and Iran, to interfere with the upcoming presidential elections. Interestingly, the intelligence assessment is that the cyber aggressors are taking different sides.

In a written statement, Evanina said, “Foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”

He also warned, “They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results.”

Interestingly, Evanina said that the intelligence community assessed that our adversaries have different goals and are targeting their efforts to help different candidates and for different purposes.

Most obviously, China seems to be trying to undermine President Trump’s re-election campaign. After years of trade wars, Evanina says that Beijing views Trump as “unpredictable.”

“China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China,” Evanina said in the statement.

So far, Chinese efforts concentrated on criticizing the Trump Administration on numerous fronts. These include Trump’s response to the pandemic, the closure of the Houston consulate, the TikTok ban, and China’s efforts to dominate the 5G market through Huawei. As I’ve pointed out for years, China does not have to outlast the US economy to win the trade war, they only have to outlast Donald Trump.

Russia is taking the opposite side. Evanina said, “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia.”

 Evanina pointed to “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach” as a proxy in Russia’s efforts. Derkach “is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” per the intelligence assessment. Derkach was one of the local politicians who met with Rudy Giuliani during the president’s personal lawyer’s dirt-digging expeditions to Ukraine.

If Russia and China are each backing their favorite horse in the presidential race, Iran’s goal is primarily to sow chaos and undermine American institutions, but also to undermine President Trump, “driven by a perception that President Trump’s reelection would result in a continuation of U.S. pressure on Iran in an effort to foment regime change.” Iran’s activities are expected to include “spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded that one of these threats is not like the others, calling the Russian interference the most serious of the three.

“They’re not equivalent,” Pelosi told the Associated Press. “Russia is actively 24/7 interfering in our election. They did so in 2016, and they are doing so now.”

Pelosi’s statement has been supported by intelligence assessments for the past several years. Even Trump appointees such as Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley have confirmed Russia’s interference in 2016, which Haley called an act of “warfare.” A major theme of the Mueller report was detailing Russia’s actions and Robert Mueller used his live testimony to warn against Russian meddling in the 2020 elections.

Many Republicans will call Pelosi hypocritical for focusing on the Russian threat, but many in the GOP have spent the past four years downplaying concerns about Russia’s role in 2016. Many of those same Republicans will now be up in arms over Chinese and Iranian activities.

The truth is that all Americans should be upset about any foreign attempts to tip the scales on our elections. Regardless of whether foreign powers support your candidate or his opponent, nations who are our adversaries have no business influencing American voters or, worse, trying to manipulate vote totals by hacking databases and voting machines. Undermining the integrity of elections is undermining the foundation of our government.

Unfortunately, both sides are predictably playing politics with the issue. Democrats in the House, considering themselves the victims, have passed several bills aimed at curbing election interference over the past few years. Republicans, perhaps sensitive that admitting the problem would further undermine Donald Trump’s credibility, have killed most of them. As recently as June, Senate Republicans quietly removed a requirement that campaigns report attempts by foreign governments to interfere in US elections from the National Defense Authorization Act.

The integrity of elections is a cornerstone of our republic and a national security priority. Defending the electoral process against foreign adversaries should not be a partisan issue and it should not matter which candidate is assumed to benefit.

As Robert Mueller warned in his testimony to Congress more than a year ago, “Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”

“This deserves the attention of every American,” he added.  

Now, we have the Chinese and Iranians piling on as well. We should take the threats seriously.

Originally published on The Resurgent

With Presidential Emergency Orders, Who Needs Congress?

 By now, most are familiar with President Trump’s plethora of new Executive Orders relating to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. The four orders signed yesterday temporarily suspend student loan payments and set student loan interest rates to zero, reinstitute Congress’s moratorium on evictions for some renters and homeowners, reinstate the enhanced unemployment benefits provided by Congress in the CARES Act, and defer payroll taxes for employees whose gross income is less than $4,000 bi-weekly. There are two issues at play with the Executive Orders: whether the measures are beneficial in helping the country recover from the pandemic and whether President Trump has the authority to unilaterally decree such changes.

I have written in the past about the need for more economic relief, but today my larger concern is with the executive overreach by the president. The president cites his national emergency authority in the declarations but the bigger emergency than the pandemic seems to be that Mr. Trump could not get what he wanted from Congress.

There is a poster frequently seen around offices that proclaims, “Failure to plan ahead on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” That is where the Trump Administration is. House Democrats passed several relief bills in May and June, but Republicans didn’t negotiate or offer an alternative until late July By that point, Trump’s polling numbers were dropping, many provisions of the CARES Act were expiring, and there was little time to reach a deal with Democrats.

Neither side seemed to really want a deal anyway. Speaker Pelosi drew a hard line, betting that failure to pass the bill would make Trump look bad. For his part, Trump took the bait and threatened executive action, which poisoned the well and all but assured that there would be no deal.

The president’s Executive Orders are obviously intended to curry favor with voters but this attempt at pandering may fall short. The enhanced unemployment benefits decreed by King Donald are less than what the Democrats had been proposing. Unemployed voters who had been receiving $600 supplements are going to realize that their payments are going down. Indeed, the president fought to cut benefits for the unemployed.

At this point, bypassing Congress with declarations of emergency has become Trump’s go-to move. Elected on the basis of his deal-making prowess, Trump has had little luck in dealing with Democrats. The president pushed Mitch McConnell to eliminate the filibuster and, when that failed, he settled on the tactic of using national emergency declarations.

At this point, the president has used national emergencies to legislate what Congress denied him no less than three times. The first was to secure funding for the border wall in February 2019. A few months later, in May 2019, the president declared another emergency to facilitate the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia after Congress balked in the Kashoggi murder. The COVID relief emergency orders are President Trump’s third trip to the well, but, if he is re-elected, we can be sure it won’t be the last. Why should he stop when Congress does nothing?

The same Republicans who rightly criticized President Obama’s abuses of executive authority in very harsh terms have little to say about President Trump’s even more blatant abuses of power. Not negatively anyway. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), both of whom are facing tough re-election campaigns this year, are among the Republicans who tweeted praise for the Executive Orders.

I wrote recently that burning down the Republican Party was not a good plan, but when the party doubles down on Trump’s abuses of power even as the president crashes and burns in the polls, it makes it very difficult for a constitutionalist to support any of them. Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, my two Republican choices in the upcoming Senate special election, seem to differ only in how loudly they proclaim fealty to President Trump.

Whether you agree with Trump’s policies or not, the danger is in the precedent that he sets in his “unpresidented” actions. His tendency to legislate by emergency orders is one that can be easily adopted and expanded by the next Democrat in the White House. You may like Trump handing out money and managing the economy by executive fiat, but you probably won’t like it when President Biden or some other president declares a national emergency to combat climate change or gun violence.

And with the congressional partisans backing their tribe’s president, Republicans won’t be able to stop them. President Trump has shown that our institutions are insufficient to stop a president of poor character who has no respect for the rule of law. The last line of defense is voters who should rebuke, rather than reward, abuses of power, no matter which party the president belongs to.

There is a line in “Revenge of the Sith” where Senator Amidala opines, “This is how liberty dies… To thunderous applause.” That doesn’t seem to be totally correct.

What we are seeing is how democracy dies and authoritarianism rises. It is a slow and gradual process as executives encroach ever further into the role of the legislature. Democracy dies when the legislators don’t fight back and the courts do nothing to uphold the constitutional balance of powers.

This is how democracy ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Originally published on The Resurgent

Friday, August 7, 2020

Trump Tackles TikTok; Here’s How It Might Be Legal

Yesterday, President Trump issued an Executive Order that prohibits “to the extent permitted under applicable law: any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with ByteDance Ltd,” the Chinese company that owns TikTok or its subsidiaries and associated companies. The ban takes effect on September 20, which is 45 days from when the order was signed. A second Executive Order targeted the Chinese company Tencent and its WeChat app.

The obvious question is whether and how President Trump has the authority to unilaterally ban one of the most popular apps in the country. The answer that the president offers in his Executive Order is through the “International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code.”

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act regards the president’s ability to “investigate, regulate, or prohibit… any transactions in foreign exchange… transfers of credit or payments… [and] the importing or exporting of currency or securities” during an “unusual and extraordinary threat.” In the past, the Act has been used to block the assets of terrorist organizations.

The National Emergencies Act is a general law giving the president the power to declare emergencies. The law gives the president additional powers during an emergency but is not a blank check and imposes additional duties as well, such as notifying Congress and publishing the emergency proclamation in the Federal Register.

Similarly, Section 301 of Title 3 is a general law allowing the president to delegate authority. In this case, the Executive Order delegates authority to the Secretary of Commerce to identify prohibited transactions and take steps to implement the Order.

Whether the Executive Order is legal depends on whether courts could be persuaded that TikTok’s presence on American computers and electronic devices presents a national emergency. Courts are generally deferential to executives in an emergency but Donald Trump has shown an alarming tendency to use his emergency powers to legislate when he cannot persuade Congress to go along with his policies.

President Trump had declared at least eight national emergencies before his TikTok ban. Some were legitimate, such as the emergency regarding the pandemic declared on March 13 and the September 2018 emergency providing for automatic sanctions against foreigners who interfere in a US election. Others, such as the February 2019 emergency on the Southern Border after Congress refused to fund the wall and the May 2019 emergency that allowed a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia against the wishes of Congress, are more questionable.

Aside from the question of legality, the other obvious question about the TikTok ban is why now? The Administration and TikTok had been in negotiations for months and Microsoft was already exploring the possibility of buying the app to break the connection with China’s communist government.

The timing of the move has not been discussed by the Administration but there is speculation that it might relate to a Trump campaign rally back in June. There was disappointing attendance at the rally and, along with the pandemic, much of the blame was assigned to TikTok users who reserved seats and then did not show up. Would the president ban an entire app because its users embarrassed him? Only Mr. Trump and his closest advisors know for sure.

Finally, there is the question of how the ban can be implemented. The Order bans “transactions” and not the use of the app. The focus seems to be on demonetizing the app and keeping it out of American app stores. The real goal may be to interfere with TikTok’s ability to make money and force a sale of the app to an American company. Mr. Trump has already said that the ban would be lifted if Microsoft or another American company bought the app.

President Trump has also suggested that the US should get a cut of any sale, telling reporters, “It’s a little bit like the landlord/tenant; without a lease the tenant has nothing, so they pay what’s called ‘key money,’ or they pay something, but the United States should be reimbursed or should be paid a substantial amount of money, because without the United States they don’t have anything, at least having to do with the 30 percent [Microsoft had been considering purchasing a 30 percent stake in the company rather than buying it outright].”

“What’s appalling is the bundling,” Dr. Nikolas Guggenberger, Executive Director of Information Society Project at Yale Law School, told Engadget. “Even if there were some sort of toll or some sort of tax that they could levy on the transaction, bundling that to a threat to ban something, then nudging a US company into buying the foreign entity, and then levying a tax… even if you found a legal basis for doing so, bundling that is beyond anything that’s even halfway legally sound.”

Guggenberger also questioned the First Amendment implications of the case, saying, “Shutting down TikTok as a medium does chill free speech in an area that is a crucial tool for young Americans to express themselves and [you could see] how impactful it is, whether you agree with what happened or not in Tulsa.”

TikTok doesn’t plan to take Trump’s ban lying down. In a statement, the company said that it was “shocked” at what it said was “no due process or adherence to the law.”

“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts,” the statement said.

The controversy may impact the election. Per Omnicore, the average age of TikTok users is between 16 and 24, a demographic that already dislikes President Trump. Slightly more than half of TikTok users are male. A ban on the popular app may spur more younger voters to get to the polls.

While there is a lot of evidence that TikTok is a security risk and is in bed with the Chinese government, the precedent of a unilateral ban on a commercial app is troubling. A better course would have been to take the case for a ban to Congress, but Mr. Trump’s toxic relationship with Democrats makes that difficult.

Whether the TikTok ban is legal depends largely on how you view the threat that TikTok presents. US law does give the president authority to take economic action in a national emergency but the law does not define what constitutes a national emergency.

Congress has given presidents a lot of latitude – too much – in their ability to make unilateral decisions for the country. A second timely example is Mr. Trump’s decision to impose new tariffs on Canada despite the ink not being dry on the USMCA. The only real solution is for Congress to exert its constitutional authority and take back the power that it has delegated to the president, but with great power comes great responsibility. Until Congress acts, voters need to make sure that we elect presidents who will use that power responsibly and not another executive who will abuse his authority.

Originally published on The Resurgent