Matt Robison

Here's why ranked choice voting is different for Democrats

The New York City mayoral primary was the first time many Americans paid any attention to ranked choice voting (RCV)—the system by which voters select a list of preferred candidates in order, rather than picking just one. That brief spotlight led to a lot of predictable (and mostly wrong) post-election takes. Republicans lit up Twitter and op-ed pages with the usual take-downs, calling RCV a "corrupt" scheme to confuse and disenfranchise voters; Democrats and allied voting reform groups lauded it as a more fair, accurate and inclusive way to run an election. Neither case is right.

Take the cheerleading arguments for RCV with a big grain of salt. Ninety-six percent of the time it doesn't change election outcomes in the US, especially in primaries. Nor does it affect incumbents' reelection chances. There is some preliminary evidence of benefits for candidates of color, but hardly enough to say much definitively.

Ranked choice voting gives the Democratic Party a way to hold its sprawling diverse coalition together. It provides every segment of the party a chance to have a stake in the ultimate winner.

You can also mostly ignore the lame gripes from opponents, such as Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield's airy and evidence-free claim that RCV somehow prevents us from forming grand political coalitions. (Question: do we see a lot of those forming via our usual election methods?) And while the somewhat bungled New York primary count was an eyesore, there's about as much evidence for Republican hysteria that RCV leads to corruption or depressed turnout as there is for bamboo ballots in Arizona. It's actually the regular runoff process that frequently leads to lower turnout, not RCV.

The real reason that Democrats tend to like ranked choice voting—and that Republicans usually treat it like a bioweapon—has to do with practical politics.

The Republican Party (up until the point Trump scrambled all of its political lanes like a toddler smearing his hand across a wet painting) is a party based on ideological identity. In a primary, Republicans vie to be slightly different flavors of the same thing: white conservative. It's like choosing between ice creams—if your choices were vanilla bean and French vanilla. That means that even in a rank-choice Republican primary, voters are going to get more or less the same thing no matter whom they choose.

The Democratic Party is totally different. It's a coalition of very different ideologies, interest groups, generations and racial diversity (for what it's worth, FiveThirtyEight counts five clusters). And it's all scrambled. Half calls itself moderate or conservative, the other half liberal. Black voters tend to be economically middle of the road. Highly educated white voters tend to be fiscally liberal. Young voters tend to be socially progressive and attuned to racial and climate issues. Party loyalists just want to win.

So when Democrats vote in Democratic primaries, they can choose rocky road, pistachio, or New York Super Fudge Chunk—and sometimes candidates that are a scoop of each of those flavors. Your vote can result in a very different nominee, and a very different outcome in office as different as Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin.

And that's exactly why Democrats gravitate to ranked choice voting. It gives them a way to try to hold that diverse coalition together. RCV provides every segment of the party a chance to have a stake in the ultimate winner. If you rank Bernie Sanders first on your presidential primary ballot and Joe Biden second, and Biden wins, then you still feel like you have some share in Biden's success because you actually voted for him.

This can mean a lot. To some degree, you've not only told yourself the winner is an acceptable outcome (the act of physically marking something on a ballot can itself be a meaningful trigger to your brain), but also because of the bandwagon effect (i.e., people like to identify with the winning side in elections) you are a lot more apt to feel connected to his or her victory and success. This is a big deal for Democrats who may have to overcome a relatively sizable gap between preferences and the party's nominee.

By contrast, Republican Party voters don't have to really worry about this problem. After a primary, they almost always end up with someone who is a virtual political clone of whomever they voted for. There is simply not that much of a gap to close.

Republicans are also incentivized to have only the most highly motivated ideological voters show up in a general election. Decreasing and shaping the electorate toward their motivated core helps them, because they have a smaller base but one that tends to vote more regularly. This is why Republicans have tended to do better in midterm elections, with an older and whiter electorate that skews their way. It's also why they are so keen on passing restrictive voting laws at the state level—proposing 389 of them across 48 states at the last count—that tend to disproportionately impact Democratic-leaning voting demographics like Black voters, young voters and voters of color. It doesn't take a lot of discouragement to turn a sometimes-voter into a nonvoter.

Losing those sometimes-voters can be perilous for Democrats, who desperately need to hold on to everyone across their coalition in a general election. When they do—as in 2018 and 2020—they win. In 2016, however, less than 80 percent of Sanders primary voters ultimately supported Hillary Clinton in the general election (almost 10 percent voted for a third-party candidate and 12 percent actually ended up voting for Trump).

The same thing is true in terms of the role of independents. Look at the 2018 Maine 2nd Congressional District race between Democrat Jared Golden and Republican Bruce Poliquin, a rare instance of RCV changing an election outcome. Golden won, because he was the second choice of people who voted for an independent. The Republican got the core Republican votes. The Democrat got a broader coalition.

Ranked choice voting may have a lot of great features that excite political scientists in theory, and that may get proved out over time. It may also have some downsides that Republicans are right to complain about. (It can be confusing to voters who aren't used to it.) But the practical politics is what's driving the parties. Democrats like it because it helps manage unwieldy coalitions, maintain turnout, and leverage independents better. Republicans know this full well, and that's why they're so against it

Could Dems and the GOP cut a deal on voting to help save our democracy?

If you have been horrified by Donald Trump's post-election napalming of American democracy, the idea of now accommodating Republicans – many of whom looked on in cowed silence – in terms of how we run elections in this country may seem repugnant. But that's exactly what Democrats should do: cut a deal on voting reform with the likely-Republican Senate. Even if it's painful. Even if it means accepting Republican priorities that are anathema to Democrats.

But before casting me out of the Democratic coalition, hear me out.

The American Spectator's Matt Mayer recently suggested four reforms that Republicans could accept, and should demand. One is a standard early in-person voting window in the two weeks leading up to Election Day, including weekends. The second (in exchange for the first) is getting rid of mail-in voting. Third is universal photo identification requirements (paired with ensuring that everyone gets a form of ID, and lenient rules like allowing smartphone selfies to count). Fourth is requiring uniform voter roll cleanup procedures (i.e., "purging") across states. Overlaying all of this – and this is key – reforms should be standardized, implemented by Congress, and "instituted and paid for by federal funds."

There are three compelling reasons for Democrats to try to work with this. First, a compromise built around this framework would actually improve overall voting access on balance, especially for disenfranchised groups. Second, it would strengthen Democrats' electoral prospects – although Republicans would have a political interest too. Third, and most important, it could save American democracy.

A deal built on this framework would significantly improve on the situation today. For all the attention that voter ID laws get, it is not any single barrier that plays the villain in the suppression story. As in Murder on the Orient Express (spoiler alert), lots of culprits are working together. There are around 10,500 different election systems in this country. Each presents a unique web of challenges from underfunded election administration, a paucity of voting locations, difficult registration processes, and in some cases, a single in-person Election Day.

While voter ID laws and registration purges are the cherry on that bad sundae, they are just a part of that bigger picture. They also vary a great deal. 36 states have laws requiring some form of voter identification, but 17 of them accept non-photo ID, and 12 demand a photo but with a fallback option (like signing an affidavit). Voter purge methods also vary wildly from state to state—and sometimes even from year to year depending on who's in office.

The point is that today, the only limit on how severe a state's identification and purging practices are – and they are often very limiting for poor, Black voters' access particularly – is how hard Republican elected officials have pushed them. And with Democrats losing ground in statehouses, the situation is probably going to worsen.

That's why a deal predicated on the Mayer proposal, with some Democratic refinements (Democrats hold the presidency and the House, they are not supplicants here), would be a step forward. Creating a federal elections agency to ensure uniform and generous approaches to early voting for everyone would start to cut through the thicket of barriers that plague voters, increase turnout, and particularly benefit Black voters.

And while curtailing mail-in voting in exchange would seem hard to swallow (there would have to be exceptions: the five states that conduct all-mail elections—and any others that wanted to go that route in the future--overseas and military ballots and people medically unable to travel), it's actually a more-than-fair trade to get more early voting. Mail-in voting is just not that great: according to the ACLU, rejected ballots are concentrated among "people with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people, women, people for whom English is a second language, and military personnel," and polling shows that two-thirds of Black and Latino voters still prefer to vote in-person. And it's the spark for lawsuits, postal delay disputes, and confusion.

In addition, a standardized, federally-mandated approach on IDs that aggressively works to get them to everybody, on the federal dime, and with creative, inclusive standards on acceptable photos, would take matters out of the hands of the most aggressive Republican activists and improve access in the most restrictive states. The same goes for a more standard, federally-overseen process for cleaning up voter rolls, especially if it involved state information exchanges like the Electronic Registration Information Center that rationalize the process. These reforms would get rid of the most egregious disenfranchisement, while having one set of rules and standards would make it far more straightforward for voting advocates to help voters navigate the system.

Some will argue that, because in-person voter fraud is a rarity that Republicans use to justify voting restrictions that give them an advantage, Democrats shouldn't accede to any of this. But we have to deal with the world not as we wish it was, but as it is. Today, limiting voter access – often verging on outright suppression – is the reality. This kind of compromise would stop the increasing restrictions that are almost certainly coming in GOP-controlled states, and actually improve access, especially for the most frequently disenfranchised voters.

The post-election debacle was a low point in the history of Republican claims about voter fraud, ranging from the clownish (think Giuliani in front of Four Seasons Landscaping) to the dangerous (see Trump and the Wayne County elections board). But none of this is going away on January 20. More than half of Republicans believe that Trump's victory was stolen from him. Republican leaders who have long seen the fraud trope as a helpful base motivation tool are already looking forward to more of it. It's a proven winner with their voters, and may be the best way to keep engaging Trump supporters when he is no longer on the ballot.

So the right will keep returning to this well. And it will probably work, at least with their base. Democrats can't stop it by repeating facts – debunking does not end conspiracy theories. The best way to defend against this political weapon is to unload it. We need to get both parties to have a stake in defending the integrity and fairness of the system, because both had a genuine hand in crafting it. Republicans need to have skin in the game.

Of course, this might be where this argument falls apart – after all, if Republicans have such a potent political tool, why give it up? But there are two reasons they just might. One is that not all Republicans are as cynical as many people think – some of them genuinely believe in these voting reforms in principle (I've seen it with my own eyes working both in Congress and a state legislature). The second is that Republican leaders know that in Donald Trump, they have grabbed the wolf by the ears. Trump's appeal served Republicans well in 2016 (non-Trump Republicans succeeded despite him in 2020), but party leaders don't want to be yoked to Trumpism forever. And constant, entirely baseless claims of voter fraud have now become inexorably tied to Trump. A package of election reforms that genuinely reflects Republican priorities would allow them to retake ownership of the issue and start to sever that connection. Republican leaders want to turn that page.

Even if it comes up short, the downside risk for Democrats trying is minimal. With Republicans tilting so hard on fraud rhetoric, an attempt to craft a bipartisan initiative would put hypocrites in a tough position, and even if it succeeded only in smaller pieces (such as setting a uniform early voting window with federal support, or setting a floor on voter ID laws), voters would benefit.

Most importantly, coming to some sort of accommodation on this issue would help protect our fraying democracy. A situation in which one of our two major political parties is incentivized to undermine voters' belief in our elections – and in which a significant portion of our country truly believes that the results are illegitimate – is destabilizing and dangerous. We're seeing that play out right now.

Few appreciate just how close to the edge we have come. Months ago, I argued that to avoid a meltdown of our democracy, Joe Biden needed to win by three states' worth of Electoral Votes or more. That turned out to be critical: if the margin had been one state – or if Trump and his "legal team" were not so incompetent – we would still be neck deep in the muck, and might not have found our way out at all. And we may not be so lucky next time. A better organized effort in a close election by a less repulsive and clownish figure might well result in a genuine constitutional meltdown, or a soft coup d'état.

Democrats cannot simply wave this off. So far, their basic rhetorical strategy has been a version of the My Cousin Vinny line – everything "those guys" say is BS. But looking at the state of voter access in America, the vast numbers of Americans who believe the fraud story, Republican momentum in state legislatures (with redistricting looming) and the susceptibility of the entire American election system to an intractable standoff, it is clear that this strategy is not working.

It is time to do something different. The best thing for voters, for Democrats, for Republicans, and for American democracy is to start to take this issue off the table. It may be a bitter pill, but it is necessary medicine.

Here's the dirty little secret about Democrats' hold on power in the House of Representatives

Despite all of the pre-election warnings and pleas for patience, it's been a 72 hour emotional roller coaster for Democrats. Some of the angst was driven more by high expectations than reality (as AlterNet's Joshua Holland put it: "Think how happy we'd be right now if we had expected a tight race and hoped for a Biden win"). Some is based on real shortfalls with painful consequences.

But the fact that Democrats are poised to lose seats in the House should be the least of Democrats' worries.

Yes, the prospect of a relatively thin House majority is disappointing: Democrats clearly underperformed their set of opportunities. They lost seats when they might have gained, including in some off-the-radar races.

And yes, there is a real and potentially significant downside here: a much thinner margin to work with going into the 2022 campaign, which if current trends hold both in the presidential race (heading toward a Biden win) and midterm election (a likely pendulum swing against the party holding the White House), could be a relatively tough go for Democrats. Getting a running start on that race is the main reason that House Republicans are "celebrating" right now.

But no, the idea that Democrats will face any significant practical problems in managing a slim majority – let alone that those challenges could render the chamber "nearly ungovernable" as Politico opined – should not be a major concern.

As a senior House staffer for a decade – working both in the minority and the majority – I can share a dirty little secret: nowadays, House members usually cast only one truly consequential vote each term – the vote for Speaker, which cements who runs the majority. In part, that is because we are in an era of extreme partisan dysfunction, so Congress has steadily passed less and less real policy in the last three decades, except in rare instances of unified one-party control in Washington.

But in part that's just due to the basic structure of the House. You wouldn't hear much about this on Schoolhouse Rock, but the reality is that the majority controls just about everything, from assigning members to the committees that are responsible for shaping and advancing legislation, to deciding which bills are actually brought to the floor. And that would be true even in a majority that rested on a single member.

Perhaps the most subtly important clout that the majority wields (and one that is fairly opaque to the public, because it is pretty far down in the weeds) is through the Committee on Rules. In the House, each bill goes to the floor with its own rule attached for how it will be considered. In deciding what that rule will be, the majority almost always gets to tailor the outcome they want: they can determine how long the bill will be discussed, whether amendments can be offered, and even whether the usual standing rules of the House will apply (which can govern everything from procedures to limits on spending).

In fact, there is so much relative power in holding that majority that the offices of members of congress in the minority often become little more than constituent service and press release mills, with almost no substantive role in legislation or debate (constituent service is a noble and valuable function of congressional service; the merits of generating local media coverage are in the eye of the beholder). Once upon a time, there was more to it. For example, in the past, members in the minority could also bring earmarked project funding back home as a service to their districts, but that function has been lost to a somewhat misguided and puritanical earmark reform movement. And in yesteryear, there was more genuinely bipartisan legislation, or the potential for the minority to work substantive amendments into bills. Now, these opportunities are rare.

From the Democrats' standpoint, dealing with an emboldened Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (or a delicate 50-50 Senate, in their remaining dream scenario) will be a daily grind. But the relative challenge of managing their own chamber's minority will be pretty darn low. Republicans do have a few procedural tricks that they can use (Democrats use them too when they are in the minority). For example, they will continue to try to give Democrats tough votes using "motions to recommit" – a tool that allows the minority to lob a tricky issue at members in swing districts to make them uncomfortable during the final passage of a bill.

But nowadays members of congress are pretty inured to that kind of bait (it didn't cause any Republicans to break with their party in the eight years they held the majority between 2011 and 2019, and it's hard to find examples of anyone losing a re-election race due to a vote on a motion to recommit). And besides, a number of the most vulnerable Democratic members who might have been susceptible to those kinds of "gotcha" maneuvers have now been picked off in 2020.

On top of that, Democrats have governed with about the same size majority we are likely to have in the upcoming Congress – and with the same leadership team they now have – between 2007-2009. They know how to handle it. There is some deftness required, but with a likely Republican (or razor-thin split) Senate and Biden administration at a standstill on big legislative initiatives, they will not need to call on their most at-risk members to pass the kind hyper aggressive progressive bills that might cause them to squirm.

There will surely be some tough challenges ahead for the whole party. A hostile, Republican-dominated appellate and Supreme Court, failing to overturn Republican legislative majorities in key states that will now further gerrymander scads of congressional districts for the next decade, and Senate barriers to desperately needed pro-democracy reforms are real problems. Fortunately, a diminished House majority is not. Dems can be fretful about a lot of things, but the House isn't the place to lose sleep.

Here are five critical things to watch on Election Night

Nervous as hell? Don't think you can take election night? Girding yourself for weeks of counting torture?

There is unfortunately nothing that can completely alleviate that stress. But as the night of unfolds, there will be a few things to keep an eye on that could provide some real and significant early clues as to whether events are trending in the right direction, or if you should be stocking up on a two-week supply of bourbon (or a four-year supply of Prozac).

Before diving into them, it is helpful to note a few important assumptions up front about the dynamics of the vote.

One is that record-breaking early voting has favored Democrats, and the Election Day vote will favor Republicans. This is fairly well documented: as of a week before Election Day, Democrats were ahead by about a 2-1 margin in the states that track returned mail-ballots by party registration. On the other side of the coin, polling has consistently shown Republicans preferring to vote in-person on Election Day. The upshot is that in general, mailed and early ballots will skew Democratic, and votes cast on Election Day will skew Republican.

A second, related presumption is that there will be at least some "Blue Shift" after Election Day in states that are still counting. Ballots counted after Election Day tend to skew Democratic, both because Democrats' ballots are more likely to be challenged and end up as provisional ballots, and also in cases where Democrats are mailing in more votes that get counted late (this tends to happen especially with younger voters). So Election Night counts – i.e., before all the votes are counted – can often look a lot redder if there are still mailed votes outstanding, and effect that has been termed "Red Mirage."

And finally, it is likely that any close result in a swing state will enter the Twilight Zone. The Supreme Court has allowed late-arriving mail ballots to be counted in a number of critical states, but has opened the door to re-considering. Signature mismatches, "naked ballots" that aren't enclosed in a security envelope, and other ballot issues will come under close scrutiny and almost certain litigation – in fact, more than one million people could ultimately lose their vote due to these issues. The bottom line is that unless a state's reported winning vote margin is greater than the number of ballots that could end up being contested, the state will carry a big asterisk.

With that general view of the landscape, here are five things to pay attention to that could help cut through the maze of information and speculation and give some meaningful early indications about the outcome.

1) Trump's Mission-Critical States

As reported in Axios – and according to multiple sources –the number of likely state wins for Trump has dwindled in recent weeks, but Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien has plotted three remaining paths to victory. The first is for Trump to win Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. The second one swaps out Pennsylvania for Michigan. The third requires Trump winning the combo of North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada.

Notice the common points in those scenarios: all three require North Carolina, two depend on Arizona, and two need Michigan. So those are the mission-critical states, and Biden winning any of them would slam a door in Trump's face. Forecasting models agree: for example, FiveThirtyEight's interactive forecasting tool shows that a Biden win in North Carolina raises his win probability from 90m percent to 99 percent, in Arizona to 98 percent and in Michigan to 92 percent.

Since Arizona and North Carolina start counting mail ballots either upon receipt or otherwise before Election Day, there is a real possibility of getting results relatively quickly—either this evening or tomorrow. So if they are looking strong for Biden, it would be a meaningful sign.

One important caveat though. Arizona officials plan to release initial results at around 8:00 pm local time based on the ballots cast before Election Day. These votes are therefore likely to look better for Democrats. They then plan to count the ballots cast in-person on Election Day (skewing Republican), followed by votes received by mail that day (back to Democrat). So before popping a champagne cork or driving your fingernails into your palm with each fresh tranche of numbers, pay close attention to the time and estimated percent of votes tallied: Arizona's figures could gyrate throughout the evening. North Carolina's probably won't have the same flip-flop pattern, but could start out by leaning Democratic and then migrate steadily toward Republicans because state officials intend to start with ballots cast pre-election and then count Election Day votes last.

2) The "Red Zone" States

In football, the last 20 yards before the goal is called "the red zone." There is a red zone for each presidential campaign too. The three scenarios above first require Trump to hold closely contested states Ohio, Florida, Georgia, and Iowa that Stepien explicitly cited as foundational to the paths laid out above (Texas apparently went without saying).

Losing any of them would be a powerful sign that Trump's drive will fail – so powerful that the FiveThirtyEight forecasting tool moves the Biden win probability above 99 percent if he takes any of those states. Earlier absentee vote counting in Florida and Ohio means that there is a decent chance of having significant information by Wednesday morning. And again, based on the order of counting, be wary of initial tallies in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Iowa which may first skew Democratic and then trend steadily in a Republican direction.

And of course, Biden's got a red zone too. His pathways to victory assume solid win probabilities in swing states like Minnesota, Nevada, and Michigan. A reversal in any of them would be significant. Take Minnesota, for example (which counts mailed votes upon receipt), currently forecast as 94 percent likely to go to Biden by FiveThirtyEight. But if he does lose it – which we expect to know no later than noon on Wednesday (Minnesota combines early and Election Day counts so there should be fewer wild swings along the way) – his overall chance of winning the election drops to just 29 percent. Nevada similarly counts absentee early (a loss drops Biden's win probability to 37 percent), and while Michigan election officials expect a slower count, a loss there could be devasting (11 percent).

A final, critical note about those forecast probabilities: they bake in the idea that there is some correlation among state results. So a win in Ohio is given credit not just for the Electoral Votes it delivers, but also for what it augurs elsewhere. But of course, other states may not break the same way.

3) Winning Before the Blue Shift Sets In

The two indicators above are focused on swing states where we could get reasonably firm results earliest. But another way to think about it is in the other direction: what if Biden is already doing well in the slow mail-counting swing states? If those states are already looking good by the wee hours of November 4 with most in-person votes tallied, that would be a strong indicator that Biden is in a winning position.

The two states to pay attention to here are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, not only do election officials wait until 7:00 am on Election Day to even start opening mailed ballots, but some key counties wait until every other kind of vote is tallied and then start counting the mail-in votes last (Republican-run Cumberland County plans to wait until the next morning). Wisconsin similarly waits to open mailed ballots and then conducts precinct counts which could result in slow results.

And again, there is a flip side: if states like Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada, and Georgia that plan to tally absentee votes quicker are looking good for Trump as the sun comes up on November 4, it is a lot less likely that there will be a well of outstanding Democratic votes to turn things around.

4) Exit Poll Turnout and Demographics

Data so far indicate that more than half of this year's total vote will come in before Election Day (Texas, for example, had already surpassed its total 2016 vote). The more this Democratic-leaning vote is in before Election Day, the more Donald Trump needs the swing state electorate to be very Republican on Election Day itself in order for him to close the gap.

Figuring out if the Election Day vote is coming through for Trump is something that can potentially be estimated via early exit poll data. There is a fraught history around the accuracy of exit polling, which has often been a mess. But there have been steady improvements, and the two competing approaches to exit polling this year should give a better range of plausible numbers. If media release Election Day-specific turnout demographics, which they could start to do as early as 5:45 pm, those data could signal whether Trump got the highly Republican electorate he needed to close the gap.

Take Georgia for example. Several days ago, 30.4 percent of mail-in votes had come from Black voters, 14.3 percent from voters under age 35, and 56.5 percent from female voters. We know that these groups favor Democrats (in the latest Monmouth poll of the state, Black voters favored Biden over Trump 90-7, young voters 54 -40, and women 53-44). Given Republican voting preferences, one would expect the proportion of voters from those Democratic-leaning demographics to dip significantly in the Election Day electorate. If it doesn't, that is good news for Biden.

5) Bellwether Counties

There is a long history of looking at "bellwether" counties to try to determine how the election will go, but it's a mixed one, and evolving populations are continuing to scramble the picture. Still, there are a handful that are worth paying attention to.

One is Arizona's Maricopa County. It is significant because it is close and it is large. Home to about 60 percent of the voting public, the result there has driven the winning side in the last 9 Arizona elections. Ever since Donald Trump won it by almost exactly the 3.5 point margin that he won the state in 2016, it has been trending toward Democrats. A Biden win there would be big.

In another Trump state linchpin, North Carolina's Jackson County could be an indicator. It is a true swing county that is one of only four of the state's 100 counties to vote with the winner in at least 10 of the last 12 elections. It is on the small side as North Carolina counties go, so it will not drive the outcome, but it could provide a useful litmus test.

In Florida, it is actually worth keeping an eye on two strong Republican counties – Sumter and Pinellas – where Trump needs giant margins in order to hold the state, but where there have been hopeful signs for Democrats so far in early voting. Anything less than a 2-1 margin for Trump in those places would be a flashing red bulb over Trump's chances in Florida and, by extension, the entire election.

And in the rust belt, there are a few places to watch. Kenosha County in Wisconsin is a true bellwether having voted with the winner of the last 7 partisan statewide elections. And in Pennsylvania, Erie County is considered a useful barometer, having split the statewide races (while voting for Trump) in 2016 and preferring Democrats in 2018 en route to being the only county to vote with the winner in all seven of the last partisan elections. However, county officials plan to count in-person votes starting at 8:00 pm, followed by absentee starting around 11:00 pm, then stop counting at 2:00 am before resuming in the morning of November 4. So bear that pattern in mind when watching returns there, since there is likely to be Blue Shift into the early morning.

Republicans are setting up a trap for Democrats on COVID relief

The news that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell none-too-subtly expressed his opposition to passing any pre-election Covid economic relief dragged a simmering political question into the light: why exactly are Republican Senators being so stubborn about stopping something that would appear to help them politically--certainly a lot more than it helps Democrats?

There would seem to be a compelling case for them to have made a deal. Further Covid relief is wildly popular, including among 55 percent of Republicans (and it is pretty hard to find many issues these days that can garner that kind of Republican approval and get 88 percent of Democrats). It is also highly salient to voters: two-thirds of voters in key battleground states want the Senate to prioritize Covid relief over confirming Amy Coney Barrett, and overall, the pandemic remains voters' top concern.

Even more important for Senate Republicans' calculus, GOP Senators like Susan Collins, Thom Tills, Cory Gardner, and Martha McSally, who are the most endangered, would benefit the most by delivering an economic boost in the runup to the election. Among the nine or so Republican Senators in the greatest electoral peril, most have come under direct fire on Covid relief, said they are in favor of further aid (some are even running on their Covid relief credentials), and have positioned themselves as problem-solvers who aren't in lockstep with their party on the issue. A successful Covid bill would solve some of these problems and fit powerfully into their narrative. It wouldn't have to be a major watershed either: even a slight bump of 2-3 points might give Republicans a chance to eke out a handful of wins and hold on to their majority.

So what's going on? The answer has changed over time.

The emerging thinking is that right now, McConnell sees the writing on the wall. He may soon be a Minority Leader under a Democratic President. So his best move has become to leave his option open to lay the entire economic mess created by the pandemic at Democrats' collective feet, in order to jam up their agenda in a re-run of the 2009 stimulus playbook that was so politically successful for his party.

In fact, he's probably decided in recent weeks that he's actually got Democrats poised over a pretty good January trap door: instead of hitting the ground running by fixing the census, passing pro-democracy reforms, or doing a big climate bill, a new president and potentially a new Senate majority will have to expend precious political capital (including possibly blowing up the filibuster) and take responsibility for trillions in additional spending, with all of the inevitable problems and Republican donor outrage that goes with it.

But several Senate insiders – all granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this issue – stressed that things have changed a great deal during the five months that another round of federal economic support has been under discussion. If there's a major trap ahead now, it is not as if Democrats have blundered into it: there were solid reasons for each party to have followed the course they did.

In mid-March, as Covid lockdowns began, Democrats and Republicans were largely on the same page, and their political incentives for major economic intervention were going in the same direction. Right after the Senate passed the CARES Act 96-0 and with the US GDP in free fall, one veteran Democratic leadership staffer told me that it was inevitable that there would be multiple rounds of major, bipartisan Covid-related stimulus through the fall. At the time, this sentiment was widespread and seemed totally warranted.

However, only weeks later, rapid re-opening especially in Republican-led states caused swift drops in weekly unemployment claims and a surge in the retail sector (these kinds of positive economic indications even had Democrats temporarily fretting about the potential for a "V-shaped" recovery that would lead to a roaring third quarter economy and, despite all of Trump's disastrous blunders, make his economic management appear strong).

By the summer, headlines began to focus on a "mixed" recovery, and as a result, both parties could look at the same data and reach different conclusions. Democrats were eyeing weak durable goods and industrial production, a looming eviction crisis, and state and local government deficits with alarm, and Republicans were seeing unemployment and stock market rebounds and concluding that things were looking up.

This is at least part of the reason why after the House Democrats passed their $3 trillion HEROES Act in May, Senate Republicans waited until July and only then proposed their much slimmer $1 trillion HEALS Act. They could have acted more aggressively, but didn't see a pressing need – indeed, they continued to believe that time and economic trends were on their side. For their part, Senate Democrats could have gotten on board with the Senate Republican bill and, perhaps following some amendments, set a reasonable floor for negotiators to work with to achieve a bill by September. But at the time, they still saw further relief as so obviously necessary – most of all for Donald Trump's politics – that there was no reason to negotiate against themselves.

And of course, other factors were at work. Some Republicans (think Rand Paul, the lone Republican Senator to vote against his party's Covid relief bill) have genuine ideological opposition to further spending. Others with more philosophical flexibility were eyeing their political positioning in a party facing an uncertain, potentially Trump-less future: traditionally, being against government spending is the safest political ground for ambitious Republicans to stand on.

On top of that, President Trump pulled his usual routine of giving no indication of what he wanted, leaving Mitch McConnell with a fractured caucus (despite Democratic caricatures, McConnell does not pull all of the strings, but actually has to read and react to his team). Not to mention that once the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened up the prospect of a polarizing Supreme Court nomination fight, Senate Republicans and Trump operatives jumped at the chance to ignite their base and move the campaign focus onto relatively more favorable ground (with just about anything being better for them than more focus on Covid). Indeed, at this point, keeping the confirmation on track has become another reason to avoid diverting to Covid relief.

The bottom line is that Democrats may now be poised over a dangerous January trap, but it's not as if they were strategically slipshod or that Republicans were exceedingly clever. Indeed, Democratic leaders may have been right all along that a Covid relief bill would be in Republicans' best interest, but there were simply too many cross-currents that intervened along the way.

The next question will become if Democrats are facing a looming trap, can they evade it? If – absent a Trump victory – the incentives all line up for Senate Republicans to hold out until the new year and stick Democrats with the mess, there are still opportunities in the form of two pieces of legislation considered to be "must-pass" in a post-election lame duck session: the National Defense Authorization Act and a Continuing Resolution to fund the government past December 11. This means that there will be chances for Democrats to at least defray some of the costs of a January Covid bill by attaching them to government or defense funding and getting them done on Republicans' watch. They could, for example, accept Senate Republicans' $500 billion Covid relief bill with additions in the House, attach them to one of these legislative vehicles, and dare them (and a potentially outgoing President Trump) to shut down the Pentagon or most of the federal government to stop it.

Would this maneuver work, or at least improve the politics of a big January aid bill? It's too soon to know. The only thing that has been clear from the winding path of Covid relief is that Democrats will have to stay nimble – things can change fast.

Donald Trump is gaming the Census--can Dems repair the damage if they win?

The Census, as newspapers are at always at pains to remind us, is sneakily important. It helps drive how much power each political party holds in Congress for the next decade, and where trillions of dollars in government funding go. It determines where we draw congressional district lines inside our states and guides how we understand and improve the condition of our people.

And it is in trouble.

There have been two sets of problems. The first, brewing since as far back as 2017, was a mix of mismanagement, mistakes, and bad luck, including "budget woes, potential cyber-security weaknesses, hiring shortfalls, testing cutbacks, [and] a bankrupt printing company." All of which was followed of course by the massive disruption of the pandemic. While efforts have been mixed, the Census Bureau has at least tried to work through these issues.

The second, however, was deeper and more insidious: a series of engineered crises intended to manipulate the count. The most notorious was the Trump administration's plan to include a question on citizenship status, ostensibly to improve the estimate of how many people could vote but actually intended to "allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats." This is not an assertion by Democrats, it is a documented fact (verified, improbably, through an estranged daughter's discovery of a hard drive belonging to a deceased Republican operative).

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts slapped down that plan as a transparently audacious ploy with a paper thin alibi, but there have been other attempts to skew the results that were almost as brazen. Trump issued an Executive Order directing the Census to use other federal data to identify and remove undocumented immigrants from the count (despite the fact that likely no such data set exists and the constitution directs that all persons be counted regardless of immigration status; Trump has requested expedited Supreme Court review of his order).

And the Census Bureau decided to stop its count early – a plan subsequently halted and then reinstated by the Supreme Court – leading to what Government Accountability Office (GAO) managing director for strategic issues Chris Mihm called a likely "drastic undercount" of nonwhite communities, as well as other potential gaps and distortions.

The count is now battered, with unknown consequences. "We essentially are in unchartered territory in modern Census history, first because of the unprecedented scope of the disruption to Census operations, and then because of the unprecedented political interference in Census implementation, which clearly could result in unacceptably flawed Census data," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a nationally-recognized expert on the Census.

So the big question– with the Trump administration clearly hellbent on manipulating the process for the remainder of its time in office – is whether there is anything that Democrats can do to save it if they take control of the presidency, and especially if they add a Democratic Senate.

The answer seems to be possibly, if the problems are clear, and if Congress gets in gear quickly.

According to Justin Levitt – a professor of constitutional law who has written about the legal ramifications of the Census debacle – the first step in a rescue would be to use congressional oversight and executive control of the agency to open the books. "Transparency and communication have been so sharply curtailed in recent months that nobody really knows what's going on under the hood there," he said. "The problems may amount to paper cuts or they could be cuts to the jugular, but to fix them we would have to understand them better. It's sort of the old G.I Joe refrain – knowing is half the battle."

If there are gaps, or if the count has been manipulated to remove respondents based on purported immigration status using other federal data sets, Levitt says that Congress could potentially move quickly to enact a new law resetting the deadlines for finalizing the results: "Census has been asking all year for more time to do the analysis and data cleanup right, and it hasn't happened. So if there's a change of control, you'd likely quickly see a move to pass a new statute allowing more time to do the post-count processing to get the data as accurate as they can be."

But a critical element in getting that done, especially quickly – let alone enacting any other further policy direction on how to handle a repair – could be the GAO report that comes out with the Census Bureau results and details any issues with accuracy or undercounts. If there are gaps that mostly affect Democratic constituencies or blue states, Republicans are likely to be unmoved – indeed, any Democratic-led moves that could affect the numbers, and therefore tilt the apportionment of House seats in the 2020s, is going to create a DEFCON 1 level of alarm for Senate Republicans. Even in the fraught scenario where Democrats have removed the filibuster, Republicans can still slow the process, and there remains a high likelihood of lawsuits in response to any Democratic legislation that lacks bipartisan support (there's probably going to be litigation even with such support).

However, a GAO report produced under the current Republican administration that corroborates undercounts – and especially that shows them occurring in rural, Republican-leaning areas in Republican or mixed representation states with multiple House seats (think Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.) – could garner Republican Senate support. The 2010 version of that report showed some significant undercounts even absent all of the considerable problems of recent years, and there are early indications that some gaps are indeed occurring in Republican-leaning areas, with some of the lowest self-response rates falling in states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alaska.

If Congress does manage to push back the timeframe for finalizing the count early in 2021, further steps could get even trickier. For one thing, some of the mess may be hard to clean up or even identify – "it's not like their data files are going to have numbers crossed off in bold red lines that you can just undelete," notes Levitt. Agency executives and congressional investigators are going to have to dig through reams of data and a lot of weedy statistics to make sure they understand the contours of where and how problems occurred.

Another challenge is that if gaps are found (mostly in the form of undercounted areas, but also overcounted areas which can also skew the numbers), there are limits at present on how much the raw numbers can then be adjusted to bring them closer in line with reality through modeling and statistical methods. Under current law, these methods are allowed and can even be mandatory for drawing district lines and calculating funding formulas, but not for the all-important apportionment of congressional districts among states – which is the area of greatest interest to the two parties since it affects control of the House of Representatives.

That is an issue that a newly-Democratic Congress could also fix, since it's the legislative branch that ultimately sets the policy on how the numbers are calculated. "Congress, which has constitutional responsibility for the Census, must look long and hard at whether 2020 Census data can and should be used for purposes fundamental to a representative democracy and in ways that allow Congress to carry out its constitutional role as a prudent steward of federal dollars," said Lowenthal.

However, with a fast-ticking clock, lags in passing new bills, legal challenges, and the partisan pitfalls of developing legislative guidance on how to repair the count (through modeling, unwinding Trump directives on undocumented immigrants, or cross-referencing numbers with other data to verify accuracy), nothing is going to be straightforward.

No matter what Democrats do, the Census is sure to be controversial and hard-fought. Given the stakes, it will need to be early and high on the to-do list.

Trump's support is collapsing — but there are 7 reasons why Dems shouldn't get too comfortable

The run of strong polls for the Biden campaign over the last week – including both national polls with eye-popping leads and swing state results with growing margins – has led to some cognitive dissonance.

On one hand, the sheer volume of promising results has launched a streak of "it's obvious that President Donald Trump is going to lose" analysis from influential outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Politico. When added to other factors like the drumbeat of bad news for the president, the shrinking calendar, and a mounting Democratic advantage in swing state TV advertising, confident Democratic whispers have been spreading.

On the other hand, many remain haunted by 2016. All this year, each fresh piece of encouraging news has had an almost perverse effect, as Democrats now harbor Pavlovian expectations of letdowns, like a never-ending "Debbie Downer" skit on Saturday Night Live.

The dilemma is that accepting recent evidence at face value feels jinx-y and complacent. Ignoring it feels oblivious and obstinate.

But there is a coherent middle ground to stand on: it is reasonable to believe both that Biden's position is strong, and yet that lingering pitfalls ahead – especially given the astronomical stakes involved – are grounds for caution.

Here are seven reasons that Democrats can feel justified to tap the brakes on their optimism without feeling like they are being hopelessly paranoid.

1) The way people respond to polls could make recent results more blip than bump.

Big news events can make members of one party more likely to respond to polls, introducing a temporary bias. This could very well be happening right now in the wake of revelations about Trump's taxes, Covid diagnosis, and wild first debate performance.

Even if it is limited, this bias doesn't have to be much to account for recent results. Biden's margin in polling averages (a far better measure of where things stand than individual polls) has actually increased only two or three points, well within the range of quirky polling effects. His average margin in the swing states has only increased by a point. This is why Democratic operatives feel good about the consistency of Biden's polling leads up to now, but are not too enthusiastic about the recent surges. When a series of gaudy Quinnipiac state results emerged on Wednesday, Priorities USA Chair Guy Cecil took to twitter to call shenanigans: "I…will chime in here to simply say we are not up 11 in Florida and 13 in Pennsylvania."

2) Tightening down the stretch could still put key swing states within reach

There is a long-held belief that high-profile races tend to get closer at the end, as wavering partisans drift back to their political home base. The evidence is inconclusive: the fact that almost all presidential elections since 1980 have ended up tighter down the stretch is an indication, but hardly dispositive.

The more pertinent factor is that the a comparison of polling averages in top battleground states between 2020 and 2016 shows that Trump's deficit right now is basically where it was four years ago. Biden's average advantage is 4.7 points. Clinton's was 4.8. Biden is in a much stronger position than Clinton was in many ways, and methodology adjustments from pollsters have probably made it less likely that there are systematic errors masking Trump strength. But still, even a couple points of tightening (especially from a possibly temporarily inflated average – since the margin was only 3.7 a week ago) would bring a number of swing states into real palm sweat territory.

3) The skullduggery factor

If the swing state margin ends up closer to 3 or 4 points, we start to enter "The Suppression Zone": a range where determined Republican efforts to undermine the Election Day vote could tilt the outcome. As an example, while Democrats are generally a lot more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year, two-thirds of African American voters prefer to vote in-person. At the same time, this will be the first Presidential election since 1980 where Republicans have been freed from a legal consent decree preventing them from, among other things, "seeking to discourage African-Americans from voting through targeted mailings warning about penalties for violating election laws and by posting armed, off-duty law enforcement officers at the polls in minority neighborhoods." Not only has Trump pledged to resume these kinds of activities (following explicit, albeit slightly more subtle, efforts to "suppress" black votes in 2016), but his Russian allies are actively trying to bolster his efforts by once again targeting racial divides.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton's underperformance in just 10 majority-black zip codes in Wisconsin cost 24,000 votes in a state Trump won by 23,000. Targeted Election Day vote suppression aimed at key African American majority precincts could easily close moderate swing state polling gaps this year. Already, stunningly long lines for early voting, targeted removal of (disproportionately Black) voters from voting rolls, and elimination of ballot drop-off locations are disrupting the ability of Black Americans to vote.

4) Counting rules

Matters are far from smooth on the mail-in voting side either. Given that absentee ballot requests from Democrats are outpacing Republicans' in swing states by as much as 3 to 1, Democrats are right to be concerned about the craggy landscape of state counting rules. Democratic attorneys have mounted a robust legal effort to protect mailed votes, but many lawsuits have ended with "mixed results." New rulings portend serious problems: in Pennsylvania, for example, a state Supreme Court decision discounting so-called "naked ballots" puts more than 100,000 votes at risk.

The vote-by-mail proposition has always been fraught. Back in 2008, experts estimated that "3.9 million requested ballots were never received; 2.9 million ballots mailed to voters were never returned; and 800,000 returned ballots were rejected." People who vote from home are also more likely to make mistakes, and signature mismatches remain a significant source of rejected ballots.

While states have been working hard to improve their ability to process the vastly higher volume of mailed votes this year – and mitigate the kinds of problems that go with them – many remain hamstrung by rules that will add confusion and conflict. A number of key states such as Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire only start to process mailed ballots a few days before Election Day; Wisconsin and Pennsylvania do not start until November 3rd itself. Delays, confusion, challenges, and the inevitable wave of post-election lawsuits are exactly what Trump is hoping for in order to shave down Democratic vote margins or create a contested election adjudicated by federal courts.

5) The Supreme Court

This is such a longstanding and well-plumbed source of Democratic stress, with a few significant new pieces emerging in recent weeks. The current 5-3 Republican-appointed Court seems to be leaning toward applying the "Purcell Principle" to various state voting disputes, which holds that courts should avoid last-minute changes to election laws that could introduce confusion. It's a reasonable proposition, but the problem is that without such changes this year, it will be hard to fix problems that will lead to even greater voter confusion and wrongly-discarded votes. Already, the Court has reinstated a South Carolina ballot witness requirement on these grounds, and it seems poised for similar vote-limiting rulings in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There is also justifiable worry about what a Justice Amy Coney Barret would do in a contested election: there are certainly a number of realistic scenarios where the Supreme Court could get involved to resolve the outcome, and she has refused to recuse herself.

While some experts have downplayed this danger because "the Constitution places a heavy thumb on the scale toward counting every vote…[and] there is no legitimate role for the Department of Justice during an election contest," there is little indication either that the current Attorney General will apply the law evenhandedly or that the Supreme Court will faithfully interpret the Constitution. The 2000 Bush v. Gore case put an end to the quaint idea that the Supreme Court would not employ tortured logic to deliver a partisan outcome.

6) The Senate

The presidency delivers an awesome degree of power (though not quite in the way people usually think). So a Biden win is critical, especially compared to the alternative. But a Senate majority would give Democrats a real chance at instituting badly-needed pro-democracy reforms that could save our entire system of government, and then passing actual policy through legislation. And the race for the Senate is poised on a knife's edge. Between the Cal Cunningham "scandal" in North Carolina, close polls in key states, and Georgia's unusual primary system--and the possibility of Democrats stumbling over themselves--there is good reason to feel that no amount of Democratic surge is too much, especially since these races will be subject to all of the same potential for suppression, confusion, and delay as the presidential race.

7) 270 is not enough

As I've argued previously, thinking of the presidential contest as merely being about achieving 270 Electoral Votes is no longer sufficient. Given the surprisingly high chance of a complete collapse of the American system of government following a close election this year, Biden likely needs to win by multiple states' worth of Electoral Votes for Americans to feel reasonably sure they've averted a catastrophe.

In sum, politics is hardly a predictive science. So it is still entirely possible that Biden and Senate Democrats will win in a romp, and if that happens, plenty of pundits will say that the signs were there all along. But there are also some darker linings to the past week's worth of silver clouds. Democrats certainly have plenty of firm evidence to feel good. They are also well-justified to continue to feel uneasy.

Donald Trump can't escape blame for America's disastrous failure to manage Covid-19

Bob Woodward's revelation that President Trump was well aware of how deadly and contagious Covid-19 was in early February definitively answered a famous question from an earlier presidential scandal: "what did the president know, and when did he know it?" But there has still been much lingering confusion – much of it intentionally sown by the president – around two related questions: whether the US really did fail in its pandemic response, and whether that failure is actually Trump's fault.

So let's clear this up once and for all. The answers to both questions are a resounding yes: we failed on Covid, and Trump was the leading cause.

As examples of some of the rationalizing and data-chopping that have muddled the issue in recent months, the president claimed in July that our high Covid case counts are simply due to more testing, and then this week he claimed again that we were doing exceptionally well relative to an invented baseline of two and a half million deaths, especially if you only count "red states."

The conservative media have helped Trump muddy the waters. The libertarian journal Reason reached a mixed verdict on whether the US compares favorably to the European Union on Covid mortality rates. Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times that America's performance is satisfactory on cumulative excess deaths when measured against peers in Europe or Latin America, and that any struggles we have are attributable to multiple causes.

These assertions are misleading at best, and simply wrong at worst. More testing was not the cause of more cases (Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, called this claim "blowing smoke"). Red states alone have one of the worst death rates in the world. And the favorable death rate comparisons are cherry-picked. In reality, we have the most deaths of any country by far and our per capita death rates are twice as high as the average among high-income countries. The FREOPP World Index of Healthcare Innovation (a source that Douthat paradoxically cites) puts the US 27th out of 31 countries in its "COVID-19 Pandemic Performance Rankings."

Indeed, since the US has one of the best public health infrastructures in the world, the most money, and the most global influence, shouldn't we be doing far better than most other countries? And why wouldn't we compare ourselves to the Asian countries that lack some of our advantages and are still running laps around us? China was where the virus started, has four times our population, and yet has had 1/40th the total deaths of the US. Other Asian countries have shown that with smart government leadership it is possible to beat back Covid almost completely. They are certainly beating us hands down.

So of course we have failed.

Nor should one buy arguments that the blame for our dysfunction should be more broadly ascribed to cultural or bureaucratic factors. Of course there are many influences that contributed to the mess we are in. But the idea that libertarian social currents or CDC test-development delays are the real culprit are simply a "whataboutism." There are many clear, specific, and demonstrable ways that our government has cost us in lives and economic suffering. We can attribute most of them directly to Donald Trump.

Trump failed in three clear ways: he was responsible for missing the early signs of danger, for refusing to lead a fast ramp-up when he did know the danger, and for leading in the wrong direction ever since.

First, the Trump administration worked overtime to turn off the mechanisms that previous governments had established as our early-warning radar. The Trump administration "explicitly dismantled the office in the White House" meant to deal with potential pandemics. It cut CDC staff inside China by 2/3 and allowed other on-the-ground health monitoring functions to wither as tensions rose around Trump's trade war. And when the information that was available led US intelligence to warn the President with increasing urgency throughout January, he ignored it.

Second, Trump deliberately and stubbornly sat on his hands in the face of danger to the American people. The Trump-imposed blindness to the threat set us back by multiple – and critical – weeks. Yet there was still time to act by the end of January, when Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar announced a public health emergency.

But Trump spent February golfing, lunching, and watching TV, while claiming that the threat would disappear "like magic." He delayed accelerating production of personal protective equipment, especially masks, and was slow to lift tariffs on Chinese imports or invoke the Defense Production Act, steps that would have made equipment widely available earlier. These shortages led to concerns that medical providers would not have enough, and thereby contributed to confusing guidance for the public not to wear masks. That likely helped spread the disease much faster in the early days, with ripple effects that we are still feeling (studies show that routine mask use by even half the population would have flattened out disease spread and reduced the need for ongoing lockdowns).

There is no more damning fact than knowing that accelerating our national response by a mere two weeks would likely have prevented 90 percent of the subsequent first wave deaths, a figure that easily equals 100,000 Americans. This was totally do-able: the CDC's respiratory-disease chief publicly called for widespread school and work closures three weeks before Trump issued social distancing guidelines on March 16. Fifty-three countries imposed similar national guidelines or lockdowns before Trump took action.

Third, since March 16, Trump has spread confusion and inhibited our ability to implement public health measures that have been proven life-savers elsewhere. Researchers at Stamford University analyzed 38 million English-language articles about the pandemic and found that, as The New York Times described it, Trump "made up nearly 38 percent of the overall 'misinformation conversation,' making the president the largest driver of the "infodemic" — falsehoods involving the pandemic."

Trump pushed re-opening by Easter, urged a slowdown of testing, called for "liberating" states with anti-lockdown protests, pushed quack remedies like hydroxychloroquine or injecting disinfectant, and has sent mixed messages on masks. One could argue that America's opposition to mask-wearing is cultural, so Trump is not to blame. But pockets of mask resistance fall predominantly among Republicans, a group that is highly responsive to messaging from the President. We can only imagine what might have happened if Trump had clearly and consistently pushed mask-wearing as patriotic duty throughout this year.

Among the worst mistakes is that Trump has failed to lead on using all federal resources to address either the continuing shortage of tests or the resulting inability to enact meaningful contact tracing programs, neutering the most effective public health tools we have.

There are a lot of confusing and complicated things going on in this pandemic, as there are in our politics. The question of whether Donald Trump was responsible for a catastrophic failure in responding to Covid is not among them. Leadership matters in a crisis, and America's elected leader failed miserably. with disastrous consequences.

Democrats won't win the battle against Trump's illegitimate Supreme Court pick--but they can win the war

Boiling with outrage at Republican hypocrisy, agonized over the prospect of a 6-3 Republican-appointed Court, and encouraged by promising early polls, Democrats are revving themselves up for an all-out fight for the Supreme Court and egging on party leadership to do the same.

But as painful, agonizing, even repugnant as it may seem, the smartest and most strategic approach is to do the opposite. Democrats have to engage as little as possible on the nomination.

In other words, the only way for Democrats to win is not to try.

They need to start by confronting a difficult truth: despite the wishful thinking of some activists, Democrats are unlikely to actually delay the Senate confirmation vote past November 3. Numerous senior Senate staffers consulted for this article – and granted anonymity so that they could speak candidly given the tensions inside the party on this issue – confirmed that Democrats can at best be "annoying" in the coming weeks, but cannot create sufficient holdups to run out the clock before the election. Employing arcane tactics like quorum calls and adjournment votes, slowing the hearing process, or withholding unanimous consent might move the calendar back by a matter of days or a week. But this is not exactly "shutting down the Senate," and hardly enough to prevent a pre-election confirmation.

Some may see value in employing those tactics anyway in order to keep the stakes of this fight center stage. But the fight for Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat was lost, before she passed away, in the 2016 race for the Presidency and the 2018 race to control the Senate, elections that gave Republicans, who have abandoned any fealty to democratic norms, the power.

The question now is whether Democrats can reclaim that power and win the larger fight. Not for this one seat, but for the longer-term and ultimately far more critical goals of having a fair Judiciary, preventing another authoritarian figure like Trump from gaining the Presidency again, and putting the rules of American democracy back on the level, so that Democrats have a fair chance to attain the power that the people's votes would otherwise confer.

These are battles that Democrats can win, but they require winning elections. And a good way to win is to set the terms of what the race is about. The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu observed that "those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him." That is why President Trump and Republican strategists were so giddy at the prospect of a Supreme Court nomination fight: it gave them their best chance of dragging Democrats onto a field of battle of Republicans' choosing, moving from a set of issues on which they were definitively losing to one that at least gives them a puncher's chance. As Politico bluntly summarized it, "Trump allies [were] buoyed [that] the Supreme Court confirmation fight has taken focus away from the coronavirus outbreak six weeks before the election."

The coronavirus crisis – including the economic dislocation it has caused – and the attendant need for affordable health care coverage is a hands-down winning issue for Joe Biden and the Democrats. It drives turnout from the Democratic "base" by stoking anger at Trump's failures on the issues that progressives rank as their top concern. And it also moves the small segment of remaining swing voters: the sub-groups that lead Biden pollster John Anzalone has named as key drivers of Democrats' improved position in 2020 – including seniors, independents, college-educated voters, and suburbanites.

One need not speculate about whether Democrats can win with this message. They already are. The focus on the nexus of Covid, economic pain, and protecting health coverage has given Joe Biden an incredibly consistent polling lead both nationally and in the swing states (CNN polling guru Harry Enten called them "the steadiest on record").

So why at the very end of the most important American political race in living memory would Democrats allow Republicans to control the issue terrain by getting dragged into a battle over the Supreme Court that they can't win?

The case for engaging in this fight boils down to polls: some showing the Supreme Court as an important issue to Democrats, others showing voters more broadly aligned with Democrats on key Supreme Court issues like abortion as well as the general proposition that the winner of the election should choose the next Justice. Some have also argued that if Senate Democrats don't make a show of contesting the nomination, there will be a dampening effect on base voter enthusiasm.

But the polling case is superficial. It is true that there are polls showing Democrats rating the Supreme Court more highly as a voting issue than Republicans even in the weeks before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. For instance, a Morning Consult headline last month blared that "The Supreme Court Is Becoming More Important for Democratic Voters." But while the accompanying article showed that 57 percent of Democrats in their survey cited the court as a "very important factor," that actually ranked only 10th on a list of important issues to Democrats. The top three? Coronavirus, health care, and the economy.

It is also an almost-universal law of American politics: voters do not care about process. Inside-the-beltway talking points about Senate precedent and rules seem murky at best to them, and at worst seem like silly political games (this is why the staffs of Senators running for president are at such pains to get their candidates to stop talking about bills and hearings and amendments).

Trump's best chance to pull off a come-from-behind win starts with clawing back voters who were previously with him but have drifted away. He won in 2016 on his surprising, unforeseen strength with non-college-educated white voters. Their support has eroded by fourteen points this year. But this group also tends to break heavily his way on polarizing hot-button social issues. That is exactly why Republicans are so excited by the potential for a nomination fight: it draws the attention of the voters they need most onto the issues where they align best.

And it is not just the potential to sway these voters, but also to mobilize them, that has Republicans spoiling for this fight. In the three biggest swing states that determined the election in 2016, Trump has more headroom to grow than Biden because there are more non-college educated white non-voters who can be drawn off the sidelines than demographic groups that favor Democrats. Per NBC News, "In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Trump's combined margin of victory was just 77,444 votes, 4.9 million eligible noncollege whites didn't cast ballots in 2016. By contrast, only 1.6 million eligible nonwhites and 1 million eligible college-educated whites didn't vote."

Deciding not to take on a scorched-Earth approach to an illegitimate SCOTUS nomination does not mean Democrats have to meekly roll over. It means acting strategically to win in the long term: first by prevailing in the election, and then by asserting their power afterwards to make meaningful and enduring change.

To win the election, they should de-emphasize the Supreme Court nomination issue in itself, using it only as a pivot back to their winning message: Trump's coronavirus failures and determination to take away your health care. Smart Democrats across the party spectrum have recognized that this is the best approach. Elizabeth Warren said that Democrats need to speak about the nomination in terms of "what's at stake in the lives of millions and millions of families." And Nick Gourevitch, one of the Democrats' leading pollsters, tweeted: "An effective message against Republicans: People are suffering, dying, and out of work. And the GOP just doesn't care. They are doing absolutely nothing about it, instead dropping everything on a political power grab to rush a lifetime appointment through the Supreme Court."

Then, if Democrats manage to win unified control, they must then enact pro-democracy reforms as their very first order of business. As I have argued previously, the best thing Democrats could do to drive the enduring change that they want is to get rid of all of the systemic distortions, vote-suppression, and corruption that has built up under Republican control in recent years.

They already have the blueprints to do this. Democrats made the first act of their new House majority the introduction of the For The People Act of 2019, which would have put in critical structural improvements in three areas: campaign finance, ethics and, most importantly, voting rights. It is sitting on the shelf, ready to go. And just last week they introduced the Protecting Our Democracy Act, 153 pages of steps to wash away the abuses of the Trump administration. There are also ready-to-go plans to clean up the Justice Department and the Federal judiciary. Democrats can even make the pending lawsuit that could undo the Affordable Care Act under a 6-3 Republican Court majority moot with a simple bill (if they win the election).

And what about fixing the government institutions themselves – the Senate and the Supreme Court? The arguments around filibuster reform, expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court or federal appellate courts, enacting judicial term limits, and other measures are complicated (I happen to favor all of these steps). But none of these things are possible without first being in a position of power. That means winning the election.

This prescription is surely frustrating to many. It requires patience, discipline, and the ability to see the bigger picture. But this is also the best way to turn that frustration into something productive, to strike a lasting blow for democracy and equality that would truly honor everything Ruth Bader Ginsburg stood for.

Why Democrats need more than 270 Electoral College votes to avert a crisis

In the post-Labor Day sprint to the election, predictions of each side’s chances will be built on an assumption that’s so reasonable and so commonplace that no one gives it a second thought: that “victory” means achieving 270 Electoral College votes.

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