Matt Robison

There's a reason we never talk about the government's massive bias for the old over the young

There's a deeper battle happening in Washington than the ones we usually hear about. It's lurking right under the surface of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill. It's woven into the established order in this country. It's something we're afraid to say out loud.

America has become a gerontocracy.

It's time to overthrow it.

This isn't about our country's leaders being in their 70s and 80s, though that matters. This is about how we lavish so much of our limited resources on our elders at the expense of younger generations.

Americans over age 65 make up only 17 percent of the population. Yet we spend about 40 percent of our entire federal budget on them. This is an outgrowth of a long-ago senior poverty crisis in America.

That's why we created Social Security and Medicare, and they worked like gangbusters: over the last five decades, the poverty rate among seniors has dropped by two-thirds. Today, seniors have the lowest poverty of any age group in America, the greatest wealth and the most home equity and home ownership, the least debt, and their overall household income has risen at double the rate of everyone else's.

Meanwhile, children under age 18 are the poorest age group in America. One in six children of this country lives in debilitating poverty. In fact, Americans under age 35 have twice the poverty rate of Americans over age 65, and the gap is steadily widening.

This is insane.

If we accomplish nothing else through the Biden agenda, it will be to start dragging our society's investment levels across the generations back to some kind of coherence (the American Rescue Plan lifting 5 million kids out of poverty is a good start). But eventually we have to go much further. There are three big reasons why.

First, things are about to get a whole lot worse. The amount we spend on seniors is set to explode, dwarfing every other item in the federal budget and everything we do as a society. In 10 years, 50 percent of our federal budget will go to people over age 65. Far worse, over the next 30 years, Medicare faces a $71 trillion shortfall and Social Security faces a $31 trillion shortfall (the rest of the budget faces only a $3 trillion shortfall — so 98 percent of our debt comes from two giant programs mostly for seniors).

And because we pay interest on all that debt, by 2050 half of all tax dollars will go to paying interest. Forget investments in health, education, housing, infrastructure, the economy or even defense. Everything will get crowded out by our addiction to senior subsidies.

Second, spending on seniors manages to be contrary to both progressive and conservative values (a mind-bending feat in today's politics). Senior subsidies are profoundly regressive. As noted above, older Americans are the most well-off age group in our society. In fact, there are currently 4 million retiree households that hold more than a million dollars in investable assets, 2 million who are earning over $200,000 a year after retirement.

Yet many of these wealthier seniors get an opening annual Social Security benefit as high as $50,000 per person, which they clearly don't need, and is higher than what the average retiree gets. Overall, this well-off group will receive $1.6 trillion in Social Security benefits over the next decade alone. And by the way, for anyone who cares about racial justice, seniors are much, much whiter than younger Americans.

Amazingly, this setup is also at odds with conservative values. Conservatives are of course not exactly fans of an expansive social safety net to begin with. But if we are going to have social programs, it would be far more conservative to spend society's resources on giving young people health, education and training so they have an equal opportunity to be successful in life and develop their own resources than to have the government step in after someone has worked throughout their life and throw in a bonus regardless of need.

Third, spending on younger people is simply a much better investment in our economy, society and federal budget. The economic return of providing pre-k to 4 year-olds is $83 billion for each cohort of kids. We could be stacking that up year after year. Even getting kids the basics like more food and health coverage through food stamps and Medicaid creates better health and lower health costs in adulthood. Not to mention that expanding child care and parental leave increases women's labor force participation, income, and tax revenue.

All told, this isn't exactly rocket science: investments in younger generations mean more people living healthier lives, costing the government less, paying more taxes and having more of their own resources later in life.

Of course, there's a reason we never talk about these things out loud (certainly politicians are afraid to): the counterattacks and accusations seem devastating. But looking closer, they are pretty thin gruel.

The primary charge is that any reduction in benefits for seniors amounts to elder cruelty. It is nothing of the sort. Social Security and Medicare are two of the great achievements of our society. Removing fear and misery from old age is something to celebrate and defend, and no one is arguing for a return to senior penury.

Rather, this is about dialing back the spending spree on the people who don't need it to help the people who do. It's the same argument against the Trump tax cuts, the same argument for the Biden BBB … shoot, it's the same basic argument from the story of Robin Hood.

Another attack: you want to take away people's money. After all, these are contributions that seniors have made to Social Security and deserve to get back. But this represents a fundamental, often willful misunderstanding of Social Security, and was the exact same mistake that George W. Bush made when he argued to privatize it.

Social Security is an insurance program, not a savings program. You don't put money in some giant Social Security bank and withdraw it later with interest (that was actually the Bush plan). You pay premiums in what is an insurance plan against poverty in old age. And after all, if you pay homeowners insurance, you collect if, and only if, you have a fire. But it's better if you never have to.

A final criticism — this is just an argument to oppose the Sanders plan to give vision, hearing and dental coverage to seniors, or even the broader push to provide "Medicare for All." Not really.

There is actually an excellent case to cover those three critical aspects of health. But if we want to provide those things, we must show how we are going to do it within the context of refocusing our society's support toward younger Americans.

Ultimately, we have to make choices, not pretend that math is simply a Fox News conspiracy. As for Medicare for All, that is a non sequitur. If we want to have a robust debate about a single-payer system and how it would benefit younger folks, that's great. Helping younger folks is the name of the game. But let's not sneak in single payer through the back door by expanding Medicare now and then giving it to more people … maybe … later.

None of this is intended to blame seniors for where we have landed. This wasn't necessarily intentional. Seniors vote, young people barely do, and our kids can't … so it's not surprising that voters voted for their interests. But we can't continue to let things slide any further. It's time to look at reality. It's time to end the gerontocracy.

There's a big insidious problem in opinion polling that the media is missing

Lee Drutman — a scholar in worthy pursuit of a means of fixing America's vicious polarization — recently offered an analysis in the Times that demonstrated an aspect of American politics that's at least skewed, at most broken.

The core of his article is a sensible argument that America needs a more balanced, flexible party system. To help us understand, he offers a 20-question survey of major policy issues (Question 1: "Marijuana should be legal," offering five response options ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree"). The aim is sorting readers into different political home bases. Drutman contends that these political home bases should be the foundation of a future six-party system.

Drutman's vision sounds better than our current neck-on-throat two-party standoff. (He literally wrote the book on it.) The problem is the survey itself. Can it really support the weight placed on it?

Consider that first question on marijuana. I chose "somewhat agree." I think we shouldn't send people to overcrowded prisons and ruin their lives for possessing marijuana, especially given the stark racial disparities in arrests. But I don't think marijuana should be exactly "legal" either, given our limited understanding of the drug.

But what conclusion can be drawn from my "somewhat agree"? Especially when it comes to the article's project of placing me into a political home base with like-minded people? Is this an issue I've thought a great deal about, or a spur-of-the-moment reaction? Is this an issue that will affect my vote? Do I not care much about this particular question, but still use a candidate's views on marijuana as a signifier of their ideology, which is something that I do care about?

These kinds of issues haunt survey research, as well as the broader enterprise of understanding and measuring how Americans form and act on political opinions. A 2017 meta-analysis of public opinion research concluded that "there is no agreement among political scientists on how to best measure public opinion through polls," and quoted a famous observation that "to speak with precision of public opinion is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost."

Most people have heard of the high-profile polling mishaps of recent years. But the less prominent, and likely more insidious, problem is that we're not measuring what Americans actually think or how they will act politically with anything near the accuracy that we believe we are. What we end up with is a murky lens through which to view our voters, our politics and our governance. Cloudy viewing leads to cloudy thinking: tautological, motivated reasoning about what people want, how we should be campaigning and what our leaders should do.

In the last 40 years, we have undergone a revolution in understanding how people make judgements we think we are testing in surveys. Much in the way that physicists for hundreds of years based their thinking on Newton's laws of motion, political scientists long-built theories of political behavior on the idea that people thought about public policy issues and made rational voting decisions based on their preferences.

But in founding the field of behavioral economics more than 40 years ago, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky proved that that's not really true. People make decisions via a whole bag of mental tricks — shortcuts and biases and heuristics that help them turn the complex into the familiar.

In polling, though, we still work in a pretty Newtonian world. If someone is asked for her opinion on issue X, we presume she will answer in a way that more-or-less accurately reflects her opinion. And if she is given the opportunity to vote in a democratic election, we likewise assume that she will rationally vote in a way that lines up.

But we really don't know the degree to which that is consistently the case. There's good reason to think that often it's not. The reality of our minds is much more complicated, and the way we react to questions and the link to our subsequent behavior is a lot more convoluted.

To continue the physics analogy, it is probably closer to quantum: in the same way that physicists believe that particles don't really have a definite position until someone directly observes them, many voters don't have a definite position on many issues until forced by some outside influence (i.e., being asked in a poll or being confronted with a voting decision) to express it.

After all, do most people outside elite political circles really spend their time thinking about health policy, let alone sub-issues like universal coverage, choice of doctors, or prescription drug price negotiations? No (one-third of Americans don't know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing). And at the point that these issues are presented, the circumstances surrounding the question will go a long way to determining the answer they give.

There's no simple reality
This is why it can make such a huge difference in polling to make minor changes in how questions are worded or the order in which they are asked. One example: Pew found a seemingly straightforward question on whether "jobs are easy to find" in someone's area yielded a roughly even split in "yes" and "no" responses. But that turned into a yawning 27-point gap in favor of "no" when a single word ("good" jobs instead of just "jobs") was added. One version says the public is divided almost in half. The other describes a 60-33 landslide. How does one draw reliable policy or political environment conclusions from that?

One can see this complication in Drutman's and many other surveys. Question 16: "Should the government raise taxes on incomes above $200,000." What can one confidently conclude from a "yes" or a "no" answer about the respondent's views and ideology? Support for increasing the gas tax in surveys can run anywhere from a paltry 20 percent to a thumping 70 percent depending on whether the question explains how revenue will be used and percentage increases involved.

Ditto for questions like, "Do you favor or oppose providing a way for undocumented immigrants already in the United States to become citizens?" It depends on which immigrants the respondent has in mind. Other polls find support at 71 percent for farmworkers, but only 44 percent for all undocumented immigrants. And even those numbers reflect embedded complexity, since they are a mix of "strongly support" and "somewhat support," which, as my marijuana answer shows, could be expressing very different underlying thinking.

When surveys can plausibly be used to support different takes on what people think, they tend to become fodder for advocates. Two years ago, progressives cited support for the Green New Deal at 80 percent, Medicare for All at 70 percent (including 52 percent of Republicans), and Free College for All at 60 percent. Moderate Democrats responded that support for Medicare for All dropped to 48 percent when voters were informed that it is the same as single-payer coverage, and 34 percent when told that it might raise taxes. Support for the Green New Deal similarly wobbled if brushed with a light feather of context.

The reality of what Americans truly thought on all of those questions? There's no simple reality. Each result was conjured out of the context of the poll: who was being surveyed, under which methodological choices, with what wording and order of the question, and in what general context. When political campaigns use polling to simulate how issues like this will resonate with the voting public, they do a more sophisticated version of this exercise. But it is still a simulation rife with assumptions that may or may not play out as intended.

What are we getting?
And of course, we can't forget the elephant in the polling room — the inaccuracy of polls when it comes to the most basic of political questions: who will win an election. There have been gobs of virtual ink spilled on this topic, and it is not worth belaboring. Suffice it to say that it remains a persistent and troubling problem. When the American Association of Public Opinion Research issued a report this summer looking into why national polling on the 2020 election was the least accurate in 40 years (state surveys were the worst in the last 20), they concluded that it is "impossible" to say for sure.

But it may come as a surprise that even before the high-profile shortcomings of 2020 and 2016, campaign "horse race" polling was a lot less accurate than people realize. Over the last two decades, the average margin of error of all polls has actually been a whopping 14 points. So if you see a poll reported showing a dead heat, statistically speaking it could also be showing a total blowout. Nor are we solving our polling problems. In 12 of the last 13 elections, the "generic ballot" has consistently underestimated Republican support, a continuing issue that pollsters can't quite account for or fix.

And while opinion research experts say they believe that issue-based polling is more accurate and less prone to these kinds of baseline errors (and spectacular misses) than candidate head-to-head polling, it's really not clear. Issue-based questions do have advantages. Probing for views on health care policy or taxes may not introduce the same set of biases in respondents. On the other hand, a horse-race question is a much simpler proposition for the voter to consider.

An additional layer of complexity comes from who is conducting opinion surveys. The website Fivethirtyeight famously brought polling averages into vogue, not only because they were supposed to smooth out the known statistical variations that come with individual polls, but also because pollsters are subject to all kinds of additional biases, methodological differences (we haven't even delved into the weighting and likely voter models pollsters apply — the "secret sauce" as one pollster described it to me — that represent the survey administrator's own judgement about what a "true" representative sample should be), wording preferences and general errors. Fivethirtyeight primly euphemizes all of this under the catch-all label "house effects."

Not to mention that after polling is released, shorn of the careful context that survey experts tend to apply and characterized by journalists and political operatives with various levels of expertise and agendas, it is really hard to know what you are getting.

Be careful how you read polls
The bottom line is that neither quiz-like surveys like Drutman's, nor research probing for voter views, nor their more sophisticated cousins that political campaigns use to calibrate campaign messaging, are measuring what people actually think about a given issue.

They are measuring how people respond to deliberately formulated question wording in a very particular and artificial format (i.e., in a poll or a focus group). They are frequently not asking questions in the terms that the voter themselves would use. These are questions designed by professional opinion researchers and/or political operatives who may be, intentionally or unintentionally, introducing terms and ideas that political elites tend to use.

But it is from this miasma that our political leaders and the professional class of political operatives, journalists, commentators and policy designers draw their conclusions about what people want and what kind of politics or communications will be effective.

To illustrate how this can go awry: Drutman's survey concluded that my views fit comfortably into a new "American Labor Party." That's … wrong. The survey clustered me with people who "focus on economic populism, with an appeal to working-class Democrats who don't have college degrees and don't follow politics closely." I'm an economically moderate former political operative with a Masters' degree who writes about politics. But funny examples aside (and I don't mean to pick on Drutman's survey, which is likely intended to be more illustrative than exacting), the basic problem is pervasive.

None of this is to say that all survey research — campaign-generated or not — is bunk. Carefully done surveys can measure changes in reactions to consistently-worded questions over time, and that tells us something. For example, that Americans' trust in government to "do the right thing" has gone from 75 percent to 25 percent in the last 60 years is a fairly robust insight into our general thinking about government. One can draw reasonable inferences from that.

Where we get into trouble in our campaigns and our political discourse is when we take survey research as a literal, or an all-that-precise guide into Americans' thinking. Any survey result is worth querying. Is the finding relatively consistent over multiple surveys, done by different groups, with different wording, and on an issue that respondents clearly understand as intended? Is it being cited to advance an agenda? Is there a different way to construe it?

Our politics have become more deeply mired in polarization, anger, and misinformation. We use opinion surveys and polls as our compass. If we aren't more careful with how we read them, we may be doomed to continue wandering through this barren political wilderness.

Here's the big failure in the fight to vaccinate the U.S.

America is paying a heavy price for a gaping hole in our collective ingenuity. Amid the massive success of American innovation in creating Covid-19 vaccines, there's been a massive failure of American innovation in persuading people to take them.

Only two-thirds of eligible people have gotten at least one dose. We've been stuck at about half a million new doses a week since June. So we're adding well under 1 percent a month to our vaccinated population while new cases have gone up 500 percent. If we're in a race between the vaccines and the variants, the variants are winning.

Now step back and look at the things that we've tried to get people to take the vaccines. From the country that conquered the moon, the genome and the microchip, is this really the best we've got? What's killing us, literally, is a stunning lack of ideas.

The mostly soft sell approaches we've tried have been weak sauce: perky public service announcements; appeals to throwback hip-hop videos and remixed country classics; hawking content on dating apps; rebranding as the "Trump Vaccine" for credulous Republicans; and doling out small prizes (lottery tickets, bonds, cash—and racing for two laps on the Talladega Superspeedway). If you're worried or downright apathetic about getting the shot, does the prospect of a $3 can of Bud really fire you up? And while psychologists assure us that the Zen of persuasion requires nodding along with people's misinformed concerns or outright lunacy, there's not a lot of evidence that this strategy is working, or that Americans are actually applying it where needed.

Meanwhile, the opposite approach of finally bringing down the hammer on the unvaccinated and calling them out—coming from sources as varied as Fox talking head Geraldo Rivera, Alabama's Republican Governor Kay Ivey and the Editorial Board's John Stoehr—is understandable, likely warranted and may even work on some. But it feels like a last resort from people who wish that they didn't have to go there.

So why haven't we tapped into American ingenuity for better options?

Let's break it down. As Magdi Semrau points out, the unvaccinated population can be split roughly between the potentially persuadable and the not-persuadable (though the not-persuadable could be potentially persuadable as conditions change or if we can figure out the right way to get through to them). But we don't need to get everybody. Herd immunity may no longer be possible. But increased rates of vaccination would slow the development of new viral variants; decrease deaths, hospitalizations and long-Covid; and allow us to return to normalcy. We need a big chunk of the potentially persuadable. We don't need grand slams. We only need some singles and doubles.

How do we do that? Find out who they are, figure out which of hesitancy camps they fall into and then apply the best mix of individualized tools to the persuadable to get a needle into them. Are there smarter ideas for how to do all three? You bet.

Take the first task. It's great that we know these folks are geographically concentrated in the places that voted for Donald Trump, but that doesn't really provide actionable intelligence. The idea of door-to-door canvassing to identify holdouts also has merit—and it's nice that it was successfully used in the 1940s by the March of Dimes—but this approach is also political TNT that relies on the very best of 19th-century thinking.

Meanwhile, in recent years political campaigns have developed sophisticated statistical methods to identify persuasion targets with tremendous accuracy. Plugin magazine subscriptions, zip code, what car you own, etc., and modern campaigns can know to a near certainty who you will vote for, not to mention a heck of a lot else about your behavior. Many companies develop stunningly spot-on insights into your health through similar data-chopping: Target was famously able to detect a teenager's pregnancy before her parents knew. And of course, Google and Facebook have entire world-leading business models built on detailed insights into who you are, what you think and what gets you going based on your scrolling and clicking patterns. Yet in a sea of laser-guided tools, the best idea we've seen from the government is arming church groups with clipboards and telling them to fan out across the neighborhood?

What about the second task of figuring out whether someone is persuadable at all, and what their precise hang-up is? Again, while the clipboard army is an option, there are thousands of companies using sophisticated chatbots to conduct sophisticated interactions: handle banking transactions, settle insurance claims, sell real estate and even treat depression using cognitive-behavioral therapy. A quarter of the country owns a smart speaker like Amazon's Alexa—and a full 90 percent of the country has a smartphone with "Hey Google" or Siri—both of which have the artificial intelligence to interface in complex and highly personal ways. Moreover, developers release more than 1,000 apps a day, and services like MyFitnessPal, Apple Health and even devices like Fitbit show that Americans are totally comfortable sharing personal health information with private companies through interactions with their own phones.

So clearly, the private sector has the ability to reach a vast majority and interact with them autonomously to learn about what drives their vaccine hesitation. But have we seen a wave of innovative tools rolling out through public-private partnerships?

And finally, what about the critical final step of getting people to actually show up and get the vaccine? There's an entire ecosystem of communications firms that create persuasive content on social media to hit the exact people we need to reach. We should know—we just watched the Trump campaign spend $107 million on Facebook alone to get pretty much the same folks we need to reach to show up and vote in record numbers (an act not too different in level of effort from going to get a shot).

Plus, the aforementioned app developers are constantly churning out addictive tools for health, achieving goals, taking quizzes, etc. If "wait and see" types need their concerns heard, why not a smart chatbot embedded in a fun game app that can interact, listen, provide accurate information (which three-fourths of the vaccinated find influential), answer questions, and even design an individually optimal set of persuasive inputs and available incentives to reward people for getting the shot?

Do the potentially persuadable really need to hear from a friend? Do they need to get a testimonial from a celebrity? See a video from a doctor? Get a ride or a beer or a bond? Technology can find the right pressure points for each person and apply them.

To be sure, all of this is a relatively short and unimaginative list (I confess to being a policy/politics person, not a marketing/social media technology person). If the federal government offered $100 million X-prize style to the 10 private sector companies that got the most Americans vaccinated through their own creative means, could our capitalist private sector come up with dozens of better ideas? Almost certainly.

We're in a war. Misinformation and ignorance are enemies. Innovation is the solution. We should deploy it with all the might that American ingenuity can muster.

Matt Robison is a writer and host of the Beyond Politics Podcast and the Great Ideas Podcast, both broadcast on WKXL in Concord, NH. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a senior staffer and campaign manager. He now lives with family in Amherst, Mass.

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.

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