January 2020 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

As of January 14, 2020—and the seventh Democratic presidential nomination debate in Des Moines, Iowa—there are only…

  • 20 days until the Iowa Caucuses,
  • 28 days until the New Hampshire Primary,
  • 39 days until the Nevada Caucuses,
  • 46 days until the South Carolina Primary, and
  • 49 days until 10 states vote on “Super Tuesday,”[1] including California, Texas and my adopted home state of Massachusetts.

Here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the 12 remaining declared candidates. Since the previous update, three candidates exited the race. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro dropped out on January 2, 2020 then strongly endorsed United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Eight days later, spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson ended her bid. Finally, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker ended his campaign on January 13. The 16 candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate candidate NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[2] for modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the January 2020 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2020 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar; my wife Nell never forgets come the holidays.

Jan 2020 lighthouse.JPG

**********

Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of midnight EST on January 14, 2020), including:

  • 298 national polls (including 53 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls and 33 weekly YouGov tracking polls)
  • 42 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 43 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 14 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 34 South Carolina primary polls
  • 76 Super Tuesday polls[3]
  • 81 polls from 22 other states.[4]

There are 588 total polls, up from 558 last month. Table 1 now splits post-South-Carolina polling into Super Tuesday and post-Super-Tuesday; the values are broadly similar.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Super

Tuesday

Post-

SuperTues

NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.3 19.8 20.7 27.0 36.2 26.5 28.1 25.6
Warren 16.2 18.1 16.9 17.7 12.5 17.7 18.3 16.6
Sanders 16.8 16.1 18.0 19.7 11.8 16.3 15.7 16.5
Buttigieg 6.3 15.6 11.8 6.2 4.5 6.2 6.6 9.5
Steyer 0.6 2.2 1.9 4.4 3.9 0.4 0.2 2.6
Klobuchar 1.6 4.4 2.6 1.6 1.0 1.4 1.1 2.4
Yang 2.1 2.2 2.7 3.0 1.4 1.3 1.8 2.2
Gabbard 1.0 1.5 3.2 1.2 0.9 1.0 0.7 1.7
Bloomberg 1.0 0.2 0.4 0.1 0.4 0.3 0.4 0.31
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.3 0.1 0.27
Delaney 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.25
Patrick 0.06 0.00 0.07 0.03 0.1 0.2 0.00 0.04
DK/Other 25.4 19.2 21.2 17.1 24.1 28.2 25.4 22.0

Only 30 polls of the 2020 Democratic nomination process have been released since the previous update—14 national (most by Morning Consult or YouGov[5]), four each from Iowa and New Hampshire, two from Nevada, and one each from South Carolina, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts[6], New Mexico and Wisconsin—so it is not surprising there is little change in the overall contours of the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (25.6, unchanged from last month), primarily because of his 23.7-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, also unchanged from last month. In Iowa and New Hampshire, however, the two candidates battling for second place—Warren (16.6, down from 17.0) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (16.5, up from 16.0)—are much closer to first place. The fourth leading contender—South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (9.5, up from 9.1)—is also very strong in these two early states. These four candidates alone account for more than two-thirds (68.1%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

This more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA slightly overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.6 and Warren rises to 17.5; Sanders is at 16.3 and Buttigieg is at 9.7. And examining only the 64 polls conducted since the fifth Democratic debate on November 20, 2019,[7]  Biden holds steady at 24.5, while Sanders rises to 18.3, Warren drops to 14.3 and Buttigieg jumps to 11.2.

Looking only at Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, shows an effective four-way-tie. Using only the post-first-debate polls in Iowa shows Warren at 19.2, Biden at 18.9, Buttigieg at 16.4 and Sanders at 15.8. Examining only the six most recent polls shows Biden at 19.3, Sanders at 18.0, Buttigieg at 16.9 and Warren at 15.2. Given Iowa’s byzantine caucus rules—at each caucus, participants divide into candidate support groups, reapportioning themselves until every group has at least 15% of participants—it is likely these four candidates will divide between them the vast majority of “votes” counted on February 3.

As for New Hampshire, using only the post-first-debate polls shows Biden at 19.7, Warren at 18.3, Sanders at 17.7 and Buttigieg at 12.2. Examining only the seven most recent polls shows Sanders edging Biden 19.4 to 19.1, with Buttigieg (14.6) and Warren (14.5) trailing a bit behind. Of course, a top two finish in the Iowa Caucuses would very likely boost a candidate’s New Hampshire Primary percentage.

Still, the overall message from the most recent polling, sparse though it is, is that Biden and Sanders have reestablished themselves as the clear Top Two, with Buttigieg and Warren fading slightly. With all that, presidential primary and caucuses polls historically differ from voting results by as much as 10 points, so determining the order of these four candidates, particularly in the first two contests, with any precision is something of a fool’s errand.

In the next tier are four candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.7 and 2.6 still looking for a chance to rise into the top four: billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and United States House of Representatives member from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard.[8] Steyer is now battling Buttigieg for fourth place in Nevada and South Carolina, while Klobuchar is hoping for a surprise in Iowa as the most recent polls boost her support to 6.3. Steyer and Klobuchar will join the Big Four on Tuesday’s debate stage, making it the first Democratic debate with no candidates of color. The top eight candidates total just over three-quarters (77.0%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

While the remaining four candidates divide 0.9 points between them, none seems close to ending their campaign soon; indeed, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is essentially betting his campaign on winning the Florida Primary on March 17, assuming no clear front-runner has yet emerged. Perhaps of greater interest are “Don’t Know/Other” values ranging from 17.1 to 28.2. Incorporated in these values are both residual support for former candidates and genuine undecideds; not knowing which of the remaining candidates these voters will ultimately support makes NSW-WAPA values even more “wobbly.”

Returning to the debates, Morning Consult, Quinnipiac and YouGov conducted national polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the November 2019 debate) and after the December 2019 debate. Candidates whose polling average increased by at least 1.0 points are “Don’t Know/Other” (+1.7 points), Klobuchar and Yang (+1.0 each), with decreases of the same magnitude for Buttigieg (-1.0) and Biden (-1.3).

**********

On January 9, 2020, FiveThirtyEight unveiled its first-ever model of a presidential nomination process. They use many more inputs than I do; comparing the two sets of values could be a useful lesson in whether a “simpler” approach—in no way do I consider my NSW-WAPA a model—yields similar results to a more complex one. I strongly encourage you both to contrast our respective methods and to compare my state-level WAPA to their projections.

One instructive comparison, however, is to compare FiveThirtyEight’s nomination probabilities to NSW-WAPA divided by the sum of NSW-WAPA for declared candidates only. The latter value is not, strictly speaking, a probability, though I treat it as such when I assess Democratic chances against President Trump. Table 2 displays these comparisons as of 8:18 pm EST on January 13, 2020.

Table 2: Comparison of FiveThirtyEight nomination probabilities to declaration-weighted NSW-WAPA

Candidate FiveThirtyEight Weighted NSW-WAPA
All polls Post-debate 1 Post-debate 5
Biden 39% 32.9 31.2 29.8
Sanders 22% 21.1 20.7 22.2
Warren 13% 21.3 22.2 17.3
Buttigieg 9% 12.2 12.4 13.6
All others 16% 12.5 13.5 17.1

Both approaches imply it is far more likely than not—on the order of 5:1 or 6:1 in favor—one of Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg will be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president. And both models see Sanders with a roughly 1-in-5 chance of being the nominee. Where the approaches diverge, however, is on the relative chances of Biden and Warren. The FiveThirtyEight model is much more bullish on Biden’s chances of winning a majority of pledged delegate (what their model actually estimates), while NSW-WAPA is much more bullish on Warren’s chances. NSW-WAPA is also slightly more bullish on Buttigieg’s odds.

**********

Turning to polls of hypothetical 2020 matchups between proposed Democratic presidential nominees, Biden would beat Trump nationally by 7.6 points, Sanders by 4.6 points and Warren by 2.8 points—each value about 0.3 points lower than last month, while Buttigieg would lose by 0.3 points; Bloomberg, based on 12 polls—11 released in the last three months, would win by 1.3 points. The other six candidates for whom I have matchup data would lose by between 2.9 (Klobuchar) and 8.9 (Gabbard) points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of winning the nomination (NSW-WAPA/.778), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by an average 3.2 points, just over the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. Excluding Biden and Sanders, however, decreases the margin to -0.3 points, with the caveat from the preceding paragraph.

However, it is the Electoral College which decides who wins presidential elections. Examining polling averages from the 28 states[9] for which I have at least one hypothetical match-up poll and comparing them to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDMyields a median national popular vote win by the Democrat by between 2.9 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 4.8 points.[10] I will address state-level returns in much more detail in an upcoming post.

Until next time…

[1] Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia

[2] Essentially, polls are weighted within nation/state by days to  nominating contest and pollster quality to form an area-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), time-weighted average of subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within subsequent contests, I weight the “Super Tuesday” states twice subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from, in chronological order, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico.

[3] Primarily California (33), Texas (19) and North Carolina (8)

[4] Primarily Wisconsin (14), Florida (12), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins, making them among the most-polled overall.

[5] Including a few YouGov polls released prior to December 20, 2019 only just posted by FiveThirtyEight

[6] Including one conducted by Evan Falchuk and Lou DiNatale between October 23 and 25, 2019

[7] Distribution: National (34), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (7), Nevada (2), South Carolina (3), California (6), Wisconsin (2) and Texas, Illinois, Connecticut and New Mexico one each

[8] Examining only the most recent polling: Steyer 4.3, Klobuchar 3.3, Yang 2.7, Gabbard 2.2…and Bloomberg 1.0. All other candidates are between 0.15 and 0.18.

[9] Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico

[10] The mean—heavily skewed by some extremely Democratic-leaning polling in Utah—ranges between 3.5 and 6.2.

Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

**********

In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

**********

Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

**********

Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.