November 2019 update: 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

With the fifth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-18 (19?) declared candidates. Since the previous update, United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) Tim Ryan of Ohio exited the race on October 24, followed by former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke on November 1. The nine 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.

However, rather than shrink the field to 17 announced Democratic candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick entered the race on November 14, while others such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are strongly considering a bid—with Bloomberg even placing his name on the 2020 Democratic primary ballot in Arkansas. For this update, though, I exclude them from Table 1; the few recent polls listing Bloomberg show him registering between 0 and 3%, while no poll has included Patrick since he earned 1% in a McLaughlin & Associates national poll conducted February 6-10, 2019.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[1] for recent modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the November 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Nov 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of 11:39 pm on November 15, 2019), including:

  • 246 national polls (including 45 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 34 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 34 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 11 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 28 South Carolina primary polls
  • 65 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 70 polls from 19 other states.[3]

There are now 488 total polls, up from 414 last month.

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.5 20.4 22.5 26.8 36.6 27.4 26.2
Warren 16.4 18.9 18.2 18.6 12.6 18.8 17.3
Sanders 16.3 15.0 17.4 18.8 11.7 16.3 15.8
Buttigieg 5.6 13.7 9.0 5.8 4.0 6.0 8.1
Harris 7.3 6.0 6.3 5.6 7.4 7.1 6.4
Booker 2.2 2.0 1.8 1.5 3.0 1.5 2.0
Yang 1.8 1.9 2.2 2.8 1.2 1.4 2.0
Klobuchar 1.3 3.4 1.9 1.2 0.9 1.3 1.8
Gabbard 0.9 1.5 2.4 1.2 0.7 0.9 1.4
Steyer 0.4 0.03 1.1 3.2 2.2 0.3 1.3
Castro 0.9 0.6 0.2 1.0 0.3 1.1 0.57
Delaney 0.3 0.5 0.5 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.33
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.31
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.29
Bullock 0.2 0.6 0.00 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.24
Sestak 0.02 0.02 0.05 0.1 0.03 0.1 0.04
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.02 0.00 0.00 0.05 0.01
DK/Other 12.9 12.7 12.5 10.5 15.8 12.0 13.4

The race continues to follow the same storylines. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (26.2, down from 27.2), primarily because of his 24.0-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, itself down from 25.2 last month. However, he is less strong in Iowa, New Hampshire and (to a lesser extent) Nevada, where the two candidates battling for second place—Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren (17.3, up from 16.5) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (15.8, down from 16.1)—are closer to first place. And this more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA 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 24.9 and Warren rises to 18.9; Sanders is at 15.4.

Rounding out the top five, overall and in the four earliest states, are South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (8.1—down from 7.1) and California Senator Kamala Harris (6.4—down from 7.6); Buttigieg surged passed a fading Harris (down 2.9 in two months), particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where a top three finish in one or both states appears increasingly plausible. These five candidates account for three-quarters (73.9%, down from 74.6%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

In the next tier are five candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.3 and 2.1 who could yet rise into the top five: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar—essentially tied for 6th place—followed by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Other than Booker, these candidates rose in the last month, particularly in the early contests. Moreover, using post-first-debate polls only puts a little more distance between Yang (2.1) and Booker, Klobuchar, Gabbard and Steyer, tightly bunched between 1.6 and 1.8.

These 10 candidates—all of whom will be on the debate stage Wednesday night—total 82.5% of declared Democratic voter preferences. Of them, six—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar—have thus far met the criteria for the sixth Democratic presidential nomination debate in Los Angeles, California on December 19, though Yang and Gabbard are close; not appearing on the debate stage for the first time, meanwhile, is former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who remains mired around 0.6.

The remaining six candidates and Castro divide just 1.9 between them; as none is remotely close to making the December 2019 debate(s), I expect them to end their campaigns by the end of 2019.

Speaking of the debates, 10 different pollsters—nine nationally[4] and one in Iowa[5]–conducted polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the September 2019 debate) and after the October 2019 debate. Simple average differences in polling percentage (Iowa poll results weighted five times national results) show measurable gains for Buttigieg (+3.5 points), Sanders (+2.3) and Klobuchar (+0.9), as well as measurable declines for Yang (-0.6), Don’t Know/Other (-0.9), Harris (-1.0) and Biden (-2.1). Adjustment for pollster quality and the number of days between polls made no appreciable difference. These shifts are reflected in the changes in NSW-WAPA detailed above for each candidate except Sanders and Yang; the latter discrepancy may be due to the preponderance of low-weighted national polls in this calculation.

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Less than two weeks ago, I took a deeper dive into hypothetical match-ups between the declared Democratic nomination candidates and Trump—assuming he is the 2020 Republican presidential nominee, as well as post-mortem on recent gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi. Rather than repeat myself, however, I offer a few quick updates and a final look at the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff election to be held November 16 between incumbent Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone.

Kentucky and Mississippi. After the November 5 elections, I discovered a final poll[6] of the Kentucky governor’s race which gave incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin a six-point lead over Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Adding this poll dropped the “projected” margin to 4.0 points With Bevin conceding the race on November 14, Beshear actually won by 0.4 points, for a 3.6-point Republican “bias” in the results.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves beat Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood by 5.5 points, while my final “projection” was Reeves by 3.0 point, for a 2.5-point Republican bias. The average bias was 3.0 points in favor of the Republicans even though I “called” both races correctly.

Louisiana. Based upon 18 polls with an average Democratic “bias” of 0.1 points and B-/C+ rating, my “projection” is that Bel Edwards will beat Rispone by 4.7 points. However, I note two caveats. One is that 3.0 pro-Republican bias in two other southern states, implying a narrower Bel Edwards victory of 1.7 points. The other caveat is that when only the nine polls conducted after the October 12 “jungle primary” are examined (averages: R+0.4; B-/C+), Bel Edwards’ lead drops to 2.2. In other words, while a narrow Bel Edwards victory—say 2.0 points—is the likeliest outcome, anything from an extremely narrow Rispone win to a mid-single-digits Bel Edwards victory is plausible.

Notably though, even if Rispone wins by one point, Democrats will still have outperformed their “fundamentals”—how a generic Democrat would fare against a generic Republican given a state’s partisan lean, national partisan environment and incumbency—by an average of 16.3 points in three strongly Republican southern states just one year before the 2020 elections.

[Update, 1:00 am, November 17: John Bel Edwards was reelected by 2.6 points. With one last Trafalgar Group poll conducted November 13-15, the final “projected” margin was Bel Edwards by 4.5 points, a miss in the Republican direction of 1.9 points. On average, in the 2019 gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, the final “projected” margin missed by 2.7 points in the direction of the Republicans, though all three elections were “called” correctly–and Democrats net one governor’s mansion. Also, the three Democratic gubernatorial nominees outperformed their “fundamentals” by an average of 17.5 points, which is extraordinary.]

Democrats vs. Trump. No sooner had I completed my most recent calculations than FiveThirtyEight.com updated its pollster letter grades and average partisan skew, analogous to the “bias” calculations I performed above. While the changes did not materially affect the Democratic nomination standings, they did have a slightly pro-Republican effect on general election polls.

Still, Biden would beat Trump nationally by 8.1 points, Warren by 3.5 points, Sanders by 5.2 points and Harris by 1.6 points, while Buttigieg would essentially tie Trump and Booker would lose by 0.7 points; Bloomberg, based on three polls, would win by 1.9 points. The other 11 candidates for whom I have match-up data would lose by between 5.2 and 12.7 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 being the nominee (NSW-WAPA/.843), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 3.6 points. This is broadly in line with 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. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin decreases to 0.3 points, with the caveat fom the preceding paragraph.

Examining available state-level results,[7] which actually decide presidential elections via the Electoral College, then comparing to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDM implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.6 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 5.8 points, substantially higher than national polls suggest. Most encouraging to Democrats should be polls from North Carolina (R+6.0), Georgia (R+9.6), Arizona (R+9.7) and Texas (R+15.3), which show Democrats either barely ahead (Georgia) or within three points of Trump; on average, they imply a national Democratic lead of 8-9 points, confirming strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest.

By contrast, however, a handful of polls from Democratic-leaning Nevada (D+2.0) who Democrats barely winning the state while implying Democrats would lose nationwide by between 1.4 and 3.8 points. And while Democrats are 4.0-7.5 points ahead in the swing state of Michigan, which Trump won by 0.16 points in 2016, their position is…wobbly…in Florida (R+3.4), Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7), all of which Trump won narrowly in 2016.

Still, at this very early point in the 2020 electoral cycle, the fact that Democrats are far more competitive in Republican-leaning states, albeit slightly behind, than Republicans are in Democratic-leaning states should encourage Democrats.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within nation/state by days to nominating contest and pollster quality to form a 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 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) 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, Wisconsin, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily California (25). Texas (17) and North Carolina (8)

[3] Primarily Florida (12), Wisconsin (11), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins.

[4] Morning Consult Tracking, Harris X Tracking (Likely Voters), Fox News, YouGov, Emerson College, Quinnipiac University, Ipsos, Monmouth University, NBC News/Wall Street Journal

[5] Civiqs

[6] Trafalgar Group, October 29-November 1, 2019

[7] From 27 states: 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.

Just under one year until the 2020 presidential election…how does it look for Democrats?

On November 3, 2020, one year from this past Sunday, the United States will hold its next presidential election; technically, the election will conclude that day, given early voting and vote-by-mail opportunities in many states. Once a month since April 2019, I have updated analyses of polling data on hypothetical match-ups between potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; for this post, I assume he will be impeached by the United States House of Representatives but not removed by the Senate. I make this assumption not because of any particular insight into the outcome of the Senate trial, but simply because polling data for other potential 2020 Republican presidential nominees, such as Vice President Mike Pence or former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, is sparse.

With the presidential election now one year away, here is a deeper dive into these polling data.

I Voted sticker

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First, however, here are the final polling averages for the two gubernatorial elections to be held on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.  In Kentucky, incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin trails Democrat Andy Beshear by 6.1 percentage points (“points”), though this is based upon only five polls, and only two conducted in October, with an average pollster rating of B-/B and an average Democratic “bias” of roughly 0.8 points; pollster quality is a letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com, and bias is a pollster’s average tendency to err towards Democrats or Republicans[1]. Plus, this state leans 28.7 points more Republican than the nation, according to my 3W-RDM, meaning the “fundamentals” (-28.7 3W-RDM + 5.7 Democratic edge in the generic ballot question – 8.5 Republican incumbency edge) suggest Bevin should win by nearly 32 points. Beshear should still be considered a slight favorite, but it would not be remotely surprising if Bevin won; with an astonishing gap of 38 points between polling and fundamentals, anything from a Bevin landslide to a narrow Beshear victory is possible.

In Mississippi’s open gubernatorial race, meanwhile, Republican Tate Reeves leads Democrat Jim Hood by 2.7 points, based upon 11 polls with an average C pollster rating and Democratic bias of 1.2 points. The fundamentals suggest Reeves wins by about 13 points, which more closely matches the polls. Reeves will likely win by a margin in the mid-single digits.

The bottom line, however, is that Democrats should not be competitive in either of these races, yet are within single digits in both.

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We have national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 16 of the 17 currently-declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; only former United States House of Representatives member (“Representative”) Joe Sestak has not yet been tested. Table 1 summarizes these match-ups; it includes all polls released publicly since January 1, 2019.

Table 1: Weighted-average national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 2020 Democratic presidential nominees and President Donald J. Trump

Democrat NSW-WAPA # Polls Pollsters

 

Wtd-Ave Margin
# Rating Bias
Biden 26.8 76 22 B 0.0 D+8.4
Warren 17.4 70 20 B/B+ 0.0 D+3.8
Sanders 16.0 67 19 B/B+ 0.0 D+5.4
Buttigieg 7.6 37 13 B/B+ R+0.1 D+0.2
Harris 6.9 56 18 B R+0.2 D+1.8
Booker 2.1 18 9 B-/C+ R+0.6 R+0.6
Yang 1.8 8 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.1
Klobuchar 1.7 10 3 B R+0.3 R+5.5
Gabbard 1.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+8.7
Steyer 1.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+5.0
Castro 0.6 9 2 C+ R+1.5 R+6.2
Delaney 0.4 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.4
Williamson 0.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+9.1
Bennet 0.3 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.3
Bullock 0.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+6.5
Messam 0.0 5 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+12.5
Weighted Average Democratic margin over Trump D+4.0

NSW-WAPA” is a 2020 Democratic nomination polling average that aggregates national- and state-level polling averages adjusted for pollster quality and time-to-election; early states are weighted more than later states, and all state polls more than national polls. Each candidate’s estimated margin versus Trump uses polling margins from which pollster “bias” has been subtracted before weighting by pollster quality and time-to-election[2]. Final estimated margins for each Democratic candidate are weighted by the value NSW-WAPA/.845[3] to produce an “overall” Democratic average margin over Trump; the denominator is the total of 17 individual NSW-WAPA values[4].

Each of the six leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden; United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Senator Kamala Harris; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—have at least 18 polls testing a hypothetical election between them and Trump. And for the first five candidates, the average pollster rating is a respectable B or B/B+ for at least 13 distinct polling organizations; the average for Booker is only C+/B- due to a preponderance of polls from Republican-leaning HarrisX (rating=C+, bias=+1.5); I have written previously about problems with HarrisX polls.

Overall, based upon a rough likelihood of each candidate winning the nomination, Trump would lose to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee nationally by 4.0 points; Removing Biden’s polls lowers the margin to 2.0 points, while removing Biden’s and Sander’s polls lowers the margin to 0.6 points. Nonetheless, each of the six leading candidates either beats Trump nationally (Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris) or loses by less than one point (Booker). Unfortunately, the final estimated margins for the remaining 10 candidates in the table, including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Tom Steyer and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, should be taken with a few pounds of salt due to the preponderance of HarrisX polls of these match-ups; for every candidate except Klobuchar and Castro they are the only publicly-available polls.

There are reasons besides these admittedly-very-early polls to argue the Democratic presidential nominee will win the national popular vote in 2020 by around 3-4 points—where Warren polls right now. In fact, Warren’s 3.8-point margin is very close to the 3.3-point-average Democratic margin in the last six presidential elections, which include three incumbents seeking reelection (Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2012) and three open seats (2000, 2008, 2016); Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 by 3.9 points. As usual, presidential election data from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Also, relative support for a Democratic candidate versus Trump is directly related to how well that candidate currently fares in the presidential nomination process, itself a proxy for name recognition; the correlation between the final estimated margin and NSW-WAPA is 0.90, suggesting the better known a Democrat becomes, the better (s)he polls versus Trump; Democrats are that eager to defeat the president.

Finally, some very back-of-the-envelope math suggests the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee is likely to improve over 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2.1-point margin over Trump. For one thing, while Trump remains nearly as unpopular as he was on election day 2016 (38% favorable then, 41% job performance approval now[5]), he will likely not face a nearly-equally-unpopular Democratic nominee in 2020. Voters who chose Trump as, hypothetically, the lesser of two evils now know what he is like as a president; the Democratic nominee now represents the blank slate, for better or for worse. More to the point, however, it is difficult to envision more than a small handful of the 65,853,625 voters who chose Clinton in 2016 switching to Trump, whereas switching in the other direction strikes me as far more plausible. But even if the vote switches roughly cancel out, there are 8,261,498 third party 2016 votes to consider, an unusually-high 6.0% of the total national popular vote. Let us assume half of those voters switch to one of the two major party candidates in 2020, and that they split roughly 2-1 for the Democrat, based on the idea voters who wanted to vote against Trump in 2016 but could not stomach voting for Clinton voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Jill Stein or Independent Evan McMullin. Using the six-election average increase in the total national popular vote over the previous election of 4.9%, that works out to about 72 million Democratic votes (50.0%), 67.5 million Republican votes (46.9%) and 4.3 million third party votes (3.1%)—and a Democratic margin of 3.1 points.

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Of course, it is the Electoral College, not the national popular vote, that determines the winner of presidential elections. Using 3W-RDM, if the Democratic nominee won by 4,0 points, (s)he would be expected to win 308 electoral votes (EV), although the race in Florida would be very close, more than the 270 EV necessary to win the presidency. Given an average error of 5.3 points, however, the Democratic EV total could be anywhere from 222 to 347. If the Democratic nominee only won by 0.6 points, though, (s)he would either lose with 259 EV or win with 279 EV, pending a likely recount in Pennsylvania[6]; the range of Democratic EV in this scenario is 191 to 314.

However, it is not necessary to rely solely on “fundamentals” calculations (i.e., national average plus 3W-RDM), as we have at least one hypothetical match-up poll from 26 states, including every relatively competitive state except Georgia. Table 2 summarizes these data, with polling averages in boldface; Democratic “wins” are italicized. Each row containing polling data has two values: the final weighted-adjusted average and, in parentheses, the extrapolated national popular vote margin based upon 3W-RDM. For example, Biden is currently ahead by 10.3 points in Michigan (which Trump won in 2016 by 0.2 points), but because Michigan averages 2.2 points more Democratic than the nation, that implies Biden is winning the national popular vote by 10.3-2.2=8.1 points, very close to his 8.4-point national polling average.

Table 2: Weighted-average state-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and President Donald J. Trump

State EV 3W-RDM Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg Harris
DC 3 82.0 D+90.4 D+85.8 D+87.4 D+82.2 D+83.5
Hawaii 4 34.3 D+42.7 D+38.1 D+39.7 D+34.5 D+36.1
Vermont 3 27.7 D+36.1 D+31.5 D+33.1 D+27.9 D+29.5
California 55 23.2 D+28.4

(D+5.2)

D+21.9

(D+1.3)

D+26.7

(D+3.4)

D+20.0

(R+3.2)

D+22.4

(R+0.8)

Maryland 10 22.6 D+31.0 D+26.4 D+28.0 D+22.8 D+24.4
Massachusetts 11 22.1 D+37.9

(D+15.8)

D+25.9

(D+3.8)

D+27.9

(D+5.8)

D+22.3 D+23.9
New York 29 21.6 D+30.0 D+25.4 D+27.0 D+21.8 D+23.4
Rhode Island 4 18.0 D+26.4 D+21.8 D+23,4 D+18.2 D+19.8
Illinois 20 14.7 D+23.1 D+18.5 D+20.1 D+14.9 D+16.5
Connecticut 7 12.8 D+19.0

(D+6.2)

D+14.0

(D+1.2)

D+16.0

(D+3.2)

D+12.0

(R+0.8)

D+13.0

(R+0.2)

Delaware 3 12.5 D+20.9 D+16.3 D+17.9 D+12.7 D+14.3
Washington 12 12.1 D+21.8

(D+9.7)

D+20.5

(D+8.3)

D+21.4

(D+9.3)

D+12.9

(D+0.8)

D+13.9

(D+1.8)

New Jersey 14 12.0 D+20.4 D+15.8 D+17.4 D+12.2 D+13.8
Oregon 7 8.7 D+17.1 D+11.5 D+14.1 D+8.9 D+10.5
New Mexico 5 6.5 D+14.9 D+10.3 D+11.9 D+6.7 D+8.3
Maine 4 5.9 D+8.7

(D+2.8)

D+7.7

(D+1.8)

D+8.3

(D+2.4)

D+6.6

(D+0.7)

D+5.0

(R+0.9)

Michigan 16 2.2 D+9.0

(D+6.8)

D+4.5

(D+2.3)

D+7.5

(D+5.3)

D+2.8

(D+0.6)

D+4.1

(D+1.9)

Colorado 9 2.2 D+9.2

(D+7.0)

D+6.9

(D+4.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+2.9

(D+0.7)

Nevada 6 2.0 D+1.4

(R+0.6)

R+2.8

(R+5.0)

D+0.1

(R+1.9)

R+4.4

(R+6.4)

R+0.8

(R+2.8)

Minnesota 10 1.5 D+12.7
(D+11.2)
D+11.7
(D+10.2)
D+9.7

(D+8.6)

D+1.6 D+3.3
Virginia 13 1.5 D+10.5

(D+9.0)

D+7.0

(D+5.5)

D+4.2

(D+2.7)

D+1.7 D+11.0

(D+9.5)

Wisconsin 10 0.7 D+5.9

(D+5.2)

D+1.1

(D+0.4)

D+4.5

(D+3.8)

R+1.3

(R+2.0)

D+0.1

(R+0.6)

New Hampshire 4 0.1 D+10.2

(D+10.1)

D+0.6

(D+0.5)

D+6.7

(D+6.6)

D+2.3

(D+2.2)

D+6.4

(D+6.3)

Pennsylvania 20 -0.4 D+4.5

(D+4.9)

D+0.04

(D+0.3)

D+2.8

(D+3.2)

R+3.8

(R+3.4)

D+0.3

(D+0.7)

Florida 29 -3.4 D+2.3

(D+5.7)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+1.0

(D+2.4)

R+2.9

(D+0.5)

Iowa 6 -4.7 R+0.4

(D+4.3)

R+3.9

(D+0.8)

R+0.9

(D+3.8)

R+3.5

(D+1.2)

R+6.8

(R+2.1)

Ohio 18 -5.8 D+4.9

(D+10.7)

D+1.4

(D+7.2)

D+1.8

(D+7.6)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

North Carolina 15 -6.0 D+1.8

(D+7.8)

R+1.5

(D+5.5)

R+0.2

(D+5.8)

R+3.0

(D+3.0)

R+3.7

(D+2.3)

Georgia 16 -9.6 R+1.0 R+6.1 R+4.3 R+9.5 R+7.8
Arizona 11 -9.7 D+1.8

(D+11.5)

R+0.8

(D+9.1)

R+6.0

(D+3.7)

R+3.6

(D+6.1)

R+6.7

(D+3.0)

Texas 38 -15.3 D+0.4

(D+15.7)

R+3.3

(D+12.0)

R+0.7

(D+14.7)

R+5.3

(D+10.0)

R+5.2

(D+10.1)

South Carolina 9 -15.7 R+11.3

(D+4.4)

R+12.1

(D+3.6)

R+15.7

(D+0.0)

R+15.5 R+17.4

(R+1.7)

Missouri 10 -15.9 R+11.3

(D+4.6)

R+15.1

(D+0.8)

R+16.7

(R+0.8)

R+15.4 R+17.1

(R+1.2)

Indiana 11 -16.3 R+7.9 R+12.5 R+10.9 R+15.8 R+14.5
Mississippi 6 -18.5 R+10.1 R+14.7 R+13.1 R+18.0 R+16.7
Montana 3 -18.6 R+7.0

(D+11.6)

R+9.0

(D+9.6)

R+8.0

(D+10.6)

R+18.4 R+10.0

(D+8.6)

Alaska 3 -19.2 R+4.1

(D+15.1)

R+15.1

(D+4.1)

R+6.1

(D+13.1)

R+13.1

(D+6.1)

R+17.1

(D+2.1)

Louisiana 8 -22.2 R+13.8 R+18.4 R+16.8 R+22.0 R+20.4
Kansas 6 -23.4 R+15.0 R+19.6 R+18.0 R+23.2 R+21.6
Nebraska 5 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
South Dakota 3 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Tennessee 11 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Arkansas 6 -28.2 R+19.8 R+24.4 R+22.8 R+28.0 R+26.4
Alabama 9 -28.4 R+20.0 R+24.7 R+23.0 R+28.2 R+26.6
Kentucky 8 -28.7 R+15.5

(D+13.2)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+22.6

(D+6.1)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+26.9
North Dakota 3 -29.4 R+21.0

(D+8.4)

R+25.6 R+24.0 R+29.3 R+27.5
Utah 6 -33.1 R+1.3

(D+31.8)

R+3.3

(D+29.8)

D+5.7

(D+38.8)

R+20.3

(D+12.8)

R+15.3

(D+17.8)

Idaho 4 -34.2 R+25.8 R+30.4 R+28.8 R+34.0 R+32.4
West Virginia 5 -35.5 R+27.1 R+31.7 R+30.1 R+35.3 R+33.5
Oklahoma 7 -38.1 R+29.7 R+34.3 R+32.7 R+37.9 R+36.3
Wyoming 3 -45.7 R+37.3 R+41.7 R+40.3 R+45.5 R+43.9
TOTAL EV 390 271/291 297 243 273

There is a lot to unpack in this table, so here are some highlights:

  1. Biden would resoundingly beat Trump, but other top Democrats could easily defeat Trump as well.

Based upon polling averages and fundamentals calculations, Biden would most likely win 390 EV, even more than Bill Clinton’s 379 EV in 1996 and Obama’s 365 EV in 2008. However, if we allow states where the table margin has an absolute value less than 3.0 points to be “won” be either major party candiates, he could finish with as few as 292 EV—still 22 more than needed—or as high as 412 EV, a number on par with George H. W. Bush’s 426 EV in 1988; the senior Bush was the last president to top 400 EV.

However, I would not put too much stock in the single set of match-up polls from Utah (R+33.1), which imply Democrats winning the national popular vote by anywhere from 13 to 39 points, despite the pollster, Y2 Analytics having a B rating and a slight Democratic skew of 0.3 points; the polls, which also have Booker winning Utah by 12 points, were conducted on just 144 registered voters between July 31, and August 6, 2019. It is nearly impossible to envision ANY Democrat winning Utah’s six EV.

Meanwhile, Warren, Sanders and Harris would be slightly favored based on these polling averages and fundamentals calculations, with Warren literally winning Pennsylvania by something like 3,000 votes. Warren’s range is 239-352 EV, Sanders’s range is 242-379 EV, and Harris’ range is 243-326 EV. Buttigieg, finally, would be a slight underdog, with a range of 200-300.

Taking a much wider view, however, incumbent presidents should not be trailing at all at this point, and especially not to five or possibly six Democrats. In many ways, this race feels like late 1979, when a wide range of Republicans were eager to challenge an unpopular Jimmy Carter—whose own election had been something of a fluke in 1976, based on revulsion with the Watergate scandal. With all that, however, Carter won a narrow victory over a weakened incumbent Gerald Ford, at a time when Republicans had won four of the six previous presidential elections. At this point, the polls were close—though Republican Ronald Reagan, often seen as “too extreme” to beat an incumbent, ultimately won a 9.7-point landslide and the Electoral College 489-49.

  1. Democrats are doing better on Republican turf than Republicans are on Democratic turf.

Extrapolating from individual-state polling averages, the “typical” Democratic presidential nominee would win the national popular vote by either 5.6 (median) or 6.6 points (mean), both substantially higher than the average 4.0-point margin of actual national polls. Given extreme outliers like Utah, the median is likely the more valid measure. Remove Biden’s data, and the extrapolated national margins are 3.8 (median) and 4.9 (mean); remove Biden’s and Sander’s data yields margins of 2.5 and 4.0 points.

Why do state polls paint a rosier picture for Democrats? Consider Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona Texas, Montana, Alaska, Kentucky and, yes, Utah. Trump won each of these states in 2016 by at least 3.5 points, and they have a mean 3W-RDM of R+17.0. And yet, in these states the extrapolated national popular vote margin for each Democratic candidate mostly exceeds her/his calculated average national margin. In fact, the correlation between 3W-RDM and “excess extrapolated Democratic national popular vote margin” is -0.46, implying that the more Republican the state, the more Democratic state polling “overperforms” national polling. This should be extremely encouraging for Democrats.

The flip side, however, is a number of states where Democrats are underperforming, most notably in Nevada, whose six EV look dicey right now, despite it being a D+2.0 state. For all that, every other core Democratic state looks good for Democrats

Democratic support also looks wobbly in the vital swing states of Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7). Still, in Pennsylvania, Warren is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is “only” 3.8 points behind, and in Wisconsin, Harris is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is only 1.3 points behind. Plus, Michigan (D+2.2)—the third state, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that delivered the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 by less than 77,000 total votes—and New Hampshire (D+0.1) look solid for Democrats right now, with Florida (R+3.4) very much in play.

**********

The values discussed here, of course, should be taken with multiple grains of salt. It is impossible to know, for example, how the rapidly-unfolding impeachment process or changes in the economy will affect voters’ decision-making. An unforeseen crisis, domestic or foreign, could fundamentally change perceptions of Trump’s job performance—for better or for worse—as could something like a bipartisan massive infrastructure bill. Undecided and truly “independent” votes could break heavily for either party’s nominee—or they could split right down the middle.

Nonetheless, I would much rather be the Democratic presidential nominee than Trump right now.

Until next time…

[1] All calculations made prior to FiveThirtyEight publishing updated pollster ratings on November 5, 2019.

[2] Final nomination and presidential election values, nationally or at state-level, are the average of two  weighted-adjusted averages: irrespective of pollster and adjusted for pollster.

[3] Sum of NSW-WAPA across 17 candidates

[4] Overall Democratic margin does not substantially change if NSW-WAPA is calculated only using polls released since the first Democratic presidential candidate debates held on June 26-27 2019.

[5] I realize these metrics assess slightly different concepts, but job performance is a) a slightly better predictor of vote choice and b) cannot be measured prior to being in office.

[6] And possibly New Hampshire

October 2019 update: 2020 Democratic nomination and general election polling

With the fourth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio, it is time for an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-19 declared candidates. The more-stringent criteria to qualify for this debate—despite the looming presence of twelve candidates on one stage—led to the announcement by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on September 20, 2019 he was ending his presidential campaign. The seven candidates who have thus far abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity, and I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[1] for recent modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the October 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Oct 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of 12 am EST October 15, 2019), including:

  • 216 national polls (including 41 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 26 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 32 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 8 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 25 South Carolina primary polls
  • 55 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 52 polls from 17 other states.[3]

This makes a total of 414 polls, up from 328 last month. One poll of the New Hampshire Primary was conducted by RK Research and Communications, Inc. between October 9 and October 13, 2019. Actually, they conducted two versions of the poll, one including former First Lady Michelle Obama (who edged out the field with 26%) and one excluding her; in the interest of completeness, I used the former poll[4].

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 27.4 23.8 23.1 26.3 37.5 27.5 27.2
Warren 14.6 17.1 18.4 17.9 12.2 16.8 16.5
Sanders 15.4 15.5 17.7 19.3 11.7 16.4 16.1
Harris 7.5 8.7 6.8 6.7 7.8 8.6 7.6
Buttigieg 5.1 10.3 8.5 5.3 4.3 6.2 7.1
O’Rourke 2.9 2.5 1.5 1.8 1.4 5.3 2.2
Booker 2.1 2.6 1.8 1.7 2.9 1.6 2.2
Klobuchar 1.2 2.9 1.6 0.8 0.6 1.0 1.5
Yang 1.6 1.1 1.9 2.1 0.9 1.2 1.5
Gabbard 0.8 1.1 1.9 1.1 0.5 0.8 1.1
Steyer 0.3 0.05 0.9 2.7 1.3 0.2 1.0
Castro 1.0 0.7 0.2 0.9 0.2 1.3 0.59
Delaney 0.3 0.8 0.5 0.00 0.2 0.2 0.39
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.4 0.3 0.32
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.5 0.4 0.2 0.28
Ryan 0.3 0.2 0.5 0.5 0.3 0.2 0.26
Bullock 0.2 0.4 0.0 0.3 0.1 0.1 0.19
Sestak 0.02 0.04 0.00 0.2 0.00 0.1 0.05
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.02 0.00 0.03 0.1 0.02
DK/Other 17.3 10.5 12.3 4.7 16.5 11.2 12.9

The race has shifted somewhat following the first three rounds of debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (27.2—down from 28.7), primarily because of his 25.3-point lead in South Carolina primary polls. However, he is less strong in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, where the two candidates battling for second place overall—Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (16.5—up from 14.5) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (16.1—down from 17.4)—are closer to first place. In fact, Warren has moved from fourth place in April 2019 to second place now. Rounding out a clear top five, both overall and in the four earliest states, are California Senator Kamala Harris (7.6—down from 9.3) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7.1—down from 7.5). These five candidates account for three-quarters (74.6%–down from 77.4%) of Democratic voter preferences at this point, and the conventional wisdom is the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be one of them.

In the next tier are seven candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.0 and 2.2 who could yet rise into the top five with a strong debate performance: former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, tied for 6th place, followed by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Fading somewhat, but still over 0.5, is former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

These 12 candidates—all of whom will be on the debate stage tonight—total 84.7% of Democratic voter preferences, down from 87.0% last month. Of them, only eight—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, Yang and Steyer—have thus far met the criteria for the fifth round of Democratic presidential nomination debates on November 20.

With 12.9% (up from 9.5%)[5] undecided or choosing an unlisted candidate, the remaining seven candidates are divvying up just 2.4% between them; as none of them appears close to making the November 2019 debate(s), I expect them to end their campaigns by the end of 2019.

**********

Speaking of the debates, 11 different pollsters—10 nationally[6] and one in California[7]–conducted polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the August 2019 debate) and shortly after the September 2019 Democratic presidential candidate debate. Simple average differences in polling percentage (California poll results weighted twice national results) show measurable gains for Warren (+2.0 points), Don’t Know/Other (+0.7), Castro and Yang (+0.5 each), as well as declines for Harris (-1.8 points), Sanders (-1.3) and Biden (-1.2). However, once results were adjusted for pollster quality and the number of days between polls (using the midpoint of the field dates), no candidate shifted more that 0.4 points in either direction, with Warren increasing and Harris decreasing by that amount.

Nonetheless, when the relative standing of the candidates since the first Democratic presidential debates (June 26-27) is compared to their standing prior to the start of the debates, it is clear which candidates have benefitted and which have suffered (Table 2).

Table 2: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, as of June 25, 2019 and beginning June 28, 2019

Candidate As of

 June 25, 2019

Beginning

 June 27, 2019

Delta
Biden 31.0 26.1 -4.8
Warren 11.3 18.6 +7.3
Sanders 17.6 15.7 -1.9
Harris 7.7 7.9 +0.2
Buttigieg 8.4 6.9 -1.5
Booker 2.9 1.8 -0.9
Yang 0.9 1.7 +0.8
O’Rourke 3.9 1.6 -2.4
Klobuchar 1.8 1.4 -0.4
Gabbard 0.6 1.3 +0.7
Steyer 0.03 1.2 +1.2
Castro 0.59 0.59 -0.01
Delaney 0.45 0.44 -0.01
Bennet 0.07 0.35 +0.28
Williamson 0.13 0.38 +0.25
Ryan 0.23 0.26 +0.03
Bullock 0.08 0.25 +0.17
Sestak 0.00 0.02 +0.02
Messam 0.06 0.01 -0.05
DK/Other 11.3 12.0 +0.7
Total polls[8] 184 223 +39

The clear beneficiary, by far, has been Warren, who jumped from 11.3 to 18.6, a remarkable 7.3-point increase. Curiously, the only other candidate to see her/his support increase by at least 1.0 points is Steyer—who will appear in his first debate tonight. Just behind him are Yang and Gabbard, whose support increased by 0.8 and 0.7 points, respectively. On the flip side, the debate period has been especially unkind to Biden (-4.8 points) and O’Rourke (-2.4), with Sanders (-1.9), Buttigieg (-1.5) and Booker (-0.9) also losing support. Among the top 12 candidates, only Harris and Klobuchar essentially maintained the same level of support they had prior to the start of the debates.

**********

Four Democrats would currently win the national popular vote in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up with President Donald J. Trump: Biden (by 8.2 points), Sanders (5.0), Warren (2.9) and Harris (1.5), while Buttigieg (-0.5 points), Booker (-0.6), and O’Rourke (-1.1) would be very close. The other 11 candidates for whom I have match-up data would lose by between 5.0 and 12.5 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.

Overall, “generic 2020 Democratic nominee” now beats Trump by 3.6 points; I now exclude match-up data for any potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee not currently a declared candidate. This is higher than the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0 points) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin over Trump decreases to 0.1 points—though see the caveat in the preceding paragraph.

Still, given that state-level results actually determine the winner of a presidential election (via the Electoral College), it is more informative to look to those polls, where they are publicly-available. Using my 3W-RDM, a measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s voting is relative to the nation as a whole, this polling[9] implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 2.7 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 5.9 (including Biden and Sanders) points, using the median value. Most encouraging to Democrats should be the polls from North Carolina (R+6.0) and Texas (R+15.3), which show a very close race, implying a national Democratic lead of 4-6-and 12-15-points, respectively; these polls confirm strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest. By contrast, however, a few polls from Democratic-leaning Maine (D+5.9) and Nevada (D+2.0) imply Democrats would lose nationwide by 1-6 points. Those remain the exceptions, however, to what continues to be encouraging news for Democrats in 2020—about which I will have more to say in a November 2019 post.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within areal units (nation, state) by days to the nominating contest and pollster quality to form a unit-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), the time-weighted average of all subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within the subsequent contests, I now weight the 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) twice as much as the 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, Wisconsin, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily California (21). Texas (16)

[3] Primarily Florida (11), Wisconsin (8), Pennsylvania (6)

[4] Comparing the two sets of results, Sanders drops seven percentage points (“points”), Warren drops five points, Biden and Buttigieg drop four points, Harris drops two points, Gabbard drops one point and Other/DK drops three points.

[5] This does include polls that limit the number of candidates queried.

[6] Morning Consult Tracking, Harris X Tracking (Likely Voters), Survey USA, Fox News, YouGov, Emerson College, Harris Interactive, Quinnipiac University, Reuters/Ipsos, IBD/TIPP

[7] Survey USA

[8] Seven polls were conducted wholly or in part on June 26 and/or June 27, 2019.

[9] From 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.

Reaching milestones of my own invention

In my last post, I described how a great friend of mine and I exchange generous Amazon gift cards for our birthdays. One gift I have already used this year’s card to purchased is this four-DVD film noir box set:

Filn Noir collection.JPG

Filn Noir collection--titles.JPG

Of the four titles in this no-frills set (the only extras are trailers for every film except Storm Fear), the only one I had already seen was He Ran All the Way. Both the surprisingly-well-made Storm Fear and the classic He Ran All the Way are superb examples of what could be called “hostage noir.” Other examples would be Suddenly—featuring a spellbindingly psychotic Frank Sinatra; Blind Alley and its 1948 remake The Dark Past; and the underrated gem Dial 1119.

Witness to Murder, despite featuring Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Gary Merrill, is a watered-down version of the brilliant Rear Window; what redeems it is mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography by the ground-breaking John Alton. The titular witness, Stanwyck, does her best with the material, including a hard-to-swallow romance with Merrill’s homicide detective. Sanders, however, is believably menacing and creepy as he-who-is-witnessed; no spoilers here, as the trailer itself reveals Sanders is the killer.

A Bullet For Joey is a 1955 film best described as “bonkers,” albeit generally entertaining. Edward G. Robinson, terrific as always, is wasted as a homicide Inspector—working in a Montreal which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles, and where nobody speaks with a Canadian accent. Audrey Totter looks bored, and George Raft is—well, George Raft, wooden yet strangely charming. Both Robinson and Raft had great early success in early 1930s gangster films, but while Robinson seamlessly shifted to other roles, Raft always seems stuck around 1931. To be fair, Raft is quite good as a homicide detective in a 1954 film I quite like called Black Widow, a rare example of color film noir from the “classic” era, roughly 1940 to roughly 1960.

**********

But wait, IS Black Widow a film noir?

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about the “personal journey” I had taken to become a devoted fan of film noir. Two months later, a conversation with my wife Nell about career paths inspired me to write the book I am close to finishing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own). My original plan was simply to flesh out the multiple facets of my personal journey into book-length form, but it quickly morphed into a full-on investigation of…what the working title sums up nicely.

In that May 2017 film noir post, I introduced my quantitative film noir research project. Essentially, I collected as many published—either as a book or on a credible website—film noir lists as I could find. These lists could be explicit (encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, filmographies) or implicit (discussed as film noir within the text of a book about film noir), and needed to include a minimum 120 films.

Ultimately, I acquired 32 such lists, from which I created an Excel database of 4,825 films at least one “expert” labelled film noir, however indirectly. From these data I calculated a score cleverly called “LISTS,” which denotes how many lists feature that title. The idea is simple: the more film noir lists on which a film appears, the more widely it is considered film noir. Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a measure of how “noir” a film is, merely how often it is cited by acknowledged experts as noir. To date, no agreed-upon definition of “film noir” exists.

Somewhat to my surprise, only four films appear on all 32 lists: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice; not surprisingly, these are exemplary films noir. Along those lines, only 201 titles (4.2%) appear on as many as 20 lists, and only 478 titles (9.9%) appear on as many as 12 lists; at the opposite end, just under half of the films appear on only one list.

Using additional information from 1) 13 shorter lists and 2) lists within lists, such as the 50-film Canon in The Rough Guide to Film Noir[i], I next calculated a score called “POINTS.” The maximum number of POINTS a film can receive is 67.5; Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 POINTS, followed by Out of the Past (59.0); The Maltese Falcon (58.0); Kiss Me Deadly (54.0) and Murder, My Sweet (53.5). As with LISTS, shockingly-few films had as many as 20 POINTS—249, or 5.2%–while only 515 (10.7%) had as many as 12 POINTS. Just under half—48.2%–of films had only one POINT; by definition, they appeared on only one list as well.

You may review my 46 total sources and POINT-allotment system here: Film Noir Database Sources.

Based upon the similar distributions of LISTS and POINTS[ii], every title is classified as Universal (≥12 LISTS or POINTS), Debatable (>5, <12 LISTS or POINTS) or Idiosyncratic (≤5 LISTS or POINTS); the percentage of films in each category is roughly 10%, 10% and 80%, respectively.

So, to answer the question with which I opened this section: Black Widow has 7 LISTS and 8.5 POINTS, putting it squarely in the Debatable category. I encourage you to watch it and draw your own conclusions.

**********

When I first wrote about my film noir fandom “journey” in May 2017, I had seen 558 (11.6%) of the films in the database. Incrementally increasing the LISTS minimum from 1 to 20, the percentage of films I had seen increased steadily to 87.1%. And the films I had seen comprised well over 30% of total LISTS and 40% of total POINTS; unfortunately, I failed to record the precise percentages at the time.

However, through my recent viewing of Storm Fear, every one of those values has increased. I have now seen 698—14.5%–of the 4,825 films in the database; that is 140 first-time film noir viewings in nearly 30 months, or nearly five titles a month. Updating the original breakdown:

Any film        698/4,825=14.5%

LISTS≥3        564/1,613 =35.0%

LISTS≥6        470/890    =52.8%

LISTS≥12       362/478    =75.7%

LISTS≥15      308/364    =84.6%

LISTS≥20      193/201    =96.1%

As of this writing, the only films with LISTS≥20 I have yet to see are The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Suspense, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Rogue Cop, Nightmare, The Thief, The New York Confidential and World For Ransom. The bottom line, however, is that the 698 films I have seen total 8,887 LISTS, or 46.3% of all LISTS in the database, putting me 705 total LISTS shy of a majority. I could reach that milestone by watching the top 40 films, by LISTS, I have yet to see, which I very much look forward to doing.

Meanwhile, when my DVD set arrived, I had seen 695 films totaling 10,735 POINTS, or 49.85% of all POINTS in the database. Witness to Murder (19 LISTS, 19 POINTS) got me to 49.94%, while A Bullet For Joey (10,10) got me to 49.98%. And…after watching Storm Fear (16,16), I was at 10,780 POINTS, which is 50.06% of the 21,534.5 POINTS in the database.

Having seen a set of films comprising a majority of all POINTS in my film noir database is a milestone I invented, but that makes it no less fun to celebrate.

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Speaking of milestones…I am extremely reluctant to tout my blog statistics. I write on this site because I think I have something interesting to say, not for accolades or gaudy view numbers—not that I am averse to either, mind you.

This reticence, to be honest, stems in large part from the statistics themselves: as I approach the end of three years writing on this site, I have “only” 109 followers, and my posts have been viewed “only” 8,814 times. Still, the rate of increase for both—and the latter especially—has been steadily accelerating over time. And I greatly appreciate every single follower and view—even the fellow on Twitter who said that someone to whom he had shown this post—which I published two year ago today—had called it “trash.”

And, to be fair, a number of my posts have been (relatively) widely read. In fact, in September 2018, Film Noir: A Personal Journey became my second post to receive 100 views; it has now been viewed 148 times. One month later, this post on now-Associate-Justice Brett Kavanaugh became the third to reach that milestone, and last month it topped 200 views, my second-ever post to do so. It has now been viewed 215 times, while five posts in total have now topped 100 views—133 or more views, actually.

So which post beat “Personal Journey” to 100 views and “Kavanaugh” to 200 views?

It was one I wrote on a lark as I began to write the “Charlie Chan” chapter of my book, the one in which I describe how my love of classic black-and-white crime and mystery films was predicated upon my discovery—just shy of my 10th birthday—of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of the late 1930s and early 1940s[iii]. Collecting information about those films, I built an SPSS database containing, among other data, how various organizations and critics rated those films. Combining those data into a single value, I was able to “rank” every Charlie Chan film in relative quality from lowest to highest.

I published Ranking Every Charlie Chan Film on August 26, 2017 to what could best be described as crickets. It was viewed only seven times that month and only 23 times through the end of the year, close to the median 25 views my posts receive. By the end of April 2018, it had received 42 views, just over my post-average of 40.

But starting in July 2018, something happened. The post received 20 views that month, followed by 33, 34, 46, 55 and 53 views over the next five months; by the end of 2018, it had been viewed 299 times. And, of course, the more it was read, the higher it rose on Google searches, and so the more it was read. Over the first eight months of 2019, in fact, it was viewed an astonishing (to me, anyway) 823 times, or 103 times a month. And in July 2019, nearly two years after I published it, it crossed the 1,000-view threshold. As of this writing, it has been viewed 1,234 times.

Not coincidentally, if you Google “Charlie Chan films,” the 41st entry is my post; until recently it had been 16th, but I am not complaining one bit. And if you add the word “ranked” to the search, the very first entry is my post.

As esoteric and specific as that is, I am deeply humbled by it.

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There is one last thing.

I do not read or follow as many blogs as I am “supposed” to in order to a “successful” blogger, but there are a handful whose latest posts I am always excited to see appear in my Inbox. In no particular order, they are:

In Diane’s Kitchen

bone&silver

MadMeg’s Musings

JulieCares

What these sites have in common, besides each author’s gracious reactions to my, at times, long-winded comments, is they are all authored by women with uniquely interesting and powerful personal stories to tell. I always have something to learn from them.

Until next time…

[i] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd.

[ii] The correlation between the two scores is 0.983.

[iii] There is a lot more to this story, of course, mostly involving my relationship with my father, his gambling and an old family business, but I save that for the book itself.

Four stories and 12 years ago…

I have been deeply immersed in preparing final first drafts (how is that for an oxymoron?) of early chapters of the book I am writing, whose new tentative title is Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own. We have also been preoccupied with various illnesses, injuries and anniversaries. Not to mention following the twists and turns of the impeachment saga.

With all that, however, I have not forgotten about this site. I have been meticulously compiling polling for the next 2020 Democratic nomination and presidential election updates, as well as this year’s three governor’s races.

And life has thrown a handful of interesting curveballs our way.

***********

Sunday, October 6, 2019 was Nell’s and my 12th wedding anniversary.

Rather than go out to celebrate, we chose to stay home and order food from our favorite local pizza joint. Three of our orders—and both orders of French fries—were perfect; only Nell’s was thoroughly botched, somewhat dampening the otherwise celebratory mood.

But that is beside the point.

As a gift on my first birthday as a married man, my mother-in-law gave me—after strong hinting from Nell—this high-quality Swiss Army knife with my surname engraved on the primary blade. Ever since then, it always goes into my front left pocket when I leave the apartment. This has proven troublesome on a few occasions, as it was nearly confiscated by a TAA worker at Logan Airport as well as on my recent trip to Philadelphia.

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Along with my wedding band, in other words, it is one of my most-prized possessions.  In a recent post, I told the story of how I lost my wedding band in the spring of 2011, only to have it miraculously recovered a few weeks later. Well, with all due respect to the excellent and criminally-underrated Split Enz, history does sometimes repeat.

On the Thursday night before our recent wedding anniversary, I used the primary blade on my Swiss Army knife to puncture holes in a seemingly-endless set of air bags used for packing boxes from Amazon, so I could flatten them prior to recycling them. I also broke up a handful of cardboard boxes, threw them into the back of Nell’s car—along with our golden retriever Ruby, who was due for a “’venture”—and took them to a nearby giant metal recycling bin; given the tandem nature of our residential parking, it was easier to take her car. After recycling the cardboard, I filled up Nell’s gas tank then took Ruby to a nearby park for a quick play.

I mean, who could resist this?

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To be clear, speaking to pet dogs in a form of baby talk stems from my mother, who invented an entire language for our pet Keeshond Luvey (so named because “he loves everybody!”): chicken became “cluckies,” a favorite game was “sockie ballies,” and so forth. Given that history, my calling an adventure a “’venture” is perfectly understandable.

Meanwhile, eureka!

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

Look carefully at the photograph of Luvey and me in my parents’ bedroom in the Havertown, PA house in which I lived until I was 10 years old. Well, forget that the big stuffed blue bear I am snuggling belies the story I have long told that my allergies were so bad as a young child I lost all my stuffed animals; I will interrogate that memory some other time.

On the floor just to the left of the white two-drawered bureau is a blue spherical object which looks like an old-fashioned portable hair dryer, like the one that features so prominently in the house fire I first interrogated here.

But that poses a bit of a puzzle (yes, I am in the middle a story about my Swiss Army knife…just bear with me). Luvey was born on December 17, 1972, and we brought her home about two weeks later, when he was nothing but a small black ball of fur with a pink tongue. My house fire almost certainly took place in March or April 1973. If that is indeed THE portable hair dryer, Luvey would be at most four months old in this photograph. Could he really have grown that much that quickly? While it is certainly possible, it is also possible—maybe even more likely—that this photograph was taken shortly after the fire, and what is pictured is a replacement for the portable hair dryer destroyed in the fire—now stored safely upstairs. The Polaroid photograph itself is undated, other than the cardstock on which it was printed having the date “4/72.”

As the fictionalized King of Siam would say, “Is a puzzlement.”

Returning to my beloved Swiss Army knife, I am reminded of an incident that took place on an earlier wedding anniversary. Nell and I were then extremely fond of an upscale Italian restaurant in Newton Centre called Appetito, which closed in March 2014. In fact, we had one of the most important early conversations of our relationship at its bar.

On this particular anniversary, most likely in 2013, given the state of decline then apparent in the restaurant (nearly every customer was using a Groupon), our waitress was particularly flirtatious—and to my regret and shame, I playied along, cracking jokes about knives. At one point, I went to the bathroom. Just outside the door, our waitress stopped me, wanting to hold my Swiss Army knife, in lieu of my earlier “jokes.” I gave it to her, thinking nothing of it…OK, I was flattered by the attention.

I know, I know, it was my wedding anniversary.

While I was in the bathroom, in full view of Nell, our waitress pulled out every gizmo on the Swiss Army knife in a way that could be described as “provocative.” Needless to say, Nell was NOT happy with either of us, though I (deservedly) bore the brunt of her displeasure.

Hmm, I had intended that to be a funny anecdote, not a “husbands behaving poorly” confession. At times, I think these posts write themselves.

Moving right along, we return to last Thursday night, when I distinctly last remembered using my Swiss Army knife. The following night, there were yet more cardboard boxes to recycle, so once again Ruby and I had a ‘venture. We did not stay at the park nearly as long as we had the night before, however, in part because in the darkness I slipped on some small apples that had fallen from a tree near where I parked, whacking my left knee a bit.

Returning home a few minutes later, I removed all of the accessories (wallet, keys, pen, etc.) from my pockets into the wooden tray I keep in my office to hold those items.

Umm, where is my Swiss Army knife?

I checked every pocket of my jacket and jeans to no avail.

The first thing I thought was that it seemed as though when I had put things INTO my pockets, something had been missing. So that became my starting point: somehow it had gotten misplaced between Thursday night and Friday night.

Acting on that thought, I quickly searched all of the surfaces near where I had used my Swiss Army knife, thinking I had closed it up, put it down then forgotten to put it back in my office. That is very unlike me, but I was also wicked tired that night, so anything was possible.

Perhaps Nell had borrowed it during the day and simply forgotten to return it? Or one of our daughters? The answer to both questions, I learned on Saturday, was an emphatic “No!”

Thus commenced an epic search of the apartment, including my going through every single item in the large blue wheeled recycling bin in our backyard, thinking I had somehow tossed it in there with other recycling Thursday night. I even went through the adjacent trash barrel, as well as Nell’s car, on the off chance I had put in on the seat next to me or it had gotten mixed up with the broken-down cardboard boxes.

It was not in any of those places.

That evening, our daughters, a friend of our eldest daughter and I walked down to our favorite local restaurant, Zaftigs, for supper. Our route took us past the large metal recycling bin I had visited the previous two evenings, so I scoured the ground around it; it was not there either.

Finally, just after Nell went to bed, I had all but decided it had somehow gotten thrown into the large metal recycling bin with the cardboard when I remembered slipping on the apples at the park the previous night.

Well, it is worth a shot, I thought. And for the third night in a row, Ruby and I drove to the park. Using the flashlight on my iPhone, I scanned the ground where I had had my pratfall. Within seconds, a red metallic object caught my eye.

I am not ashamed to say I actually kissed my Swiss Army knife after picking it up from the dewy grass.

Nell was asleep when I get home, though the next day, after she heard the full story, she said that for that I could have woken her up.

Good to know.

**********

In this post, I took an early look at four elections, one of which was the 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial election. The “jungle primary” featuring every announced candidate, regardless of political party, will be held on Saturday, October 12. If no candidate wins an outright majority of the vote, a runoff election between the top two contenders will be held on November 16.

With 18 polls released since January 1, 2019 to analyze—11 since September 1, including five from Republican-leaning JMC Analytics (rated C+ by FiveThirtyEight), four from Democratic-leaning Remington Research Group (C) and three from unbiased Market Research Insight (B+), there are two questions to ask.

  1. Will Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, who has an average lead of 23.2 percentage points (“points”) over his two primary Republican rivals, secure more than 50% of the vote on Saturday, avoiding a runoff?
  2. If he does not, will he face United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) member Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone?

As of early on the morning of October 10, Bel Edwards averages (weighted by pollster quality and time to election) 46.6% of the vote, well ahead of Abraham’s 21.5% and Rispone’s 17.9%; three additional candidates included in some polls total 2.9% of the vote,[1] leaving 11.0% undecided. Bel Edwards is tantalizingly close to 50%; assuming these averages are accurate and every undecided voter actually casts a vote, he would need to win just 31.9% of that vote to win an outright majority on Saturday. This is certainly possible, though I would not bet on it; never mind that I do not ever gamble.

That brings us to the question of whom Bel Edwards would face in a runoff. In early September, the weighted-adjusted averages were Bel Edwards 46.5%, Abraham 24.9% and Rispone 10.3%. While Bel Edwards’ position has not materially changed, Rispone has surged 7.6 points, both at the expense of Abraham, down 3.4 points, and by picking up support from some undecided voters. It is now effectively a toss-up between the two Republicans, although Rispone has finished ahead of Abraham in six of the last eight polls.

Either way, however, I estimate Bel Edwards has roughly a 92% chance of winning the runoff, and by around eight or nine points.

**********

For the last 69 days, ever since a string of mass shootings in late July and early August left 34 people dead, I have written a daily tweet which begins “Day XX mourning/decrying/bemoaning XXX mass shooting deaths in US in 2019.” The tweet always includes a call to repeal Amendment II to the Constitution of the United States, about which I first wrote in October 2017, and the hashtag #Repeal2A. To read those tweets, I invite you to follow me at @drnoir33.

While my tweets have clearly not effected any policy changes, I at least continue to call attention to the unaddressed scourge of gun violence in this country, to the point where a candidate for president of the United States could have this harrowing moment on a late night talk show. I have also had some fascinating, umm, conversations with gun enthusiasts, mostly some radical libertarians, while finding common cause with some extraordinary allies.

But what really made me realize how far this nation has come (not in a good way)—and because on this site EVERYTHING ultimately connects—was a seemingly unrelated event.

As I am naturally predisposed toward being a night owl, and because I do my best work after 11 pm, when the apartment becomes wonderfully dark and quiet, I tend to go to sleep well past 3 am, waking in the early afternoon. Indeed, the running joke now is “Daddy has finished breakfast so it must almost be time for Ruby’s supper!”

To wind down in those wee small hours after I turn off my computer, I like to watch selected YouTube videos on our living room television. I am especially drawn to videos produced by WhatCulture, Polyphonic, CineFix, WatchMojo and anything relating to the utterly brilliant third season of Twin Peaks.

A week or so ago, somewhat at random, a video of performances by stand-up comedian Emo Philips on Late Night with David Letterman appeared. I had quite liked the quirky cerebral Phillips 30 or so years ago but had lost track of him since. Intrigued, I began to watch; eventually I watched this 1987 special in its entirety. Another 1987 special, filmed in Washington DC, saw Phillips open his set by observing Joe Biden had just dropped out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.

What is old is new again?

But the bit that really stuck out was this oft-repeated line: “I go the playground often to watch the little kids jump up and down and scream, because they don’t know I’m using blanks,” delivered in what could be described as a deadpan nasal falsetto.

Dang, I thought, nobody could get way with a joke like that today. And the only reason it was even remotely funny in the mid-1980s is because of how unthinkable such an action was.

Yes, it is time to repeal Amendment II.

**********

My birthday was September 30 and, not unlike Nell’s and my wedding anniversary, the day did not go precisely according to plan. Still, I received a generous Amazon gift card from a close friend; we routinely exchange such cards on our respective birthdays.

With it, I purchased a DVD copy of one of my all-time favorite “guilty pleasure” films, The Shadow, the 1994 film starring Alec Baldwin as the titular character. And I promptly decided that I wanted to be his version of the character—dressed all in black with a red scarf covering most of his face—for Halloween this year.

When I shared this notion with my psychotherapist, I had a mild epiphany. One of the issues we routinely discuss is the sense that nobody really listens to me, no matter how “right” I am. (And, yes, I appreciate the irony of making that statement on a blog, where by definition you are listening to me, a fact for which I am very grateful.)

Huh, I said, so for Halloween I choose to be a person that literally nobody can see, only hear. That is very telling.

Here is the thing, however.

For weeks, I have been telling Nell how there was only one thing I want for my birthday. Really and truly, I only want this one thing. I wanted it because my previous version of it had finally ceased to function, which it made it hard to follow up on those wonderful Polyphonic videos.

To her eternal credit, Nell, my brilliant, beautiful, loving and supportive wife of 12 years, listened to me, because this is what I saw when I came downstairs for the first time on September 30:

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OK, OK, it was actually still in its box, covered in birthday cards and ribbons, along with three bags of mini Three Musketeers bars, which I had been craving the past few days for some reason.

But who wants to see a photograph of a box?

This may finally have supplanted my Swiss Army knife as BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER!, though it is very close.

Until next time…

[1] I assign them “0” if excluded.

Upon further interrogation…

In the middle of August 2019, I spent nearly a week in Philadelphia—where I was born 53 years ago Monday—conducting further research into my family and personal history for the book I am writing (new tentative title: Interrogating Memory: A Love of Film Noir Spurs an Investigation into My Family History).

Unlike last year, however, I chose not to chronicle this journey in a multi-part post. To some extent, that was simply to avoid repetition, as once again I explored multiple Jewish cemeteries and wandered through a variety of municipal buildings—including City Hall, where I nearly had my Swiss Army Knife (a long-ago birthday present from my mother-in-law) confiscated by a distinctly-not-amused security officer.

But to an even greater extent, it was because some of the people with whom I interacted, including two relatives (one genetic, one legal) I met in person for the first time, wish to remain quietly in the background.

Finally, I thought I simply had not learned very much on this trip…until I arrived home, looked through my notes and photographs, followed up on a few leads, and realized I had learned a great deal.

For example, here I explore three memories that had, until then, defied attempts to interrogate them. One memory I updated successfully here. The first-listed memory, meanwhile, is as follows:

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

On my recent trip to Philadelphia, I interrogated this memory by examining the 1979 Philadelphia Yellow Pages, stored on microfilm in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I was not as adept at recording images of the relevant pages onto my flash drive as I thought I had been, and I did not capture every page. Still, I had skimmed every listing under TYPEWRITERS on site. The pages I had successfully copied reinforced my tentative conclusion the store had been at 1507 N. 33rd Street, across the street from the eastern section of Fairmount Park. That is, until I looked at the address on GoogleMaps…and saw that it was more of a warehouse/storage unit than a retail store.

Nonetheless, I plan to visit the site the next time I go to Philadelphia, partly because I have not completely ruled it out as the typewriter repair shop/office supply store of my memory, but mostly because it is literally next to the John Coltrane House.

**********

Locating this store was the first of eight research “questions” I prepared for my trip to Philadelphia. The second one related to what in the 1930s and 1940s was the 40th Philadelphia police district, headquartered at 28th and Oxford Streets in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood (just five blocks east of the John Coltrane House, actually). As frustrating as obtaining concrete information on my maternal grandfather Samuel Joseph Kohn’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has been, I knew he had been based here in February 1937, early in his time on the force[1]. However, this was a low-priority question.

Other questions related to the precise location of the tragic death of my paternal great-grandfather David Louis Berger in October 1919 (Business Route 1 off-ramp over Neshaminy Creek just northeast of Bristol Road in suburban Middletown Township), obtaining a copy of my father’s high school yearbook (no dice, yet), meeting my genetic relative and visiting cemeteries.

At Har Nebo Cemetery, where my maternal grandmother’s father is buried,

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I located the grave of comedian and author David Brenner, a high school classmate of my father, born just 46 days after my father.

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That leaves three primary questions, the latter two described in detail here):

  1. Further details on Samuel Kohn’s time with the PPD
  2. Date and details of the fire at the John Rhoads Company between April 1972 and September 1974
  3. Date and details of the fire in my childhood house, almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

The first two questions led me to the pristine and well-managed Philadelphia City Archives, where the laudable David Baugh patiently responded to my ever-evolving queries. First, he handed me a short stack of PPD “roster cards” alphabetically-adjacent to “Kohn, Samuel” to demonstrate they had lost or misplaced my maternal grandfather’s roster card.

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Second, Mr. Baugh brought out a series of boxes containing records of property transfers for the lot at 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue, home of the John Rhoads Company from its inception in 1886 until 1972 or so. My hope was to find clear evidence of when my father sold the building at that location, thus narrowing the time frame in which the fire could have occurred.

That proved a dead end, as the only records after 1931 for that lot were for the sale of the property—still credited to “John Rhoads Company”—in April 1983 (less than a year after my father died) by Sheriff Joseph A. Sullivan to the City of Philadelphia for $500. Sheriff Sullivan acquired the property sometime before March 1981, perhaps explaining a childhood memory of “the sheriff” coming to my childhood home to talk to my father one evening in the fall of 1976. I had always thought that visit was for non-payment of the mortgage on our house, but now—upon further interrogation—I suspect it stemmed from financial issues related to the Lancaster Avenue property.

But what I did learn from those documents more than compensated for that hopefully-temporary dead end. First, the John Rhoads Company lot was far larger than I had realized, forming a sort of lower-case-r shape with a triangular hat, with one entrance on Lancaster Avenue and another on N. Holly Street, which intersects Lancaster Avenue about half-a-block east. A few days after my visit to the City Archives, when I took some photographs of the empty lot from N. Holly Street, a woman came from across the narrow street to question what I was doing. It turned out she and her genial family themselves wanted to know who currently owned the lot so they could encourage her/him to develop it. I explained my father, who died in June 1982, had owned it, as had his father and uncle before him.

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“So who was John Rhoads?” the woman’s mother (aunt?) asked me.

“He was the original owner, a confectioner from Harrisburg,” clarifying my grandfather had kept the original name when he acquired it.

Meanwhile, not only did they remember the fire (but not the exact date beyond “oh, it must have been in the 1970s”), but the large warehouse doors through which trucks would drive, as well as the giant rolls of carpet cleaned within those doors. These are memories I do not even have, given I was at most seven years old when that fire took place. In exchange for graciously allowing me to interrogate their memories, I mailed them all the information they asked of me as soon as I returned home, with a request they send me any additional information they remembered; I have yet to hear anything new.

Returning to those boxes of property records, meanwhile, I found myself carefully holding papers documenting the original acquisition of three parcels of land by John Rhoads himself in the mid-1880s, as well as various within-family transfers over the next four decades. But what made me almost start to cry were finding the deeds transferring ownership of the John Rhoads Company to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger on July 15, 1926, as well as a subsequent ownership restructuring in April 1931—making “John Rhoads Company” legal owner of the property.

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I had been so fixated on uncovering details of the fire, I had not even considered finding such documents. And while I have no more clarity on the exact date and circumstances of the fire itself, simply holding in my hands those pieces of my personal family history—specifically relating to a grandfather and great-uncle I never knew—more than compensated for that.

After leaving the City Archives—followed by my ignominious (and ultimately fruitless) trip to City Hall—I visited here…

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…which, for obvious reasons, is often called The Roundhouse…

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…to obtain any information they could give me about my maternal grandfather’s time on the force. Due to extremely tight security, I could only speak to the Personnel Department by calling it on my iPhone from the darkened entrance hallway, where a vintage pay telephone was still bolted to the wall. The woman to whom I spoke was very patient and engaging, checking every alternate spelling of “Kohn” we could think of, but she was unable to locate any records of a Patrolman/Detective Samuel Joseph Kohn. She did inform me badges get recycled (explaining why my aunt no longer has it) before making an absolutely brilliant suggestion: that I check with a different city department.

In order to maintain privacy, all I will say about this department is that upon hearing it, I had a smack-my-forehead, “I could’ve had a V8!” moment, realizing I had neglected a key investigative dictum: follow the money.

The Monday morning after I returned to Brookline, I dialed the number I had been given. Nobody answered, so I left a detailed voicemail. Five or ten minutes later, a Philadelphia-area number called my iPhone.

“Hello?”

“Is this Matthew Berger?” a voice asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Explaining (s)he was returning my call, (s)he asked why I wanted the information.

Uh-oh, I thought, answering, “Well, I am simply curious, and I am writing a book.”

“Oh, cool,” came the response. “So I have 67 pages of information here…”

I nearly fell out of my desk chair.

Much of that information could not be released to me, but after we chatted about what I could learn, including:

  1. Samuel Joseph Kohn served on the PPD from August 11, 1931 (a few years earlier than I had thought) to October 9, 1953.
  2. He was still a patrolman as of January 20, 1947, though he had transferred to an adjacent police district.
  3. Following a brief stint as a Detective on the Crime Prevention Squad, he was once again a Patrolman—in the very district where his future son-in-law lived.
  4. He was briefly suspended for “conduct unbecoming an officer” in June 1953, spanning at least two additional police districts (I suspect one other as well).
  5. Patrolman Kohn badly cut his thumb responding to a burglary in an upscale section of the city in July 1953.
  6. He left the force on good terms, as he received his monthly pension until his death in November 1978.

…I received a packet of photocopied documents in the mail a few days later, which I have been poring over ever since.

**********

But what really made the trip were two photographs.

The first came when I visited a cousin on my father’s mother’s side of the family. After eating at the beautifully-renovated Silk City Diner then chatting in her apartment, she suddenly remembered what she most wanted to show me.

It was this enormous framed photograph, probably taken in 1903, perhaps in October when my grandmother Rae—the fierce-looking baby front and center between Morris and Hinda Zinman Caesar—turned one year old.

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As little as I knew my father’s father’s family, I really knew nothing about his mother’s family; it did not help that both Morris and Hinda died before my father was born, and my paternal grandmother died when I was five. Which made seeing my great-grandparents, my infant grandmother and her seven siblings even more exhilarating.

A few days later, on my last day in the Philadelphia area, I visited a handful of buildings in Havertown, the suburban town in which I lived until I was 12 years old, seeking details of the March 1973 fire in my childhood house. After striking out at both the Haverford Township Free Library and the Township Building, a short—if hot and sunny—walk down Darby Road, I drove on a whim to the Manoa Fire Company; this is the unit most likely to have responded to that fire.

It took some time to alert someone I was standing at the locked side door, but finally a man named Rick opened the door for me. When I explained the information I sought, he invited me into the dimly-lit building. There was sufficient light, however, for me to see the many framed photographs of fires strung along the hallway down which Rick led me.

A few minutes later, I was talking to Assistant Chief (he demurred politely when I called him “Chief Emeritus”) Mike Norman. He was a burly, slightly stooped white-haired man in perhaps his late sixties. Standing in a small kitchen area, I explained I was seeking information about a house fire almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

He paused a moment before asking, “Was it snowing that afternoon”

“No,” I answered, reiterating it was a warmish spring night, perhaps midnight or 1am.

Reaching past me, he pulled a framed photograph from the wall just to the right of the sink and countertop.

“Is this your house?”

Stunned, I looked carefully at this photograph:

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The sharp lights made it hard for me to get oriented in the picture, but I could easily have been looking at the side of my house from our driveway—or maybe from the front lawn? We looked at the back of the framed picture, where the words “Sue Ellen Drive” were written.

Paraphrasing Chief Norman, “Those uniforms are definitely from 1973, and the only other fire I remember on Sue Ellen Drive was on a snowy afternoon.” Later, when I told my wife Nell about the photograph, texting her a copy (she and our daughters were still on Martha’s Vineyard), she said it was a “no-brainer” this was a photograph of the aftermath of my childhood house fire.

We talked a little about my suspicion the fire was not an accident, but once I told him my mother’s version of the cause of the fire—she had left on a hair-drying unit, the sort you sat under, intending my father to turn it off when he returned home—he cut me short.

Again paraphrasing: “Would you believe how many high school girls put their hair curlers away still hot, only to lose a bathroom or two?”

As for why the fire was contained solely to the playroom directly beneath my sister Mindy’s room, he (still paraphrasing) recalled, “We must have been on our way back from another fire. I remember we got there and knocked that [fire] out in a few minutes.”

Wait, “we?”

A week or so later, after I had donated $50 to the Manoa Fire Company, I received an e-mail questioning my Havertown, PA donation from a Brookline, MA address. I wrote back, explaining who I was, concluding:

When I realized that Chief Norman himself was in the photograph, I was humbled. He and his colleagues helped to save my life, and that of my mother, sister and dog.

I wanted to do something to show my gratitude, so I made the donation.

The handsome young man staring directly into the camera, wearing a white firefighter’s hat with the red number “5” on it…

…is Mike Norman himself.

Until next time…

[1] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pp. 1,4.

Always Just What I Needed: Ben Orr, Ric Ocasek and The Cars

I wrote these sentences in my Father’s Day 2019 post.

The 24-hour Howard Johnson’s in Medford was a regular late-night hangout for AC (among others) and me before it closed on December 31, 1998. It got to be a habit that on nights I did laundry in the basement laundry room of our apartment building, AC and I would “go for pie” there afterwards, which generally meant eating a full meal; I developed a particular taste for steak and eggs in those days, usually washed down with one of their orange-sherbet-based drinks. And lots of decaffeinated coffee.

“AC” is my long-term 1990s girlfriend, the one my wife Nell calls, not without reason, my “first wife.”

This Howard Johnson’s always had pop/rock music playing in the background, an early form of satellite radio. In 1997, I began to notice one song in particular. It had a lovely tinkling electric piano backed by a soft synth wash, and the chorus was a gorgeous earworm of vocal harmonies, which sounded something “It’s been coming up you, coming up you again.”

I could not get this song (which I thought might be by Alan Parsons Project) out of my head. This was in the early days of the internet, so it took me some time to figure out its title and artist.

And I was not at all surprised by what I learned. The song, “Coming Up You,” was written and recorded by one of my 10 favorite musical artists:

The Cars.

**********

Early on the evening of September 15, 2019, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (please follow me @drnoir33), when I read a tweet that stopped me cold. It announced the death of Cars lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek of natural causes at the age of 75.

I literally yelled out “Oh, NO!” when I read this tweet, and, given the proximity of our two young daughters, had to restrain myself from adding more colorful language.

I had reacted similarly late in 2000, when co-lead-singer and bass player Benjamin Orr died at the age of 53 (the age I will be in just two weeks).

My love for The Cars—arguably the new wave reincarnation of Buddy Holly and the Crickets—began in summer camp in the summer of 1979. Philadelphia rock radio stations like WMMR (93.3 FM) and WYSP (94.1 FM) were seemingly always playing in our bunk. Among the songs they regularly played (at least in my memory) were “Just What I Needed,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” and one that really appealed to me, “Good Times Roll.”  It is possible “Let’s Go” (from their excellent second album, Candy-O) was also being played then.

In my suburban musical cocoon, I was slowly becoming aware of this new genre of music: synthesizer-based, angular and uncomplicated. The sound was fresh and clean, highly melodic and hook-driven, and unencumbered by endless instrumental passages.

It was love at first listen, especially this band I soon learned was called The Cars. Years later, I would learn how heavily influenced they were by another top 10 musical artist of mine, Roxy Music. But that is a conversation for another day.

Perhaps a year later, my father (routinely short of money in those days) and I were in a Sam Goody record store in the suburban Philadelphia town of Ardmore; it may well have been for my 14th birthday. He had promised to buy something for me, so I walked up to the checkout counter with three albums: The Cars and Panorama by The Cars (debut and third albums, respectively) and Breakfast in America by Supertramp. Their combined cost was about $25, roughly the equivalent of $75 today.

He gulped a few times, but shelled out the money. After all, this was a man who would say to me whenever I ordered food in a restaurant, “Order whatever you want, pal, just so long as you eat it.”

I did the analogous thing with those three records: I played the heck out of them for years.

Thank you, Dad. That meant the world to me.

While Panorama (released in the fall of 1980) is the only Cars album I still have on vinyl, I gravitated more toward the exceptional debut album; it is still one of the handful of albums I enjoy playing straight through, first note to last.

Panorama

What especially grabbed me was a short instrumental bridge (highly evocative of The Pretenders’ “Private Life”) between the last two tracks on side two, “Moving in Stereo” (memorably featured in the best high school movie ever made) and “All Mixed Up.” As the slow, synth-driven crunch of “Moving” ends, David Robinson plays a soft rhythm on the cymbals. A few seconds later, Elliot Easton overlays a simple shimmering guitar lick backed by a gentle synth arpeggiation from Greg Hawkes. The passage lasts only about 15 second before Orr begins to sing, “She shadows me in the mirror/she never leaves on the light/And some things that I say to her/they just don’t seem to bite.”

I was so mesmerized I played those 15 seconds over and over again—and, in August 1981, when I created my first mix cassette (cleverly titled “My Stuff”), side one ended with those two tracks. Side two opened with two tracks from Panorama: the ethereal “Touch and Go” and the propulsive “Running to You.” The video for “Touch and Go” received a fair amount play on a Sunday night, half-hour television program that aired (on HBO?) at 11 pm. Because everything connects, note that Ric, Ben, Elliot, Greg and David are riding a Tilt-A-Whirl.

The photograph on the rear of Panorama, all black-and-white and shadows, is still how I think of The Cars (and presaged my later love for film noir).

Panorama rear.JPG

Those four tracks were the first of 23 (of 3,305) I would record onto a mix over the next 25 years. Indeed, for my second mix (Stuff Vol. I, December 1981), I recorded “Cruiser,” from their fourth album (Shake It Up), off of the radio (WMMR, most likely). This meant that five of the first 36 tracks to appear on a mix were by The Cars; no other artist had more than two.

However, I would not put another Cars song on a mix cassette until June 1985 (Summer 85, Vol. III), when I recorded the haunting “Drive,” from Heartbeat City, their fifth (and most commercially successful) album, off the radio. The final “scene” of the arty video for the song (third of four singles to reach the Billboard Top 10) reinforces the notion The Cars evoke the 1950s. The eight Summer 85 mixes also include “Dangerous Type” and “Let’s Go” from Candy-O, both recorded off the radio. Two years later, having finally bought a used vinyl copy of Candy-O, I put “Shoo-Be-Doo” and the title track onto a mix; I would then record a live video for “Good Times Roll” onto a VHS cassette in 1989 and “It’s All I Can Do” (from Candy-O) onto the April 1990 Stuff and Such, Vol. XVI mix, meaning 12 of the first 998 (1.2%)  tracks to make it onto a mix were from The Cars.

But that would be it until October 1995, when Panorama opened Stuff and Such, Vol. XVIII.

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Heartbeat City was released in March 1984. In the interim, Ocasek released his first solo album, Beatitude, at the very end of 1982. I would purchase a used vinyl copy of the album in the summer of 2006; you can still see the $1.00 price tag from Harvard Square’s In Your Ear records (which, sadly, closed for good this past January).

Beatitude.JPG

Six years later, I was working at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. A colleague and friend (who, sadly, I have not seen in more than 30 years) was a young woman with similar musical tastes to me. One night, we were out with some other colleagues, when Ocasek’s solo album came up. We both remembered the name of my favorite track from that album (which I recorded from the radio for the April 1983 “I-92 Mix”), the hypnotic ode to alienated youth “Jimmy Jimmy” (I think the video is absolutely gorgeous). But we could not remember the name of the primary single from the album, with its heavy-rotation-on-MTV video showing the tall, dark and handsome (if overly thin) Ocasek and an elegant young blonde woman preparing for a date (maybe?).

Later that night, having consulted a reference work, I called my colleague and told her the song was called “Something to Grab For.” With friendly-but-pointed questioning, she got me to admit I had not actually remembered the song’s title on my own.

She forgave me.

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Shake It Up and Heartbeat City, which I would not purchase until the spring of 2010, yielded The Cars’ first two Billboard Top 10 songs: “Shake It Up” and “You Might Think.” The latter song in particular, whose innovative video was an award-winner, is one of a dozen or so songs that recall the spring of 1984, when I completed my last semester of high school (having already been accepted to Yale). Those were heady and happy days, especially because I was working the most fun job I ever had.

The following summer, they performed two songs at the Live Aid festival in Philadelphia: “Just What I Needed” and “Heartbeat City.”

Two years later, they would release their sixth (and final until 2011) studio album, Door to Door. For some reason (the press of my senior year at Yale?), the album made no impression on me at the time, though I vaguely recall the Billboard top-20 single “You Are the Girl.”

And that brings us to the Howard Johnson’s in Medford, and “Coming Up You” (the third single released from Door; it peaked at #74). Once I figured out the name of the track, I bought a used cassette of the album (later replaced with a CD) and promptly made “Coming Up You” the first track on the September 1997 Stuff and Such Vol. LIII mix; it would ultimately appear on seven different mixes, edging out “All Mixed Up” (five); Cars tunes occupy 54 (0.9%) of 6,188 total “slots,” a high percentage given 1,000+ unique artists occupy those slots. Within a year, “Coming Up You” had supplanted “Save Me” by Public Image, Ltd. as my favorite track[1]. That lasted until the early 2000s, when “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis supplanted it for good.

Two other tracks from Door to Door, “Wound Up on You” and “Fine Line,” would be recorded onto 1998-99 mixes. Around this time, AC became enamored of the Ben Orr 1986 solo single, “Stay the Night,” which I would purchase on iTunes about 15 years later and put onto the May 2013 CD Stuff Vol. CIX mix.

An additional six Cars tracks would be recorded onto mixes, beginning with “Bye Bye Love” from The Cars in March 2000 (Stuff and Such Vol. LXXI). This track would be memorialized in our household as a long-running joke, once our daughters became old enough to appreciate it.

Whenever one of us would observe a sunset, or any other sky with unusual coloring, I would inevitably recite these lyrics (with Nell or one of the girls sighing in exasperation):

“It’s an orangy sky/

Always there’s some other guy/

It’s just a broken lullaby/

Bye bye love”

Last night, when I told our eldest daughter (our youngest was already asleep) why I was so sad, I used that song to explain who Ric Ocasek was.

Oh right, she said, and returned to her book.

Which was just fine.

Rest in peace, Mr. Orr and Mr. Ocasek. Your place in the rock firmament is secure.

Until next time…

[1] Technically, it was a mash-up of “Save Me” and the unlisted reprise that closes the Happy? album.