2020 Senate and Gubernatorial Elections: The View from Labor Day

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez should be very pleased with his performance. Since winning the chairperson position in February 2017, he has overseen a net gain of eight gubernatorial elections and hundreds of state legislative seats, as well as winning back control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) in 2018—flipping a historic net 41 seats. He also held net losses in the United States Senate (“Senate”) to one—helped Democrat Doug Jones’ upset win in Alabama in December 2017—when 2018 looked like a terrible year for Senate Democrats.

As of Labor Day 2020, meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for president—former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.—is in a very strong position, the House appears safe for Democrats…and Democrats are poised to add seats in the Senate, with control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2014 highly plausible.

Currently, there are 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with Democrats in the Senate. To regain control, Democrats must either win a net total of four Senate seats OR a net total of three Senate seats while winning back the presidency; as president of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

In May 2019, I surveyed the 34 Senate races—now 35 with the December 2019 retirement of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia and subsequent appointment of businesswomen Kelly Loeffler by Republican Governor Brian Kemp—scheduled for November 2020. I concluded then that while paths existed for the Democrats to recapture the Senate, everything would have to go just right.

More than one year later, based upon a political climate strongly favoring Democrats—they lead by 7.2 percentage points on the generic ballot[1]—and all publicly-available polls conducted since January 1, 2020, everything appears to be going right for the Democrats.

Before continuing, here is the September 2020 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2020 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

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Table 1 presents the 35 Senate races scheduled for November 2020, sorted by 3W-RDM, my measure of how much more or less Democratic a state votes relative to the nation. “National Lean” is the current generic ballot margin. “Incumbency” is the average electoral advantage adhering to reelection candidates, calculated separately by party and adjusted downward for serving less than one full six-year term. “Sum” is 3W-RDM plus Incumbency plus National Lean, or what I call the “fundamentals”: how a generic Democrat would expect to fare against a generic Republican in a state, all else being equal.

Table 1. 2020 Senate election overview

NameStateRun 20203W-RDMIncumbencyNational LeanSum
DEMOCRATS
Edward MarkeyMAYes22.14.47.233.7
Jack ReedRIYes18.04.47.229.6
Richard DurbinILYes14.74.47.226.3
Chris CoonsDEYes12.54.47.224.1
Cory BookerNJYes12.04.47.223.6
Jeff MerkleyORYes8.74.47.220.3
Tom UdallNMNo6.50.07.213.7
Gary PetersMIYes2.24.47.213.8
Mark WarnerVAYes1.54.47.213.1
Tina SmithMNYes1.52.27.210.9
Jeanne ShaheenNHYes0.14.27.211.5
Doug JonesALYes-28.42.27.2-19.0
 
REPUBLICANS
Susan CollinsMEYes5.9-2.47.210.7
Cory GardnerCOYes2.2-2.47.27.0
Joni ErnstIAYes-4.7-2.47.20.1
Thom TillisNCYes-6.0-2.47.2-1.2
David PerdueGAYes-9.6-2.47.2-4.8
Kelly LoefflerGAYes-9.6-0.47.2-2.8
Martha McSallyAZYes-9.7-0.67.2-3.1
John CornynTXYes-15.3-2.47.2-10.5
Lindsey GrahamSCYes-15.7-2.47.2-10.9
Cindy Hyde-SmithMSYes-18.5-1.67.2-12.9
Steve DainesMTYes-18.6-2.47.2-13.8
Dan SullivanAKYes-19.2-2.47.2-14.4
Bill CassidyLAYes-22.2-2.47.2-17.4
Pat RobertsKSNo-23.40.07.2-16.2
Lamar AlexanderTNNo-25.80.07.2-18.6
Ben SasseNEYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Mike RoundsSDYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Tom CottonARYes-28.2-2.47.2-23.4
Mitch McConnellKYYes-28.7-2.47.2-23.9
James RischIDYes-34.2-2.47.2-29.4
Shelley Moore CapitoWVYes-35.5-2.47.2-30.7
James InhofeOKYes-38.1-2.47.2-33.3
Mike EnziWYNo-45.70.07.2-38.5

Based solely on these fundamentals, only one Democrat—Jones—entered the 2020 election cycle in serious danger of losing her/his seat, while two Republican—four-termer Susan Collins of Maine and first-termer Cory Gardner of Colorado—were in a similarly weak position. First-termer Joni Ernst of Iowa is basically a 50-50 proposition, while first-termer Thom Tillis of North Carolina is only slightly ahead, as are two recently-appointed Senators, Loeffler and Martha McSally, who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018; slightly further ahead, but “only” by 4.8 points is first-termer David Perdue of Georgia.

So, at least according to the fundamentals, Democrats entered the 2020 election cycle poised to net between one and six Senate seats, making control of the chamber slightly more likely than not to remain Republican.

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Publicly-available polling tells a broadly similar story, even if the quantity and quality—based upon FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings—of polls varies widely from state to state:

Table 2: Number and Average Quality of 2020 Senate Election Polls

State# of PollsAverage Rating
North Carolina46B-/B
Michigan42B-/C+
Arizona37B/B-
Georgia (Loeffler)31B/B-
Georgia (Perdue)16B
Texas13B
Maine12B-/C+
Iowa10B/B+
Kentucky10B/B+
South Carolina10B-/B
Montana7B-
Alabama6B-/B
Colorado6B-/C+
Kansas5B
Minnesota5B/B+
Mississippi5B-/B
New Hampshire5B-
Alaska3B-/B
Oklahoma2C+/B-
New Jersey1A+
New Mexico1B
Virginia1B-/C+
All other states0 
TOTAL274B-/B

Only 22 races (63%) have been polled at all, with North Carolina (46), Michigan (42), Arizona (37) and the Loeffler race in Georgia (31) topping the list; six other states—the Perdue race in Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, South Carolina and Texas—have been polled at least 10 times. Thus, just 11 races account for 227 (83%) of the 274 total Senate election polls conducted thus far in 2020.

Table 3 lists expected outcome, based on the fundamentals, and current weighted-adjusted polling average (WAPA) for each Democratic Senate nominee; New Hampshire will hold its Senate primaries on September 8, with incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen expected to win re-nomination easily. Elections with no incumbent are in italics.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for 2020 Democratic Senate nominees, Labor Day 2020

StateExpectedWAPAExp – WAPA
Massachusetts33.7  
Rhode Island29.6  
Illinois26.3  
Delaware24.1  
New Jersey23.621.7-1.9
Oregon20.3  
New Mexico13.713.70.0
Maine10.73.6-7.1
Colorado7.010.03.0
Michigan13.89.4-4.4
Virginia13.120.57.4
Minnesota10.96.0-4.9
New Hampshire11.713.61.9
Iowa0.11.31.2
North Carolina-1.24.85.9
Georgia–Perdue-4.8-2.52.2
Georgia–Loeffler-2.8-5.1-2.3
Arizona-3.18.911.9
Texas-10.5-8.42.1
South Carolina-10.9-4.16.8
Mississippi-12.9-11.01.9
Montana-13.8-0.912.9
Alaska-14.4-6.48.0
Louisiana-17.4  
Kansas-16.2-4.012.2
Tennessee-18.6  
Nebraska-21.0  
South Dakota-21.0  
Arkansas-23.4  
Alabama-19.0-10.58.6
Kentucky-23.9-9.614.3
Idaho-29.4  
West Virginia-30.7  
Oklahoma-33.3-19.413.9
Wyoming-38.5  
AVERAGE-2.8*1.44.3

* Only for the 22 states with both measures

The WAPA for New Hampshire is the average of polls assessing Shaheen against retired United States Army officer Donald J. Bolduc (12.5) and attorney Bryant “Corky” Messner (14.8); all five polls were conducted by the University of New Hampshire, a B- pollster with a prior Democratic lean of 2.8 points.

The Loeffler race is a “jungle” primary in which every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will appear on the November 3 ballot; assuming no candidate tops 50%, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will take place on January 5, 2021. Republican House Member Doug Collins of Georgia is also running, as are Democrats Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Matt Lieberman, son of 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, and former United States Attorney Ed Tarver. WAPA combines polls of all candidates—which suggest Loeffler and Collins could be the top two vote finishers—and head-to-head matchups between each Republican and each Democrat. The latter show all three Democrats beating Loeffler, and all three losing to Collins—albeit based on only one or two polls. Overall, then, this is an extremely difficult election to assess.

The correlation between expected margin and WAPA is +0.92, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, even in a strong Democratic year, Democratic Senate nominees are “overperforming” expectations by an average of 4.3 percentage points (“points”), at least in the 22 Senate elections with at least one poll.

Table 4, finally, shows the win probability for each Democratic nominee based upon fundamentals, current polling and a weighted combination of the two, as well as a final projected margin; for calculation details, please see here. Republican seats in which Democrats lead are in boldface, while Democratic seats in which Repubicans lead are in boldfaced italics.

Table 4: Estimated state margins and probability Democrat wins, 2020 Senate Elections

StateCurrent PartyP(D win): ExpectedP(D win): WAPAP(D Win): OverallPredicted Margin
MassachusettsDEM100.0% 100.0%33.7
Rhode IslandDEM100.0% 100.0%29.6
IllinoisDEM100.0% 100.0%26.3
New JerseyDEM99.9%100.0%100.0%22.3
DelawareDEM99.9% 99.9%24.1
OregonDEM99.7% 99.7%20.3
MichiganDEM96.6%99.9%99.6%9.8
VirginiaDEM95.8%100.0%99.5%19.5
New HampshireDEM93.7%100.0%99.3%13.4
New MexicoDEM96.5%100.0%99.2%13.7
ColoradoGOP81.0%100.0%97.8%9.7
MinnesotaDEM92.2%97.7%97.2%6.5
ArizonaGOP29.2%99.8%92.5%7.6
MaineGOP91.9%88.4%88.8%4.5
North CarolinaGOP39.1%94.4%88.6%4.1
IowaGOP46.2%67.1%64.3%1.2
MontanaGOP2.0%38.7%33.1%-2.8
Georgia–PerdueGOP21.6%19.9%20.1%-2.8
KansasGOP0.8%9.4%8.2%-5.7
Georgia–LoefflerGOP30.6%4.4%8.1%-4.8
South CarolinaGOP5.0%8.7%8.1%-5.1
AlaskaGOP1.6%1.7%1.7%-7.3
TexasGOP5.6%0.3%0.8%-8.6
LouisianaGOP0.5% 0.5%-17.4
MississippiGOP2.7%0.0%0.4%-11.3
TennesseeGOP0.3% 0.3%-18.6
NebraskaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
South DakotaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
AlabamaDEM0.3%0.0%0.1%-11.8
KentuckyGOP0.0%0.1%0.1%-16.7
ArkansasGOP0.0% 0.0%-23.4
IdahoGOP0.0% 0.0%-29.4
West VirginiaGOP0.0% 0.0%-30.7
OklahomaGOP0.0%0.0%0.0%-26.3
WyomingGOP0.0% 0.0%-38.5

Two months before election day 2020, and with caveats about what voting will look like during a pandemic, Democrats are in a very strong position to recapture the Senate—albeit with few, if any, seats to spare.

Let us examine these 35 elections in groups.

Safe Democratic (9). Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Warner of Virginia and Shaheen should easily win reelection by double-digit margins, while in New Mexico House Member Ben Ray Lujan is expected to beat meteorologist Mark Ronchetti equally handily.

Lean/likely Democratic (2). The only reason first-term Senators Gary Peters of Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota are considered remotely vulnerable is the fact they represent two of the closest states in the 2016 presidential election, and because their polling averages are between four and five points below their election fundamentals. Still, each is very likely to prevail over businessman John James and former House Member Jason Lewis, respectively, by mid-single-digit margins.

Likely Democratic flips (4). Four incumbent Republican Senators—Gardner, McSally, Collins and Tillis—appear headed for defeat by single-digit margins. Gardner is the most likely to lose—by as much as 10 points—to former Governor John Hickenlooper. McSally is right behind, staring at a high-single-digit defeat by former astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona House Member Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely wounded in January 2011.

Collins and Tillis, meanwhile, trail Maine State House of Representatives Speaker Sara Gideon and former North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham, respectively, by around five points. While not guaranteed to win by any means—Collins won her last election by 37 points, and North Carolina leans 6.0 points Republican—right now these two states are likely Democratic pickups.

Toss-ups (2). Based solely on expectations—incumbent Republican in a lean-Republican state running for reelection in a strong Democratic year—Ernst is no more than even money to win reelection. And while she only trails businesswoman Theresa Greenfield by 1.3 points, that is enough to make Ernst the slightest of underdogs.

On the flip side is heavily Republican Montana, where Steve Daines seeks a second term. The fundamentals suggest Daines should easily win reelection by between 10 and 15 points. However, Governor Steve Bullock is mounting a very strong challenge, trailing by only 0.9 points overall—albeit a few points lower than when he declared his candidacy in early March.

Democrats could easily win both of these races, lose both of these races or split them, with Greenfield likelier to win than Bullock.

Likely Republican flip (1). While Jones is outpacing his fundamentals—running as a Democratic incumbent after only three years in a very Republican state—by 8.6 points, he remains very unlikely to prevail against former college football head coach Tommy Tuberville. In fact, losing “only” by single digits would be a moral victory.

Lean/likely Republican (6). Setting aside the Loeffler reelection, Democrats appear likely to fall short in Georgia’s other Senate election, Kansas, South Carolina, Alaska and Texas. Journalist Jon Ossoff, State Senator Barbara Bollier, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, orthopedic surgeon (and Independent) Al Gross, and United States Air Force veteran Mary Jennings “M. J.” Hegar, respectively, are overperforming expectations by an average 6.3 points against Senator David Perdue, House Member Roger Marshall and Senators Lindsey Graham, Dan Sullivan and John Cornyn. However, they are doing so in states which lean Republican by an average of 16.6 points.

Still, just as Republican upsets in Michigan and Minnesota cannot be ruled out, neither can Democratic victories in any of these states, with Ossoff likeliest to do so, followed by Harrison. And, in Texas, roughly 20% of voters in polls conducted in July and August are still undecided, which is a warning sign for any incumbent.

It is worth noting that a Harrison victory would give South Carolina two African-American Senators, which has not happened in any state since Reconstruction.

Likely Republican/Sleepers (2). In Mississippi, first-term Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is again facing former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who lost by only 7.2 points in 2018. One year later, Republican Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood by only 5.5 points in an open gubernatorial election. Currently, Espy trails by 11.0 points, very close to the 12.9 points suggested by the fundamentals. Based on recent history, then, this race could yet tighten, though Hyde-Smith is still heavily favored.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks a 7th term against former United States Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. The fundamentals say McGrath should be trailing by nearly 24 points. However, she is “only” down by 9.6 points, and in six polls conducted since June 1, 2020, she trails in three by 3-5 points and in three by 17-22 points, making this a very difficult race to assess. As with Espy, though, McGrath is highly likely to lose by mid-to-high single digits.

Safe Republicans (9). Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, James Risch of Idaho, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and James Inhofe of Oklahoma should easily win reelection by double-digit margins. And in Tennessee and Wyoming, respectively former United States Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty and former House Member Cynthia Lummis are expected to win by similar margins.

In sum, Democrats appear all but certain to net at least one Senate seat, losing in Alabama while winning in Arizona and Colorado, and are very well-positioned to win seats in Maine and North Carolina, giving them a 50-50 tie in the Senate—broken by Vice President Mike Pence or Harris. To be fair, though, it is difficult to see how Democrats win all four seats while losing the presidential election, so I assume Harris breaks the tie in this scenario.

The question, then, is whether Democrats can add further seats in Iowa, where they are slightly favored, and/or Montana, where they are slight underdogs…and possibly in Georgia, where Ossoff has a roughly 1-in-5 chance of winning. Democrats have further pickup opportunities in some Republican states, albeit with at most an 8% chance.

Bottom line: The most likely range of Democratic pickups is three to five, with a plausible range of one to six—exactly what the fundamentals suggested in May 2019. If I simply add up the probabilities Democrats win each race, they sum to +4.1, though this is very “back of the envelope” methodology.

Another way to think about these races is to observe how Democratic win probabilities change with either of two reasonable assumptions:

  1. All polls are overestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Democrats remain almost certain to win in Arizona (89.0%) and Colorado (95.5%) while losing in Alabama. Maine (61.1%) and North Carolina (67.1%) are now toss-ups, though Democrats would still be the slightest of favorites in both. But Iowa would now lean Republican (29.0%), with Democrats no more than an 8.5% favorite (Montana) anywhere else. Meanwhile, Democrats would still be favored in Minnesota (84.0%), but it would not be a comfortable lead.

Bottom line: Democrats could net zero seats, or they could net three seats, with a gain of one or two the likeliest outcome; summing the probabilities suggest a 2.3 seat gain, making Democrats modest underdogs to win back the Senate.

  • All polls are underestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

While Alabama is still very likely to flip Republican, Democrats would be at least a 94% favorite to win Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina—and an 88.6% favorite to win Iowa—for a minimum net gain of four seats. Montana (65.3%) and the Perdue race in Georgia (53.4%) would be toss-ups, with Democrats the slightest of favorites, albeit by 0.2 points, suggesting long recounts in both states. Should Democrats prevail in both, that increases the net gain to six seats. And Democrats would now only be modest underdogs in toss-up races in Kansas (32.5%) and South Carolina (32.2%), with the difficult-to-assess Loeffler race in Georgia (27.2%) just beyond that. However, they would still be unlikely to win in Alaska (14.3%) or Texas (4.5%).

Bottom line: In this scenario, Democrats net four to eight seats, with five or six the likeliest outcome. Summing the probabilities, though, suggests a Democratic net gain of 6.1 seats, making them very strong favorites to win back the Senate.

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Flying well under the radar are 11 states holding gubernatorial elections in 2020. Democrats are defending four of them; John Carney, Jay Inslee and Roy Cooper are all-but-guaranteed to be reelected in Delaware, Washington and North Carolina, respectively. The latter is somewhat surprising, given Cooper’s 0.2 point upset win over Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in 2016; the fundamentals suggest a 6.9-point lead, while the polls have him up 11.8 points—something in between these two seems likely.

The other governor’s mansion Democrats are defending is in Montana, where Bullock is stepping down after two terms (and running for the Senate). Montana leans 18.6 points more Republican than the nation, and Democrats Bullock and Brian Schweitzer have governed the state for 16 consecutive years, making it ready for a Republican flip; the fundamentals say House Member Greg Gianforte should win by 11.4 points. And while Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney is “only” trailing by 5.8 points, that is not close enough to give Democrats more than a 2.8% chance of winning.

Six Republican governors, meanwhile, are running for reelection—and all are expected to win by at least 9.3 points. This includes heavily Democratic Vermont, where Phil Scott leads Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman by 31.9 points, and partisan-neutral New Hampshire, where Chris Sununu leads both State Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Council of New Hampshire member Andru Volinsky by more than 30 points. The other four are Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Mike Parson in Missouri, former Democrat Jim Justice in West Virginia and Doug Burgum in North Dakota. In Utah, finally, Gary Herbert is stepping down after eight years; Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox is a near-lock to hold the governor’s mansion against Democratic law professor Christopher Peterson.

Bottom line: Even if one assumes polls are over- or under-estimating Democratic strength by three points, Montana is still the only state likely to flip partisan control—from Democratic to Republican. In fact, across all three scenarios, the range of “summed probabilities” is -0.50 to -0.76, with only the strong Democratic lean of Vermont keeping it even that close to no net change.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] That is, some variant of “If the election for United States House of Representatives was held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican in your Congressional district?”

Biden vs. Trump September 2020: A rising tide lifts more than enough boats

On November 3, 2020, the presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will mark the end of a weeks-long electoral process. One month ago, I analyzed all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—nationally and by state, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019.

Since then, Biden selected United States Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his vice-presidential running mate, as I anticipated, and both the Democrats and Republicans held mostly-virtual televised nomination conventions.

Did these events change the trajectory of this election?

The short answer is…no.

Table 1 lists the number of national polls assessing Biden vs. Trump conducted in 2019 and in each month of 2020; a handful of older polls were released since my last update. Sixty-five pollsters, with an average B- FiveThirtyEight pollster rating, have assessed the 2020 presidential election at least once since January 1, 2019; 45 of them (mean B-/B) have assessed the election more than once.

Table 1: Number of 2020 Monthly National Polls Assessing Biden vs. Trump

Month# Polls
All of 2019107
January 202020
February 202025
March 202035
April 202050
May 202048
June 202062
July 202051
August 202073[1]
TOTAL471

Fifteen pollsters (mean B-) account for 70% of these polls, as well as 68% of the 364 polls conducted in 2020:

  • YouGov (B-), 64 polls (49 in 2020)
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 48 polls (43 in 2020)
  • Ipsos (B-), 35 polls (28 in 2020)
  • HarrisX (C), 27 polls (18 in 2020)
  • Emerson College (B+), 19 polls (7 in 2020)
  • Fox News (A-), 18 polls (9 in 2020)
  • Change Research (C-), 16 polls (13 in 2020)
  • RMG Research (B/C), 15 polls (15 in 2020)
  • Data For Progress (B-), 14 polls (14 in 2020)
  • Optimus (B/C), 14 polls (13 in 2020)
  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 14 polls (9 in 2020)
  • Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research (C+), 13 polls (10 in 2020)
  • Quinnipiac University (B+), 11 polls (7 in 2020)
  • Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics (C+), 11 polls (6 in 2020)
  • CNN/SSRS (B/C), 10 polls (7 in 2020)

Figure 1 shows how Biden has fared monthly against Trump in 2020, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages (WAPA). I use pollster rating data to adjust for partisan lean (historic tendency to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and quality. I weight more recent polls higher, using this ratio: number of days since January 1, 2019 divided by 673, the number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. I then average two versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollster as statistically independent, and one treating all polls by the same pollster as a single, time-weighted value; differences between estimates are usually negligible.

Figure 1

Using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, Biden leads Trump nationally by 7.5 percentage points (“points”). Biden’s margin rose from just over four percentage points in January and February, when he was fighting for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, to just under six points in the three months after Biden’s decisive win in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, to between eight and nine points since June 1, the day protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square so Trump could pose in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a copy of the Bible.

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Again, though, presidential elections are fought across 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state. Table 2 lists the number of polls within each state assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, my estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state has voted over the last three presidential elections; eight states[2] and DC have not been polled.

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019

State3W-RDMOverall2020
Michigan2.27561
Wisconsin0.77360
North Carolina-6.06956
Pennsylvania-0.46253
Florida-3.45345
Arizona-9.75244
Texas-15.34833
Georgia-9.63126
Ohio-5.82016
California23.22014
Iowa-4.72013
New Hampshire0.11510
Minnesota1.51413
Colorado2.21210
Virginia1.5128
Kentucky-28.7119
Maine5.9118
Montana-18.6109
South Carolina-15.7108
Missouri-15.997
Massachusetts22.187
Nevada2.084
New York21.677
Utah-33.176
Washington12.175
New Jersey12.066
Connecticut12.864
Alabama-28.455
Kansas-23.455
Mississippi-18.544
Oklahoma-38.144
Alaska-19.243
North Dakota-29.442
New Mexico6.533
Tennessee-25.833
Indiana-16.333
Maryland22.622
Delaware12.522
Arkansas-28.211
Hawaii34.311
Louisiana-22.211
West Virginia-35.511
TOTALD-6.1719582

Nineteen states have been polled at least 10 times since January 1, 2019, of which 14 have been polled at least 10 times in 2020. Four of the top five, along with suddenly-swing North Carolina, are the closest states won by Trump in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida. Five other Republican-leaning states have been frequently polled: Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Iowa, reflecting their status as ongoing or emerging battlegrounds. California, with 54 EV, rounds out the 11 states polled at least 20 times overall.

National averages still matter, though. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. For example, North Carolina has recently been 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding that to Biden’s current national margin (-6.0 +7.5 = +1.5) suggests Biden is slightly favored to win North Carolina in 2020, based solely on its recent voting history. Indeed, Biden leads Trump by an adjusted mean of 1.9 points in 52 polls conducted in North Carolina. Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for Biden over Trump in each state in November 2020

State3W-RDMExpectedWAPAWAPA-Expected
DC82.089.5  
Hawaii34.341.829.1-12.7
Vermont27.735.2  
California23.232.728.4-2.3
Maryland22.630.124.6-5.5
Massachusetts22.129.634.34.7
New York21.629.125.9-3.2
Rhode Island18.025.5  
Illinois14.722.2  
Connecticut12.820.317.9-2.4
Delaware12.522.019.2-0.8
Washington12.119.624.65.1
New Jersey12.019.518.2-1.3
Oregon8.716.2  
New Mexico6.514.011.3-2.7
Maine5.913.410.4-3.0
Michigan2.29.77.0-2.7
Colorado2.29.712.12.5
Nevada2.09.53.8-5.7
Minnesota1.59.07.7-1.3
Virginia1.59.09.60.6
Wisconsin0.78.25.0-3.2
New Hampshire0.17.65.2-2.4
Pennsylvania-0.48.15.1-2.0
Florida-3.44.13.9-0.2
Iowa-4.72.8-1.6-4.4
Ohio-5.81.70.4-1.3
North Carolina-6.01.51.90.4
Georgia-9.6-2.1-0.71.3
Arizona-9.7-2.22.95.1
Texas-15.3-7.8-2.05.7
South Carolina-15.7-8.2-7.30.9
Missouri-15.9-8.4-6.32.2
Indiana-16.3-8.8-13.9-5.2
Mississippi-18.5-11.0-11.9-0.9
Montana-18.6-11.1-8.92.2
Alaska-19.2-11.7-4.37.3
Louisiana-22.2-14.7-11.23.5
Kansas-23.4-15.9-9.36.7
Nebraska-25.8-18.3  
South Dakota-25.8-18.3  
Tennessee-25.8-18.3-14.53.9
Arkansas-28.2-20.7-3.517.2
Alabama-28.4-20.9-18.22.7
Kentucky-28.7-21.2-17.04.2
North Dakota-29.4-21.9-20.41.5
Utah-33.1-25.6-13.112.5
Idaho-34.2-26.7  
West Virginia-35.5-28.0-34.3-6.3
Oklahoma-38.1-30.6-23.07.7
Wyoming-45.7-38.2  
AverageD-6.4Biden+1.5*Biden+2.1+0.7

* Only for the 42 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is +0.961, meaning polling matches expectations extremely well—as one increases or decreases, so does the other. Still, Biden is polling slightly ahead of those fundamentals, meaning state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his excellent national polling; that said, the difference vanishes once you adjust for a state’s 2016 presidential election turnout.[3]

Biden is underperforming expectations in some states, most notably Hawaii—the birthplace of former President Barack Obama, artificially inflating Hawaii’s Democratic vote margin in 2008 and 2012. He is also underperforming in woefully-under-polled Nevada. Biden leads there by 3.8 points, nearly six points lower than the 9.5 points by which he “should” be leading. Biden is also underperforming expectations in very Democratic Maryland (-5.5) and Republican-leaning Iowa (-4.4). By the same token, Biden is overperforming in the traditionally Republican states of Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, Alaska, Texas and Kansas, as well as in reliably-Democratic Washington. There is a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in states with 3W-RDM>-5.0, Biden is underperforming by 2.2 points, on average. In states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.4 points. Many grains of salt are in order here, though. In recent elections, “fundamentals” have missed the final margin by an absolute value average of 5.4 points.

Still, the close alignment between the two values allows us to combine them into a single estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, assuming polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. WAPA weight increases daily with proximity to November 3, 2020.

I also calculated how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming this likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I use mean = -0.8 and standard error = 7.1[4]
  2. For WAPA, I use standard error = 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls; this is likely an over-estimate, as pooling reduces the standard error of the resulting polling average.
  3. Combined probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors I use are arguably arbitrary, albeit defensible, the final EV probabilities shown in Table 4 are in line with what other forecasters are saying.

Table 4: Estimated final state margins and probability of winning EV, Biden vs. Trump, November 2020

StateEVP(EV): ExpectedP(EV): WAPAP(EV): OverallPredicted Margin
DC3100.0% 100.0%89.5
Hawaii4100.0%100.0%100.0%31.1
Vermont3100.0% 100.0%35.2
California55100.0%100.0%100.0%28.7
Maryland10100.0%100.0%100.0%26.1
Massachusetts11100.0%100.0%100.0%33.8
New York29100.0%100.0%100.0%26.3
Rhode Island4100.0% 100.0%25.5
Illinois2099.9% 99.9%22.2
Connecticut799.7%100.0%99.9%19.1
Delaware399.7%100.0%100.0%19.6
Washington1299.6%100.0%99.9%22.1
New Jersey1499.6%100.0%99.9%18.8
Oregon798.5% 98.5%16.2
New Mexico596.8%100.0%99.3%11.9
Maine496.2%100.0%99.4%10.9
Michigan1689.6%99.0%98.0%7.3
Colorado989.5%100.0%98.8%11.9
Nevada688.9%89.5%89.4%4.4
Minnesota1087.6%99.5%98.3%7.9
Virginia1387.5%99.9%98.3%9.5
Wisconsin1085.2%95.2%94.2%5.3
New Hampshire483.1%96.0%94.3%5.5
Pennsylvania2081.3%95.5%94.0%5.3
Florida2968.0%90.5%88.1%4.0
Iowa661.0%29.6%34.4%-0.9
Ohio1854.9%55.7%55.6%0.6
North Carolina1554.0%73.6%71.6%1.9
Georgia1634.4%40.7%40.1%-0.8
Arizona1133.6%83.6%78.4%2.4
Texas3811.4%24.9%23.4%-2.7
South Carolina910.4%0.8%2.2%-7.4
Missouri109.7%1.8%2.7%-6.5
Indiana118.9%0.0%1.4%-13.1
Mississippi64.9%0.0%0.7%-11.8
Montana34.7%0.2%0.7%-9.1
Alaska34.0%7.4%6.9%-5.5
Louisiana81.5%0.0%0.2%-11.7
Kansas60.9%0.1%0.2%-12.6
Nebraska50.4% 0.4%-18.3
South Dakota30.4% 0.4%-18.3
Tennessee110.4%0.0%0.2%-16.4
Arkansas60.1%12.2%9.3%-12.1
Alabama90.1%0.0%0.0%-19.5
Kentucky80.1%0.0%0.1%-20.8
North Dakota30.1%0.0%0.0%-21.0
Utah60.0%0.0%0.0%-15.1
Idaho40.0% 0.0%-26.7
West Virginia50.0%0.0%0.0%-31.2
Oklahoma70.0%0.0%0.0%-26.8
Wyoming30.0% 0.0%-38.2
  • He is at least an 88.1% favorite in enough states—and by margins of at least four points—to earn him 308 EV, or 307 depending on what happens in Maine, which, along with Nebraska, allocates two EV to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of its Congressional districts. Moreover, Biden could lose Florida (+4.0, 88.1%), Nevada (+4.4, 89.4%) and one EV in Maine and still win 272 EV, two more than he needs.
  • He is a 70-75% favorite to win in Arizona (+2.4) and North Carolina (+1.9), for an additional 26 EV, increasing Biden’s total to 333/334 EV.
  • The 34 combined EV of Ohio (+0.6) and Georgia (-0.8) are essentially toss-ups, meaning Biden has a roughly 73% chance to win at least one of them, putting him somewhere between 349 and 352 EV, with a maximum of 368 EV (or 369 with one EV in Nebraska).

Three months before Election Day 2020, and with every caveat about voting during a pandemic, Joe Biden is the strong favorite to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

Plus, it might take only a sharp break by undecided voters and a modest polling error for Biden to win the 44 combined EV of Iowa (-0.9) and the ultimate prize—Texas (-2.7). Thus, while something in the low-to-mid 300’s currently appears the most likely EV total for Biden, 413 EV cannot be discounted.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV and summing yields a “projected” EV total of 349.2, essentially adding Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and one of Ohio/Georgia to the states 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won.

Biden’s lead looks even more robust when you make either of two historically-valid assumptions:

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 301.2, still 31.2 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would also be favored by at least 74.6% in three states totaling 34 EV, getting him to 273 EV. Thus, even if Biden “only” wins the national popular vote by 4.2, he would likely still prevail, though the decisive states—some combination of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—would be decided by narrow margins, with all votes possibly not counted for a week or more.

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 389.4, 119.4 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 352 EV, while being a 74.9% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. He would also be a 69.1% favorite in Iowa, with Texas now a toss-up at 58.1%–and a projected Biden victory of 0.3 points! Based on only one poll, Biden would have a 33.2% chance of winning Arkansas’ 6 EV, plus a 14.3% chance of winning Missouri’s 10 EV and a 11.5% chance of winning Alaska’s 3 EV. The last presidential candidate to come close to 433 EV was Republican George H. W. Bush, who won 426 EV in 1988.

**********

To maximize the number of polls available for analysis, I use all polls going back to January 1, 2019; I also use a straightforward time-weighting method: increasing the weight of a poll by 1/673 = 0.0015 every day since then.

To test the validity of this weighting system, I re-estimated every WAPA and probability using the following time-weighting system, based on the key dates of February 29 and June 1 described above:

  1. Only use polls whose field date midpoint is January 1, 2020 or later (that is, date weight for 2019 polls = 0)
  2. Weight polls released in January and February 2020 as before
  3. Weight polls released in March, April and May 2020 twice as much as before
  4. Weight polls released in June, July and August 2020 three times as much as before
  5. Weight polls in September and October 2020 four times as much as before

This system gives vastly more weight to the most recent polls and correspondingly much lower weight to earlier polls.

As one would expect from Figure 1, Biden’s national lead jumps to 8.0 points using this time-weighting method, though the projected EV total barely increases to 351.4, with only minor changes in the probability Biden wins any given state: Nevada (92.3% and Florida (90.7%) rise slightly, while Ohio (52.2%) and Georgia (40.1%) decline slightly.

However, state-level changes in WAPA are very telling, as Table 5 reveals:

Table 5: 2020 Polling Margins, Biden vs Trump, Using Two Time-Weighting Methods

StateWAPA Original Time-WeightWAPA Recent Time-WeightDelta
Hawaii29.1029.100.00
California28.3729.911.55
Maryland24.6024.49-0.11
Massachusetts34.3034.300.00
New York25.8927.031.15
Connecticut17.9118.620.71
Delaware19.1720.040.87
Washington24.6526.131.49
New Jersey18.2018.220.02
New Mexico11.3011.770.47
Maine10.4010.710.31
Michigan7.027.570.55
Colorado12.1513.171.02
Nevada3.764.340.58
Minnesota7.738.340.60
Virginia9.5610.921.36
Wisconsin5.005.930.94
New Hampshire5.246.100.86
Pennsylvania5.075.200.13
Florida3.934.530.60
Iowa-1.61-1.080.53
Ohio0.430.11-0.32
North Carolina1.892.150.26
Georgia-0.70-0.87-0.17
Arizona2.933.010.08
Texas-2.03-1.920.10
South Carolina-7.25-6.620.63
Missouri-6.28-5.710.57
Indiana-13.92-14.48-0.56
Mississippi-11.92-11.500.41
Montana-8.86-8.360.51
Alaska-4.33-4.010.32
Louisiana-11.19-11.190.00
Kansas-9.27-9.030.24
Tennessee-14.47-14.280.19
Arkansas-3.50-3.500.00
Alabama-18.19-17.950.24
Kentucky-17.05-17.82-0.77
North Dakota-20.42-19.131.28
Utah-13.11-13.88-0.77
West Virginia-34.30-34.300.00
Oklahoma-22.96-22.030.93
AverageBiden+2.08Biden+2.480.40

Extending WAPA to two decimal places, Biden’s national lead increases by 0.46 points, from 7.50 to 7.97. However, rather than Biden increasing his lead by four or five points in some states, say, while decreasing his lead by three or four points in other states, only five states saw a decline in Biden’s average polling margin—Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and Utah; no decline was less than -0.77. And in only six states—Colorado, New York, North Dakota, Virginia, Washington and California—did Biden’s average polling margin increase by more than 1.00 points, with a maximum of 1.55. The standard deviation of the average change in Biden’s margin is only 0.55, showing how tightly bunched around the mean of 0.40 points these shifts are.

In other words, when switching to a time-weighting method which gives vastly more weight to polls released over the preceding three months while eliminating 2019 polls entirely, Biden saw his lead either not change or increase by up to 0.94 in 31 of 42 states. This remarkably consistent change should alleviate fears that Biden will win the popular vote by four or five points, yet still lose the Electoral College because he won even more votes than Clinton in safe states like California and New York while narrowing the 2016 margins in states like Georgia, Ohio and Texas without actually winning any of their EV. Instead, as Biden’s national margin increases, his lead in nearly every state—including nearly every swing state—increases correspondingly. Put differently, the same groups of voters fueling increases in Biden’s vote total in one set of states are also fuel increases in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida—and perhaps Arizona and North Carolina as well.

Figure 2 makes this same point in a different way. It compares current Biden WAPA to simply increasing every 2016 Democratic margin increased by 5.4 points, the difference between Biden’s current national polling lead and the 2.1 points by which Clinton won in 2016.

Figure 2

Figure 2 perfectly illustrates the adage “A rising tide lifts all boats,” or nearly all, anyway. Biden’s current state-level polling averages—as I calculate them—are astonishingly close to how you would expect him to fare in each state given a 5.4-point increase in the national Democratic margin.

**********

None of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be elected president of the United States on in two months. There are worrisome signs this year’s elections will not be conducted as efficiently and transparently as they could be. Delays in mail delivery—allegedly orchestrated by a newly-confirmed Postmaster General—could leave millions of votes uncounted because they did not arrive by November 3. Moreover, while Biden’s national polling lead has consistently ranged between four and 10 points over the last 20 months, a late-recovering economy or last-minute “October surprise” could erase this lead.

All that being said, however, unlike Clinton in 2016, Biden has a sufficiently-wide range of paths to 270 EV that I estimate he is at least an 80% favorite to be elected president of the United States on November 3, 2020—or whenever ballots are ultimately counted.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] Includes one Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll conducted August 31 to September 1

[2] DC, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming

[3] That said, this does not account for mid-to-large states like Oregon and Illinois where Biden is expected to win by double-digit margins.

[4] The former value is the mean arithmetic difference between “expected” and actual D-R margins across 153 state-level contests in 2008, 2012 and 2016, while the latter value is the standard deviation of these values. I recognize this is not a standard error. However, using the value 13.6—the range of values covering 95% of all values divided by 1.96, the final EV projection changes by only 1.0.

The Republican advantage in the Electoral College is real

As I detail here, the Electoral College (“EC”), not direct popular vote, determines who wins American presidential elections. Since 1856, the first presidential election in which the two major candidates were a Democrat (James Buchanan) and Republican (John C. Fremont), there were four presidential elections in which one candidate won the EC while another candidate won the popular vote; in all four elections—1876, 1888, 2000, 2016—the Republican won the EC and, thus, the presidency.

Those elections—just four out of 41 (10%)—could be considered flukes, were it not for the fact Republicans maintain a clear, quantifiable advantage in the EC.

One way to think about this is to consider a presidential election in which the two major-party candidates receive exactly the same number of popular votes. Put another way, this is a situation where the difference between the Democratic percentage of the popular vote and the Republican percentage of the popular vote equals 0.0%.

If there was no partisan advantage in the EC, we would expect both candidates to receive 269 electoral votes (“EV”), exactly half of the 538 available to them. Or, at least, a number very close to 269, allowing for third-party candidacies and “faithless” electors who vote for someone other than the plurality winner of their state.

Table 1 lists the winner, political party, popular vote margin (Democratic % – Republican %) and number of EV won by the winning candidate for the 17 presidential elections from 1952 through 2016. I chose 1952 because it was the first presidential election to feature television commercials by the major candidates and televised nomination conventions. It is also the first election to show cracks in the previously solid Democratic south: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia in 1952, adding Kentucky and Louisiana in 1956. As usual, all elections data come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Table 1: Winning Presidential Party, Margin of Victory (Dem % – GOP %) and Electoral Votes Won: 1952-2016

Year Electoral College Winner Party Margin EV
1952 Eisenhower Republican -10.9% 442
1956 Eisenhower Republican -15.4% 457
1960 Kennedy Democratic 0.2% 303
1964 Johnson Democratic 22.6% 486
1968 Nixon Republican -0.7% 301
1972 Nixon Republican -23.1% 520
1976 Carter Democratic 2.1% 297
1980 Reagan Republican -9.7% 489
1984 Reagan Republican -18.2% 525
1988 GHW Bush Republican -7.7% 426
1992 B Clinton Democratic 5.6% 370
1996 B Clinton Democratic 8.5% 379
2000 GW Bush Republican -0.5% 271
2004 GW Bush Republican -2.5% 286
2008 Obama Democratic 7.3% 365
2012 Obama Democratic 3.9% 332
2016 Trump Republican -2.1% 304

Republicans won 10 of these elections, by an average margin of 8.6% in the popular vote and 393.9 EV; this includes 2000 and 2016, when Democrats Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, respectively, won the popular vote but lost the EC. Democrats, meanwhile, won seven of these elections by an average margin of 7.1% and 361.7 EV.

In three elections, the Democratic and Republican percentages of the popular vote differed by less than one percentage point (“point”): 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy won by 0.2% with 303 EV; 1968, when Republican Richard M. Nixon won by 0.7% with 301 EV, with 13.5% and 46 EV for American Independent nominee George Wallace; and 2000, when Republican George W. Bush lost by 0.5%, but still eked out 271 EV after a controversial recount in Florida.

It is difficult to discern any sort of pattern here, other than the higher the popular vote margin, the more EV you win. Figure 1 shows this clearly.

Figure 1: Popular Vote Win Margin and Electoral Votes Won, 1952-2016

Winning Electoral College

As expected, there is a strong linear association between popular vote margin and EV won—including 2000 and 2016; margin alone accounts for 86% of the variance in EV. The formula was calculated using ordinary least squares (“OLS”) regression, and it tells us the average number of EV one would expect a presidential candidate to win based upon their popular vote margin.

Thus, for every 1.0-point increase in popular vote margin (expressed as 0.01), that candidate wins an 11.1 additional EV, on average. Moreover, when the margin is 0.0 points—a popular vote tie—the winner should receive 292 EV, 23 more than the expected 269 or so. Also, to earn 270 EV, the winner would actually LOSE the popular vote by 2.0 points!

How is this possible?

Figures 2 and 3, which break down the popular vote margin-EV association by party, help to explain.

Figure 2: Popular Vote Margin and Electoral Votes Won: Democratic Presidential Candidates, 1952-2016

Dem Electoral College

Figure 3: Popular Vote Margin and Electoral Votes Won: Republican Presidential Candidates, 1952-2016

GOP Electoral College

For both major political parties, every 1.0-point in popular vote margin increases EV earned by an average of 12.3. And in both models, popular vote margin alone accounts for 92% of variance in EV; these two variables are VERY strongly linearly associated.

However, it is where the fitted line crosses the Y axis that makes all the difference—this is the expected EV won by each political party in the event of a tied popular vote. For Democrats, a tie equates to only 251.0 EV, on average, 19 fewer than needed to win the presidency. For Republicans, however, that same tie equates to 282.7 EV, 12.7 more than needed to win the presidency. The slopes and r-squared values are identical, the Republican line is just 31.7 points higher at every value of popular vote margin.

In other words, on average, a tied total popular vote translates to a 283-251 Republican win in the Electoral College, with 4 EV going to third-party candidates or otherwise up for grabs. That translates to a 32-EV Republican advantage in the Electoral College.

Another way to measure Republican advantage is to calculate what popular vote margin a presidential candidate needs, on average, to secure 270 EV. For the Democratic presidential nominee, the formula is:

Popular Vote Margin = (270 – 251.0) / 1233.1) = = +1.5%

And for the Republican presidential nominee, the formula is:

Popular Vote Margin = (270 – 282.7) / 1230.8) = = -1.0%

That is, a Democratic presidential nominee must win the national popular vote by at least 1.5 points to secure a minimum 270 votes, while a Republican presidential nominee can do so while losing the total popular vote by 1.0 points. Third-party EV and faithless electors keep the values from being identical. Still, that translates to a 2.5-point popular vote advantage for Republicans in the Electoral College!

This is a very robust finding. For example, while the 2016 election looks like an outlier—as does, to be fair, 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan converted a 9.7-point popular vote margin of victory into 489 EV—removing it only improves the Democratic position slightly: a tied total popular vote still gives the Republican a 279.4 to 254.1 EC victory, while only reducing the popular vote advantage to 2.1 points.

Also, starting in 1964—the first election in which Alaska, Hawaii and the District of Columbia all contributed EV—actually increases the Republican advantage. The latter nominee would win 286.4 to 248.5 if the total popular vote were tied nationally, a 37.9 EV advantage equivalent to winning Texas’ 38 EV. Moreover, since 1964, a Democrat would need to win nationally by 1.8 points, on average, to win 270 EV, while a Republican could lose by 1.3 points—a gap of 3.1 points!

**********

My analysis of national- and state-level polling suggests 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, Jr. currently leads Republican President Donald J. Trump by 7.5 points, up slightly from the last time I wrote about the state of the race.

Plugging 0.075 into the Democratic formula yields a projected EV total of 343.5. This is remarkably close to the 349.6 EV I estimate Biden will received based on in my model; the number increases to 352 if I simply count up the EV from states I calculate Biden has >50% chance to win.

I also assess Biden’s chances if all polls are systematically over-estimating Democratic strength by 3 points and if all polls are systematically under-estimating Democratic strength by 3 points. That is, I consider a universe in which Biden is actually ahead by 4.5 points or by 10.5 points.

Entering 0.045 into the Democratic formula yields an expected 306.5 EV—basically, the states won by Clinton in 2016 plus Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. My estimate of Biden’s EV in this scenario is 301.7, or 308 using the states where Biden is better than even money.

Entering 0.105 into the Democratic formula yields an expected 380.5 EV—basically, the previous scenario plus Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and Iowa…but not Texas. The polling data, however, suggest Biden would do even better—389.6 EV, or 412 using the states where Biden is better than even money, including a 57.6% chance of winning Texas.

In other words, results from this simple one-variable model align almost exactly with the state of the race based on available polling data.

**********

Why this is the case, however, is a far more complicated question. The most direct answer is that Democratic votes are distributed less efficiently than Republican votes across the states. Democrats routinely win large states like California, New York and Illinois—104 total EV—by double-digit margins, padding their national vote total while adding 0 EV. Republicans, by contrast, win larger states by narrower margins, as they did in 2016, and smaller states like Wyoming, Idaho and Utah by huge margins which only minimally impact their national vote total.

Put differently, the Democratic strategy to run up the popular vote paradoxically hurts them in the Electoral College, while Republican strategy to eschew large national vote totals in favor of narrower wins in key states boosts them.

On a related note, Republicans have an advantage in swing states, as my 3W-RDMdemonstrates; this is a measure of how Democratic a state votes relative to the nation. Based solely on this measure, Table 2 lists how I would anticipate the following states to vote if Biden and Trump exactly tied in the total popular vote:

Table 2: Expected 2020 vote margins in 18 key states, based on tied popular vote

State EV 3W-RDM Current Biden polling
Oregon 7 8.7 n/a
New Mexico 5 6.5 11.3
Maine 4 5.9 10.4
Michigan 16 2.2 7.1
Colorado 9 2.2 12.4
Nevada 6 2.0 3.5
Minnesota 10 1.5 8.1
Virginia 13 1.5 9.6
Wisconsin 10 0.7 4.6
New Hampshire 4 0.1 5.2
Pennsylvania 20 -0.4 5.2
Florida 29 -3.4 3.9
Iowa 6 -4.7 -1.7
Ohio 18 -5.8 0.7
North Carolina 15 -6.0 2.0
Georgia 16 -9.6 -0.5
Arizona 11 -9.7 2.7
Texas 38 -15.3 -2.0

Assuming Biden starts with 175 EV[1] and Trump starts with 126 EV,[2] that leaves 237 EV up for grabs. In this popular-vote-tie scenario, Biden wins 84 of those EV, though Wisconsin and New Hampshire could be looking at a recount, for 259 EV. Trump wins the remaining 153 EV, with a recount possible in Pennsylvania, for 279 EV, very close to the 283-251 EV margin estimated earlier.

But while in this scenario Biden would narrowly win states like Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota and Virginia—Trump would be looking at far easier wins in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and, especially, Texas. This is because of the enormous gap between Pennsylvania, at 0.4 points more Republican, and Florida, at 3.4 points more Republican. While a Democrat could theoretically win 279 EV—and the White House—by winning the total popular vote by 0.4 points, s/he would have to win by at least 3.4 points nationally to have a little breathing room.

That all said, Biden’s current estimated lead of 7.5 points gets him those 308 EV relatively easily, while making him slightly favored in Arizona and North Carolina, perched on the razor’s edge in Ohio and Georgia, and pounding on the door in Iowa and Texas. A slight polling error in his favor, strong Democratic turnout/depressed Republican turnout and a decisive win among late-deciding voters, and Biden could turn 343-352 EV into 412 EV.

When you know in advance how high the mountain you need to climb is, it is far easier to prepare to climb it.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] District of Columbia, Hawaii, Vermont, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, New Jersey

[2] South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Wyoming

An update on Emerson College polling

In two essays I published in November 2019 (here and here), I addressed differences between polling results obtained by highly-respected Emerson College and those from other pollsters in the same race. Emerson College has an A- rating from FiveThirtyEight.com, and their analysts calculate that, on average, Emerson College polls are about 0.3 points more Democratic than other pollsters in the same elections.

Emerson College recently released new national and state-level polls, renewing interest in their work. I therefore decided to update my assessment by comparing Emerson College polls to those released by other pollsters in the same races, using all publicly-available polls released since January 1, 2019.

I Voted sticker

I begin with national polls of the 2020 presidential election between Democrat Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the former Vice President, and Republican incumbent Donald J. Trump. The 18 polls Emerson College has released of this race, weighted by time, average to a Biden lead of 3.6 percentage points (“points”) over Trump; this increases to 3.9 if I do not adjust for Emerson’s calculated Democratic lean. By comparison, the other 370 polls of this race—using my weighted-adjusted polling average (WAPA)—give Biden a 7.4-point lead, with essentially no partisan lean. That is, relative to other polls assessing Biden vs. Trump nationally, Emerson College polls are 3.5-3.8 points more Republican.

Table 1 repeats this comparison for every state in which Emerson College has polled the presidential election at least twice since January 1, 2019; the month of the most recent Emerson College poll is also listed. States are sorted by number of Emerson College polls and poll recency.

Table 1: Comparing state-level WAPA, Biden vs. Trump, Emerson College to all other pollsters

State # Emerson Polls Emerson College All Other Pollsters Emerson minus Other
Iowa 4

(12/2019)

-1.8 -2.2 D+0.4
Texas 3

(5/2020)

-1.4 -2.1 D+0.7
New Hampshire 3

(11/2019)

6.7 4.7 D+2.0
Massachusetts 2

(5/2020)

34.4 30.6 D+3.8
Ohio 2

(5/2020)

-0.4 1.0 D-1.4
California 2

(5/2020)

29.3 27.6 D+1.9
Michigan 2

(11/2019)

11.0 7.0 D+4.0
Nevada 2

(11/2019)

-0.4 +4.6 D-4.2
TOTAL/AVERAGE 20 9.7 8.9 D+0.8
Weighted by # polls 20 7.8 7.0 D+0.8

These eight states tell a very different story. On average, these polls show an average 0.8 points more support for Biden than all other polls in these states, irrespective of the number of polls Emerson College has conducted in that state. One major caveat is that Emerson College has yet to conduct a presidential horse race poll in calendar year 2020 in four of these states. If anything, though, state-level Emerson College polls of Biden vs. Trump have become more Democratic leaning: the four states with no calendar year 2020 polls show a Democratic lean of 0.45, broadly similar to the FiveThirtyEight estimate of 0.3, compared to 1.25 for the four states with a May 2020 Emerson College poll. Remove Massachusetts (home to Emerson College), however, and the difference vanishes.

I will post my assessment of polling in 2020 election for United States Senate (“Senate”) and governor around Labor Day; this assessment will only use polls released since January 1, 2020. At this point, though, Emerson College has released only two polls, in total, of any of this year’s 35 Senate and 11 gubernatorial elections. Both were conducted in Montana with 531 likely voters between July 31 and August 2, 2020. In the Senate race, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock trails incumbent Republican Steve Daines 44-50. The other six polls of this election give Bullock a narrow 0.9-point lead, for a pro-Republican lean of 6.9 points. Similarly, in the open governor’s race, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney trails Republican United States House of Representatives member Greg Gianforte 41 to 50; three other polls have Cooney down by 5.2 points, for a pro-Republican lean of 3.8 points. With all necessary caveats for small numbers, the average pro-Republican bias in these two polls is 5.4.

Curiously, while Emerson College presidential election polls force respondents to choose only between Biden and Trump—meaning their vote shares sum to 100%–in the two recent Montana polls, an average 7.5% of respondents chose an option besides the named Democrat and named Republican.

Still, this does not explain why, at the national level, Emerson College 2020 presidential election polls lean 3.5-3.8 points more Republican, while the sparse state-level polling leans 0.8 points more Democratic. Splitting the difference implies an Emerson College pro-Republican lean of about 1.4 points, but I would like to see far more state-level polling to have any confidence in that value.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from three months out

On November 3, 2020, the presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will mark the end of a weeks-long electoral process. Three months ago, I analyzed all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—nationally and by state, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019.

Now the elections end in three months. As we wait for Biden to announce his vice-presidential running mate and the start of the Democratic National Convention on August 17, here is an update.

Table 1 lists the number of national polls assessing Biden vs. Trump conducted in 2019 and in each month in 2020. Sixty pollsters, with an average FiveThirtyEight pollster rating of B-, have assessed the 2020 presidential election at least once since January 1, 2019; only 38 have assessed the election more than once (mean B-).

Table 1: Number of 2020 Monthly National Polls Assessing Biden vs. Trump

Month Biden
All of 2019 106
January 2020 20
February 2020 23
March 2020 34
April 2020 49
May 2020 48
June 2020 62
July 2020 45
TOTAL 387

Just eight pollsters (average pollster rating: B-) account for 53% of these polls, as well as 51% of the 281 polls conducted in 2020:

  • YouGov (B-), 55 polls (40 in 2020)
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 36 polls (31 in 2020)
  • Ipsos (B-), 30 polls (23 in 2020)
  • HarrisX (C), 21 polls (12 in 2020)
  • Emerson College (B+), 18 polls (6 in 2020)
  • Fox News (A-), 16 polls (7 in 2020)
  • Optimus (B/C), 14 polls (13 in 2020)
  • Change Research (C-), 14 polls (11 in 2020)

Figure 1 shows how Biden has fared monthly against Trump in 2020, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages (WAPA). I use pollster rating data to adjust for partisan lean (tendency to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and quality. I weight more recent polls higher, using this ratio: number of days since January 1, 2019 divided by 673, the number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. I then average two versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollster as statistically independent, and one treating all polls by the same pollster as a single, time-weighted value; differences between estimates are negligible.

Figure 1: 2020 Monthly weighted-adjusted average margins for Biden vs. Trump

Biden v Trump since Jan 2020

Using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, Biden leads Trump nationally by 7.2 percentage points (“points”). Biden’s margin rose from just over four percentage points in January and February, when he was fighting for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, to just under six points in the three months after Biden’s decisive win in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, to nearly nine points in June and July. The latter averages track closer to the FiveThirtyEight national polling average.

**********

Again, though, presidential elections are fought across 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state. Table 2 lists the number of polls within each state assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, my estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state tends to vote; 10 states[1] and DC have not been polled.

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019

State 3W-RDM Overall 2020
Michigan 2.2 61 47
North Carolina -6.0 52 39
Wisconsin 0.7 49 36
Pennsylvania -0.4 45 35
Florida -3.4 43 35
Arizona -9.7 41 33
Texas -15.3 41 26
Georgia -9.6 24 19
California 23.2 17 11
Ohio -5.8 14 10
Iowa -4.7 16 9
New Hampshire 0.1 14 9
Colorado 2.2 10 8
Virginia 1.5 11 7
Minnesota 1.5 8 7
Montana -18.6 8 7
South Carolina -15.7 8 6
Missouri -15.9 8 6
New York 21.6 6 6
Washington 12.1 7 5
Kentucky -28.7 7 5
Utah -33.1 6 5
New Jersey 12.0 5 5
Maine 5.9 7 4
Alabama -28.4 4 4
Nevada 2.0 7 3
Connecticut 12.8 5 3
Massachusetts 22.1 4 3
Alaska -19.2 4 3
New Mexico 6.5 3 3
Mississippi -18.5 3 3
Kansas -23.4 3 3
Tennessee -25.8 3 3
Oklahoma -38.1 3 3
North Dakota -29.4 4 2
Maryland 22.6 2 2
Indiana -16.3 2 2
Delaware 12.5 1 1
Arkansas -28.2 1 1
West Virginia -35.5 1 1
TOTAL D-6.7 556 418

Fourteen states have been polled at least 10 times since January 1, 2019, of which 10 have been polled at least 10 times in 2020. Four of the top five, along with suddenly-swing North Carolina, are the closest states won by Trump in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida. Four other Republican-leaning states have been frequently polled: Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Ohio, reflecting their status as ongoing or emerging battlegrounds. California, with 54 EV, rounds out the top 10.

National averages still matter, though. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. Comparing polling averages to this expected value tells us where Biden may currently be under- or over-performing.

For example, Biden currently leads Trump nationally by 7.2 points. North Carolina has recently been 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding those two values together (7.2 – 6.0 = +1.2) suggests Biden could easily win North Carolina in 2020. Indeed, Biden leads Trump by an adjusted mean of 1.9 points in 52 polls conducted in North Carolina, implying Biden is “outperforming” expectations there by about 0.7 points. Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for Biden over Trump in each state in November 2020

State 3W-RDM Expected WAPA WAPA-Expected
DC 82.0 89.2    
Hawaii 34.3 41.5    
Vermont 27.7 34.9    
California 23.2 30.3 27.5 -2.8
Maryland 22.6 29.8 24.6 -5.2
Massachusetts 22.1 29.3 32.1 2.8
New York 21.6 28.8 24.3 -4.5
Rhode Island 18.0 25.2    
Illinois 14.7 21.9    
Connecticut 12.8 20.0 16.8 -3.2
Delaware 12.5 19.7 16.3 -3.4
Washington 12.1 19.3 24.6 5.4
New Jersey 12.0 19.1 18.1 -1.1
Oregon 8.7 15.9    
New Mexico 6.5 13.7 11.3 -2.4
Maine 5.9 13.1 10.2 -2.9
Michigan 2.2 9.4 7.0 -2.4
Colorado 2.2 9.4 12.4 3.1
Nevada 2.0 9.2 3.5 -5.7
Minnesota 1.5 8.7 8.8 0.1
Virginia 1.5 8.6 9.1 0.5
Wisconsin 0.7 7.9 3.9 -3.9
New Hampshire 0.1 7.3 5.0 -2.3
Pennsylvania -0.4 6.8 5.2 -1.6
Florida -3.4 3.8 4.0 0.2
Iowa -4.7 2.5 -2.0 -4.5
Ohio -5.8 1.4 0.6 -0.8
North Carolina -6.0 1.2 1.9 0.7
Georgia -9.6 -2.4 -0.6 1.8
Arizona -9.7 -2.5 2.7 5.3
Texas -15.3 -8.1 -2.1 6.0
South Carolina -15.7 -8.5 -8.1 0.3
Missouri -15.9 -8.8 -5.7 3.1
Indiana -16.3 -9.1 -11.6 -2.5
Mississippi -18.5 -11.3 -12.0 -0.7
Montana -18.6 -11.4 -9.2 2.2
Alaska -19.2 -12.0 -4.3 7.6
Louisiana -22.2 -15.0    
Kansas -23.4 -16.3 -11.4 4.8
Nebraska -25.8 -18.6    
South Dakota -25.8 -18.7    
Tennessee -25.8 -18.7 -14.5 4.2
Arkansas -28.2 -21.0 -3.5 17.5
Alabama -28.4 -21.2 -17.0 4.2
Kentucky -28.7 -21.5 -18.2 3.3
North Dakota -29.4 -22.2 -20.4 1.8
Utah -33.1 -25.9 -12.0 13.9
Idaho -34.2 -27.0    
West Virginia -35.5 -28.3 -34.3 -6.0
Oklahoma -38.1 -31.0 -23.7 7.2
Wyoming -45.7 -38.5    
Average D-6.4 Biden+0.5* Biden+1.5 +1.0

        * Only for the 40 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is +0.993, meaning polling matches expectations nearly perfectly—as one increases or decreases, so does the other. Still, Biden is polling ahead of those fundamentals by an average of about one percentage point, meaning state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his excellent national polling; that said, the difference vanishes once you adjust for a state’s 2016 presidential election turnout.

Biden is underperforming expectations in some states, most notably woefully-under-polled Nevada. Biden leads there by 3.5 points, nearly six points lower than the 9.2 points by which he “should” be leading. Biden is also underperforming expectations in Iowa (-4.5) and Wisconsin (-3.9). By the same token, Biden is strongly overperforming in the traditionally Republican states of Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, Alaska, Texas and Arizona, as well as in reliably-Democratic Washington; the first four have only been polled 14 times in total, however. There is a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in states with 3W-RDM>-5.0, Biden is underperforming by 1.7 points, on average. In states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.7 points. Many grains of salt are in order here, though. In recent elections, “fundamentals” have missed the final margin by an absolute value average of 5.4 points.

Still, the near-perfect correlation between the two values allows us to combine them into a single estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, assuming polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. WAPA weight increases, by day, with proximity to November 3, 2020.

I also calculated how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming this likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I use mean = -0.8 and standard error = 7.1[2]
  2. For WAPA, I use standard error = 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls; this is likely an over-estimate, as pooling reduces the standard error of the resulting polling average.
  3. Combined probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors I use are arguably arbitrary, albeit defensible, the final EV probabilities shown in Table 4 are in line with what other forecasters are saying.

Table 4: Estimated final state margins and probability of winning EV, Biden vs. Trump, November 2020

State EV P(EV): Expected P(EV):

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

Predicted Margin
DC 3 100.0%   100.0% 89.2
Hawaii 4 100.0%   100.0% 41.5
Vermont 3 100.0%   100.0% 34.9
California 55 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 28.3
Maryland 10 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 26.0
Massachusetts 11 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 31.6
New York 29 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 25.2
Rhode Island 4 100.0%   100.0% 25.2
Illinois 20 99.9%   99.9% 21.9
Connecticut 7 99.7% 100.0% 99.9% 18.4
Delaware 3 99.6% 100.0% 99.8% 18.0
Washington 12 99.5% 100.0% 99.9% 22.0
New Jersey 14 99.5% 100.0% 99.9% 18.6
Oregon 7 98.3%   98.3% 15.9
New Mexico 5 96.5% 100.0% 99.2% 11.8
Maine 4 95.8% 100.0% 99.3% 10.7
Michigan 16 88.8% 99.1% 97.4% 7.4
Colorado 9 88.6% 100.0% 98.1% 11.9
Nevada 6 88.0% 87.9% 87.9% 5.2
Minnesota 10 86.6% 99.8% 97.6% 8.8
Virginia 13 86.5% 99.9% 97.6% 9.1
Wisconsin 10 84.1% 90.5% 89.5% 4.6
New Hampshire 4 81.9% 95.2% 92.9% 5.4
Pennsylvania 20 80.1% 95.8% 93.2% 5.4
Florida 29 66.4% 90.9% 86.9% 4.0
Iowa 6 59.2% 24.8% 30.5% -1.3
Ohio 18 53.1% 57.7% 56.9% 0.7
North Carolina 15 52.1% 73.4% 70.7% 1.8
Georgia 16 32.7% 41.8% 41.2% -0.8
Arizona 11 31.9% 81.8% 73.6% 1.9
Texas 38 10.6% 24.7% 22.3% -3.1
South Carolina 9 9.6% 0.3% 1.9% -8.2
Missouri 10 8.9% 2.9% 4.2% -6.3
Indiana 11 8.2% 0.0% 2.2% -11.0
Mississippi 6 4.4% 0.0% 1.1% -11.8
Montana 3 4.3% 0.1% 0.8% -9.6
Alaska 3 3.6% 7.4% 6.8% -5.6
Louisiana 8 1.3%   1.3% -15.0
Kansas 6 0.8% 0.0% 0.2% -13.8
Nebraska 5 0.3%   0.3% -18.6
South Dakota 3 0.3%   0.3% -18.7
Tennessee 11 0.3% 0.0% 0.1% -16.6
Arkansas 6 0.1% 12.2% 9.3% -12.3
Alabama 9 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -19.1
Kentucky 8 0.1% 0.0% 0.1% -21.2
North Dakota 3 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -21.1
Utah 6 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -16.0
Idaho 4 0.0%   0.0% -27.0
West Virginia 5 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -31.4
Oklahoma 7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -27.3
Wyoming 3 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% -38.5

Three months before Election Day 2020, and with every caveat about voting during a pandemic, Joe Biden is the prohibitive favorite to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

  • He is at least an 86.9% favorite in enough states—and by margins of at least four points—to earn him 308 EV, or 307 depending on what happens in Maine, which, along with Nebraska, allocates two EV to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of its Congressional districts. Moreover, Biden could lose Florida (+4.0, 86.9%), Nevada (+5.2, 87.9%) and one EV in Maine and still win 272 EV, two more than he needs
  • He is a 70-75% favorite to win in Arizona (+1.9) and North Carolina (+1.8), for an additional 26 EV, increasing Biden’s total to 333/334 EV.
  • The 34 combined EV of Ohio (+0.7) and Georgia (-0.8) are essentially toss-ups, meaning Biden has a roughly 75% chance to win at least one of them, putting him somewhere between 349 and 352 EV, with a maximum of 368 EV (or 369 with one EV in Nebraska).

Plus, it might take only a sharp break by undecided voters and a modest polling error for Biden to win the 44 combined EV of Iowa (-1.3) and the ultimate prize—Texas (-3.1). Thus, while something in the low-to-mid 300’s appears the most likely EV total for Biden, 413 EV cannot be discounted.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV and summing yields a “projected” EV total of 347.1, essentially adding Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and one of Ohio/Georgia to the states 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won.

Biden’s lead looks even more robust when you make either of two historically-valid assumptions:

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 299.7, which is still 29.7 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would also be favored by at least 63.8% in three states totaling 34 EV, putting him over the top. Thus, even if Biden “only” wins the national popular vote by 4.2, he would likely still prevail.

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 387.0, 117 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 352 EV, while being a 74.6% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. He would also be a 64.6% favorite in Iowa, with Texas essentially a toss-up at 55.3%–and a projected Trump victory of just 0.1%! Based on only one poll, Biden would even have a 33.2% chance of winning Arkansas’ 6 EV, with an 18.4% chance of winning Missouri’s 10 EV and a 10.9% chance of winning Alaska’s 3 EV. The last presidential candidate to come close to 433 EV was Republican George H. W. Bush, who won 426 EV in 1988.

**********

None of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be the next president of the United States; even three months from Election Day, it would be monumentally foolish for me to conclude that. Indeed, there are worrisome signs this year’s elections will not be conducted as efficiently and transparently as they could be. In an election in which a record number of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail, delays in mail delivery—allegedly orchestrated by a newly-confirmed Postmaster General—could leave millions of votes uncounted because they did not arrive by November 3. Moreover, while Biden’s national polling lead has consistently ranged between four and 10 points over the last 19 months, a late-recovering economy or a last-minute “October surprise” could upend that trajectory.

All that being said, however, unlike Clinton in 2016, Biden has a sufficiently-wide range of paths to 270 EV that I estimate he is at least a 90% favorite to be elected president of the United States on November 3, 2020—or whenever ballots are ultimately counted.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming

[2] The former value is the mean arithmetic difference between “expected” and actual D-R margins across 153 state-level contests in 2008, 2012 and 2016, while the latter value is the standard deviation of these values. I recognize this is not a standard error. However, using the value 13.6—the range of values covering 95% of all values divided by 1.96, the final EV projection changes by only 1.0.

Sybil: A brief, dramatic epilogue

Since July 2017, when I began to research and write Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I have spent hundreds of hours gathering information online, pulled many dusty books of the shelves to review, sorted through dozens of photographs and retrieved countless documents from my filing cabinets. I even pulled out my 44-year-old Best of Old Time Radio records to listen again to episodes of Gang Busters, The Green Hornet and The Shadow. Proper interrogation of memory demands meticulous attention to detail—no fact is too small to check. Nearly every one of those memory-interrogation aids proved, at worst, bittersweet and, at best, joyful. And not one provoked a viscerally negative reaction.

Until yesterday, that is.

A few days ago, I explained why the saga of “Sybil”—the pseudonym given Shirley Ardell Mason in a 1973 book and two-part November 1976 television movie—exemplified how not to interrogate memory:

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD [multiple personality disorder] she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA [American Psychiatric Association] along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

The proximate cause for this interest, bordering on obsession, was writing in what I anticipate will be Chapter 10 about watching Sybil when it first aired: not all of it, I think, but more than enough. I had just turned 10 years old, which begs the question how I was allowed anywhere near a television set broadcasting it, let alone sitting in my faux-leather swivel chair in our downstairs den watching it.

I write about Sybil in the larger context of how many inappropriate television shows and movies I watched as a child; this sets up being a young teen watching whatever I chose on the television set, complete with HBO, in my new bedroom. Perhaps because it was just becoming part of the zeitgeist, Sybil was one of at least three televised portrayals of child/spousal abuse I watched in 1976. The title character of A Girl Named Sooner is subjected to emotional abuse. Around the same time Sybil aired, Martin Mull played the loathsome Garth Gimble, a wife-beater who traumatizes their son into bed-wetting, on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. When those episodes aired, commercials for Electric Light Orchestra’s A New World Record featured snippets from “Livin’ Thing;” for years I could not listen to that song without shuddering. While I have long since made my peace with that excellent tune, I only wanted to push Sybil as far out of my mind as possible.

Until yesterday, that is.

As for the lack of parental discretion: one month earlier, my mother was forced to get a telephone solicitation job because my father had finally lost the business his family had operated since 1926—when it was already 40 years old. His gambling had become destructive; I recall a sheriff coming to the house one night to take him away. A few months later, on March 2, 1977, my parents formally separated; my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I moved into a nearby apartment. The night before they separated, my father sat down at our kitchen table to type out a short report for me; he had rarely, if ever, done anything like that before. When he was finished, he set the two sheets of paper to the side then asked me if I knew what was happening the following morning. I told him I did. At that point, he cried in front of me for the first and last time. Whatever I was personally feeling about the impending disruption of my young life, my empathy kicked in, and I began to comfort him.

Indeed, I had spent most of my childhood that way; my severely intellectually-impaired older sister, who had only moved into a full-time residential facility less than two years earlier, simply required too much attention. It helped that I was a naturally quiet and bookish boy.

Sue Ellen Drive Jan 1977

And that may explain what happened to me yesterday afternoon.

**********

I am shocked, frankly, how curious I became about the underlying “truth” of Sybil; the film had traumatized my 10-year-old self that much. But, in the same way we keep poking our tongue into an aching tooth, I kept looking for clips from the film. My wife Nell, partly to stop me talking about it, first suggested I should finally watch the entire movie. Which I resisted…for about as long as it takes to read this sentence.

Unable to locate in on Comcast OnDemand, Amazon, Netflix or YouTube, I contented myself with those clips, mostly out of context. Except those clips only aroused my curiosity further. Those brief glimpses were that compelling. Then, less than 24 hours after writing the previous essay, I found the full, three-hour-plus movie here.

I immediately started to watch it, mesmerized. It was already dark, however, and my foolishness only extends so far, so I paused after the first half. Already, though, I could see how director Daniel Petrie and screenwriter Stewart Stern were playing a bit fast and loose with established facts. Setting the sessions between Mason and Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in 1970s Manhattan, rather than between 1954 and 1965, was likely a way to save money on costuming and sets. It was likely also to condense the sweeping story that “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City, not—as with the real-life Mason—about a decade earlier in Omaha, NE.

Somewhat disorienting, though, the flashback scenes set in fictional Willows Corner, WI have the look and feel of the 1930s—when Mason truly was a young girl. And the first scene we see there is the upsetting tonsillectomy Mason actually had when she was seven—the event journalist Debbie Nathan believes was the kernel of truth the suggestible Mason turned into the more outlandish tales of sexual and physical abuse. In the movie, this merely serves the purpose of establishing young Sybil’s desperate fear of her mother—and her love for her protective, albeit invalid, grandmother. But it is almost as though they knew future—and highly skeptical–researchers would point to this event, so they wrote this scene. Just as they wrote a brief scene between Dr Wilbur (Gina Petrushka) and a fictional older female mentor named Dr. Lazarus. As they walk through Manhattan, the latter tellingly says, “Such a compliment they [the personalities of “Vicki” and “Peggy”] should reveal themselves so quickly.” After Dr. Wilbur gushes about her new patient, they stop at the railing along a riverbed. There, Dr. Lazarus cautions Dr. Wilbur,

“Be careful. Honey, be careful. Do not fall in love with her illness, or she could be obligated to seem just more complex than she is, just to keep your approval. You know that about little girls, they’re defenseless but belong to somebody else. Pieces, fragments, illusions. And they are acting out a drama that has nothing to do with you.”

When Dr. Wilbur replies that she knows that, Dr. Lazarus adds the kicker: “So…you mustn’t act out one that has nothing to do with them.” For instance? “For instance, you are not their mother.” Literally the next thing we hear after this sage—and thoroughly ignored—advice is Woodward’s voiceover explaining how hard following that advice is. Watching naïve “Peggy,” who thinks she is a nine-year-old living in a small Wisconsin town, disappear into the Manhattan night so tugs at her, she wants to call her back. And, of course, Dr. Wilbur does become a surrogate mother to “Sybil,” just as the actual Dr. Wilbur did to Mason.

I finished the movie the following day. Once again, I saw how Petrie and Stern protected themselves: adding a love interest named Richard, eliminating the use of barbiturates during hypnosis and reducing the June 1958 recanting letter to a brief conversation. Most important from the perspective of memory interrogation, though, are the wholly fictional scenes in which Dr. Wilbur meets with “Sybil’s” father in Chicago, unethically discussing his daughter and conveniently learning “Hattie” was once diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She then travels to Willows Corner to investigate. There, she receives confirmation from Dr. Quinones (Charles Lane) about young “Sybil’s” many severe injuries, including bladder and uterus damage that foreshadow the climactic “green kitchen” scene. Dr. Wilbur also visits “Sybil’s” now-empty childhood home and finds both the green kitchen and proof of another traumatizing event. This is then used to get “Sybil” to admit she fabricated her recanting. And when “Sybil’s” personalities finally merge into one on a field somewhere–not even close to how this allegedly happened one day in 1965–Woodward’s voiceover tells us “Sybil” stayed in psychoanalysis for 11 years, airbrushing the months during which the movie has taken place.

All of which brings us to…the scene.

In my memory, it lasted a very long time and was quite graphic. I also had young Sybil bound in a closet. As the scene began, my heart was racing; I was legitimately scared of what I was about to see. However, while still horrifying, much of what I thought I had seen was actually implied through editing and voiceover—and there was no closet. Chalk up another win for memory interrogation.

Still, once the scene—which was also much shorter than I remembered—was over, and we were back in the park where the revelations take place under hypnosis, I began to cry. Not “a few tears rolled down my cheeks,” but uncontrollable, body-racking sobs—wet, snotty and loud. My entire body shrieked with visceral anguish. It was a good 10 minutes before I began to calm down.

Yes, any person with a drop of empathy would recoil in horror at what I had just witnessed—and what the imagination conjured on top of it. IF we are wrong, and young Shirley Ardell Mason was subjected to these medieval tortures, then Martha Mason should suffer the eternal punishments of the damned—and I write this as a Jewish-raised atheist who was never taught, and never accepted, such things.

And there was a good deal of relief I had made it through the movie; this was something I clearly needed to face.

Underneath all of that, though, was something else—my own pain and hurt. When I first watched that scene, way back in November 1976, my happy life was crumbling around me—that my life arguably turned out far better is beside the point. I was never able to express how I truly felt about the separation—I was too compliant for that. My father was shattered, and my mother was becoming what she would call “nervous.” Suddenly, not even 11 years old, I was the man of the house, at least in an emotional support sense. There was little-to-no space for me to grieve what I was losing.

So, perhaps, I did the next best thing. I displaced those feelings onto a terrifying television movie, converting and expanding already-awful scenes into Grand Guignol horror. I never fully understood this until the last few weeks, as I began to interrogate my own memories of those days. And then—when I had watched the scene again—it all came pouring it.

I suspect there is more to come.

**********

Let me just add this: despite its factual inaccuracies and dubious veracity, Sybil deserved all of its accolades. Purely as a work of art, it is astonishing and highly recommended. As good as Woodward is, Field gives an absolutely tour-de-force performance.

As for the real Shirley Ardell Mason?

The following facts are illuminating:

  1. Shirley is said to be the only surviving child of Walter and Martha Mason.
  2. The latter was already 39 years old when Shirley was born in 1923, when a woman’s life expectancy was just 58.5
  3. Shirley survived, but was frail and sickly—and was treated with calf’s liver for what very likely was pernicious anemia.

Under these conditions, is it remotely surprising the “bizarre” Martha Mason would practically smother her only child—intelligent, artistic and sensitive—with extreme overprotectiveness? So much so that when Martha Mason died in 1948, Shirley had never really learned how to care for herself as an adult in the larger world outside rural southern Minnesota. Her father, having found a new romantic partner, then stopped giving his daughter money. That same daughter who was so fascinated by psychology in college.

Of course, Shirley Mason would feed Dr. Wilbur’s personal and professional interest in multiple personality disorder—however unconsciously—in order to appear “more complex than she is” to her surrogate mother, the woman who was essentially supporting her in New York City.

All of this is merely conjecture, of course, based only upon a twice-seen television movie and a little bit of online research; I confess I have not read any of the primary books on Sybil/Shirley Mason. Nonetheless, it remains the best example I have yet found of how not to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

How NOT to interrogate memory: Sybil, false memories and flawed incentives

At 9 pm EST on Sunday, November 14, 1976, approximately 20% of Americans had their television set turned to their local ABC affiliate. What they were about to watch, across four hours over two nights, would win four Primetime Emmy Awards the following spring. It would also change the course of psychiatry for decades, and—at least in the short term—not for the better.

Three years earlier, journalist Flora Rheta Schreiber, who also taught English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had published a book called Sybil. “Sybil Isabelle Dorsett” is the pseudonym for a young woman from a small Wisconsin town treated by psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia Wilbur in New York City from 1954 to 1965. Dr. Wilbur ascertained “Sybil” had 16 distinct personalities. These personalities only integrated after one of them, a nine-year-old girl named Peggy, finally was able to articular the horrific sexual abuse and torture “Sybil” had suffered at the hands of her devoutly Seventh Day Adventist mother “Hattie,” who Dr. Wilbur decided had been a paranoid schizophrenic.

The book had sold six million copies, so a film adaptation was almost inevitable. Presumably the medium of television was chosen because the final run-time of 198 minutes was too long for a feature film. Daniel Petrie, who would soon win a Primetime Emmy Award for the January 1976 television movie Eleanor and Franklin, was brought in to direct. Joanne Woodward, who 19 years earlier had played the title character in another film about multiple personality disorder (“MPD”), The Three Faces of Eve, signed on to play Dr. Wilbur. Many actresses were considered for the challenging role of Sybil—one requiring the portrayal of 16 distinct characters using only facial expressions, intonation and body movement—until the very last audition. That audition was by Sally Field, then best known for her starring roles in situation comedies like Gidget and The Flying Nun. Casting her against type was beyond inspired; one of Sybil’s four Primetime Emmys went to Field for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.

Less than two months before Sybil shocked and wowed the nation, I turned 10 years old. As I detail in Chapter 10 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I watched a great deal of inappropriate movies and television as a boy and young teenager. This lack of parental discretion is somewhat mitigated by the fact I watched most of these dramas with at least one parent. And, if memory serves, I did not watch all of Sybil.

I saw more than I should have, though, including the scene no child should ever see, the one in “the green kitchen.” If you have seen Sybil, you know exactly what I am talking about. Nearly 44 years later, I am still traumatized by it.

The thing is…much of this “true story” very likely never actually happened.

Yes, there was a real-life young woman with severe emotional problems from a small Midwestern town who had strict religious parents and who was treated for 11 years by Dr. Wilbur.

But the 16 personalities—and the stomach-churning scene in “the green kitchen?”

They appear to have been false memories induced in a co-dependent young woman in order to please the MPD-obsessed doctor she desperately wanted to keep seeing.

**********

I first attempt to define “interrogating memory” in the Preface:

The results of the genetic testing and those tentative steps gave me the first inkling the story I had always told about my adoption […] was not strictly accurate. In fact, half of it was flat-out incorrect. Yet, these were the stories with which I had been raised, the stories we all believed to be true….

Delving deeper into my family history, reaching out to family members, using newly-available investigative tools such as Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, and reviewing what the innate archivist in me had retained and carefully filed (school-assignment genealogy reports and a hand-written family tree were especially helpful), I observed other inconsistencies in what I thought I knew. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn—and the more I wanted to get it right, even if that meant relinquishing some of my favorite stories.

As a highly-trained researcher—I have advanced degrees in political science, biostatistics and epidemiology informed by nearly two decades as health-related data analyst and project manager—I followed every available investigative path: wandering through a maze of Philadelphia-area cemeteries to read headstones in English and Hebrew; prowling city archives and libraries; engaging in extensive telephone, e-mail and snail-mail conversations with extraordinarily helpful individuals; and even talking to literal eyewitnesses to my own history.

Two paragraphs later, I am still circling around a cogent definition:

At one level, interrogating memory is just a fancy term for “fact-checking.”

But it is much more than that. “Interrogating memory” could be considered the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories for hidden meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history and mystery.

Or to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, is that really how it happened?”

Interrogating memory was also inspired by […] partisanship so deep and intense it even affected where we got our information….

Critical thinking skills were vanishing as well, as the nation endured an epistemological crisis wherein roughly 40% of the nation believed everything President Donald J. Trump said, roughly 50% of the nation disbelieved everything he said—and everybody else was not sure what to think.

I offer this book as a counter to those divisions, a call to seek the truth no matter what the cost to our preconceived ideas. As a result, I belabor such details as precisely where and when an ancestor was born because such details matter, and because validating every fact matters, especially when what people call “facts” are too often simply regurgitations from a favorite website or commentator.

Next, I open the Introduction with a definition-by-example: the story of a friend from my early childhood so badly burned I never saw him again, a story I thought until recently I had either invented or been told as a cautionary fable.

Later, in the last chapter, I tell the story of watching Sybil as a barely-10-year-old boy. I now realize I effectively saved the best for last. Sometimes it is easier to define an amorphous concept like “interrogating memory” by providing an example of what it is not. Mutually-contradictory incentives resulting in the catastrophic decision not to examine, with the utmost scientific rigor, the sequence of events described in the 1973 book is just such an example.

**********

We begin at the beginning, in Dodge Center, MN, roughly 75 miles southeast of Rochester—and about that distance west of the Wisconsin state line. Shirley Ardell Mason was born in that small town of roughly 900 people on January 25, 1923. She was the only surviving child of Walter Wingfield, self-employed architect and carpenter who also worked as a clerk in a hardware store, and Martha Alice “Mattie” Atkinson Mason. Both parents were 39 years old when Shirley was born; I can find no record of other children, so presumably they either died in childbirth or too young to be recorded in the decennial United States Census. Data from those Censuses reveal the Masons rented space in a house owned by Shirley’s paternal grandparents, Neill and Mary Mason, at 4 Grove Street, [1] then owned the house outright after Neill Mason died in February 1935; Mary Mason had died three years earlier in April 1932.

Shirley Mason

Photograph of Shirley Ardell Mason from here.

The Masons were indeed strictly observant Seventh Day Adventists; according to fellow art student Jean Lane, Mason maintained that religiosity into adulthood. Seventh Day Adventists are taught not to read fiction, but the brilliant young Shirley Mason was highly imaginative and loved to invent stories.

A Newsweek article from 1999 further explores Mason’s childhood:

Residents recall a somewhat withdrawn, slender girl with a talent for painting. Betty Borst Christensen, 76, grew up across the street from the Masons. “Shirley was very protected,” Christensen recalls. “Her mother didn’t let her do much.” Mason’s second-grade teacher, Frances Abbott, now 93, remembers that Mattie Mason would grab Shirley’s hand “in a vise lock” when they crossed the street. “”Shirley couldn’t get free even if she tried. She was a timid little soul always under Mother’s care”

[…M]any people in Dodge Center say Mattie…was bizarre. “She had a witchlike laugh,” recalls Christensen. “She didn’t laugh much, but when she did, it was like a screech.” Christensen remembers the mother walking around after dark, looking in the neighbors’ windows.

After graduating high school in 1941, Mason enrolled at what was then Mankato State Teachers College—now Minnesota State University, Mankato—to study art. The overprotective Martha Mason permitted her daughter to live there. Lane recalled Mason being quite thin with long hair, and often sick with colds “and this and that.” A talented painter, Mason also played the basement piano very dramatically, to relieve “a tremendous amount of emotional pressure” of unknown origin. This shy devout woman also told Lane about going downtown to “drink and carouse at the bars.” Mason began to blackout in class; once becoming “comatose” after fainting. It was then the school nurse rode with Shirley Mason on a train to Omaha, NE, where her family now lived. This nurse ascertained the problem had “a psychological component;” Mason and Lane had often talked about psychology, conceiving from Lane’s book on Freud that “most of our problems were related to our parents.” In fact, Mason read a great deal about psychology; she was “very concerned about it.”

It was in Omaha Shirley Mason met a 30-something Freudian psychoanalyst named Cornelia Burwell Wilbur, who briefly treated her, allowing Mason to graduate Mankato in 1949.[2] The Masons then moved to Kansas City, MO, where, on July 25, 1948, 64-year-old Martha Mason died from a heart attack. According to Lane, 25-year-old Mason spent the rest of her life looking for more mothers.

Meanwhile, sometime after returning to Mankato. Lane did something Mason thought was not the right thing, after which Mason spoke to her “in a little boy’s voice.” Lane just looked at her, thinking this was strange, then left as soon as she could.

Lane also recalls Shirley Mason’s mother Martha this way:

“Her mother was very, very protective. Shirley kind of took over her mother’s life. And when Shirley was in grade school, when she wanted to know what the teachers thought of her, she would send her mother to school to ask. Her mother was white-haired, tall—taller than Shirley—very thin, very nice. She didn’t want Shirley to keep rats. Shirley kept rats, I don’t know, probably because her mother didn’t want ’em. Her father was more distant. Her mother was so caring of Shirley; as long as she lived, Shirley was OK. It’s when she passed away that the father got himself a girlfriend.”

After that, Walter Mason would never give her daughter money, no matter how broke Shirley was.

All of which brings us to New York City, where Mason moved shortly after graduating from Mankato to attend Columbia University. I observe without comment she chose to live in “Gotham City” rather than near her father, who died at the age of 78 in Lansing, MI on April 12, 1962.

**********

From two youthful suicide attempts, to a hit-and-run accident, to an anxiety-inducing 2016, I have been in therapy with four different psychotherapists. With varying degrees of success, each used some form of talk therapy, And—unless it was specifically and obviously relevant to that session’s discussion, I was never questioned about my early childhood, or about what my mother or father did to me, or what was suggested could have been done to me. And other than being an 11-year-old sipping cold Coke, I never interacted with my therapists outside of the office, nor learned much, if anything, about their personal lives. They were always a “blank slate”: never feed the patient answers, let the patient arrive at those answers on her/his own.

Which brings us back to Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.

Born Cornelia Brown Burwell on August 26, 1908 in Cleveland, OH, she earned her BA and MD from the University of Michigan. On June 4, 1934, she married 23-year-old Henry Wilbur. As of early 1942, according to Henry Wilbur’s WWII draft registration card, they were still living in Ann Arbor, MI.

Cornelia Wilbur

Photograph of Dr. Cornelia Burwell Wilbur from here.

Within a year, however, they had moved to Omaha, where Dr. Wilbur joined the newly-formed Department of Psychiatry at Bishop Clarkson Memorial Hospital. There, in 1943, she made a silent “training” film with the department’s founder, Dr. Abram Elting Bennett. The film, unsettling at times, opens with these written words:

“Short acting barbiturates given intravenously are useful in psychiatry for: 1. Estimating affective responsiveness before shock therapy is given. 2. As an aid in ventilation of conflict material. 3. As an aid in psychotherapy for relief of anxiety, ten- [words missing].

“Sodium thioethamyl and sodium pentothal both ultra short acting barbiturates are given intravenously in a five per cent solution by intermittent injection (1 c.c. per minute) until the response desired is obtained.

“This method called narco-synthesis caused the patient to reexperience emotions originally associated with psychic trauma. The patient synthesizes emotions and memories under light narcosis and develops insight, thus breaking up the neurotic, infantile reactions.

“It is also of value in determining whether certain schizophrenic-like states will respond to convulsive shock therapy. This is measured by the amount of emotional release occurring under the influence of the drug. These cases showing strong affective responses are likely to respond to convulsive shock therapy.”

Five different patients are then shown—with only the bare minimum of context, one of them an 11-year-old girl—before and after their injections. Mercifully, we see no shock treatments. But it is not at all clear what we are supposed to conclude from this film.

From our current scientific and ethical perspective, this film is upsetting. Administering powerful narcotics until the “response desired is obtained” is astounding: at no point is this response explicitly defined, suggesting it is solely at the psychiatrists’ discretion. Electro-convulsive therapy is now only used in rare, highly-proscribed situations. We have learned barbiturates can lead to tolerance and psychological and/or physical dependence, especially after prolonged high dosage. Moreover, we also now know that “at moderate to high doses, some of the drugs may actually impede memory or make it more likely that the person misremembers.” [Italics added for emphasis.]

I question why Drs. Bennett and Wilbur made this creepy film rather than present these cases to a medical journal for peer review—did they fear the scrutiny? Finally, as someone who wrote informed consent forms simply to administer health-related questionnaires, I do not see how such consent could have been obtained. Did the parents of the 11-year-old girl really allow her to be administered sodium thioethamyl on camera? The ethical misconduct, however beneficent the outcome, is appalling.

But this was the treatment milieu of Dr. Wilbur when Shirley Mason resumed her sessions with her in late 1954, at the former’s Park Avenue home office in Manhattan.

And here reality and fantasy begin to diverge.

**********

Here also is where the public record tells different stories. While it is clear Dr. Wilbur made the mistake of asking the impressionable Mason to read about MPD, it is unclear when this took place. An August 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview with journalist Debbie Nathan, whose 2011 book Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case makes the case against Mason having MPD, clearly states this occurred in Omaha in the 1940s—perhaps resulting in the “young boy” who corrected Jean Lane. But in an excerpt of Nathan’s book published in the New York Times in October 2011, Nathan herself describes the sequence of events this way:

“One day in late winter of 1955, about five months after their first session in New York, Mason surprised Wilbur by telling her about some bizarre “jams” she’d gotten into. Sometimes, she said, she would “come to” in antiques shops, her mind a blank, facing dishes or figurines that were smashed to pieces. Or, she recounted, she found herself in strange hotels with no idea what city she was in.

“Wilbur was astounded. She believed Mason was experiencing what were known as fugue states, a condition she treated in her very first patient in 1940. A person suffering from a fugue state left home for hours, days or even weeks, and behaved like someone else entirely. Fugue states were a rare form of hysteria caused by dissociation. From Wilbur’s point of view, they were also spectacular.

“Ten days after receiving her fugue-state diagnosis, Mason arrived for her morning appointment. Usually, she settled herself primly on the couch and spoke softly and timidly. But on this day her movements were energetic, her voice loud and childish.

“’How are you today?’ Wilbur asked her patient.

“’I’m fine but Shirley isn’t,’ was the answer. ‘She was so sick she couldn’t come. So I came instead.’

“Wilbur didn’t miss a beat. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ she said.

“’I’m Peggy!’ the patient chirped.

“She gave details. Peggy was a little girl with dark hair. Shirley couldn’t stand up for herself, so Peggy stood up for her. Shirley couldn’t get angry, so Peggy got angry. Shirley was always scared, and Peggy liked to have fun. When she gained control she went anywhere she felt like going — including to other cities, like Philadelphia.

“At the next appointment, Mason apologized for missing her last one. Wilbur told her she hadn’t, that she had actually been in the office — as someone else. She wanted to tell her patient that she had a condition even stranger than fugue states. But before Wilbur could introduce the topic of multiple-personality disorder, Mason changed the subject.

“The following week, Mason seemed poised and well mannered rather than loud and childish. ‘I’m Vicky,’ she announced. Wilbur asked Vicky if there were any other people inside Shirley besides herself and Peggy.

“’Oh, yes!’ Vicky answered. There was Peggy Lou, but there was also Peggy Ann. Both were outgoing, though Peggy Ann was more tactful. Months after Peggy first appeared, Mason wrote in her therapy diary that when she was a child, she and her mother, Mattie, would play a game in which Mattie would call her daughter by the names Peggy and Peggy Ann. (During Shirley’s childhood, some of the most popular dolls were marketed as ‘Peggy’ and ‘Peggy Ann.’ Mattie loved dolls and bought many for her daughter.)

“When Mason left, Wilbur, flabbergasted, did the math. She’d known about multiple-personality disorder for years, but her patient had a least four personalities, more than Wilbur had ever heard of.”

It is hard for me to comprehend how Dr. Wilbur could so credulously have accepted these “personalities” without careful and intense probing. Nonetheless, by this account, Dr. Wilbur and Mason never discussed MPD until the following session in early 1955. This suggests Nathan herself does not have all of her facts straight. Indeed, Dr. Patrick Suraci, author of his own book on Mason, condemned Nathan’s methods and veracity.

Returning to Nathan’s account, meanwhile, rather than dismay at the MPD diagnosis, Mason was curious and relieved. “Vicky” then began to hint at dark secrets, leading Dr. Wilbur to use narcosynthesis to uncover what she was now certain was a buried truth: young Shirley had suffered traumatic abuse at the hands of Martha Mason, who Dr. Wilbur now suspected, without any independent examination or investigation, was a paranoid schizophrenic.

Over the next few years, Dr. Wilbur injected Mason with sodium pentothal and tape-recorded their sessions. Most tapes were destroyed, but some—as well as numerous transcripts—are stored with a cache of documents Schreiber had archived at John Jay after her death in 1988. It was in those sessions the first details of the traumatic events were revealed: “And they put flashlights in you and bottles out of little silver boxes and they put a blanket over your face and hold a light over. You can’t breathe and it hurts and you kick and you can’t move.”

It appears likely that Mason, desperate to keep seeing the therapist on whom she had a crush and/or had replaced her mother, and under the influence of powerful memory-altering narcotics, had transformed a not-very-pleasant tonsillectomy at the age of seven into a horrific tale of sadistic sexual abuse. The operation was recorded by Martha Mason herself in the baby book she kept for her daughter, currently housed in the John Jay archive.

But Dr. Wilbur had begun planning a book based upon her sessions with Mason, and she would soon begin to lecture on her patient. It was Mason herself that first threw a monkey wrench into the works. In June 1958, she handed—unprompted—Dr. Wilbur a typed letter in which she essentially admits lying about her then-four personalities:

“Before coming to New York, she wrote, she never pretended to have multiple personalities. As for her tales about ‘fugue’ trips to Philadelphia, they were lies, too. Mason knew she had a problem. She “very, very, very much” wanted Wilbur’s help. To identify her real trouble and deal with it honestly, Mason wrote, she and Wilbur needed to stop demonizing her mother. It was true that she had been anxious and overly protective. But the “extreme things” — the rapes with the flashlights and bottles — were as fictional as the soap operas that she and her mother listened to on the radio. Her descriptions of gothic tortures “just sort of rolled out from somewhere, and once I had started and found you were interested, I continued. . . . Under pentothal,” Mason added, “I am much more original.”

And here, in a nutshell, is why interrogating memory is so difficult. If Mason had never before experienced MPD, then who was the young boy who spoke to Jean Lane in Mankato? And, unless Dr. Wilbur and Mason first discussed MPD back in Omaha, then where did “Peggy” and “Vicky” come from? Remember, by Nathan’s own telling, these “personalities” appeared spontaneously, before narcosynthesis. A likely explanation is that Mason happened upon the rare syndrome when she read about psychology in college. The line about being “much more original” is telling here; Mason, like many psychotherapy patients, wanted to maintain her therapist’s interest.

Dr. Wilbur’s reaction, however, is even more troubling. Rather than spend time discussing the letter and its implications for her treatment, she shuts down Mason, telling her this is merely her mind’s way of avoiding facing “the truth.” In fact, using baffling circuitous logic, it was proof the abuse had occurred. Mason, not wanting to lose Dr. Wilbur, then wrote a letter recanting her recanting. The narcosynthesis resumed, and before long four personalities had become 16.

What happened next is what most convinces me Dr. Wilbur and Mason, based upon what seemed to them rational incentives, created a pattern of false memories and non-existent personalities each firmly believed to be reality—because they were never properly interrogated; perhaps Mason was less certain, though she never again claimed they were false.

That is because Dr. Wilbur again chose not to publish the case notes, ones she could have validated with her tape recordings, in a peer-reviewed journal, but in a mass market book. According to the CBC interview, because Dr. Wilbur was not a good writer, she chose a journalist—not a fellow psychiatrist—to help her write it. Schreiber insisted “Sybil,” a name she chose from the Greek prophetess of myth, had to be cured first; there are numerous versions of how this suddenly happened in 1965. In the movie, Dr. Wilbur first goes to Sybil’s childhood home—which the Masons left at least 20 years earlier—and finds verification of some of the traumatic stories. She then brings Sybil there…and Peggy finally tells what happened in the green kitchen, after which Sybil “meets” Peggy and the personalities integrate.

Meanwhile, Schreiber, after her own fact-checking, begins to doubt what she is writing. But the advance had already been paid, so after getting firm denials from Dr. Wilbur and Mason, she kept quiet. In an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show around the time Sybil was released, Schreiber takes umbrage at the word “hoax,” insisting “every word in the book” is true. In a way, this is true—the accounts of the sessions were likely recorded accurately. It is simply that the insufficiently-interrogated memories adduced in those sessions are likely false.

The book and the movie, as we have seen, were overwhelmingly successful; all three women, who shared equally in the profits, became wealthy. The public attention, in fact, was so great, the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to include the diagnosis “multiple personality disorder.” Almost overnight, the cumulative number of cases skyrocketed from 75 to over 40,000. Dr. Wilbur even opened her own MPD clinic. All of which meant that any subsequent desire by any of these three women to interrogate those memories with proper rigor would have meant the loss of fame and fortune, and sparked an angry backlash.

On top of that, Dr. Wilbur continued to care for Mason financially and emotionally for years, even though Mason had a successful career as a commercial artist. Both eventually moved to Lexington, KY; Mason never married and, like Dr. Wilbur, never had children. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading Mason to reverse roles and take care of her, Dr. Wilbur died from a stroke on September 20, 1992. Mason then died from breast cancer on February 26, 1998.

It was at that point what residents of Dodge Center, MN had long suspected was finally revealed: that Sybil Isabelle Dorsett and Shirley Ardell Mason were one and the same. At about the same time, a series of a lawsuits stemming from the over-diagnosis of MPD led the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to reconsider its definition. Eventually, it was redefined and given the more anodyne name “dissociative identity disorder.”

**********

So, if not MPD, what—if anything—was wrong with Shirley Ardell Mason? Besides the natural difficulty of being an intelligent, imaginative child raised in a conservative small town by a slightly odd, severely overprotective and deeply religious mother, thus never learning how to fend tor herself in the larger world and remaining child-like for years that is? Nathan hypothesizes she had pernicious anemia, whose symptoms could easily have been misdiagnosed as a psychogenic disorder. Both explanations likely have merit.

Unfortunately, we may never know whether the events recounted in Sybil occurred the way Mason first told Dr. Wilbur they did, or whether they are false memories resulting from a confluence of rationalized incentives: the troubled young woman searching for a mother figure; the young psychiatrist trained in an archaic and unscientific methodology so eager to have a case of MPD she ruthlessly probed her suggestible young patient—herself a substitute daughter—until she heard what she wanted to hear; and the journalist and professor who, simply put, should have known better.

At every step along the way, all three women—and even Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who treated Mason when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation, but kept his doubts about her alleged multiple personalities to himself for decades—failed to consider the fantastic tales unfolding with the most rudimentary skepticism. This failure to interrogate memory perversely made them rich and famous, albeit behind a pseudonym for one. The consequence, however, was a destructive over-diagnosis of a once-rare—for good reason—mental disorder, sweeping even the powerful APA along with it.

For these reasons—never mind that the artistic and piano-playing Mason reputedly could not draw or play a note as “Sybil”—this episode is a textbook example of how NOT to interrogate memory.

Until next time…please wear a mask and be safe during the pandemic.

[1] This street, and intersecting East Franklin Street, have since been renamed. In fact, nearly every street name in Dodge Center is now a number like 3rd Avenue, SW.

[2] In the television movie, “Sybil” first meets Dr. Wilbur in New York City. She is sent to her for a neurological examination after she blacks out teaching art to elementary-school aged children, then severely slashes her wrist smashing a window.a

Further interrogating memories of childhood fires

I plan to complete a first draft of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own later this summer. No, I have not yet identified a publisher or a literary agent, though that is the goal. But as with my Noir of Who essay, I always planned to finish this labor of love before contemplating next steps.

Meanwhile, as much as I have learned about my genetic family, my legal family and my own past, key questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered. For example, while I have definitively identified my genetic mother, she steadfastly refuses to communicate with me beyond one terse text to her younger sister, whom I met in person in August 2019. Furthermore, while I am nearly certain I have identified my genetic father—a man who, unfortunately, died in 2006—I cannot discuss him with my genetic mother.

Similarly, I remain unable to pinpoint the precise date and circumstances of two fires from my early childhood. In fact, I may never obtain this information for the early 1970s fire at the John Rhoads Company. Founded in West Philadelphia in 1886 as a carpet cleaning company, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother first assumed control of it in 1926, with my father assuming control in 1960. Folks who live adjacent to the site—now an empty lot—recall the fire, but not precisely when it happened. My maternal aunt is certain my father hired a convicted arsonist named Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set the fire, presumably to collect insurance money; it is likely my father was already accumulating gambling debts. Advertisements for John Rhoads stopped appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers at the end of March 1972, only to resume for its second, and final, location in September 1974. But within that time frame, there is no public record of a fire at that location.

On a more positive note, though, I may be zeroing in on exact date of the fire at my childhood home, on Sue Ellen Drive in Havertown, Pennsylvania. One breakthrough occurred during the same trip I met my genetic maternal aunt: Assistant Chief Mike Norman of the Manoa Fire Department showed me this photograph. “Sue Ellen Drive” is written on its back, and Chief Norman stated the uniforms were those worn in 1973, meaning it depicts the aftermath of the fire in question—if what I have deduced through an analysis of the events of that night is correct.

IMG_4252 (2)

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As for the fire, let me once again walk through what I know—or think I know—about that night, with the caveats these events occurred nearly 50 years ago, my mother died in 2004, and my older sister is unable to articulate any memory of that night.

At the time of the fire, I was in first grade.

If this is correct, that limits the fire to sometime between September 1972 and June 1973.

We did not have school the next day, and my father was out particularly late, suggesting it was a Friday or Saturday night; I am almost certain it was a Saturday night.

It being a Saturday night is purely impressionistic—it is what comes to mind when I probe the memory. Either way, though, this further reduces the number of days on which the fire could have occurred.

The first I knew something was wrong was when I awoke in my bedroom—all three bedrooms were on the top floor of the split-level three-story house—to find Mindy standing quietly in my doorway.

Mindy is severely mentally impaired. According to her annual Life Enrichment Plan, which summarizes every aspect of her treatment and history, she lived with on Sue Ellen Drive through June 1973—when I finished first grade—then was in and out of residential facilities until entering her current residence in December 1974.

I then could smell—or feel or sense—the smoke and/or heat rising from the ground floor playroom, situated beneath Mindy’s bedroom. I must have roused our mother from our parents’ bedroom—our father was not home—because the next thing I remember is the three of us standing on our neighbor’s lawn with our Keeshond Luvey, still wearing whatever we had worn to sleep, watching the firefighters.

There are a number of things to unpack here.

First, Luvey—so named by our mother because “he loves everybody!”—was born on December 17, 1972. We acquired him—one night at a pet store in Wilmington, Delaware for…reasons—when he was only a few weeks old, likely in early January 1973. If Luvey was with us, that limits the day of the fire to a Friday or Saturday night between January and June 1973.

Second, I do not recall any of us needing heavy jackets, nor do I think it was raining or especially windy; the photograph, at the very least, does not contradict this. This would eliminate January and February, when average minimum temperatures in Philadelphiawere 15.6 and 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, narrowing the time frame to between March and May 1973.

Thankfully, the firefighters had responded to the alarm—sent by a neighbor perhaps—quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the playroom, though that was destroyed. As Chief Norman remembered it, he and his unit received the call while they were returning to the fire station from another local fire.

If Chief Norman’s memory is correct, there was at least one other fire that night, not just in Havertown, but in the smaller area served by Manoa Fire Company—one of five volunteer fire stations in the town. Hold that thought.

Deeming our house uninhabitable, my mother drove Mindy, Luvey and I to a nearby motel to spend the night. For some reason—my memory says Mindy unnerved the front desk clerks, though they may simply not have allowed dogs and/or had no vacancies—we were unable to rent a room there. We returned to our house—our father had not yet returned—to sleep, despite the lingering smell of the fire. Our mother would later say the fire started because she had not turned off the hair drying unit—one with an apparatus you tilted over your head while sitting—she had been using in the playroom. I do not know if she had simply forgotten to do so, or if it needed to “cool down.” Either way, she thought her husband would turn if off when he came home. He never did, and the unit either overheated or short-circuited, starting the fire.

To be honest, this story has never made a great deal of sense; my wife Nell openly scoffs at it. Moreover, our mother’s older sister more than hints it was set by Klayman because my father had not yet paid him for setting the John Rhoads fire.[1] However, Chief Norman did not find the story unreasonable at all, analogizing it to teenagers leaving hair curlers on in the bathroom.

That there was such a hair drying apparatus can be seen on the right side of this photograph. While I cannot be certain when this photograph was taken, Luvey could easily be a few months old, and I could easily be six years old, putting it in the spring of 1973.

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

A few years later, the “fire marshal” came to Lynnewood Elementary School to speak to us about fire safety; Sitting to my right in the auditorium during the assembly was one of my best friends, a girl who lived just a few houses from me. When one particular house appeared on the screen, she prodded my arm. Pointing to the screen, she excitedly whispered, “Matt…That’s your house!”

It was, in fact, my house. Not only had a photographer been at the fire, but someone had filmed it as well. Theoretically, either could have been the work of a neighbor, though Chief Norman suggested the photograph, at least, was taken by a professional.[2] This would also explain how the film shot that night made its way into the fire safety film watched that day in Lynnewood. Incidentally, Haverford Township did not have a designated fire marshal until the 1980s, so I suspect the speaker was the fire chief of one of Havertown’s five volunteer fire companies.

But that begs this question: if the fire in our house merited photographing and filming, why can I not find a single mention of it in the Delaware County Daily Times (DCDT), which regularly featured stories about local fires? Using the invaluable Newspapers.com, I carefully went through every edition from March 1 through May 31, 1973—page by tedious page—on the off chance either the street name or the town name had been written incorrectly, but there was not a single reference to a house fire anywhere in Havertown. I did find an April 26 story describing three different fires throughout all of Delaware County in the previous 24 hours.[3] Presumably, two fires in the same night in a much smaller geographic area would have been irresistible—assuming, of course, they had been aware of it in time; reader tips apparently drove much of the DCDT’s reporting on events such as fires.

However, in the spring of 1973, the DCDT did not publish a Sunday edition—meaning events which occurred on a Saturday night could easily have been missed; there was more than enough other news to fill Monday editions. If the fire in our house occurred on Saturday night/Sunday morning, this could be the reason—other than simply being deemed insufficiently newsworthy—the fire in our house did not appear in the DCDT.

Meanwhile, what can we learn using the weather conditions I remember from the night of the fire?

Table 1 displays the temperature, precipitation level and wind speed at 12 midnight on every Friday and Saturday night between March 1 and June 2, 1973. Midnight is a reasonable approximation to the time the fire occurred, and weather conditions rarely appreciably varied between 10 pm and 2 am.

Table 1: Midnight Weather Conditions of Friday and Saturday nights, March 1 to June 2, 1973

Date Weekday Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit Precipitation level in inches Wind speed in miles per hour
March 2 Friday 47 0 5, NNE
March 3 Saturday 42 0.08 13, NNE
March 9 Friday 44 0 12, ENE
March 10 Saturday 42 0 9, E
March 16 Friday 57 0.06 10, E
March 17 Saturday 41 0 29, WSW
March 23 Friday 42 0 12, NNW
March 24 Saturday 43 0 6, W
March 30 Friday 47 0 5, WNW
March 31 Saturday 50 0.06 10, E
April 6 Friday 51 0 8, W
April 7 Saturday 50 0.02 2, SSE
April 13 Friday 40 0 8, N
April 14 Saturday 40 0 7, S
April 20 Friday 49 0 12, E
April 21 Saturday 56 0 7, SW
April 26 Friday 52 0 17, ENE
April 27 Saturday 55 0 15, SW
May 4 Friday 47 0 14, W
May 5 Saturday 54 0 9, N
May 11 Friday 56 0 8, WNW
May 12 Saturday 55 0 7, SW
May 18 Friday 46 0 6, W
May 19 Saturday 57 0 7, SSE
May 25 Friday 54 0 12, ENE
May 26 Saturday 51 0.04 7, ESE
June 1 Friday 67 0 6, WSW
June 2 Saturday 64 0.09 11 pm, 0.10 1 am 8, SE

Beginning with the assumption there was zero precipitation at the time of the fire, we can eliminate March 3, March 16, March 31, April 7, May 26 and June 2. Next, using the assumption it was not especially windy, let us additionally eliminate any night wind speed was at least 10 miles per hour (MPH): March 9, March 17, March 23, April 20, April 26, April 27, May 4, May 25. It is not at all clear how to define “not cold enough for anything other than pajamas/nightgown and bathrobes,” but let us use 45 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum temperature. That further eliminates March 10, March 24, April 13 and April 14.

At this point, the only Saturday nights remaining are April 21, May 5 and May 12, forcing me to rethink my memory the fire took place earlier in the year; the conditions were unseasonably mild .

And here things get interesting.

At just after 10 am on the morning of April 21, 1973, 21-year-old Barry Foster was turning the Sun Oil truck he was driving—loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline—from I-95 onto Chester Pike in Eddystone, when “it just toppled over.”[4] Foster managed to escape the truck, which began to leak its contents; he and the owner of a nearby auto repair shop—who happened to be Vauclain Fire Company Chief Donald “Duck” Daliessi—began to warn occupants of nearly buildings. Their quick actions, along with those of another local police lieutenant and fire chief, saved lives: no sooner had 1301-03 Chester Pike been evacuated when gasoline leaking into its basemen was ignited by a heating apparatus. The resulting fire—at one point rising 100 feet into the sky—burned until around noon, destroying five buildings. Other than some cuts from flying debris, though, nobody was seriously injured. Traffic was snarled for five hours, however, and firefighters remained on the scene for nearly 24 hours—or until roughly 10 am on Sunday, April 22, 1973–which was Easter Sunday that year. IF the fire occurred the previous night, this could explain why we could not rent a room at the motel–they were booked for the holiday weekend.

No other fire—not even multiple fires the same night in the same town—could have compete for limited space in a local paper that typically was limited to 22 pages on Monday. And this it is at least consistent with the idea our house fire did not make the DCDT because it occurred on a Saturday night and was deemed insufficiently newsworthy for the following Monday edition.

The same applies to the night of Saturday, May 5. Early the following morning, a fire left five residents of apartments at 17 and 19 Main Street in Darby; just after the alarm was sounded at 3:39 am, a Yeadon police car collided with a Darby Fire Company No. 1 fire truck two block east, with no serious injuries.[5] One week later, the DCDT splashed this headline across the top of the front page of its Monday, May 14 edition: “2 hurt, 13 die in weekend crashes.”

Of course, none of this really proves anything—I cannot be absolutely certain the fire was not on a school night; or on a colder, wetter night; or that Luvey was with us. Indeed, the essence of interrogating memory is not to take any remembered fact or story detail at face value. Moreover, I was no more than six years old when this fire occurred, and that was 47 years ago; memories morph and fade in far shorter time frames.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of rigorous and meticulous validation—using a range of independent, verifiable data—interrogating memory demands. Thus, I tentatively, in the lightest pencil, list April 21, May 5 and May 12, 1973 as the likeliest dates the playroom in my childhood house was destroyed by a fire of questionable origin.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] I should point out that IF this is true—and it is a huge IF—this would confirm what I strongly suspect: the John Rhoads fire occurred no more than a few months after April 1, 1972.

[2] He gave me the name Brian Feeney, of Feeney Fire Films, but his Twitter profile states he did not start taking photographs of fires until around 1996, after serving 23 years as a firefighter.

[3] “Fires hit Yeadon, Radnor, Brookhaven; no one injured,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 26, 1973, pg. 12

[4] “Police, firemen are credited with saving lives in fire, blast,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 23, 1973, pg.1

[5] “5 left homeless in blaze,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), May 7, 1973, pg.1

Quantifying Biden’s choices for running mate

Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. stated in a May 27, 2020 interview he hoped to choose his vice-presidential running mate by August 1. In March, Biden definitively stated he would choose a woman to run with him. Meanwhile, a recent Morning Consult poll tested the relative strength of nine rumored candidates, finding that only three Senators even slightly boosted Biden’s electoral position: United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. The other six—Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) from Florida Val Demings—all hurt Biden, albeit slightly. Notably, the first three Senators sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, boosting their national profile in the process—and making it difficult to distinguish “actual” electoral boost from name recognition.

In the early summer of 2016, when it became clear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee that year, I built a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet listing 200 possible choices—including every current Senator, governor, Representative serving as party leader or Committee ranking member, mayor of one of the top 10 cities by population, or Cabinet member, as well as anyone who had served in that position within the last 10 years and a handful of other options. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine—who Clinton named her running mate on July 22, 2016—just edged out Klobuchar and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for the highest score.

Once it became clear Biden would be the nominee, meanwhile, I built an analogous spreadsheet. Along with every current and recent Senator, governor, big-city mayor and Cabinet official, I included all 89 women serving in the House as Democrats, as well as Abrams.

However, I excluded any woman who was:

  • Born outside of the United States, citing the “natural born citizen” requirement of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America
  • Under the age of 35, citing the same requirements
  • From the state of Delaware, citing the requirement in Amendment XII that the vice president “shall not be an inhabitant of the same state as” the president.
  • A non-political figure such as media titan Oprah Winfrey or former First Lady Michelle Obama

My final list contained 123 candidates, including:

  • 80 current (79) or former (1) House members
  • 21 current (16) or former (5) Senators
  • 7 current (5) or former (2) governors
  • 9 former Cabinet officials
  • 4 mayors: former Houston, TX Mayor Annise Parker, as well as Atlanta, GA Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; San Francisco, CA Mayor London Breed and Chicago, IL Mayor Lori Lightfoot
  • Abrams and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson

And here is a scene our younger daughter drew on the still-popular white board. This has nothing to do with Biden’s selection of a running mate; I just like it.

Nora Drawing May 2020

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To assess the candidates for vice president, I examined three broad categories:

  1. Demographic balance
  2. Governmental experience
  3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

The first category is both symbolic—women of color overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party—and practical—this year’s vice-presidential nominee could well the next presidential nominee. It also acknowledges that Biden is a 77-year-old white man, meaning a much younger woman of color would provide the clearest contrast.

The second category speaks to the ability of the Vice President to assume the presidency at a moment’s notice, as stipulated in Amendment XXV. This is especially important in a Biden Administration, as Biden, who would be the oldest president of the United States, suffered two brain aneurysms in February 1988.

Finally, the third category stipulates that no presidential candidate should ever assume victory, so it is important for a running mate to increase the likelihood of such a victory by, for example, unifying the party or helping to win key voting blocs or regions.

Ideally, then, Biden’s running mate would be a younger woman of color with sufficient governmental experience who can enhance his chances of defeating President Donald J. Trump in November 2020. Or, at the very least, his running mate will not hurt Biden in any of these categories; above all else, a vice-presidential running mate should do no harm.

I calculated a score for each variable, as follows:

1. Demographic balance.

Age. To balance the fact Biden will be 78 years old on January 20, 2021, I created the following point system, using the somewhat-arbitrary “center point” age of 57 (20 years younger than Biden) and adjusting for someone being too young:

  • 35-46 (n=17): (57-Age)-2*(47-Age)
  • 47-66 (60): 57-Age
  • 67-76 (32): (57-Age)-3*(Age-67)
  • ≥77 (12): (57-Age)-5*(Age-67)

This measure penalizes being older—especially older than Biden—far more than it rewards being younger, and it ranges from 10 for 47-year-old Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut to -124 for 86-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Race/Ethnicity. To balance the fact Biden is white, I assigned the following points:

  • White (n=77): -50
  • Asian (6): 25
  • Native American (2): 50
  • Latina (10): 75
  • Black (25): 90
  • Black and Asian (1): 100

Harris has a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.

Sexual orientation: I want to think sexual orientation does not matter—but I subtracted 25 points if a listed woman was openly lesbian (Baldwin, Lightfoot, Parker and Minnesota Representative Angela Craig) and 10 points if there were rumors (former Maryland Secretary Barbara Mikulski, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano).

TOTAL. The sum of these three measures ranges from -124 (Feinstein) to 102 (Harris)—literally the two Senators from California. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 1:

Table 1: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Demographic Balance

Name Age Ethnicity Lesbian? TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris 55 Black/

Asian

No 102
Connecticut Representative Jahana Hayes 47 Black No 100
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams 46 Black No 99
Massachusetts Representative Ayana Pressley 46 Black No 99
San Francisco Mayor London Breed 45 Black No 98
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms 50 Black No 97
New York Representative Yvette Clark 55 Black No 92
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell 55 Black No 92
Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice 55 Black No 92
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath 59 Black No 88
Former EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson, Jr. 59 Black No 88
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch 61 Black No 88

The average value of this sum is -21.4, with a standard deviation (SD) of 71.1; the median is -47 (Florida Representative Kathy Castor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Nevada Representative Susie Lee).

2. Governmental experience.

I calculated the number of years a candidate held each of these offices—Senate, governor, other statewide office (last 10 years only), House, Citywide office (last 10 years only), Cabinet—up to a maximum of 12 years, the equivalent of two Senate terms, to avoid overlapping with age too much. From this I subtracted the number of years since a candidate held that office. I assigned Abrams 1.75 years for her time as Minority Leader of the Georgia State House.

I weight experience as follows:

  • Senate = 5
  • Governor = 4
  • Other statewide office = 3
  • House = 2
  • Citywide office = 2
  • Cabinet = 1
  • Other (e., Abrams) = 1

This variable ranges from 0 for Williamson to 64 for New Hampshire Senator (and former Governor) Jeanne Shaheen. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 2:

Table 2: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Governmental Experience

Name Office 1 Office 2 TOTAL
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen Senator, 12 years Governor, 6 years (-5 for time since 2008) 64
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, 12 years None 60
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar Senator, 14 years None 60
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell Senator, 20 years None 60
Washington Senator Patty Murray Senator, 28 years None 60
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Senator, 20 years None 60
California Senator Dianne Feinstein Senator, 28 years None 60
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Senator, 8 years House, 14 years (-8 years since 2012) 52
Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill Senator, 12 years (-2 years since 2018) None 50
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Senator, 8 years Credit 1 year for Directing Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 41

The average of this weighted sum is 17.8 (SD=15.1); the median is 16 (14 women with 8 years in the House, including former 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidate Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii).

3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

For this category, I considered eight questions:

  1. Will she help Biden win a key state in the Electoral College?
  2. Does she lack foreign policy or national security experience?
  3. Will she provide ideological balance?
  4. Will her ascension to the Vice Presidency cost Democrats a Senate seat?
  5. Is she a Senator up for reelection in 2020?
  6. Did she run for president in 2020?
  7. Has she ever run for political office?
  8. Is she a first-term member of the House?

Swing state status. On average, a vice-presidential nominee adds 2-3 percentage points to the party’s margin in her/his home state. But for most states—ones that are reliably Democratic or Republican, for example—these extra points mean nothing. In fact, choosing a running mate from one of these states could be considered a lost opportunity.

Using the probability Biden wins a given state in the 2020 presidential election, I determined which states were most likely to be the “tipping point” states—the state that gets him to the necessary 270 Electoral votes (EV) when states are ranked from most to least Democratic.

There are 13 states, including Delaware and the District of Columbia, where Biden is at least a 99.7% favorite, and they total 175 EV. The 54 candidates from these states were assigned -10 points.

In three states—Maine, New Mexico and Oregon—Biden is a 97.6-97.7% favorite; these states total 16 EV, although Maine assigns one EV to each of its two Congressional districts (CD). Thus, while the four candidates from New Mexico and Oregon are assigned -5 points, the two from Maine are assigned 0, because the 2nd CD could be pivotal. This gets us to 191 EV.

In four states—Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia—Biden is a 93.6-95.8% favorite; these states total 48 EV, for an overall total of 239. These states could possibly be the tipping point states, though that currently seems very unlikely. Thus, the 14 candidates from these states are assigned 0 points.

In three states—Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania—Biden is an 86.9-88.3% favorite; these states total 30 EV, for an overall total of 269. These are the first states that could reasonably be called tipping point states, thus the 11 candidates from these states are assigned 2 points.

The bottom line is that, RIGHT NOW, Biden is at least a 5-1 favorite in enough states to earn him 268 or 269 EV, depending on one CD in Maine.

The next most likely states for Biden are Wisconsin (78.8%, 10 EV) and Florida (71.1%, 29 EV), either of which would theoretically secure victory over President Donald J. Trump. Baldwin and Representative Gwen Moore could guarantee a victory in Wisconsin. Six House Members, including Demings, could guarantee a victory in Florida. These eight candidates each earn 10 points.

There are three states totaling 44 EV, meanwhile, where Biden is roughly a 2-1 favorite (64.8-66.0%): Arizona, North Carolina and Ohio. As they are marginally less likely tipping point states, the nine women from these states each earn 5 points.

Georgia’s 16 EV are close to a toss-up right now (42.7%), but it is even less likely to be a tipping point state. Still, Abrams and McBath each earn 3 points.

The next likeliest states for Biden to win are Iowa (24.8%; 6 EV) and Texas (17.8%; 38 EV). Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa gets 1 point, as do the six female House Members from Texas.

Finally, I gave McCaskill of Missouri (2.3%) -2 points and eight women from the 0-0-0.9% states of Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and West Virginia -3 points.

In other words, I deducted the most points for candidates hailing from states in which Biden is a near-certain winner and fewer points for hailing from reliably Republican states, while adding the most points for the likeliest tipping point states.

I then added one point for every state west of the Mississippi River, as no Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee has come from there, and I subtracted one point for being from the regionally-redundant states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Foreign policy/national security. I deducted 2.5 points from the 17 candidates who never served in the Senate, House or in a Cabinet-level foreign policy/national security role.

Ideological balance. I assume Biden is in the ideological center of the Democratic Party.

For each member of the House and Senate since January 2017 FiveThirtyEight.com calculates how often that member has voted with President Trump when he has taken a clear public position. House Members vote far less often with Trump (average=13.3%) than Senators (30.2%). Female Senators with the lowest Trump scores are Gillibrand (12.4%), Warren (13.9%) and Harris (16.5%), while Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp each voted with Trump just over half the time.

Using this score as a proxy for ideology—with the added bonus of specifically reflecting opposition to Trump, I calculated how many SD above or below the mean each candidate is relative to their house of Congress; for the 20 women with no Trump scores, I estimated a score based upon age and state. I then assigned points as follows:

  • ≤-1.25 = 10
  • -1.00 to 1.24 = 7.5
  • -0.75 to -0.99 = 5
  • -0.50 to -0.74 = 2.5
  • -0.25 to -0.49 = 0
  • -0.01 to -0.24 = -1
  • 00 to 0.24 = -2
  • 25 to 0.49 = -3
  • 50 to 0.75 = -4
  • 75 to 0.99 = -5
  • 00 to 1.99 = -7.5
  • ≥2.00 = -10

Ultimately, I deducted more points for being (relatively) well to the right of Biden than for being ideologically similar, as the former would actually harm Biden’s chances to win over the party’s progressive base, while the latter is effectively “do no harm.”

Loss of Senate seats. The Democrats are currently at a 53-47 disadvantage in the Senate, though they have a solid chance of recapturing it in November. But this means that every Democratic Senate seat is vitally important.

I thus deducted 10 points from Senators Warren, Shaheen, Sinema and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire because a Republican governor would appoint a replacement for each of them. I also deducted 2.5 points for Senators Baldwin, Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen of Nevada because, while their home state governors are Democrats, there is a non-trivial chance Democrats could lose a special election in Wisconsin or Nevada. Finally, I deducted 10 points for the two female Democratic Senators facing reelection this year: Shaheen and Tina Smith of Minnesota; both are heavily favored to win reelection, keeping those seats in Democratic hands.

Other considerations. Running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both exposed candidates to extreme public scrutiny and served as a rough test run for campaigning for vice president; I thus added 5 points to Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren and Williamson. Six former Cabinet officials (Burwell, Jackson, Lynch, former EPA Director Gina McCarthy, former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Rice) have never run for any political office, let alone the vice presidency, so they each lost 10 points. And, given how hard Democrats worked to recapture the House in 2018, I deducted 5 points from each of the 28 female first-term Representatives.

TOTAL. This measure ranges from -21 for Rice, a Marylander who has never run for political office, to 16 for Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, whose Trump Score of 3.1% is the lowest of any woman in Congress. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 3:

Table 3: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick Tipping point state; low Trump Score None 16
Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore Tipping point state None 12.5
Florida Representative Donna Shalala Tipping point state; low Trump Score First term 12.5
Former Florida Representative Corinne Brown Tipping point state None 12
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Tipping point state First term 10
Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 9
Florida Representative Val Demings Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Kathy Castor Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Lois Frankel Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Tipping point state Possible loss of Senate seat 7.5

The average of this sum is -4.5, (SD=7.6); the median is -6 (Representatives Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Clarke, Nydia Velasquez of California, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey).

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That these three sums measure somewhat distinct criteria can be seen in their Pearson correlations:

  • Demographic balance / Governmental experience                         -0.31
  • Governmental experience/ Electoral strengths and weaknesses -0.08
  • Demographic balance / Electoral strengths and weaknesses         0.13

It is thus not surprising that only six women—Senators Cortez Masto and Harris, and Representatives Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Moore—have above average scores in all three categories. Harris, in fact, comes closest to being at least 1 SD above the mean in all three categories, being +1.74 SD on Demographic Balance, +0.94 SD on Governmental Experience and +1.0 SD on Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses.

Indeed, when you convert each category sum to a z-score—number of SD above or below the mean—then sum them into an Initial Score, Harris ranks second, at 3.72, behind Moore at 3.95, with Brown (3.53), Gillibrand (3.52) and Klobuchar (3.47) rounding out the top five. Based upon the correlation of this initial sum with the three categories, it is slightly more associated with Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses (r=0.66) than with Demographic Balance (0.53) or Governmental Experience (0.40).

However, I adjusted these scores one final time, by adding up to 1 point or subtracting up to 10 points (Brown, for her 2017 conviction for fraud). Thus, I added 1 point to Warren, and 0.5 points each to Harris and Klobuchar, for Morning Consult poll performance. Similarly, Cortez Masto, Baldwin, Demings, Lujan Grisham and Whitmer each lose 0.5 points for their Morning Consult poll performance. That said, I added back 0.5 points to Demings for her service as Orlando Chief of Police because a woman of color serving in law enforcement could play well in the current climate. Speaking of criminality, I deducted 3 points from Moore for a tire-slashing incident involving her son and 2 points from Fudge for remarks she made about a serious domestic violence incident.

Other large deductions were:

It is not clear how the impeachment of President Trump will play in the election, but on the theory it is slightly more likely to rile Trump voters than inspire Biden voters, I deducted 0.5 points from Demings, as well as Texas Representative Sylvia Garza and California Zoe Lofgren, who served as House Managers during the Senate trial.

Other deductions include 1 point each from Gillibrand for a seeming inauthenticity in her ideology, from California Representative Norma Torres for controversial remarks on the House floor, from Lynch for her questionable tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton, from Gabbard for being generally disliked within the Democratic Party, from New York Representative Kathleen Rice for being a former Republican and from Whitmer for an ill-timed “joke” her husband made.

The Final Score is correlated 0.69 with the Initial Score, with an average of -0.40 (SD=1.63); the median is -0.453 (Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell and Parker). Only 24 of the 121 potential 2020 Democratic vice-presidential candidates had Final Scores of 1.00 of higher, as Table 4 shows.

Table 4: Top 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Final Score

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris Black/Asian; 55;

Ran for president;

To left of Biden;

Popular with base

California;

Only 4 years in Senate

4.18
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin;

58;

8 years in Senate/14 years in House

White;

Lesbian; Possible loss of Senate seat; Ideologically similar to Biden

2.56
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 53;

12 years in Senate;

Well to left of Biden;

Ran for president

White;

New York; Disappointing presidential run; Suspected inauthenticity

2.55
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Black;

Florida;

10 years in House

78 2.52
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Michigan;

20 years in Senate

White;

70;

Slightly to right of Biden

2.40
Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty Black;

Ohio

70;

Ideologically similar to Biden

2.22
Florida Representative Val Demings Black;

62;

Florida; Orlando Chief of Police

OnIy four years in House; Ideologically similar to Biden 2.07
North Carolina Representative Alma Adams Black;

North Carolina

73;

Ideologically similar to Biden

1.92
New York Representative Yvette Clark Black;

55;

12 years in House;

Left of Biden

New York 1.77
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams Black;

46;

Georgia; Progressive reputation

No foreign policy or national security experience;

No office higher than state House

1.77
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Strong progressive; Ran for president; Very popular with party base;

8 years in Senate

White;

70;

Loss of Senate seat; Massachusetts

1.75
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell 61;

20 years in Senate

White; Washington; Similar to Biden ideologically 1.73
Florida Representative Kathy Castor  Florida;

53;

14 years in House

White;

Slightly to right of Biden

1.69
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Black;

Georgia;

50

No foreign policy or national security experience;

Never run statewise

1.63
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath  Black;

59;

Georgia;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.57
Texas Representative Veronica Escobar Latina;

50;

Texas;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.56
California Representative Barbara Lee Black;

21 years in House;

Left of Biden

California;

73

1.54
Washington Senator Patty Murray 28 years in Senate White; Washington;

69

1.53
Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence Black; Michigan;

66

Ideologically similar to Biden 1.49
New York Representative Nydia Velasquez Latina;

28 years in House

New York;

67

1.40
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell Black;

54;

10 years in House

Alabama; Slightly right of Biden 1.38
California Representative Linda Sanchez Latina;

51;

14 years in House

California 1.23
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis Latina;

62

California;

Out of federal office since 2013

1.13
California Representative Karen Bass Black;

66

California 1.02

This list includes 14 current House Members, seven Senators, a current mayor, a former Cabinet Secretary (Solis) and Abrams. Thirteen are Black, seven are White and four are Latina. Five are from California; three are from Florida, Georgia and New York; and two are from Michigan and Washington. Fifteen are between the ages of 46 and 66, while three are older than 70. Only seven are ideologically to the left of Biden, though only three are (slightly) to the right of Biden.

If you eliminate the three House Members over 70, the two first-term House Members, the two white women slightly to the right of Biden, as well as 66-year-old Karen Bass of California, 67-year-old Nydia Velasquez of New York and 69-year-old Patty Murray of Washington, you are left with 15luja solid candidates:

14. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis

13. California Representative Linda Sanchez

12. Alabama Representative Terri Sewell

11. Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence

         10. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

9. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell

8. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

7. Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams

6.  New York Representative Yvette Clark

5. Florida Representative Val Demings

4. Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty

3. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

2. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin

1. California Senator Kamala Harris

Really, however, one choice jumps out from all the rest: Harris, the 55-year-old, Black/Asian progressive-voting Senator who ran a solid race for president, is broadly popular with the Democratic Party and has a wealth of criminal justice experience. Were she not from reliably-Democratic California—which, at the same time, would not cost Democrats a Senate seat—and had at least one full Senate term under her belt, she would be THE obvious choice.

That said, there are a number of excellent choices Biden could make, including familiar names like Warren, Abrams, Demings, Gillibrand and Baldwin, as well as sleeper choices like brilliant, black, 55-year-old, five-term Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama.

Meanwhile, consider who did not make this final cut—Klobuchar (0.97), Cortez Masto (0.50), Lujan Grisham (-0.09) and Whitmer (-1.80). It is unlikely any of these four women makes Biden’s short list; although reports suggest Lujan Grisham remains a leading contender, along with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Demings, Harris, Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Warren.

Please feel free to quibble with my categories and/or assignation of points; I admit up front that much of the latter was arbitrary. With all that, however, Harris still comes out the best choice, by far, whatever way you choose to quantify and aggregate strengths and weaknesses.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from six months out

A note to readers: I have temporarily stopped writing “dispatches” about how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I cope with social distancing and the closure of Massachusetts schools through the end of the 2019-20 school year because they started to feel repetitive. When and if that changes, I will resume dispatching.

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As I write this, it is exactly six months until the 2020 United States (U.S.) presidential election, which will conclude on November 3, 2020. On April 8, 2020, U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. the presumptive nominee against incumbent Republican president Donald J. Trump.

Using all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—both nationally and at the state level, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019, I have been tracking the relative performance of contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination against Trump. When given the choice, I used polls of likely voters over those of registered voters, and the latter over polls of adults only; I also used polls including such possible third-party candidates as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and U.S. House of Representatives Member Justin Amash of Michigan. Table 1 lists the number of national polls conducted each month for both candidates based upon the midpoint of the poll’s field dates; some polls were actually conducted in two months.

Table 1: Number of National Polls Assessing Hypothetical 2020 Match-ups Between Biden/Sanders and Trump by Month

Month Biden Sanders
January 2019 1 1
February 2019 4 3
March 2019 7 6
April 2019 6 6
May2019 7 5
June 2019 10 9
July 2019 8 7
August 2019 8 8
September 2019 15 11
October 2019 18 13
November 2019 8 4
December 2019 14 9
January 2020 20 17
February 2020 23 21
March 2020 33 23
April 2020 41 3
TOTAL 223 146

Just seven of 41 total pollsters (average grade: B-/B) account for 54% of Biden versus Trump polls; the values are similar for Sanders:

  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 10 polls
  • Fox News (A-), 13 polls
  • Harris X (C+), 13 polls
  • Emerson College (B+), 18 polls
  • Ipsos (B-), 18 polls
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 22 polls
  • YouGov (B-), 36 polls

Figure 1, meanwhile, shows how Biden and Sanders fared monthly against the president, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages, or WAPA. Basically, I use data published by FiveThirtyEight.com to adjust each poll for partisan lean (tendency of a pollster to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and overall quality (using the letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com). I also weight more recent polls—again using field midpoint—higher, using the ratio of the number of days since January 1, 2019 and the total number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. Finally, I average two different versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollsters as statistically independent values, and one which treats all polls by the same pollster as a single value; differences between estimates are generally negligible.

Figure 1: Monthly weighted-adjusted average margins for Biden and Sanders versus Trump since January 2019Biden and Sanders v Trump since Jan 2019

Only one national poll assessing hypothetical matchups between Biden or Sanders and Trump was conducted in January 2019, so I combined them with the four and three, respectively, from February 2019 to generate Figure 1. Biden and Sanders have consistently led Trump in head-to-head matchups, never dropping below Sanders’ 2.0 percentage point (“points”) lead in December 2019. Through September 2019, Biden’s margin was typically three-to-four points higher, though Sanders still led Trump by 4.3 points on average, versus 7.8 points for Biden. From October 2019 through February 2020, though, the two men fared equally well versus Trump, with Biden ahead an average 5.4 points and Sanders ahead 4.9 points. Once Biden’s nomination began to become clear in March 2020, however, Biden again began to fare better versus Trump than Sanders, averaging a 5.7-point-lead to Sanders’ 3.4-point lead. Overall, Biden has a 6.1-point lead over Trump, not meaningfully different than his lead over the last two months; Sanders exited the race with an overall national lead of 4.3 points versus Trump, though that lead had begun to drop slightly over the last two months.

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Again, however, presidential elections are actually fought across all 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state.

To that end, Table 2 lists the number of polls conducted within each state since January 1, 2019 of hypothetical matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, an estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state tends to vote; 11 states[1] and DC have not yet been polled. 

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing hypothetical 2020 matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump since January 1, 2019

State 3W-RDM Biden Sanders
Michigan 2.2 33 23
Wisconsin 0.7 30 26
Texas -15.3 27 21
North Carolina -6.0 23 16
Pennsylvania -0.4 23 17
Florida -3.4 19 11
Arizona -9.7 17 14
California 23.2 14 13
New Hampshire 0.1 10 10
Iowa -4.7 9 8
Georgia -9.6 8 6
Ohio -5.8 7 6
Virginia 1.5 7 6
Nevada 2.0 6 6
Utah -33.1 5 3
South Carolina -15.7 4 4
Maine 5.9 4 3
North Dakota -29.4 4 2
Washington 12.1 4 3
Missouri -15.9 4 3
Connecticut 12.8 4 4
New York 21.6 3 1
Colorado 2.2 3 2
Kentucky -28.7 2 1
Montana -18.6 2 2
New Mexico 6.5 2 1
Alabama -28.4 2 2
Kansas -23.4 2 2
Oklahoma -38.1 2 2
New Jersey 12.0 2 1
Mississippi -18.5 2 1
Minnesota 1.5 1 1
Massachusetts 22.1 1 1
Alaska -19.2 1 1
West Virginia -35.5 1 1
Delaware 12.5 1 1
Tennessee -25.8 1 1
Maryland 22.6 1 1
Indiana -16.3 1 0
TOTAL D-6.2 292 227

It is not surprising that eight of the 14 most-polled states thus far are “swing” states, those with 3W-RDM between -5.0 and +5.0, including the four closest states won by Trump in  2016: Florida (19 Biden, 11 Sanders), Pennsylvania (23, 17), Wisconsin (30,26) and Michigan (33,23). In fact, the Pearson correlation between the absolute value of a state’s 3W-RDM and the number of times it has been polled for the 2020 presidential election is -0.47 for Biden and -0.48 for Sanders, meaning the closer a state is to the national average (i.e., a pure toss-up in a dead-even national race), the more often it has been polled. Also highly-polled are large states like California and Texas, red-drifting states like Ohio and Iowa, and emerging Democratic opportunities like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. 

While U.S. presidential elections are decided on a state-by-state basis, though, national averages are still important. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. Comparing polling averages to this expected value tells us where Biden may currently be under- or over-performing, or which states have drifted Democratic or Republican since 2016.

For example, Biden leads Trump overall by 6.1 points. North Carolina has recently been about 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding those two values together (6.1 – 6.0 = +0.1) yields an expected photo-finish in North Carolina in 2020. However, Biden leads Trump by a mean 2.2 points in 23 polls thus far in North Carolina, meaning Biden is “outperforming” expectations there by about 2.1 points.

This could mean any or all of three things:

  1. WAPA is the more accurate reflection of the November election and either
    1. North Carolina has drifted about two points toward the Democrats since 2016, or
    2. The true “expected value” is somewhere between Trump winning by 5.3 points and Biden winning by 5.5 points, based upon an average 3W-RDM error margin of 5.4 points in recent elections.
  2. The “expected” value is the more accurate reflection, and Republican-leaning voters will drift back toward Trump over the next six months, making North Carolina nail-bitingly close on election day.

Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA; for ease of presentation, I include Biden-Trump values only.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for Biden over Trump in each state in November 2020

State 3W-RDM Expected WAPA WAPA-Expected
DC 82.0 88.2    
Hawaii 34.3 40.4    
Vermont 27.7 33.8    
California 23.2 29.3 27.1 -2.2
Maryland 22.6 28.7 25.0 -3.7
Massachusetts 22.1 28.2 38.0 9.8
New York 21.6 27.7 27.9 0.2
Rhode Island 18.0 24.1    
Illinois 14.7 20.8    
Connecticut 12.8 18.9 16.9 -2.0
Delaware 12.5 18.6 16.4 -2.2
Washington 12.1 18.2 19.8 1.6
New Jersey 12.0 18.1 16.1 -2.0
Oregon 8.7 14.8    
New Mexico 6.5 12.6 10.4 -2.2
Maine 5.9 12.0 9.2 -2.8
Michigan 2.2 8.4 5.9 -2.5
Colorado 2.2 8.3 6.9 -1.4
Nevada 2.0 8.1 3.5 -4.6
Minnesota 1.5 7.6 12.7 5.1
Virginia 1.5 7.6 7.8 0.2
Wisconsin 0.7 6.8 1.7 -5.1
New Hampshire 0.1 6.2 4.5 -1.7
Pennsylvania -0.4 5.7 4.2 -1.5
Florida -3.4 2.7 1.9 -0.9
Iowa -4.7 1.4 -3.5 -4.9
Ohio -5.8 0.3 3.0 2.7
North Carolina -6.0 0.1 2.2 2.1
Georgia -9.6 -3.4 -0.3 3.2
Arizona -9.7 -3.6 2.0 5.6
Texas -15.3 -9.1 -2.0 7.2
South Carolina -15.7 -9.6 -9.6 0.0
Missouri -15.9 -9.8 -8.6 1.3
Indiana -16.3 -10.2 -14.1 -3.9
Mississippi -18.5 -12.4 -12.9 -0.5
Montana -18.6 -12.5 -16.0 -3.5
Alaska -19.2 -13.0 -4.2 8.8
Louisiana -22.2 -16.1    
Kansas -23.4 -17.3 -11.2 6.1
Nebraska -25.8 -19.7    
South Dakota -25.8 -19.7    
Tennessee -25.8 -19.7 -15.3 4.4
Arkansas -28.2 -22.1    
Alabama -28.4 -22.3 -19.6 2.7
Kentucky -28.7 -22.6 -15.9 6.7
North Dakota -29.4 -23.3 -20.6 2.7
Utah -33.1 -27.0 -12.3 14.7
Idaho -34.2 -28.1    
West Virginia -35.5 -29.3 -34.0 -4.7
Oklahoma -38.1 -32.0 -26.1 5.9
Wyoming -45.7 -39.6    
Average D-6.4 Trump+0.05* Biden+0.9 +1.0

        * Only for the 39 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is a very-reassuring +0.96, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, Biden is polling ahead of those fundamentals by an average of about one percentage point, meaning the state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his already-solid national polling.

Nonetheless, there are clearly states where Biden is underperforming expectations, including the vital and heavily-polled state of Wisconsin. While Biden leads there by about 1.7 points overall, he “should” be ahead there by about 6.8 points. Moreover, he is trailing by about 3.5 points in nearby Iowa, even though Biden “should” be ahead by about 1.4 points. And while Biden leads Trump by about 3.5 points in Nevada, that is 4.6 points below what the fundamentals suggest.

The story is similar, but more narrowly so, in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida: Biden leads Trump in these states by an average of 4.1 points, though he “should” lead by an average of 5.8 points, a mean “underperformance” of 1.7 points.

Moreover, there appears to be something of a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in the 10 states with both measures and 3W-RDM≥5.0, Biden is underperforming by 0.3 points, on average, though once you remove the single poll of Massachusetts, that jumps to -1.6 points. At the same time, in the analogous 20 Republican states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.2 points, though that drops to 2.6 with the massive outlier of Utah removed.

Let me again stress, however, that there is a lot of “wobble” in the “expected margins,” as well as in the polling averages—especially given that most states have seen very little recent polling. All of this “over- and underperforming” may simply be statistical noise, as we try to read too much into highly stochastic data.

Still, the two values are sufficiently closely aligned to combine them into a single, six-months-out estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, based upon the assumption polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Arbitrarily assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. If the most recent poll in a state was conducted more than 100 days prior to January 1, 2020, WAPA is weighted just 10%. This only applies to Massachusetts, Alaska and Kentucky, with Minnesota the only other state whose most recent poll was conducted in 2019.
  3. WAPA weight increases, by day, with proximity to November 3, 2020.

At the same time, I introduced a probabilistic element into these estimates—rough calculations of how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming such likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I used a mean of estimate-0.8 and a standard error of 7.1[2]
  2. For WAPA, I used a standard error of 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls.
  3. Overall probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors are somewhat arbitrary, albeit broadly defensible, the final EV probabilities shown in Table 4 are in line with what other forecasters are saying.

Table 4: Estimated final state margins and probability of winning EV, Biden vs. Trump, November 2020

State EV P(EV): Expected P(EV):

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

Predicted Margin
DC 3 100.0%   100.0% 88.2
Hawaii 4 100.0%   100.0% 40.4
Vermont 3 100.0%   100.0% 33.8
California 55 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.9
Maryland 10 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 26.6
Massachusetts 11 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 29.2
New York 29 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.8
Rhode Island 4 99.9%   99.9% 24.1
Illinois 20 99.8%   99.8% 20.8
Connecticut 7 99.5% 100.0% 99.8% 17.9
Delaware 3 99.4% 100.0% 99.7% 17.5
Washington 12 99.3% 100.0% 99.8% 19.0
New Jersey 14 99.2% 100.0% 99.7% 17.1
Oregon 7 97.6%   97.6% 14.8
New Mexico 5 95.2% 100.0% 97.6% 11.5
Maine 4 94.3% 99.9% 97.7% 10.3
Michigan 16 85.6% 97.5% 93.9% 6.6
Colorado 9 85.5% 99.0% 93.3% 7.5
Nevada 6 84.8% 88.0% 86.7% 5.4
Minnesota 10 83.1% 100.0% 89.4% 9.5
Virginia 13 83.0% 99.5% 93.7% 7.7
Wisconsin 10 80.2% 71.5% 74.3% 3.3
New Hampshire 4 77.7% 93.2% 88.4% 5.0
Pennsylvania 20 75.6% 92.0% 86.9% 4.7
Florida 29 60.7% 73.5% 69.4% 2.2
Iowa 6 53.3% 12.0% 28.4% -1.6
Ohio 18 47.1% 84.1% 72.5% 2.1
North Carolina 15 46.1% 76.5% 67.2% 1.5
Georgia 16 27.5% 46.3% 40.5% -1.3
Arizona 11 26.8% 75.1% 58.7% 0.1
Texas 38 8.1% 25.5% 20.1% -4.2
South Carolina 9 7.2% 0.1% 3.0% -9.6
Missouri 10 6.7% 0.2% 2.9% -9.1
Indiana 11 6.1% 0.0% 2.0% -12.8
Mississippi 6 3.2% 0.0% 1.3% -12.7
Montana 3 3.1% 0.0% 1.3% -14.5
Alaska 3 2.6% 8.1% 3.1% -12.2
Louisiana 8 0.9%   0.9% -16.1
Kansas 6 0.5% 0.0% 0.2% -14.3
Nebraska 5 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
South Dakota 3 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
Tennessee 11 0.2% 0.0% 0.1% -17.5
Arkansas 6 0.1%   0.1% -22.1
Alabama 9 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -20.9
Kentucky 8 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.9
North Dakota 3 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.6
Utah 6 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -17.1
Idaho 4 0.0%   0.0% -28.1
West Virginia 5 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -31.7
Oklahoma 7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -29.0
Wyoming 3 0.0% -39.6 0.0% -39.6

Six months before election day 2020, and with all of the caveats about what voting will even look like during a pandemic, Biden is clearly in a commanding position to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

  • He is projected to win by at least 3.3 points in enough states to get him to 279 EV, or 278 depending on what happens in Maine, which, along with Nebraska, allocates two EV to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of its Congressional districts.
    • He has narrower leads in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, which combine for 62 EV, increasing his total to 340 or 341.
    • Arizona’s 11 EV are balanced on a knife’s edge.
  • He is favored at least 86% in enough states to get him to 268 or 269 EV
    • He would then need to win ONLY ONE of Wisconsin (74.3%), Ohio (72.5%), Florida (69.4%) or North Carolina (67.2%) to win the presidency. Assuming Biden’s chances of winning each state are statistically independent from each other (a lousy assumption), he has about a 99% chance of winning AT LEAST one of these states.
  • He has at least a 58% chance in enough states to earn him 351 or 352 EV, at least 81 more than required.
  • And if things truly break Biden’s way, he has a 40.5% chance to win the 16 EV in Georgia, a 28.4% to win the 6 EV in Iowa, and a 20.1% chance to win the 38 EV of Texas, upping his total to 411-413 EV, depending on what happens in the 2nd Congressional district of Nebraska, which allocates its EV the same as Maine.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV and summing yields a “projected” EV total of 335.2, fairly close to the 341 generated by taking the 232 EV won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, adding Michigan and Pennsylvania to get to 268, then adding Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina (and the last EV in Maine).

This lead looks even more robust when you make either of two reasonable assumptions:

All polls are overestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 286, still 16 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would be favored by at least 64% in three states totaling 30 EV, putting him on the doorstep. He would then have to win one of Wisconsin or Ohio, at 44% each; he would have about a 69% chance to do so.

The point is, even if the polls are consistently off by this much, Biden would still be roughly even money to win the presidency. That said, Biden would still be winning by 3.1 points nationally, demonstrating the current Republican bias in the Electoral College.

All polls are underestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 373.7, more than 100 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 341 EV, while being a 77.3% favorite in Arizona and a 69.8% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. Adding in the states where Biden would be roughly even money—Iowa and Texas—gets us once again to 412.

This appears to be Biden’s upper limit, as even in this scenario where he is wining nationally by 9.1 points, he is no more than 9% favored to win any additional states.

Now, none of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be the next president of the United States; it would be monumentally foolish for me to conclude that this far from the election, particularly if Amash earns more than, say, three points in the national popular vote. I am simply noting that all indications point very strongly in that direction, based on the data we have right now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming

[2] The former value is the mean arithmetic difference between “expected” and actual D-R margins across 153 state-level contests in 2008, 2012 and 2016, while the latter value is the standard deviation of these values. I recognize this is not a standard error. However, using the value 13.6—the range of values covering 95% of all values divided by 1.96, the final EV projection changes by only 1.0