2020 New Hampshire Primary: How did my polling averages fare?

Given the extremely volatile polling for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination following the start of primary and caucus voting, I will not provide global monthly updates for the next few months. Instead, I will focus on the first handful of primaries and caucuses: Iowa on February 3, New Hampshire on February 11, Nevada on February 22, South Carolina on February 20, the 14 Super Tuesday contests on March 3, and so forth.

Also: I now weight higher polls conducted partially (1.33 or 1.67) or entirely (2.00) after February 3, 2020, than polls conducted entirely before February 4, 2020. I similarly weight higher polls conducted partially (2.33 or 2.67) or entirely (3.00) after Feb 11, 2020.

Unlike the molasses-slow pace it took for results from the 2020 Iowa Caucuses to be released—ultimately leading to the resignation of Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price—95+% of the results from the 2020 New Hampshire Primary were tabulated and released within five hours of the final poll closings at 8 pm EST on February 11, 2020.

This improvement is undoubtedly due to the two “sharing size” bags of M&M’s—one plain, one peanut—I purchased at our local CVS after dropping our eldest daughter at her swim team workout. These candies have long been a staple of our election night watch parties, yet I neglected to buy some for the Iowa Caucuses the previous week.

Scan0046

Earlier that day, meanwhile, I had published my final New Hampshire Primary WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average) for the 11 then-declared Democratic presidential candidates, calculated five different ways (Table 1):

  • 71 since January 1, 2019
  • 57 since the 1st Democratic debate on June 26, 2019
  • 35 since the 5th Democratic debate on November 19, 2019
  • 27 since the 7th Democratic debate on January 14, 2020
  • 15 since the Iowa Caucuses on February 3, 2020
    • 14 starting February 4 or later
    • 1 (Monmouth University) on February 3

Table 1: Final New Hampshire Primary WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Since

Iowa

Sanders 23.0 23.1 24.8 25.5 26.4
Buttigieg 16.7 17.0 18.8 19.4 21.4
Biden 15.8 15.3 14.0 13.0 12.2
Warren 14.3 14.7 12.9 12.6 13.1
Klobuchar 7.0 7.2 8.6 9.3 9.7
Gabbard 3.4 3.5 3.7 3.5 3.2
Yang 3.2 3.3 3.6 3.4 3.2
Steyer 2.5 2.6 2.9 2.8 2.6
Bennet 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.6
Bloomberg 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.1
Patrick 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.4
DK/Other 13.1 12.2 9.6 9.2 7.1

Based solely on these numbers, one could reasonably draw the following conclusions:

  • United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders; former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar were rising in the polls heading into the Iowa Caucuses.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren were declining in the polls.
  • No other candidate was moving in the polls one way or the other.

Comparing WAPA to results. Table 2 lists the results of the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary as of 2 am EST on February 13, 2020:

Table 2: Percentage of vote received in 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary

Candidate % Vote
Sanders 25.8
Buttigieg 24.5
Klobuchar 19.9
Warren 9.3
Biden 8.4
Steyer 3.6
Gabbard 3.3
Yang 2.8
Write-in votes (including Bloomberg) 1.4
Patrick 0.4
Bennet 0.3
All others 0.4

Table 3 lists the arithmetic differences between each candidate’s final Iowa Caucuses WAPA and each of the three reported measures; positive values indicate better performance in the Caucuses than in the polls.

Table 3: Arithmetic difference between Vote % and WAPA, 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary

Candidate All

Polls

Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Since

 Iowa

Mean

Differnce

Sanders 2.8 2.7 1.0 0.3 -0.6 1.2
Buttigieg 7.8 7.5 5.7 5.1 3.1 5.8
Biden -7.4 -6.9 -5.6 -4.6 -3.8 -5.7
Warren -5.1 -5.5 -3.7 -3.4 -3.9 -4.3
Klobuchar 12.9 12.7 11.3 10.6 10.2 11.5
Gabbard -0.1 -0.2 -0.4 -0.2 0.1 -0.2
Yang -0.4 -0.5 -0.8 -0.6 -0.4 -0.5
Steyer 1.1 1.0 0.7 0.8 1.0 0.9
Bennet -0.1 -0.2 -0.2 -0.2 -0.3 -0.2
Bloomberg 0.4 0.4 0.3 0.4 0.6 0.4
Patrick 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0

Two candidates—Buttigieg and Klobuchar—strongly outperformed their final New Hampshire Primary WAPA, by an average of 5.8 and 11.5 percentage points (“points”), respectively. The polling momentum they appeared to have coming out of the Iowa Caucuses was apparent in the final results, especially given that the polls conducted in the following week were the least inaccurate.

Sanders narrowly edged Buttigieg, 25.8% to 24.5%, to win the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, finishing an average 1.2 points higher than his WAPA; again WAPA was more accurate the closer in time it was calculated. Businessman Tom Steyer also finished nearly one point better in the voting (3.6%) than his average WAPA, which differed little in accuracy by time of calculation.

By contrast, Biden (-5.7 points) and Warren (-4.3 points) strongly underperformed their WAPA, with the more recent estimates again the least inaccurate.

One immediate consequence of these results is that three candidates, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, ended their presidential campaigns. As with the 15 former candidates who preceded them, all three men did so with grace and class. One other candidate, United States House of Representatives member from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard, finished 7th in New Hampshire, barely registered in Iowa and is not close to making any future debates, so her status in this race is somewhat shaky.

Bottom line. To evaluate these comparisons globally, I calculated two difference measures for each of the five WAPA, excluding “DK/Other” (Table 4):

  1. Means of the absolute value of each candidate’s value in Table 3
  2. Sums of the squared differences (“SSE”) between each of the five WAPA value and the results value.

Table 4: Global differences between WAPA and results, 2020 New Hampshire Democratic Primary

Polling period Mean AV Difference SSE
All Polls 3.5 317.4
Since 1st Debate only 3.4 304.2
Since 5th Debate only 2.7 207.7
Since 7th Debate only 2.4 172.4
Since Iowa Caucuses only 2.3 145.3

All five versions of WAPA were quite accurate, despite sharp late movement by Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren, missing by between 2.3 and 3.5 points in either direction, on average. Not surprisingly, the older the collection of polls used to calculate WAPA, the higher the average “miss.”

As with the Iowa Caucuses, meanwhile, and despite newer polls greatly outweighing older polls: the older the set of polls used to calculate New Hampshire Democratic Primary WAPA values, the less predictive they were of the actual results. And, again, the older-polls WAPA may shift too slowly to capture significant late movement.

Given this consistency over the first two contests, I will continue to use this template to assess WAPA.

Now, on to the Nevada Caucuses on February 22, 2020!

Until next time…

2020 New Hampshire Primary: Final Polling Update

[This poll was updated at 4:15 EST on February 11, 2020 to account for a Change Research poll (C) conducted February 8-9, 2020.]

At just after midnight EST on February 11, 2020, a total of 27 Democratic voters gathered in the small New Hampshire hamlets of Dixville Notch, Hart’s Location and Millsfield to cast the first votes in the 2020 New Hampshire Presidential Primary. Here are the tallies from those early votes (which, while fun to watch, have historically shown little relationship to the way the statewide electorate votes); I jotted them down as they were being broadcast live on MSNBC:

Table 1: 2020 New Hampshire Presidential Primary votes from three towns voting just after midnight

Candidate Dixville Notch Hart’s Location Millsfield Total
Klobuchar 0 6 2 8
Sanders 1 2 1 4
Warren 0 4 0 4
Yang 0 3 0 3
Biden 0 1 1 2
Buttigieg 1 0 1 2
Bloomberg 2 0 0 2
Steyer 0 1 0 1
Gabbard 0 1 0 1
TOTAL 4 18 5 27

The perhaps-surprising winner in these early returns is United States Senator (“Senator”) from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar, who had a very well-received debate performance in Manchester, New Hampshire on February 7; as the data in Table 2 suggest, she may have some momentum from that performance. Also, the name of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not appear on the either the Democratic or Republican New Hampshire Primary ballot; these votes, as well as the only Republican vote cast in Dixville Notch, are write-in votes.[1]

To learn how I calculate candidate WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here. I weight polls conducted partially (1.33 or 1.67) or wholly (2.00) after the Iowa Caucuses higher than prior polls.

Here is a photograph of a now-defunct ice cream parlor in scenic Portsmouth, New Hampshire in early September 2005; I was never the owner of this establishment:

Scan0046

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As of 2 a.m. EST on February 11, 2020, here is a breakdown of publicly-available New Hampshire Primary polls:

  • 72 since January 1, 2019
  • 58 since the 1st Democratic debate on June 26, 2019
  • 36 since the 5th Democratic debate on November 19, 2019
  • 28 since the 7th Democratic debate on January 14, 2020
  • 16 since the Iowa Caucuses on February 3, 2020
    • 15 starting February 4 or later
    • 1 (Monmouth University) on February 3

The final two tracking polls by Emerson College and the University of New Hampshire overlapped in time with each organization’s prior tracking polls, so I only used the most recent ones.

Table 2: Final New Hampshire WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Since

Iowa

Sanders 23.0 23.1 25.0 25.7 26.6
Buttigieg 16.7 17.0 18.8 19.4 21.4
Biden 15.7 15.2 13.9 12.9 12.1
Warren 14.0 14.2 12.8 12.5 12.7
Klobuchar 7.0 7.2 8.5 9.3 9.6
Gabbard 3.5 3.6 3.8 3.6 3.3
Yang 3.3 3.4 3.6 3.5 3.3
Steyer 2.5 2.6 2.9 2.8 2.6
Bennet 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.5
Bloomberg 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.1
Patrick 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5
DK/Other 13.4 12.6 9.4 9.2 7.3

Besides Klouchar, the top two finishers in the Iowa Caucuses—Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg—also appear to have momentum going into New Hampshire. The likelihood is that Sanders will win the primary—though not by anywhere close to his 2016 winning margin of 60% to 38% over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—perhaps followed by Buttigieg.

By contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden and, to a lesser extent, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren appear to be fading somewhat. United States of House of Representatives member Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and businessman Tom Steyer remain clustered around 2.5-3.7 percentage points, while Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appear to be non-factors at this point.

We shall see.

Until next time…

[1] President Donald Trump received 15 votes in Hart’s Location and 16 votes in Millsfield, while former Massachusetts Governor William Weld received 4 votes and 1 vote, respectively. Mary Maxwell received 1 vote in Hart’s Location.

2020 Iowa Caucuses: How did my polling averages fare?

Given the extremely volatile polling for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination following the conclusion of the Iowa Caucuses, I will not provide global monthly updates for next few months. Instead, I will focus on the first handful of primaries and caucuses: Iowa on February 3, New Hampshire on February 11, Nevada on February 22, South Carolina on February 20, the 14 Super Tuesday contests on March 3, and so forth.

Also: I now weight polls conducted partially after February 3, 2020 either 1.333 or 1.667 times higher, and polls conducted entirely after February two times higher, than polls conducted entirely before February 4, 2020.

On the night of February 3, 2020, I was sitting on my usual spot on our sofa, watching MSNBC and anticipating returns from that day’s Iowa Caucuses.

Iowa Visitor Center Sep 1990

Earlier that day, I had published my final WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average) for the 11 declared Democratic presidential candidates, calculated four different ways (Table 1):

  • Using all 58 polls conducted since January 1, 2019
  • Using only the 45 polls released since the 1st Democratic debate on June 26, 2019
  • Using only the 21 polls released since the 5th Democratic debate on November 19, 2019
  • Using only the 15 polls released since the 7th Democratic debate on January 14, 2020

Table 1: Final Iowa Caucuses WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate
Biden 19.9 19.8 20.1 20.3
Sanders 18.4 18.8 21.0 22.7
Warren 17.1 18.1 15.6 15.6
Buttigieg 15.9 16.8 16.7 16.7
Klobuchar 6.9 7.3 9.1 9.7
Yang 3.0 3.2 3.6 3.9
Steyer 2.8 3.1 3.1 3.5
Gabbard 1.5 1.6 1.5 1.6
Bloomberg 0.4 0.4 0.6 0.5
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.3
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1
DK/Other 13.8 10.6 8.5 5.2

Based solely on these numbers, one would reasonably draw the following conclusions:

  • United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar were rising in the polls heading into the Iowa Caucuses, as to a lesser extent were entrepreneur Andrew Yang and businessman Tom Steyer.
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was declining in the polls.
  • No other candidate was moving in the polls one way or the other.

By 11:37 pm EST, however, I had grown tired of waiting for results other than successive waves of entrance polls, so I tweeted the following:

RIP, Iowa Caucuses (1972-2020)

I have defended their idiosyncrasies for decades, believing the retail aspects of campaigning there outweighed the low-turnout mischegoss of the process.

 No more.

 This is ridiculous.

 #IowaCaucuses #iowacaucus2020

I will not relitigate here the myriad problems the Iowa Democratic Party had with tabulating, validating and releasing three distinct measures:

  1. Initial headcount of support for each Democratic candidate (“Initial tally”)
  2. Post-realignment headcount of support for each Democratic candidate (“Final tally”)
  3. Allocation of “state delegate equivalents,” or SDE’s, the only measure ever previously reported

Moreover, my annoyance has abated since Monday night, primarily because I suspect these vote-reporting snafus revealed that the byzantine process of converting persons standing in rooms, then possibly standing in different parts of the room, into SDE’s has always been “riddled with errors and inconsistencies,” to quote a recent New York Times headline. And if this marks the beginning of the end of using caucuses to allocate delegates to each party’s nominating conventions, so be it; they are undemocratic, exclusionary and overly complex.

As for which states “should” come first in future presidential nominating processes, I am currently agnostic.

Three days later, we finally have near-final results from the Iowa Caucuses (Table 2):

Table 2: Near-final Iowa Democratic Caucuses results, February 3, 2020

Candidate Initial Tally Final Tally SDE’s
Biden 15.0 13.7 15.8
Sanders 24.8 26.6 26.1
Warren 18.4 20.2 18.0
Buttigieg 21.3 25.0 26.2
Klobuchar 12.7 12.3 12.3
Yang 5.0 1.0 1.0
Steyer 1.7 0.2 0.3
Gabbard 0.2 0.0 0.0
Bloomberg 0.1 0.0 0.0
Bennet 0.1 0.0 0.0
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0
Uncommitted 0.6 0.1 0.2

The following three tables list the arithmetic differences between each candidate’s final Iowa Caucuses WAPA and each of the three reported measures; positive values indicate better performance in the Caucuses than in the polls.

Table 3: Arithmetic difference between Initial Iowa Caucuses % of vote and Iowa Caucuses WAPA

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Mean

Difference

Biden -4.9 -4.8 -5.1 -5.3 -5.0
Sanders 6.4 6.0 3.8 2.1 4.6
Warren 1.3 0.3 2.8 2.8 1.8
Buttigieg 5.4 4.5 4.6 4.6 4.8
Klobuchar 5.8 5.4 3.6 3.0 4.5
Yang 2.0 1.8 1.4 1.1 1.6
Steyer -1.1 -1.4 -1.4 -1.8 -1.4
Gabbard -1.3 -1.4 -1.3 -1.4 -1.4
Bloomberg -0.3 -0.3 -0.5 -0.4 -0.4
Bennet -0.2 -0.2 -0.1 -0.2 -0.2
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
DK/Other -13.2 -10.0 -7.9 -4.6 -8.9

Initial tally. If the Iowa Caucuses were instead the Iowa Primary, this would have been the only vote reported. On this measure Sanders, Klobuchar and former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg averaged 4.5-4.8 percentage points (“points”) higher in the initial tally than in their WAPA. And the closer in time the polls were to the Iowa Caucuses, the more “accurate” the WAPA.

Warren (+1.8 points) and Yang (+1.6) also overperformed their WAPA in the initial tally, albeit by smaller margins. And for Warren, older polls were more predictive than recent polls.

By contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden did an average of 5.0 points worse in the initial Iowa Caucuses tally than his WAPA. Steyer and United House of Representatives Member from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard (-1.4 each) also performed somewhat worse than their WAPA.

Table 4: Arithmetic difference between Final Iowa Caucuses % of vote and Iowa Caucuses WAPA

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Mean

Difference

Biden -6.2 -6.1 -6.4 -6.6 -6.3
Sanders 8.2 7.8 5.6 3.9 6.4
Warren 3.1 2.1 4.6 4.6 3.6
Buttigieg 9.1 8.2 8.3 8.3 8.5
Klobuchar 5.4 5.0 3.2 2.6 4.1
Yang -2.0 -2.2 -2.6 -2.9 -2.4
Steyer -2.6 -2.9 -2.9 -3.3 -2.9
Gabbard -1.5 -1.6 -1.5 -1.6 -1.6
Bloomberg -0.4 -0.4 -0.6 -0.5 -0.5
Bennet -0.3 -0.3 -0.2 -0.3 -0.3
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
DK/Other -13.7 -10.5 -8.4 -5.1 -9.4

Final tally. Only three candidates improved their vote totals after supporters of non-viable candidates shifted to a viable candidate (15% of attendees at a precinct caucus):

  • Buttigieg (+5,638 supporters; +3.7 points)
  • Warren (+2,238; +1.8)
  • Sanders (+2,155; +1.8)

These three candidates, as well as Klobuchar (-1,288; -0.4), performed better in the final tally than their WAPA, on average. As with the initial tally, WAPA using more recent polls was most predictive for Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, while WAPA using older polls was most predictive for Warren.

Biden, on the other hand, lost 2,693 supporters and dropped 1.3 points between the initial and final tallies; Yang and Steyer also lost considerable support between the initial and final tallies. For all three candidates, WAPA using earlier polls was most predictive.

Table 5: Arithmetic difference between Iowa Caucuses SDE % and Iowa Caucuses WAPA

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate Mean

Difference

Biden -4.1 -4.0 -4.3 -4.5 -4.2
Sanders 7.7 7.3 5.1 3.4 5.9
Warren 0.9 -0.1 2.4 2.4 1.4
Buttigieg 10.3 9.4 9.5 9.5 9.7
Klobuchar 5.4 5.0 3.2 2.6 4.1
Yang -2.0 -2.2 -2.6 -2.9 -2.4
Steyer -2.5 -2.8 -2.8 -3.2 -2.8
Gabbard -1.5 -1.6 -1.5 -1.6 -1.6
Bloomberg -0.4 -0.4 -0.6 -0.5 -0.5
Bennet -0.3 -0.3 -0.2 -0.3 -0.3
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
DK/Other -13.6 -10.4 -8.3 -5.0 -9.3

SDEs. The same pattern holds for SDEs as for final vote tally, with one minor modification.

  • Buttigieg, Sanders and Klobuchar outperformed their WAPA, with the difference decreasing with more recent polls
  • Warren outperformed her WAPA, with the difference increasing with more recent polls
  • Biden, Steyer and Yang underperformed their WAPA, with the difference increasing with more recent polls.

The bottom line. To evaluate these comparisons globally, I used the sum of the squared differences (“SSE”) between each WAPA value and the results value. Excluding “DK/Other,” Table 6 lists the SSE for each comparison; higher values indicate lower predictive power.

Polling period Initial Tally Final Tally SDEs
All Polls 136.5 240.5 224.9
Since 1st Debate 115.8 210.8 198.2
Since 5th Debate 88.3 190.4 168.0
Since 7th Debate 77.1 177.8 156.1

WAPA was most predictive of the initial tally, not surprising given that poll respondents are asked which candidate they planned to support upon arriving at the caucus site, and not about second or third choices. WAPA was also slightly more predictive of the distribution of SDEs than of the final raw tally of supporters, though neither was especially predictive.

For each reported measure, WAPA was more predictive the closer the polls were to the Caucuses; I will admit this rather surprised me, given the candidate-specific differences detailed above. One explanation is that including older polls, however low-weighted, masks late polling movement of the kind that occurred to Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

For now, however, I will continue to report multiple versions of WAPA, if only to see if this pattern holds for later contests.

Now, on to New Hampshire!

Until next time…

The 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucuses: Final Update

[Eds. note: This post was updated at 4 pm EST on February 3, 2020 to reflect on final Iowa Caucuses poll.]

At 7 PM Iowa time (8 pm EST) on February 3, 2020, Iowans will gather in nearly 1,700 precinct-level meeting places to support their preferred candidate to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. They will also participate in a range of party-related business that does not concern us here.

With the exit of former Member of the United States House of Representatives (“Representative” from Maryland John Delaney on January 31, 2020, there are now “only” 11 remaining declared candidates to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. The 17 candidates who have abandoned this quest have done so with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate candidate WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here; for modifications, please see here.

Here is a photograph of the Iowa Visitor’s Center on I-80 in Rock Island I took on September 5, 1990:

Iowa Visitor Center Sep 1990

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As of 4:00 pm EST on February 3, 2020, here is a breakdown of publicly-available Iowa Caucuses polls:

  • 59 since January 1, 2019
  • 46 since the 1st Democratic debate on June 26, 2019
  • 22 since the 5th Democratic debate on November 19, 2019
  • 16 since the 7th Democratic debate on January 14, 2020

Before I present my final pre-Caucuses WAPA, however, here are some words of caution.

1. Caucuses differ in key ways from primaries

In the Iowa Caucuses, voters gather in a public space to publicly declare their support for a candidate. As in, they literally divide into groups of supporters for former Vice President Joe Biden, United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and so forth.  A head count is taken; this initial tally is, in effect, what pre-Caucuses polls measure. This tally has never been reported.

However, any candidate whose supporters do not comprise 15%[1] of all voters at a caucus site is deemed not “viable,” and that candidate’s supporters now must choose a new, viable candidate (or, “uncommitted”). Representatives of viable candidates attempt to persuade their friends and neighbors to caucus with them; there are already stories of candidates attempting to form “alliances” in the days leading up to the Caucuses.

Once every candidate is viable, a final tally is taken. This tally has also never been reported. Why? Because the actual purpose of these precinct-level caucuses is to identify delegates to county-level conventions, which then identify delegates to the state convention, which then identifies the 41 delegates to the Democratic nominating convention to be held in Milwaukee, WI from July 13 to July 16, 2020. Thus, what has always been reported are a projection of what percentage of those 41 delegates will be pledged to vote for each candidate at the national convention; these are known as “state delegate equivalents,” or SDE’s.

This year, though the Iowa Democratic Party has announced it will report three values Monday night (or Tuesday morning):

  • The initial statewide tally for each candidate
  • The post-viability tally for each candidate
  • SDE’s for each candidate

It is thus conceivable, if not especially likely in my opinion, there will be three different “winners” of the Iowa Caucuses—or at least, confusion over the order of finish. What is still very likely, is that only three-five candidates will get any sort of boost out of Iowa.

One other way in which caucuses differ from primaries is much lower turnout, which is especially harder to forecast with any accuracy. For example, 171,517 Democrats participated in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, while 653,669 Iowans voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that fall; general election data from Dave Leip’s invaluable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Caucus turnout was thus 26.2% of general election turnout, roughly speaking. That’s year’s New Hampshire Democratic Primary—usually a relatively high-turnout event—had 253,062 participants, fully 72.6% of that state’s vote total for Clinton.

2. Absent poll numbers

There have been fewer polls of the Iowa Caucuses this year than in any election cycle since 2004: 19 in the previous month, compared to an average of 24 during the same period in 2008-16. But one poll’s absence is more glaring than the rest: the gold standard of Iowa Caucuses polls, the Des Moines Register Iowa Poll conducted by Ann Seltzer, which FiveThirtyEight.com rates A+. The Register, in conjunction with CNN, had planned to release its final Iowa Poll at 9 pm EST on February 1, 2020. However, due to the apparent absence of Buttigieg from the list of names read to at least one poll respondent, the poll was cancelled.

This poll would have had a weight of 0.987, edging out a Monmouth College poll conducted January 23-27, 2020 (0.977) and a Siena College/New York Times poll conducted January 20-23, 2020 (0.970), for highest weight overall. My Twitter feed is filled with rumors as to what the results of the poll would have been, from a massive surge by Sanders to a surge by Warren. I would not put much credence into any of these rumors.

Well, except for one thing. Three polling firms, Emerson College (A-), David Binder Research (C+) and Civiqs (C+) have conducted multiple polls of the Iowa Caucuses in the last three weeks. Using the most recent pair of polls, here are average changes ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Buttigieg  +2.0 points
  • Sanders  +1.7
  • Warren  +0.7
  • Bennet, Patrick  no change
  • Gabbard, Yang -0.7
  • Steyer  -1.3
  • Klobuchar -1.7
  • Biden -3.0

Finally, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been excluded from eight of the 16 Iowa Caucuses conducted entirely after the 7th Democratic debate; he averages 1.1 percentage points (“points”) in the seven polls which include him.

3. The Des Moines Register endorsement

Iowa’s largest newspaper still commands attention, particularly among undecided or not-fully-committed caucus-goers. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the last five Democratic candidates endorsed by the Register in competitive races—1988, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2016—saw Iowa Caucuses results a median 6.0 points higher than their polling average at the time of the Register endorsement. That value drops to 4.3 if you include only data from 2000 forward. The average value, meanwhile, was an increase of 8.5 points, but that drops to 5.3 when you exclude the astonishing 21.6-point increase for North Carolina Senator John Edwards in 2004. Still, even the 2.1-point increase for Clinton in 2016 could matter in a very close contest.

On January 25, 2020, the Register endorsed Warren. This was just six days after the New York Times endorsed both Warren and Klobuchar. As you see in Table 1 below, the race in Iowa has been close for months, though there is evidence Biden and, especially, Sanders have pulled slightly ahead. Still, Warren went up in those two recent polls, and another late poll—from Data for Progress (B+/C-), January 28 to February 2, 2020—gives her 19% of the vote. Thus, a minimum 4.3-point increase for Warren is highly plausible. If it comes primarily at the expense of Sanders and Biden, it could make the difference between Warren finishing in a close top two or a more distant fourth…or even fifth, behind Klobuchar.

Table 1: Final Iowa Caucuses WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate All Polls Since 1st Debate Since 5th Debate Since 7th Debate
Biden 19.8 19.7 19.9 20.0
Sanders 18.4 18.8 20.9 22.4
Warren 17.1 18.1 15.6 15.5
Buttigieg 16.0 16.9 16.7 16.8
Klobuchar 7.0 7.4 9.1 9.8
Yang 2.9 3.2 3.5 3.7
Steyer 2.8 3.1 3.1 3.5
Gabbard 1.6 1.6 1.6 1.6
Bloomberg 0.4 0.4 0.6 0.5
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.3
Patrick 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.1
DK/Other 13.7 10.5 8.7 5.7

The bottom line is this: anybody who thinks they know what will happen in the 2020 Iowa Caucuses has absolutely no idea what will happen in the Iowa Caucuses. The polling, already very difficult to do in a multi-candidate race, is extremely close—with fully four candidates above the 15% viability threshold (and a fifth not far behind), at least statewide; we have almost no sense of caucus-goers’ “backup” choices, or even who will participate; and we are lacking the definitive poll of this race. Perhaps Sanders and Biden really do have a slight edge over Warren and Buttigieg, but I would not bet anything remotely of value on it; in fact, I think Warren’s chances of finishing first or at worst a very close second are understated.

We shall see.

Until next time…

[1] Without rounding, I believe.

January 2020 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 2020 lighthouse.JPG

**********

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

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

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

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Super

Tuesday

Post-

SuperTues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

Until next time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

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

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

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

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

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

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

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

**********

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

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

Stranger Things tower.JPG

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

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

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

It was love at first sip.

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

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…

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

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

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

[4] April 19, to be exact

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

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

Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

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But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

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In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

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I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

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I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

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That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

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There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.