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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cars.

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panorama

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

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

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

Panorama rear.JPG

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

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

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

**********

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

Beatitude.JPG

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

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

She forgave me.

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s an orangy sky/

Always there’s some other guy/

It’s just a broken lullaby/

Bye bye love”

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

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

Which was just fine.

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

Until next time…

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

September 2019 update: 2020 Democratic presidential nomination scenarios and general election polling

With the third Democratic presidential nomination debate set for September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas, it is time for an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-20 declared candidates. The more stringent criteria to qualify for this debate—the first to be held on only one night—presaged the end for three more campaigns. Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on August 21 he would attempt instead to win a third term as governor. United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) member Seth Moulton of Massachusetts dropped out on August 23 (to seek reelection to his House seat), followed by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on August 28. The six candidates who have thus far abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee all exited the race with grace, class and dignity, and I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here[1]. I recently made two other methodological changes. One, I now treat as distinct polling entities two sets of ABC News/Washington Post national-level polls of the 2020 Democratic nomination contest: 1) Two polls, conducted January 21-24 and April 22-25, of adults only which simply asked respondents to name their first choice (as opposed to being read a list of names and being asked to choose one) and 2) two more recent polls (June 28-July 1, September 2-5) which used a list of names. Two, as of their poll conducted August 24-27, I am now using the “likely voters” version of the Harris X tracking poll; I treat these as coming from a distinct “pollster” than the “registered voters” version.

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

Sep 2019 lighthouse.JPG

**********

I begin with a heartfelt methodological apologia.

While conducting the “post-first-debate-polls-only” analysis I discuss below, I noticed a significant glitch in how I weighted polling within distinct polling firms. I was also not incorporating more recent national polls correctly. The combined effect was to lower every candidate’s final NSW-WAPA (thus) at most 1.7 percentage points (“points”), while increasing the “Don’t Know/Other” value 4.6 points. However, the relative ordering of the candidates and the spacing between them was unaffected.

Even so, it is an embarrassing error on my part, and I apologize.

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

  • 178 national polls (including 36 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 21 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 25 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 6 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 19 South Carolina primary polls
  • 43 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 36 polls from 15 other states.[3]

This makes a total of 328 polls, up from 293 in the last update.

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 29.0 24.9 23.8 28.6 40.3 27.8 28.7
Sanders 16.2 16.6 19.5 19.9 14.3 15.8 17.4
Warren 13.0 14.9 15.5 17.5 10.5 14.2 14.5
Harris 8.8 10.1 8.6 8.0 10.8 9.1 9.3
Buttigieg 5.3 9.6 8.9 6.5 5.3 6.3 7.5
O’Rourke 3.3 2.8 2.6 2.6 1.9 6.5 2.7
Booker 2.3 2.6 1.6 1.6 3.7 1.6 2.3
Klobuchar 1.2 2.8 1.0 1.0 0.7 1.0 1.5
Yang 1.4 0.8 1.9 1.5 0.9 0.9 1.2
Gabbard 0.8 0.8 2.0 1.2 0.4 0.7 1.1
Castro 1.0 0.8 0.2 1.2 0.2 1.4 0.70
Steyer 0.2 0.1 0.5 2.1 0.5 0.2 0.65
Delaney 0.3 1.0 0.6 0.00 0.4 0.2 0.49
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.4 0.28
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.4 0.4 0.1 0.28
Ryan 0.3 0.1 0.2 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.23
de Blasio 0.3 0.1 0.00 0.6 0.1 0.1 0.19
Bullock 0.3 0.4 0.00 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.17
Sestak 0.02 0.1 0.00 0.2 0.00 0.1 0.07
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.04 0.03
DK/Other 13.9 9.6 11.4 4.7 7.6 12.3 9.5

The race has settled into a kind of stasis following the first two rounds of debates. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner (28.7), primarily because of his 26-point lead in South Carolina primary polls. However, he is less strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the candidates battling for second place overall, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (17.4) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (14.5), are even closer to first place. Rounding out a clear top five, both overall and in the four earliest states, are California Senator Kamala Harris (9.3) and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7.5). These five candidates account for over three-quarters (77.4%) of Democratic voter preferences at this point, and the conventional wisdom is the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be one of them.

In the next tier are candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.0 and 3.0 who could yet rise in the polls with strong debate performances: former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Of this group, only Gabbard did not qualify for the September 2019 debate, though may yet meet the criteria for the fourth round of Democratic presidential nomination debates (October 15 and possibly October 16). Just behind Gabbard, essentially tied for 11th place, are former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and billionaire activist Tom Steyer; Castro is the 10th and final September 2019 debate qualifier, while Steyer has already qualified for the October 2019 debate(s).

These 12 candidates total 87.0% of Democratic voter preferences. With 9.5%[4] undecided or choosing an unlisted candidate, the remaining seven candidates are divvying up just 3.5% between them; as none of them appears close to making the October 2019 debate(s), I expect them to end their campaigns by the end of 2019.

**********

Because I have been playing them out in my head, I will sketch out some likely nomination-winning scenarios at this point; as these are purely thought experiments, they should not be taken as predictions. These scenarios incorporate additional information like endorsements, my own study of the presidential nomination process[5] and the data in Table 2, derived only from polls that began on June 28, 2019 or later (i.e., after the first round of debates; n=137).

Table 2: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates—starting date of poll June 28, 2019 or later

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 27.8 23.8 21.9 26.1 38.5 26.2 27.0
Sanders 15.9 14.5 19.8 21.4 15.0 15.3 17.3
Warren 15.4 18.7 19.0 19.0 12.0 16.7 17.2
Harris 9.2 12.2 10.2 8.2 12.9 10.0 10.8
Buttigieg 5.0 9.3 9.1 5.3 4.7 5.4 7.0
Booker 2.1 2.0 1.6 1.2 3.2 1.3 1.9
O’Rourke 2.4 1.4 1.2 1.8 1.0 6.2 1.9
Yang 1.9 1.0 2.4 1.3 0.9 1.1 1.4
Gabbard 1.0 0.9 2.6 1.3 0.5 0.9 1.3
Klobuchar 1.1 2.5 1.2 0.9 0.7 0.6 1.3
Steyer 0.4 0.02 0.7 3.4 0.9 0.3 1.0
Castro 1.1 0.7 0.3 1.4 0.2 1.4 0.75
Delaney 0.3 0.8 0.6 0.00 0.7 0.2 0.52
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.3 0.5 0.38
Williamson 0.5 0.1 0.6 0.3 0.5 0.2 0.36
de Blasio 0.4 0.3 0.00 0.9 0.1 0.1 0.28
Ryan 0.4 0.00 0.00 0.6 0.5 0.2 0.25
Bullock 0.3 0.5 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.24
Sestak 0.03 0.1 0.00 0.4 0.00 0.1 0.11
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.01
DK/Other 13.7 9.6 7.2 3.8 6.0 12.2 7.8

The top five remains the same (and combine for a slightly higher 79.3%), though Biden and Buttigieg are lower, while Sanders, Harris and, especially, Warren are higher.  The next tier of seven candidates is closely bunched together between 0.7 and 1.9. And a slightly smaller percentage (7.8) are undecided or prefer a different candidate.

But the real differences may be seen in Iowa, where Warren is now a close second to Biden, and New Hampshire, which is essentially a three-way tie between Biden, Sanders and Warren; Nevada is similar, with Biden slightly further ahead—and Steyer has his best showing (3.4) by far. Gabbard (2.6) and Yang (2.4) are similarly rising in New Hampshire.

In these scenarios I assume two things:

  1. Results in the four early states will continue to have an outsized impact on all subsequent contests,
  2. Candidates not finishing in the top five in any of Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina will end their campaign before March 3, 2020

Scenario 1: Biden wins easily.

This is the most obvious scenario: the front-runner wins. Biden has consistently led national and most state polls. He leads Harris in endorsement “points,” though relatively few Democratic party officials have endorsed a candidate. He is winning the “Hillary Clinton 2016 coalition”: older, moderate/conservative and black Democrats. And even after two shaky debate performances, Biden is still nearly 10 points ahead of Sanders and Warren overall in the most recent polling—and about five points ahead in the leadoff Iowa caucuses.

In this scenario, Biden wins the Iowa caucuses by closer to 10 points, with Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg splitting the votes of whiter, younger, more liberal Democrats, and Harris a distant fifth; no other candidate is close. Biden, who lately has been downplaying his chances in the early states, looks like the winner he was presumed to be.

Klobuchar, who had pinned everything on Iowa, drops out of the race and endorse Biden (instead of a Senate colleague or the untested Buttigieg). This, along with support from supporters of former candidates, breaks the logjam in New Hampshire. Biden wins there in the high single digits as Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg continue to split the not-Biden vote between them. Nevada becomes an afterthought (allowing Steyer to finish a surprising fourth), as all eyes turn to South Carolina—where Biden wins easily.

After the remaining candidates make their last stands on Super Tuesday (Warren in Massachusetts; Harris, Yang, Steyer and Gabbard in California; O’Rourke and Castro in Texas), Biden wins the majority of delegates awarded that day, after which only Sanders and Warren are serious challengers. Uncommitted officials, sensing a chance to focus on President Donald J. Trump, quickly coalesce behind Biden. He effectively wraps up the nomination on April 28, when he trounces Sanders and Warren in the Pennsylvania primary, the state where he was born, and whose southern neighbor (Delaware) he served in the Senate for 36 years.

Scenario 2: Warren’s early state strength vaults her to the nomination.

This is essentially the inverse of Scenario 1 and, to my mind, about equally as likely. Warren wins the Iowa caucuses because her far-more enthusiastic supporters show up to a caucus site on a Monday night in early February. Biden’s supporters, however, do not caucus in expected numbers, and he finishes a disappointing third, behind Sanders and barely ahead of Buttigieg and Harris. Booker finishes a surprisingly strong sixth, thanks to a core of enthusiastic supporters, though it is still disappointing. Nobody else is even close; Klobuchar again drops out of the race, though this time she endorses Warren. Harris, meanwhile, focuses on doing well in South Carolina and California.

Sensing a winner, supporters of other “liberal” candidates break for Warren, who edges out Sanders to win the New Hampshire primary; Biden actually finishes third behind Buttigieg. Yang and Gabbard finish higher than expected, but not enough to garner any momentum. Warren then makes it three-for-three in Nevada, as even some Sanders voters caucus for her; Biden finishes fourth, behind a surprisingly-strong Steyer.

In a matter of days, the very core of Biden’s appeal—his “electability”—is irreparably damaged. He still wins the South Carolina primary on the strength of moderate/conservative Democrats alarmed by the one-two punch of Warren and Sanders; pragmatic black Democrats split their votes between Biden, Harris and Warren (with a smattering for Booker), who finish in that order.

Just prior to Super Tuesday, though, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro and Yang—all eyeing the vice-presidential nomination—drop out of the race and endorse Warren. As a result, on Super Tuesday, besides her home states of Massachusetts, Warren wins Colorado, Minnesota and, in a narrow upset, Virginia. Biden wins the southern states of Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, but by smaller margins than expected.

Texas is an inconclusive muddle, with Biden, Warren and O’Rourke battling for first place (roughly in that order)—but the game-changer is California. On the strength of white liberals (who have broken decisively from Sanders, especially women) and a slight plurality of LatinX voters, and with Biden and Harris splitting the black vote between them, Warren wins the California primary.

Harris, O’Rourke and Steyer see the writing on the wall and drop out, endorsing Warren. Gabbard also drops out, but chooses to endorse Sanders instead.

It is now effectively a two-person race between Biden and Warren, the clear front-runner. Sanders soldiers on, despite not having won a single contest, though his percentages languish around 10-15%, just enough to win some delegates here and there.

Biden continues to win primaries in the south (including the Florida primary on March 17) with Harris and Booker out of the race, but his only win outside the south is Ohio on March 10. Making his last stand in Pennsylvania, his high-single-digit win is deemed a disappointment. Warren then wins the Indiana primary on May 3, effectively wrapping up the nomination.

Scenarios 1a and 2a: Biden and Warren split the early states

It is highly plausible that Biden wins Iowa and South Carolina, while Warren wins New Hampshire and Nevada. Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg survive to battle on Super Tuesday, but Warren ends up winning California (as just enough Harris supporters instead vote for Warren), while Biden wins Texas (with O’Rourke a distant third). Sanders soldiers on, but it would once again be a Biden-Warren race. Given his base of support, Biden would probably be the slight favorite in this scenario.

In fact, nearly every scenario I game out ends up with either Biden or Warren as the nominee. There are, however, some entertaining (if less likely) exceptions:

Scenario 3: Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire

This is essentially 2016 all over again (Sanders barely lost Iowa before a landslide win in New Hampshire), except with three or four other viable candidates instead of one.

In this scenario, Biden and Warren begin to attack each other directly in the September and October debates, ultimately depressing turnout for both as voting begins in February 2020. The beneficiary is Sanders, who suddenly appears to be the sage elder statesman (and whose head-to-head polling numbers against Trump cause a second look at his candidacy): his loyal supporters push him over the top in Iowa—ahead of a surprisingly-strong Buttigieg, who picked up many disgruntled Biden and Warren voters. Harris also benefits, essentially tying the latter two for third place.

New Hampshire now becomes a battle between Sanders and Buttigieg, with Harris focusing on South Carolina and California. Once again, New Hampshire supports the familiar neighbor, though Buttigieg again makes it surprisingly close.

And national Democrats get very nervous, despite those head-to-head polls.

Ignoring Nevada (which Sanders wins easily), and taking solace in the prospect of a solid, historic ticket to go against Trump and Vice President Mike Pence[6], they rapidly and tactically endorse Harris and Buttigieg. Having finished no higher than sixth in any of the first three contests, every other candidate drops out and endorses either Harris or Buttigieg (except Williamson and Gabbard, who back Sanders).

Biden and Warren fight on, but with their candidacies fatally damaged, Harris wins South Carolina, with Buttigieg a solid second, well ahead of Sanders. Harris and Buttigieg then make a strategic decision to make every Super Tuesday contest a one-on-one battle against Sanders, who can no longer win with around 20-25% of the vote.

On March 3, Harris wins California and the southern states (Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) while Buttigieg wins Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Sanders finishes second or third in every state, collecting some delegates, while Biden and Warren see their campaigns end with a whimper.

Opening a commanding one-two lead in delegates, Harris and Buttigieg follow the same path as Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards in 2004: a relatively calm trek through the remaining primaries and caucuses, with Harris steadily closing in on the nomination. Once she does, she surprises nobody by selecting Buttigieg as her running mate, just as Kerry chose Edwards in 2004.

Scenario 4: Someone other than Biden, Sanders or Warren wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire

This is the true wild card scenario, which is nearly impossible to game out at this point.

Still, let us suppose Booker continues to have very strong debate performances, and with them now on a single night (for the sake of argument, the October debate is one night), this finally resonates with voters, who take a long second look at him.

As a result, he surprises everyone by winning the Iowa caucuses. Rather than campaign in New Hampshire or Nevada, which he concedes to Sanders and Warren, he focuses exclusively on South Carolina. Sensing weakness in Biden, and excited by his Iowa win, black voters overwhelmingly support Booker, who just edges Biden, effectively ending that latter’s campaign.

Booker and Warren (who won New Hampshire and Nevada) then battle it out on Super Tuesday. With Harris making a last stand in California, and O’Rourke doing the same in Texas, Warren wins the former, Booker the latter. Warren and Booker now effectively replay the 2008 campaign between then-Senators Barack Obama and Clinton, with the most likely outcome either a Warren-Booker or a Booker-Warren ticket.

An alternative scenario sees Buttigieg finishing in the top two or three in Iowa (behind Biden and Warren in some order), then winning the New Hampshire primary. Nevada is again an afterthought, and Biden wins South Carolina. This feels somewhat like the 1988 Republican nomination battle, when then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas won Iowa, but ultimately lost to the front runner, then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush; Biden thus eventually prevails.

What these scenarios suggests is that, based upon what we know now, Biden and Warren are far and away the most likely nominees, but there are universes in which Harris or Booker win the nomination. By contrast, it is very difficult to see Sanders or (probably) Buttigieg doing so…or any other candidate, for that matter.

**********

Because Democrats other than Biden and Sanders, who would beat Trump nationally by 9.0 and 5.7 points, respectively, are also winning (or barely losing) hypothetical head-to-head match-ups, “2020 Democratic nominee” (averages vs. Trump weighted by likelihood of being the nominee) now beats Trump by 4.1 points. This is higher than the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0 points) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin over Trump decreases to 1.0 points; Warren would hypothetically win by 2.5 points and Harris by 1.9 points, while Buttigieg, O’Rourke and Booker would lose by less than one point.

Still, given that state-level results actually determine the winner of a presidential election (via the Electoral College), it is more informative to look to those polls, where they are publicly-available. Using my 3W-RDM, a measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s voting is relative to the nation as a whole, this polling[7] implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.2 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 6.5 (including Biden and Sanders) points on average. Most encouraging to Democrats should be the polls from North Carolina (R+6.0) and Texas (R+15.3), which show a very close race, implying a national Democratic lead of 5-7-and 12-15-points, respectively; these polls confirm strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest. By contrast, however, a few polls from Democratic-leaning Maine (D+5.9) and Nevada (D+2.0) imply Democrats would lose nationwide by 1-6 points. Those remain the exceptions, however, to what continues to be encouraging news for Democrats in 2020.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within areal units (nation, state) by days to the nominating contest and pollster quality to form a unit-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), the time-weighted average of all subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within the subsequent contests, I now weight the 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) twice as much as the subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from (in chronological order) Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily Texas (15), California (14)

[3] Primarily Florida (9), Pennsylvania (5), Wisconsin (5)

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

[5] As a doctoral student in government at Harvard in the early 1990s, I was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course on this very topic.

[6] As of this writing, anyway.

[7] From Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah.

Wax museums and The Beatles: a postscript

A few weeks ago, I interrogated my memory of why I so intensely disliked The Beatles as a child and tween. Basically, I blamed the Fab Four for frightening me when I was seven or eight years old, when what actually frightened me was a wax museum Chamber of Horrors. Combine that with my extreme disinclination to be told what to like and what not to like, and you have the (silly) reasons I disdained The Beatles.

Yesterday, I read a tweet asserting The Beatles are “VASTLY overrated.” A tweet to which one especially curmudgeonly journalist I follow (and admire) replied “Dead. To. Me.” While I would not go nearly that far, I agree they are not overrated, other than in the sense that anything truly exceptional often becomes a caricature.

And I realized I never explained how I slowly reversed course on The Beatles.

**********

To be fair, as a child, I generally heard their early pop confections (e.g., “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) or other songs which, I must be honest, do very little for me (“Yesterday,” in particular).

But in July 1978, a few months before I turned 12, the wretched movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It is hard to earn a poor rating on IMDB, but this film earns a 4.1. It also has a 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with a somewhat more charitable Audience Score of 44%.

It is just not a good movie, despite a cast that includes Steve Martin, Donald Pleasance and George Burns…and some fine musical performances by The Bee Gees (as the titular band) and Peter Frampton (as Billy Shears); Frampton simply cannot act.

What the movie does have, though, is some interesting covers of The Beatles’ songs, including a soaring “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind and Fire, a powerful “Get Back” by Billy Preston, and a mesmerizing “Come Together” by Aerosmith. I would even argue the Earth, Wind and Fire version improves on the original in its sheer exuberance.

Those covers were played on the radio, not only on my favorite Philadelphia radio station, the Top 40 (plus) WIFI-92, but also on the classic rock stations I was slowly discovering: 93.3 WMMR, 94 WYSP and, a few years later, the more adult-oriented WIOQ 102.5 FM. This is how I came to hear the original version of “Come Together,” which I strongly associate with summer at Camp Arthur-Rita (long since closed) in Zieglerville, PA, about an hour’s drive of our home in Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Well, I spent the summer there minus the week-plus I was sent home with an epic case of poison ivy.

The extraordinary opening riff to “Come Together,” that slow hypnotic interplay of voice, cymbals, electric bass, drums and organ, was a revelation. This was not another one of those “silly love songs,” as Paul McCartney would call them in 1976. There was a lot more to The Beatles than I had ever realized.

The irony in the previous paragraph is that the first album I ever bought was Wings Over America; Wings—McCartney’ post-Beatles band—was my first favorite pop group, when I was about 10 years old. They would soon be toppled by Fleetwood Mac…then Peter Gabriel…then Genesis, who have reigned supreme since about 1981.

I still have Wings Over America on vinyl, by the way.

Wings Over America

But I digress.

**********

I do not know what possessed my 14-year-old self to turn on a rerun of Quincy M.E. that Monday night at 11:30 pm on our local CBS affiliate[1], when I should have been going to sleep.  I almost certainly had never watched the show before, nor have I since then. For only a few minutes into the show, it was interrupted for a breaking news bulletin.

It was December 8, 1980…and the news was that 40-year-old former Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his New York City apartment building, The Dakota, where he had lived with his wife Yoko Ono.

In the course of writing this post, I stumbled across a fact I had either forgotten or never known—that most people first heard the news of Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell on a broadcast of Monday Night Football. Nor had I known that the garrulous Cosell and the cerebral Lennon were friends.

For my generation—born just after the end of the Baby Boom ended in 1964—this was our “where were you when JFK was shot?” moment. One reason I know this is that the normally loud and raucous bus ride to Harriton High School, where I was a freshman, was eerily quiet the next morning; nobody said a word. There was a girl a year or two older than me who always sat toward the front of the bus, where she would quietly play a cassette mix tape of 1960s folk rock; if memory serves, she just sat there, softly crying. She may have played some Beatles songs, but I cannot be certain.

Like many other people, I bought a copy of Double Fantasy (which regrettably I have since sold), the double album Lennon and Ono had recently released. The singles, “Starting Over,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” would dominate the airwaves for the next year or so. And Beatles songs were ubiquitous as well—or, at least, I was far more aware of them.

Not that they were moving me, however, even as the Dutch musical act Stars On was recording and releasing their “Stars on 45” Beatles medley. On March 22, 1981, I typed out a five-page list of FAVORITE SONGS, 160 in total. In the SUPREME ECHELON were “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police and “Carrie” by Cliff Richard, still one of my 100 favorite songs. Included in the 134 HIGH ECHELON songs[2] was a single Beatles song, “Come Together.” Five months later, as I detailed here, I began making my own cassette mix tapes. I created the second one (Stuff Vol. I, most likely December 1981) by flipping around my favorite radio stations and hoping for the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, the 9th of 10 tracks on side two was “Come Together.”

The following Memorial Day weekend, I listened (some while driving in the front seat of my father’s taxicab; thank you, Dad) to my first “Rock and Roll 500” on WYSP, which tended to be more “hard rock.” I dutifully (if somewhat sloppily) recorded the data in a hard-backed dark blue notebook; my tally showed The Beatles came in fourth, with 28 tracks[3] (topped by “Hey Jude” at #32), behind The Who (30), Led Zeppelin (33— “Stairway to Heaven” was #1) and the Rolling Stones (38). The only other Beatles song in the top 100 was “A Day in the Life” at #89. Two summers later, that latter track would rank #2 overall on the WMMR version of the Rock and Roll 500, with “Hey Jude” at #7.

It was “A Day in the Life” that kicked my slowly-developing interest in The Beatles to another level. “Come Together” was cool, but this was something else entirely—epic, eerie and capped off by the best orchestral crescendo ever. Early in the summer of 1982, I bought (or acquired from someone?) used vinyl copies of The Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums, a combined four-disc compilation of their best songs.

Yes, I still have them.

Beatles Red.JPG

Beatles Blue.JPG

I likely bought a used vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time, and at some point over the next few years, I purchased Abbey Road, Revolver and The Beatles (aka the White Album).

For all that, I still resisted calling myself a Beatles fan, even as I liked more and more of their songs…and learned that Revolver was the #1 album in the United States the week I was born.

**********

Remember the girl on my high school bus with her 60s folk rock mix tape? That idea stayed with me, even after she graduated (I now suspect she was a senior), and in July 1982, I started to make my 6th mix tape cassette. Side One was my spin on her mix:

A Day in the Life Beatles, The
Gimme Shelter Rolling Stones, The
Colour My World Chicago
25 or 6 to 4 Chicago
Summer Breeze Seals and Crofts
Tuesday Afternoon Moody Blues, The
Nights in White Satin Moody Blues, The
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds Beatles, The
Suffragette City Bowie, David
Ziggy Stardust Bowie, David

Note that I opened the mix with “A Day in the Life” and added “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for good measure.

That October, I created Stuff Vol. VII (my 8th mix overall) by again recording songs from the radio. The 3rd track on Side Two was “Get Back.” meaning four of the first 135 tracks I put onto a mix were by The Beatles.

But that was it for nearly eight years.

In the interim, I enrolled at Yale, where two classmates continued my change in perspective on The Beatles. One was a freshman year roommate, a brilliant musician and composer whose opinion I still greatly respect (despite resisting his occasional entreaties to run for office); he regards The Beatles with an almost sacral reverence. The other was a freshman in a different residential college with whom I became close friends, despite his being 12 years older than the rest of us. He kept trying to get me to apprehend the context in which The Beatles emerged, to imagine what he lived through: the world of popular music before and after they began to record. I was insufficiently versed in musical history to grasp his lesson then, but I now understand what he meant.  Mick Jagger’s ebullient speech inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hints at the wasteland that was popular music around 1962-63. I may yet write a post exploring that moment around 1960 when it was uncertain whether rock or jazz would become the dominant mode of popular music (clearly, the former did), and the disparate roles played by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (among others) in resolving that question.

Finally, in July 1990, I closed out Side Two of Stuff and Such Vol. XIX with three tracks from the “White” album: “Dear Prudence,” “Martha My Dear” and “Julia.” These were the 1,025th through 1,027th tracks I put onto a mix, recorded off a CD version of the album. I would eventually get Abbey Road and Revolver on CD as well, followed by Rubber Soul in 2006.

And it would be another 8½ years until the 8th Beatles track (“I Feel Fine”)—#1,484 overall—appeared on Stuff and Such Vol. LXIV. “She’s a Woman” followed in March 2000 (#1,585), with “Got To Get You Into My Life” (#1,682) making it an even 10 that November.

The following June, however, is when then dam began to break. I recorded four Beatles songs on a two-cassette mix I created for a road trip (Philadelphia to Ann Arbor, MI). Three more would follow in 2002, two in 2003, two in 2004, three in 2006-07 (including what is likely my favorite Beatles song, “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul) and one in 2009; I was now up to 25 Beatles songs out of 2,649.

Finally, in July 2010, that number increased by 10 when I put the entire Abbey Road Side Two medley on disc eight of an 11-CD mix I created for a trip to Philadelphia.

Because Beatles, The
You Never Give Me Your Money Beatles, The
Sun King Beatles, The
Mean Mr. Mustard Beatles, The
Polythene Pam Beatles, The
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window Beatles, The
Golden Slumbers Beatles, The
Carry That Weight Beatles, The
The End Beatles, The
Her Majesty Beatles, The

I added one final Beatles track (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” #2,799) in June 2012, meaning that through August 2015 (the last time I updated the database, unfortunately), 36 Beatles tracks were included among 3,305 total tracks (1.1%). A similar 1.3% (124) of the 9,560 tracks in my iTunes are Beatles tracks; for context, see here.

When I first began assessing my favorite tracks, albums and artists in the early 1990s, The Beatles languished between my 51st and 35th favorite artist; they were only that high because I owned six of their albums. By 2005, however, the last time I formally analyzed my musical tastes, they had risen to #12; this is roughly where they would rank were I to perform this analysis now.

It had been, dare I say it, a long and winding road, but 30 years after visiting Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Atlantic City, NJ, I had more than made my peace with The Beatles.

Who are very much NOT overrated.

Until next time…

[1] According to page 37 of the December 8, 1980 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News.

[2] Technically, HIGH ECHELON (124) and ALSO HIGH ECHELON (10), because I did not remember the latter until after typing up the former.

[3] After a recount, there may only be 26.

A post-Labor-Day look at 2019 elections for U.S. House and governor

In May, I took a “wicked early” look at, among other elections, the three gubernatorial elections to be held on November 5, 2019 in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. I also updated my estimated effects of incumbency for Democratic and Republican United States Senators (“Senators”) and governors.

Having passed Labor Day, the traditional start of the fall campaign season, I want to take a closer look at those three 2019 gubernatorial elections, as well as a “do-over” election for the United States House of Representatives (“House”) to be held in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District (“CD”) on September 10, 2019[1].

Specifically, I want to add available public polling to the fundamentals of each election: a baseline estimate of the outcome of an election. I calculate an election’s fundamentals by summing three values:

  1. State partisan lean, measured by my 3W-RDM[2],
  2. Incumbency advantage, which I estimate to be 5.7 percentage points (“points”) for incumbent Democratic governors and 8.5 points for incumbent Republican incumbent governors, and
  3. National partisan lean, measured by the “generic ballot” question for the House[3]. As of the evening of September 5, 2019, FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats a 6.5-point edge on this measure.

Before I discuss the individual races, however, just bear with me while I discuss my new approach to converting fundamentals and polling averages into probabilities, as well as the weights I now use to combine those two values into a single “projection” and probability of victory.

Probability. When I calculated updated advantages for Senators and governor, I used the simple arithmetic difference between the “expected” result (fundamentals-only) and the actual results. This means I have an “error” distribution for 106 gubernatorial elections going back to 2011. These errors are roughly normally distributed, with a mean of 0.6 points and a very high standard deviation of 17.5 points, suggesting inordinate uncertainty in my fundamentals estimates.

Still, using the properties of the normal distribution, I can estimate the probability a given estimate of fundamentals equates to a Democratic win (i.e., Democratic margin > 0).

Similarly, I can generate the probability a WAPA equates to a Democratic win using the formula

Standard deviation = square root of ((D average*R average)/total number polled),

using the simple polling averages for the Democratic and Republican candidates. Technically, this is calculating the margin of error (without multiplying by a “z-score” to get, say, a 95% confidence level), but with an assumed normal distribution it is the functional equivalent of a standard deviation.

Time weighting. This close to election day, polling averages should be given more weight than fundamentals, and that weight should increase daily. Since my polling data for these races begins on January 1, 2019, I used the number of days between that day and November 5, 2019[4]—308—as the denominator for my weight. The numerator is the number of days between January 1, 2019 and the closing field date of the most recent poll of that election. That ratio is the weight given to WAPA, with one minus that weight applied to the fundamentals.

For example, the most recent poll of the Kentucky gubernatorial election was in the field from August 19 to August 22, 2019. It is 233 days from January 1 to August 22 this year; dividing 233 by 308 yields 0.754. Thus, as of now, I weight WAPA in Kentucky 0.754 and fundamentals 0.246. The other two gubernatorial elections have similar 3-1 ratios of polling to fundamentals, which seems right.

**********

Let us begin the election in North Carolina’s 9th House CD. In the 2018 midterm election, Republican Mark Harris, a conservative pastor, appeared to defeat Democrat Dan McCready, an entrepreneur and former Marine Corps captain, by just 905 votes (0.4%). However, once substantial evidence emerged of ballot tampering by a Republican operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless, the state election board refused to certify the election results. Instead, they called for a new election—including new primaries to select each party’s nominees. While McCready ran unopposed, Republicans chose State Senator Dan Bishop in a July 9 runoff election.

According to the Cook Political Report, this CD leans 8.0 points more Republican than the nation. With no incumbent running, the fundamentals suggest a generic Republican would beat a generic Democrat by 1.5 points.

However, examination of available public polling[5]–adjusted for mean partisan bias and pollster quality, as well as time to election (what I call “WAPA”: weighted-adjusted polling average)—suggests McCready is ahead by 0.5 points. That lead increases to nearly two points in the two most recent polls, both taken in late August. Take this WAPA with multiple grains of salt, however, as the average pollster rating is just C+.

Still, the time-weighed polling and fundamentals by time, gives you an aggregate of D+0.3, making this race a true toss-up, and likely within recount territory. But any outcome between D+2 and R+2 is extremely plausible…and that includes R+0.4; it would be a beautiful bit of irony if Bishop wins by the same 0.4 points Harris led by on election day 2018.

**********

That Democrats are reasonably competitive in all three gubernatorial elections this fall is extraordinary given they average 23.1 points more Republican than the nation (Table 1). A word of caution, however: the available public polling in these races ranges from an average of C+ (Mississippi) to B/B- (Kentucky).

Table 1. 2019 Gubernatorial elections

Incumbent Party State 3W-RDM Fund WAPA Comb Prob D win
John Bel Edwards D LA R+22.2 R+10.0 D+9.1 D+3.8 79.5%
Open seat R MS R+18.5 R+12.0 R+4.0 R+6.1 6.9%
Matt Bevin R KY R+28.7 R+30.7 D+4.7 R+4.0 76.5%

The likeliest Democratic win is in Louisiana, where Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards remains fairly popular (favorable 47%, unfavorable 33% in the most recent Morning Consult polling). This is remarkable in a heavily Republican state; even as an incumbent in a strongly-Democratic year, he would still be expected to lose by about 10 points to a generic Republican (though that would still give him about a 30% chance based on recent electoral history).

John_Bel_Edwards

Photograph of John Bel Edwards from here

Louisiana will actually hold a “jungle primary” on October 12 in which every declared candidate will run regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate captures more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in a runoff election on November 16. The available polling[6] shows Bel Edwards far ahead of his two primary Republican challengers, House Member Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone. WAPA values across the available public polls shows Bel Edwards at 46.5%, Abraham at 24.9% and Rispone at 10.3%, with the remaining 18.3% scattered among a handful of other candidates and undecided. Bel Edwards could well fall shy of a majority on October 12.

His likeliest opponent appears to be Abraham, though he recently stirred up some self-inflicted controversy. Head-to-head matchups suggest Bel Edwards would defeat him by about 7 points. Similar polls suggest Bel Edwards would defeat Rispone by about 16 points. If we assume Abraham would be roughly a 5:2 favorite to be Bel Edwards’ runoff opponent, the weighted average is a Bel Edwards win by about nine points. Overall, Bel Edwards is about a 4:1 favorite to win reelection.

At the other end of the popularity spectrum, meanwhile, is Republican governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky, the least popular governor in the country (if you subtract his unfavorable rating of 56% from his favorable rating of 32%). In fact, the incumbent Bevin only defeated State House member Robert Goforth in the May 21 primary 52-39%. Still, even with a -24-point differential in favorability and a divided party, Kentucky is such a Republican-leaning state that the fundamentals have Bevin beating a generic Democrat by a whopping 30.7 points. That generic Democrat would have only about a 4% chance of winning, based on recent electoral history.

However, in a closely-fought primary, Kentucky Democrats nominated state Attorney General Andy Beshear, whose father Steve was governor of Kentucky (as a Democrat) from 2008-2016. And Beshear’s name may be just enough to defeat Bevin, even in the 7th most Republican state in the country. The Democrat leads by 4.7 points in the WAPA, which would make him essentially a shoo-in to win; this value is derived from only three publicly-available (two with a strong Democratic lean) polls, though[7].

BeshearAndy_320

Photograph of Andy Beshear from here.

The time-weighted average of fundamentals and WAPA is Bevin+4.0, reflecting the enormous disparity between the two. Still, with WAPA weighted 3-1 over fundamentals, Beshear would seem to be about a 3:1 favorite.

I remain skeptical, though, and consider this race essentially a toss-up (maybe even a slight advantage for Bevin) until I see more and higher-quality polling.

As for the open seat in Mississippi, where Republican Governor Phil Bryant is not seeking reelection, the fundamentals have a generic Republican defeating a generic Democrat by 12.0 points, giving that Democrat about a 1-in-4 chance of winning based on recent electoral history.

On August 6, Democrats nominated state Attorney General Jim Hood, who easily defeated seven other candidates, while Republicans nominated Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who edged state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller in a controversial August 27 runoff election. In fact, following filmed instances of electronic voting machines switching Waller votes to Reeves, Waller refuses to endorse his party’s gubernatorial nominee.

Unlike in Kentucky and Louisiana, though, the few publicly-available Mississippi polls[8] are broadly in line with the fundamentals; the WAPA is Reeves+4.0, making him a near-certain victor. In fact, if you remove two Democratic-leaning Hickman Analytics polls, Reeves’ lead over Hood jumps to about 10 points. The time-weighted average has Reeves up about six points, with a roughly 93% chance of victory.

In sum, then, the good news for Democrats in these three races—in heavily Republican southern states—is that they are unlikely to lose any ground in governor’s mansions overall (they now trail Republicans 23-27), and could even net one new seat in Kentucky, of all places.

Until next time…

[1] There will also be a special election in North Carolina’s 3rd CD that day, to fill the seat vacated when GOP House Member Walter Jones died on February 13, but Republican Greg Murphy is heavily favored to win that seat over Democrat Allen Thomas.

[2] Essentially, how much more or less Democratic a state’s presidential voting has been relative to the nation as a whole over the last three presidential elections.

[3] If the election for were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or some other candidate?”

[4] November 16 for Louisiana

[5] RRH Elections, 8/26-8/28/2019, 500 LV: Harper Polling/Clarity Campaign Labs, 8/26-8/28/2019, 551 RV; Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, 7/15-7/18/2019, 450 RV; Atlantic Media and Research, 5/20-5/30/2019, 358 RV; JMC Enterprises, 5/21-5/24/2019, 350 RV

[6] Market Research Insight 8/13-8/16/2019, 4/9-4/11/2019, 600 LV; Multi-Quest International, 7/19-7/21/2019, 601 RV; Remington Research Group, 6/1-6/2/2019 (1,471 LV), 3/13-3/14/2019 (1,484 LV); JMC Enterprises, 4/25-4/29/2019, 650 LV; LJR Custom Strategies, 1/14-1/17/2019, 600 LV

[7] Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, 8/19-8/22/2019, 501 LV; Clarity Campaign Labs, 8/12-8/13/2019, 792 LV; Gravis Marketing, 6/11-6/12/2019, 741 LV

[8] Hickman Analytics, 8/11-8/15/2019 (600 LV), 5/5-5/9/2019 (604 LV); Survey Monkey, 7/2-7/16/2019, 1.042 RV; Impact Management Group, 6/10-6/14/2019, 610 LV; Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc., 1/30-2/1/2019, 625 RV; OnMessage Inc., 1/28-1/30/2019, 600 LV

Looking in the mirror, 2020 Democratic nomination polls edition

Monthly since April 2019, I have updated my weighted-adjusted polling averages for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. You may read about my aggregation methods here, but a key difference between my algorithm and those used by some other polling aggregators (e.g. RealClearPolitics) is that I use every publicly-available poll (as listed on FiveThirtyEight.com) released since January 1, 2019.

I Voted sticker

This means I do not:

  1. Exclude polls based on “quality,”
  2. Drop polls from the algorithm after a certain period of time, or
  3. Distinguish between polls of adults, registered voters and likely voters.

I do, however, give much more weight to polls from higher-quality pollsters (as measured by FiveThirtyEight) and those released more recently. I weight “quality” by converting grades to numeric equivalents (A+=4.3, A=4.0) then dividing by 4.3. And I weight more recent polls by dividing the number of days between the poll’s field dates midpoint and January 1, 2019 by the number of days between January 1, 2019 and the election being assessed. Finally, I have not seen any appreciable difference in candidate standing based upon what set of respondents is sampled.

Simply put, I would rather collect more information, even of lower “quality” or “outdated,” than less. I would prefer to avoid defending exclusion/inclusion criteria.

My aggregation process also does something no other polling average or selection process does. It yields a single score (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average, or NSW-WAPA) for each 2020 Democratic nomination candidate based upon the fact nominations are won through the accumulation of delegates committed to voting for them at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. These delegates are accrued at the state level, usually based upon the results of that state’s presidential primary or caucuses. NSW-WAPA combines state and national polling averages (WAPA), weighting WAPA from the early state contests of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina higher than those from later states (with Super Tuesday states weighted twice as high) and national WAPA lowest of all.

As a brief aside, while I try to keep my personal feelings as far from this site as I can, there are two things even the best political journalists do that annoy me to no end:

  1. They call caucuses simply “caucus.” (Multiple such events, requiring time and effort, each called a “caucus,” will be held on the same day in such states as Iowa and Nevada)
  2. They refer to a complex, multi-stage, months-long nomination process as a “primary.” (“Primary” implies a single, national, one-day event in which every interested party member casts a ballot for the person they want to be their party’s presidential nominee. There is no such event.)

It is, frankly, lazy writing and reporting from people I otherwise respect and who should know better. I understand that “caucuses+ is an awkward word to pronounce, and that “nomination process” is a mouthful, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy and imprecision.

OK, I have put my soapbox back in the closet. Thank you for listening.

**********

Having chastised political journalists, I now look in the mirror myself.

I believe my algorithm approach (modeled to a large extent on the FiveThirtyEight approach) is the appropriate one, because it is both more comprehensive (individual higher quality polls may be outliers while certain lower quality polls may better reflect current preferences) and less prone to fluctuate wildly based on any single fluky poll or set of polls.

Nonetheless, it is important to ask if my algorithmic choices are biasing my NSW-WAPA in some way. By “bias,” I mean the mathematical difference between a calculated value and some platonic ideal “true” value.

There are three ways to think about this question:

  1. What would happen to NSW-WAPA if I excluded “lower quality” polls entirely?
  2. Does my current weighting scheme give outdated polls too much influence on what is essentially a snapshot of current voter preferences?
  3. Am I correct that the type of voters sampled (e., registered vs. likely voters) does not make an appreciable difference in NSW-WAPA?

I altered my algorithm to reflect these three questions then compared the resulting NSW-WAPA to what I typically calculate. The results are summarized in the following sections.

**********

Pollster Quality. As noted, FiveThirtyEight assigns a letter grade to dozens of polling organizations based on how they conduct polls (e.g., do they call cellphones as well as landlines; do they use live callers or recordings, sometimes called “robo-polls;” do they randomly select subjects or are they Internet- or panel-based). They also assign a C+ to pollsters who did appear in their May 2018 update.

I include A+-level pollsters like Monmouth University and Seltzer & Co. (gold standard of Iowa polling, extremely difficult in multi-candidate caucuses), C- (and lower)-level pollsters like Zogby Interactive/JZ Analytics (C), McLaughlin & Associates (C-) and Survey Monkey (D-), as well as all pollsters in between.

On balance, the polling is OK, averaging between B and B-, depending on the location; B is a good midpoint.

But what if I only included pollsters with at least a B rating from FiveThirtyEight (while still weighting as before)?

First, the set of polls drops essentially in half, from:

  • 157 national polls to 62 (34 to 17[1] pollsters)
  • 20 Iowa polls to 10, (10 to six pollsters)
  • 22 New Hampshire polls to 11 (10 pollsters to six pollsters)
  • Five Nevada polls to two (four to two pollsters)
  • 18 South Carolina polls to six (eight to five pollsters)
  • 36 Super Tuesday polls (10 states) to 16 polls, with 0 polls from Alabama, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee or Virginia
  • 32 polls from 14 other states to 10 polls from six other states (Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon).

The number of polls overall drops from 293 (national, 28 states) to 117 (national, 15 states). However, the overall quality rises from B/B- to A-/B+ (precisely the student I was at Yale).

Table 1 compares NSW-WAPA with and without “lower quality” pollsters for the 21 announced Democratic candidates:

Table 1: NSW-WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates with and without pollsters rated B- or lower by FiveThirtyEight

Candidate All Polls Pollster Rating≥B Difference
Biden 27.5 29.8 2.27
Sanders 16.0 15.8 -0.20
Warren 13.2 12.5 -0.73
Harris 9.2 8.8 -0.40
Buttigieg 7.5 6.5 -1.05
O’Rourke 2.6 2.7 0.13
Booker 2.2 2.2 -0.01
Klobuchar 1.5 1.5 -0.02
Yang 1.1 1.0 -0.10
Gabbard 0.9 0.7 -0.17
Steyer 0.6 0.2 -0.41
Castro 0.6 0.6 -0.02
Gillibrand 0.5 0.5 -0.05
Delaney 0.4 0.4 0.02
Bennet 0.3 0.3 -0.03
Williamson 0.3 0.3 0.04
Ryan 0.2 0.2 -0.04
Bullock 0.2 0.1 -0.07
de Blasio 0.1 0.0 -0.11
Messam 0.0 0.1 0.02
Sestak 0.0 0.0 0.01
DK/Other 14.1 15.0 1.16

On average, there is no appreciable difference (-0.04) based on the two criteria. Regardless of direction, the average candidate shift is just 0.28.

Most of that comes from former Vice President Joe Biden, who has a 2.27 higher NSW-WAPA (29.8) in the higher-quality polls than among all polls. While I did not examine the data this way, this would imply a NSW-WPA of “just” 25.0 using only the lower-quality polls, though he would still clearly be in first place, about nine points ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (~16.2). No other candidate does appreciably better in the higher-quality polls, with the possible exception of former Texas United States House of Representatives (“House”) member Beto O’Rourke (2.75 vs. 2.62).

In fact, a number of candidates fared worse in the higher-quality polls relative to all polls, most notably South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (-1.05), Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (-0.73) and billionaire activist Tom Steyer (-0.41). However, the only one of the three whose relative positioning would change is Steyer; using only the highest-quality polls, he drops from 11th place to 17th place.

Curiously, the number of respondents selecting “don’t know/not sure” or an unlisted candidate rises 1.16 to 15.1 when only higher-quality polls are analyzed.

Overall, however, while my aggregation method may slightly underrate Biden’s position (and percentage not choosing a listed candidate) and slightly overrate the positions of Buttigieg, Warren and Steyer, these differences are fairly minor.

**********

Poll recency. One simple way to down-weight older polls faster is to square the weight. For example, in my current algorithm, a poll whose field midpoint is August 22 (weight=0.417) is weighted four times as much as a poll whose field midpoint is February 28 (weight=0.104). Squaring each value, however, gives the more recent poll 16 times more weight (0.174 to 0.011).

Table 2 compares NSW-WAPA using more gradual down-weighting to more rapid down-weighting for the 21 announced Democratic candidates:

Table 2: NSW-WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, simple time weighting vs. squared time weighting

Candidate Simple time weight Squared time weight Difference
Biden 27.5 26.3 -1.22
Sanders 16.0 15.2 -0.75
Warren 13.2 13.7 0.48
Harris 9.2 9.1 -0.07
Buttigieg 7.5 7.5 -0.05
O’Rourke 2.6 2.2 -0.40
Booker 2.2 2.0 -0.23
Klobuchar 1.5 1.4 -0.15
Yang 1.1 1.1 0.00
Gabbard 0.9 0.9 0.01
Steyer 0.6 0.7 0.10
Castro 0.6 0.6 -0.01
Gillibrand 0.5 0.5 0.00
Delaney 0.4 0.4 -0.01
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.03
Williamson 0.3 0.3 0.02
Ryan 0.2 0.2 -0.01
Bullock 0.2 0.2 0.02
de Blasio 0.1 0.1 0.01
Messam 0.0 0.0 0.00
Sestak 0.0 0.0 0.00
DK/Other 14.1 16.2 2.25

If anything, the differences are even smaller here: although the mean “actual” difference is -0.11, the mean shift, regardless of direction, was only 0.17.

Table 2 does suggest Warren is rising faster (13.7 vs. 13.2) than my more-conservative algorithm shows, while Biden (-1.22), Sanders (-0.75) and O’Rourke (-0.40) are dropping faster; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar also appear to be losing ground recently[2]. Meanwhile, the proportion not choosing any listed candidate seems to be increasing, suggesting greater volatility in the race than my algorithm suggests.

Again, however, these differences are minor.

**********

Likely vs. registered voters. If I were only analyzing national polls, this might make a meaningful difference; of the 157 national polls, just 88 limited their sample to likely voters. And while most eliminated polls are from lower-quality pollsters, it also eliminates polls from Monmouth (A+), CNN/SSRS (A), IBD/TIPP (A-), Quinnipiac University (A-) and Reuters/Ipsos (B+).

However, just two polls (both by Gravis Marketing) in total from Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are of registered voters. Moreover, just 18 polls from every other state combined (mostly from Pennsylvania and Texas) were not of registered voters, meaning the number of polls analyzed only drops from 293 to 204, primarily from the lowest-weighted polls (national).

Not surprisingly, there is barely any difference between NSW-WAPA using all polls and only those of likely voters. The mild exception is Steyer dropping from 11th to 15th place (0.62 to 0.39), while the percentage not choosing a listed candidate drops from 14.1 to 13.4.

All combined. Just for fun, I limited the polls being analyzed only to those which were from pollsters with at least a B rating AND sampled likely voters, AND I used the squared time weight. This left 32 national polls, 10 Iowa polls, 11 New Hampshire polls, two Nevada polls, six South Carolina polls, 12 Super Tuesday polls and six polls from all other states (Ohio was dispatched), for a total of just 79 polls.

Table 3: NSW-WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, comparing original algorithm to most restrictive

Candidate All Polls Pollster Rating≥B Difference
Biden 27.5 29.8 2.29
Sanders 16.0 15.4 -0.61
Warren 13.2 13.4 0.12
Harris 9.2 8.7 -0.50
Buttigieg 7.5 6.8 -0.80
O’Rourke 2.6 2.2 -0.36
Booker 2.2 2.1 -0.14
Klobuchar 1.5 1.4 -0.16
Yang 1.1 1.0 -0.04
Gabbard 0.9 0.8 -0.12
Steyer 0.6 0.2 -0.38
Castro 0.6 0.5 -0.05
Gillibrand 0.5 0.5 -0.05
Delaney 0.4 0.5 0.06
Bennet 0.3 0.3 -0.01
Williamson 0.3 0.4 0.09
Ryan 0.2 0.1 -0.05
Bullock 0.2 0.1 -0.06
de Blasio 0.1 0.0 -0.12
Messam 0.0 0.1 0.02
Sestak 0.0 0.0 0.01
DK/Other 14.1 15.2 1.26

As with limiting polls to those from pollsters with a B rating or better, the average “actual” difference is -0.04, while the average shift, regardless of direction, is 0.29. Other than Biden (+2.29) and “unlisted/unsure” (+1.26), no candidate did measurably better when limiting the analysis to these 79 national and state polls. Buttigieg (-0.80), Sanders (-0.61), Harris (-0.50) and Steyer (-0.38) all did somewhat worse, but—again—only Steyer’s rank changed (11th to 17th).

Conclusion. While my algorithm may somewhat understate Biden’s strength—and overestimate Steyer’s—while not fully capturing the rate at which Warren is gaining support, the overall differences are so minor I see no reason to alter it.

Until next time…

Postscript. For those who are curious, here is a comparison, as of August 28, 2019, between NSW-WAPA and the RealClearPolitics (RCP) averages, combining national and state polls, using my weighting scheme. I exclude New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—who dropped out on August 28—and Miramar, FL Mayor Wayne Messam, who is not included in the RCP averages; if a candidate’s average was not listed by RCP (i.e., it was less than 0.5%), I assigned her/him a value of 0.25%.

Table 4: Comparing NSW-WAPA to RealClearPolitics averages for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate All Polls RealClearPolitics Difference
Biden 27.5 27.8 0.3
Sanders 16.0 15.9 -0.1
Warren 13.2 15.3 2.1
Harris 9.2 10.7 1.5
Buttigieg 7.5 6.4 -1.1
O’Rourke 2.6 1.8 -0.8
Booker 2.2 2.0 -0.2
Klobuchar 1.5 1.8 0.3
Yang 1.1 1.5 0.4
Gabbard 0.9 1.4 0.5
Steyer 0.6 2.0 1.4
Castro 0.6 1.0 0.4
Delaney 0.4 0.5 0.1
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.0
Williamson 0.3 0.3 0.0
Ryan 0.2 0.4 0.2
Bullock 0.2 0.3 0.1
de Blasio 0.1 0.4 0.3
Sestak 0.0 0.2 0.2
DK/Other 14.1 10.1 -4.0

Other than underestimating the polling strength of Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris and Steyer—and overestimating the strength of O’Rourke—these differences are minimal; the much lower percentage not choosing a listed candidate in the RCP average could easily result from assigning 0.25% (likely too high) to unlisted candidates. The average actual difference is just 0.1, and the average difference, regardless of direction, is 0.7.

The next comprehensive update will come just before the September 12, 2019 debate.

[1] Emerson College, Monmouth, GBAO, CNN/SSRS, ABC News/Washington Post, Quinnipiac, YouGov, Suffolk University, WPA Intelligence, YouGov Blue, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Perry Undem-YouGov, SurveyUSA, Public Policy Polling (PPP), IBD/TIPP, Reuters/Ipsos, Fox News

[2] This may be illusory for Booker. Taking a simple average of national polls, Booker was at 1.7% between the first and second Democratic debates, but he has risen to 2.7% since then.

Interrogating memory: The Beatles, wax museums and a diner mystery solved

To the extent my writing over the last three years has a theme (or perhaps even a brand), it is what I call interrogating memory.

At one level, this is just a fancy term for “fact-checking,” as in looking through my elementary school report cards (I am missing the one for third grade[1]) to confirm my fourth-grade teacher was named Ms. Goldman, only to discover she was my fifth-grade teacher and her name was “R. Goldberg.”

Quick story.

On the first day of fifth grade at Lynnewood Elementary School, my new teacher called me up to her desk. Ms. Goldberg, an attractive woman with an unwavering platinum blonde permanent, was curious about my father, whose name she had seen was David Louis Berger. We quickly established (most likely through his age and being raised in West Philadelphia) they had been in the same confirmation class at Congregation Beth El in 1951. It was also clear from the way she spoke about him (my aunt once wrote me, “He really was lovable you know”) she had a serious crush on him. I do not recall how I reacted, or what my father said when I told him.

Still, knowing it was fifth, not fourth, grade and that her surname was Goldberg, not Goldman, does not materially alter the story: my teacher had known and liked my father when they were teenagers.

The thing is, however, I pulled out those report cards in the process of reassessing an entirely different memory, one that better exemplifies the complexity of interrogating memory.

As a child and young teen, I hated The Beatles (or, at least, refused to succumb to the pressure to love them). And until a few weeks ago, I believed this disdain stemmed from my active resistance to being told what to like and what not to like. My attitude from a very young age was that I will decide for myself what I like and do not like, thank you very much.

My proof, other than my own memory?

I was certain that mixed in with otherwise glowing comments from my elementary school teachers on my report cards was a common phrase along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.”

But when I pulled out my five surviving report cards from Lynnewood, this sentiment was far less ubiquitous than I had remembered. Mrs. Virginia Hoeveler did begin her extensive (and humbly flattering) comments, dated June 13, 1973, by noting I initially had “difficulty conforming to a classroom situation,” though I quickly adjusted. She also added a postscript: “Matt is quite the ‘individual – he likes to do his ‘own thing.’ “

Five months later (November 7, 1973), Ms. C. Edwards—who broke the heart of every boy in my second-grade class when she became Mrs. C. Stevenson at the end of the school year (many of us attended the wedding, sitting in a mezzanine area of the church, overlooking the ceremony, stage left)—wrote, “Matt sometimes gets carried away with his intelligence. He seems to feel that he doesn’t need to follow directions.”

Ouch.

Still, as of June 1, 1974, I had “become much more social with [my] peers.” Good to know I was ceasing to be a curmudgeon at seven years old.

But…that is it. I have no third grade report card, neither Miss Nichols nor R. Goldberg wrote more than a token sentence or two, and Mr. Bianco (a good-looking man who wore platform shoes and was smitten with my mother) merely noted I would have had an “O” (Outstanding) instead of an “S” (Satisfactory) in Social Studies but for too many missed assignments.

Oh.

The point is, my memory was not, strictly speaking, incorrect; there were comments along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.” It was just that they were confined to first and second grades, when I was apparently still adjusting socially and academically to a formal classroom environment.

Here is the kicker, though. Even before I pulled out those report cards, I had already concluded my aversion to structured guidance was not why I had hated The Beatles (which I no longer do; quite the contrary, in fact[2]). Or, at least, it was not the only reason.

Just bear with me while I wax rhapsodic about Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living with my mother and our dog—a Keeshond named Luvey—in Penthouse A (really, just one of two slightly larger rooms with two queen beds and a walk-in closet sharing a small semi-circular concrete balcony overlooking the pool) of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City. On weekends, my father would drive the roughly 80 miles from our home in Havertown, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia) to join us.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2.jpg

The Strand Motel, which sat between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenues, and between Providence and Boston Avenues, was knocked down around 1979 as part of the construction of the Golden Nugget Casino (which, after many name changes, closed in 2014). I am reasonably certain this photograph was taken in the lounge directly below the penthouses one of those two summers; my father is the silver-haired man in the blue jacket sitting at the bar, while the left side of my mother’s face is just visible on the right (her natural red hair was back).

Scan0011.jpg

Those two summers, I spent my days wandering up and down Pacific Avenue (either on foot, or riding a jitney for 35 cents) and the Boardwalk. By myself, at the ages of seven and eight, that is; I cannot imagine that happening today. I especially loved going into the lobby of every motel and hotel along the roughly three miles of roads/Boardwalk in my purview to collect one of each pamphlet available in the large wooden racks there. During the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and rummage through them, wishing I was back in Atlantic City.

One of those pamphlets was actually a red-covered brochure for Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum, then located at 1238 Boardwalk (yes, the Boardwalk is considered a road for mailing purposes), roughly halfway between North Carolina and South Carolina Avenues.

I do not know why I suddenly recalled this wax museum a few weeks ago (which was opened by Madame Tussaud’s somewhat less-talented great-grandson). Perhaps it was researching my book, and thinking about how we stopped summering down the shore (as those of us raised near Philadelphia say) in 1976, just before the casinos started being built, effectively ending “my” Atlantic City. Along those lines, I have reflected a great deal this summer on how much my wife Nell and our daughters love spending much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and how much, frankly, I do not. And I have concluded no longer spending summers in Atlantic City, even as it was inexorably changing (for the worst, in my opinion)[3], was a deeply painful occurrence I have yet fully to process. But, the result is a silly jealousy of Nell’s childhood (and current) summer home.

Or, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum came to mind for no other reason than the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax was recently on TCM OnDemand (I did not get a chance to watch it).

Regardless, what I specifically recalled about that slightly tacky museum was that one of the first tableaus you saw when you entered from the Boardwalk was of The Beatles circa 1964. Walking by the four wax figures, I would hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing; perhaps songs like “She Loves You” played as well. In fact, now that I interrogate that memory, the point of the tableau may have been to reproduce their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I could not tell you what other tableaus I saw in Louis Tussaud’s because, frankly, the only other thing I clearly remember is the Chamber of Horrors.

Again, I was seven or eight years old when I viewed those displays, some of which were particularly gory and graphic. This nostalgic video includes two of them: a low-quality rendition of the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera and a gruesome Algerian Hook (speaks for itself, despite being misspelled in the video).

As an aside, the photograph in the video of the Boardwalk in front of Steel Pier in the summer of 1974 was like stepping out of a TARDIS: that is the Atlantic City I remember. To be fair, I preferred Million Dollar Pier, whose Tilt-a-Whirl I would foolishly ride every weekday, around 12:30 in the afternoon, after eating a slice of pizza from a little stand just where Arkansas Avenue meets the Boardwalk. Seeing that photograph was both exhilarating and painful; I may have known Atlantic City at the very end of its family-resort glory, but I loved being there.

Returning to the Chamber of Horrors, I was both terrified and fascinated by the scenes it depicted. If memory serves, they also included Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963. As deeply unsettling as they were, I could not stop poring over the photographs of those displays in my souvenir booklet back home in Havertown.

But rather than admit they scared the bleepity-frick out of me, I displaced that emotion onto the completely banal and non-threatening (if mildly creepy, in the way all wax figures are mildly creepy) wax renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simply because they were what I saw before I entered the Chamber of Horror, which truly did scare me. This may not be quite what Sigmund Freud meant by a “screen memory,” but the concept is broadly the same.

In some ways, “interrogating memory” is like the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories to get at any underlying meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything, putting all data points into context—usually chronological), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history.

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

*********

Speaking of persistence, I may have solved a mystery I first identified here:

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

In the post, I concluded I had almost certainly turned north on Route 152 from Business Route 202 that night, eventually wending through the Montgomery County towns of Chalfont, Briarwyck, Silverdale, Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford (where Route 152 ends at Route 309). It was just that none of these towns had the sort of urban-feeling center in which my memory placed the diner.

Frustrated in my efforts to find a diner that fit the necessary criteria, I concluded thus:

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

As I said, though, a key element of interrogating memory is persistence, so the other night I resolved to trace my possible route that night, starting at the intersection of Routes 152 and Business 202, using StreetView on Google Maps.

Patiently clicking the forward arrow, waiting less patiently for the photographs to resolve on my computer screen, I made my virtual way through Chalfont and Briarwyck and Silverdale and Perkasie into Sellersville. I took a few wrong turns along the way (Route 152, like many state routes, has a habit of randomly turning left or right onto a different street), but always righted myself.

After getting lost multiple times at a particularly tricky five-way intersection, I continued along South Main Street, heading away from the center of Sellersville. In that confusing way of state routes, by following “North” Route 152, I actually travelled south. After passing a few scattered two-story brick houses and local businesses, a large (for the area) parking lot appeared on my left.

In the middle of the lot was a light gray single-story building with a double-sloped roof. The front of the building was a two-story structure from which short flights of concrete steps, under red awnings, protruded. Above each awning was a lighted sign, white with red letters, reading “A & N DINER.” A yellow road sign embedded in the asphalt just beyond the sidewalk read “A & N DINER/ FAMILY RESTAURANT / OPEN 24 HOURS”; with “HAPPY LABOR DAY” spelled out in removable black plastic letters just below that.

Say what now? How did I miss this 24-hour diner in my extensive search?

Something about it seemed vaguely familiar, especially adjusting for the fact these September 2018 photographs were taken during the day, while my drive occurred at night, when the A & N Diner would have been brightly lit in the darkness. I clicked on the map’s icon to learn it is no longer open 24 hours. If that change occurred between Labor Day 2018 and early March 2019, that would explain why I could not find it searching for “24 hour restaurants.”

Scrolling through the accompanying photographs, I observed a small counter area to the left as you entered. One photograph showed five dark pink (almost gray) leather-covered stools bolted to the floor. To the left of the counter was a window, which another photograph confirmed overlooked the parking lot. And the wall one faced sitting at the counter might be the one I recalled—the glass shelving could easily have been replaced since I was (possibly) there in 2003 or 2004 (or existed only in my memory).

The only problem was that this was hardly the urban downtown my memory insisted housed the diner. However, I may have an explanation for that.

One of the classes I took in the first semester of my biostatistics Master’s program at Boston University School of Public Health was on probability theory. While I earned an A on the first of three exams (which comprised ~90% of the final grade), I bombed the second exam. Forget getting an A in the class; I was simply hoping to salvage a B with the final exam. Sometime after that disastrous second exam, say in November 2005, I had a powerful dream. In that dream, in which I learned I did in fact earn an A, it was night. The dark second floor room in which I stood extended far behind me as I stared out a large bay window; perhaps I was in bed first, it is all a bit fuzzy 14 years later. Below me was an urban corner with low buildings, lit by a single street lamp; a kind of brick culvert was off to my right.

This dream made such an impression on me, I still remember it relatively clearly nearly 14 years later. It is possible I mixed up looking out the window into the dark parking lot at the A & N Diner with looking out the window at the urban street corner in the dark in my dream. Why, I could not begin to tell you…unless the former somehow got worked into the latter? I would have to drive to the A & N Diner at night to be certain.

Another slight variation is that I recall the diner being on my right, but I would have approached it from the left that night. That could easily be explained, however, if I parked on the opposite side of the building (putting the diner on my right as I entered) and/or if I drove past it at first, decided to stop in for a snack, and turned around, thus placing the building to my right as I drove to it again.

There is one additional small point of confirmation. In my memory, the diner is shiny and new. Well, a little digging on the invaluable Newspapers.com uncovered a February 2000 article in the NEWS-HERALD of Perakasie, PA[4]. The gist of the article is that Nicholas and Vasso Scebes had assumed control of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on January 31, 2000, renaming it A & N Diner and Family Restaurant.

The key passage is this:

“Later this month, the manager said, they hope to be settled in enough to change the environment of the restaurant, starting with the interior wall colors, which are currently a bright two-tone lime green. Vasso said that’s the first thing regulars asked to have changed.”

Later in the article, Vasso avowed her intention to “clean up this place and make it respectable.”

If those renovations were completed sometime in 2000, they could well have seemed “shiny and new” three or four years later, when a young man out for a meandering night drive almost certainly stopped in with his book for a meal and lots of decaffeinated coffee, black.

For the record, dreams sometimes do come true. I studied intensely for the final exam, and earned something like a 92. Great, I thought, that will get me a solid B in the course. When I learned I had actually received an A, I e-mailed the professor to make sure he had not made a mistake. No, he said, he thought well enough of my participation in the class to essentially “throw out” the middle exam as an unfortunate outlier. Oh, I replied, thank you very much.

Until next time…

[1] Itself a curious slip of memory, as I originally wrote (from memory) “fourth grade.” I only pulled out these report cards to review a week or two ago.

[2] I am even listening to Abbey Road as I edit this post.

[3] This shift is beautifully rendered in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City.

[4] Baum, Charles W., “New family takes over operation of former Angelo’s in Sellersville,” NEWS-HERALD (Perkasie, PA), February 16, 2000, pg. 3.

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

It has been just over two weeks since the second Democratic presidential nomination debates, so it is time for an updated assessment of the relative position of the 23 declared candidates remaining. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel ended his campaign on August 6, 2019, and it appears former Colorado John Hickenlooper will end his bid on August 15, 2019.

To learn how I calculate NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here[1]. Note that I recently altered my methodology slightly: within my post-early-state weighted average of each candidate’s WAPA, I now weight the nine states[2] scheduled to hold their nomination contests on March 3, 2019 (“Super Tuesday”) twice as much as all subsequent contests[3]

And, as usual, here is the August 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Aug 2019 lighthouse.JPG

Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019, including:

  • 149 national polls (including 32 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 19 Iowa Caucuses polls
  • 22 New Hampshire Primary polls
  • 4 Nevada Caucuses polls
  • 18 South Carolina polls
  • 35 Super Tuesday polls[4]
  • 33 polls from 13 other states.[5]

This makes a total of 280 polls, up from 247 in the last update.

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 29.5 23.6 23.3 30.2 36.4 27.3 27.9 (-0.7)
Sanders 16.7 15.1 19.0 19.1 12.6 15.3 16.4 (-0.1)
Warren 10.4 13.1 13.5 18.0 9.1 12.6 13.2 (+0.6)
Harris 8.6 9.7 8.7 8.6 9.9 9.7 9.2 (–)
Buttigieg 5.6 9.1 9.1 8.0 4.9 6.7 7.7 (-0.3)
O’Rourke 4.1 2.6 2.2 3.1 1.8 5.3 2.8 (-0.3)
Booker 2.5 2.5 1.6 1.3 3.5 1.5 2.2 (-0.2)
Klobuchar 1.3 2.7 1.5 1.1 0.6 1.0 1.5 (–)
Yang 1.0 0.7 1.3 1.5 0.7 0.7 1.1 (–)
Gabbard 0.7 0.6 1.4 1.1 0.3 0.5 0.84 (+0.11)
Castro 0.9 0.7 0.2 1.0 0.1 1.0 0.59 (–)
Gillibrand 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.50 (+0.09)
Delaney 0.3 0.9 0.5 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.43 (–)
Steyer 0.03 0.1 0.4 1.0 0.4 0.1 0.40 (+0.30)
Inslee 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.26 (+0.06)
Williamson 0.2 0.05 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.1 0.24 (+0.07)
Bennet 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.00 0.2 0.4 0.20 (+0.04)
Ryan 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.00 0.2 0.2 0.16 (-0.01)
Bullock 0.2 0.3 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.1 0.10 (+0.03)
de Blasio 0.3 0.05 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.1 0.04
Moulton 0.1 0.04 0.1 0.00 0.00 0.03 0.03
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.1 0.04 0.03
Sestak 0.00 0.1 0.00 n/a 0.00 0.06 0.02
DK/Other 14.6 15.8 15.0 4.4 16.9 16.0 13.7 (+0.4)

There has been little substantive change in the relative standing of the 23 remaining candidates over the last two-three weeks, despite some short-term effects from the second round of debates (see below). Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (27.9), primarily because of his dominant position in South Carolina primary polls; his weighted average of 36.4% is well ahead of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. By contrast, the race is much closer in polling for the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary; in these first two contests, Biden is only averaging 23-24%, with Sanders close behind at 15-19% and Warren at 13-14%. Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg are not much further behind, hovering around 9%.

These five candidates continue to dominate the race overall, albeit with Biden continuing to decline while Warren continues her steady ascent (up from 8.5% in early June to 13.2% now), capturing just under three-quarters of the support of those polled. Just behind these five are four other candidates with an NSW-WAPA of 1.0 or higher: former Texas member of the United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are also the only nine candidates to have qualified for the next round of Democratic presidential nomination debates (September 12-13, 2019). Overall these nine candidates account for 81.9% of currently-declared Democratic nomination preferences. Factor in 13.7%s[6] undecided or choosing an unlisted candidate, that means the remaining 14 candidates are divvying up just 4.4% between them.

**********

In the previous update, I assessed the short-term impact of the first round of Democratic presidential nomination debates by comparing support for each candidate in polls conducted by the same pollster within one month prior to, and just after, those debates. Meeting these criteria for the second round of debates are six national polls[7] and one Texas poll[8]. For ease of presentation, Table 2 presents data only for the 12 candidates with an NSW-WAPA of 0.5 or higher (including Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand). Values listed are simple arithmetic averages (with the Texas poll change weighted twice the changes in national polls); weighting by pollster quality or time between polls made little difference.

Table 2: Average change in polls from the same pollster before and after July 2019 Democratic presidential debates:

Candidate National TX Weighted Average
Biden -1.0 +4.5 +0.4
Sanders +1.8 +4.0 +2.4
Warren +1.8 +1.0 +1.6
Harris -3.5 -3.0 -3.4
Buttigieg +0.3 +3.0 +1.0
O’Rourke -0.3 -14.5 -3.9
Booker +0.8 +1.0 +0.9
Klobuchar -0.5 0 -0.4
Yang -0.3 +2.0 +0.3
Gabbard +0.3 0 +0.3
Castro -0.2 +2.0 +0.4
Gillibrand -0.2 0 -0.1
DK/Other +1.0 -1.0 +0.5

Examined this way, support for Harris—who had risen 7.7 percentage points (“points”) following the June debates—dropped fully 3.4 points following the July 2019 Democratic debates. O’Rourke also declined significantly (-3.9 points), but that was almost exclusively due to an astonishing 14.5-point drop (from 38% to 23.5%) in the Texas poll. The largest post-July-debate increases were for Booker (+0.9), Buttigieg (+1.0), Warren (+1.6) and Sanders (+2.4); no other candidate saw her/his support shift by more than 0.4 points in either direction. Finally, the percentage not choosing a listed candidate increased slightly.

**********

To the extent that the polling for the 2020 presidential election between a named Democrat and Republican Donald J. Trump changed, it is due to the modestly-increased likelihood (55.7%) that someone other than Biden (who would hypothetically beat Trump nationally by 8.4 points) and Sanders (by 5.2 points) will be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Thus, once you weight for the likelihood of being the nominee, the Democrat would beat Trump by 3.6 points. This is actually slightly higher than the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0 points) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin over Trump decreases to 0.7 points; Warren would hypothetically win by 1.5 points and Harris by 1.0 points, while Buttigieg would lose by 1.5 points.

Still, given that state-level results actually determine the winner of a presidential election (via the Electoral College), it is more informative to look to those polls, where they are publicly-available. Using my 3W-RDM, a measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s voting is relative to the nation as a whole, this polling[9] implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 2.6 (excluding former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) and 5.6 (including Biden and Sanders) points on average. Most encouraging to Democrats should be the polls from North Carolina (R+6.0) and Texas (R+15.3), which show a very close race, implying a 6-7-point win and a 12-14-point win nationally for Democrats, respectively; these polls confirm strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest. By contrast, however, a few polls from Democratic-leaning Maine (D+5.9) and Nevada (D+2.0) imply Democrats would lose nationwide by 2-5 points. Those remain the exceptions, however, to what continues to be encouraging news for Democrats in 2020.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within areal units (nation, state) by days to the nominating contest and pollster quality to form a unit-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), the time-weighted average of all subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1).

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

[3] As of this writing, I have at least one poll from (in chronological order) Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Oregon

[4] Primarily from California (14) and Texas (9)

[5] Primarily Florida (9) and Pennsylvania (5)

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

[7] Morning Consult Tracking, HarrisX, Change Research, Quinnipiac University, YouGov, Reuters/Ipsos

[8] University of Texas at Tyler

[9] From Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio.