Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

On Monday, March 23, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and asked residents to stay in their home as much as possible: to “shelter in place.” The order went in to effect at noon on Tuesday, March 24, and it will stay in effect until noon at April 7.

In three previous posts (I, II, III), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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After a successful, albeit exhausting, first week of home schooling, we laid low over the weekend.

The highlight of Saturday stemmed from an idea our older daughter had: she desperately wanted a burrito, which she would happily eat at every meal. Choosing not to walk down the street to our preferred takeout joint, we explored delivery options instead…and discovered that our favorite Mexican restaurant—a drive of at least 20 minutes away in Cambridge—would deliver to us. It felt like such a ridiculous treat, and the food was so good, I did not mind they had given soft, not crunchy, tacos. While I ate my food and worked on my “lectures,” Nell and the girl swatched Onward, which emotionally wrecked my wife.

Later that night, I walked our golden retriever up to our local dog park—and I mean “up;” Brookline is renowned for its many streets that slope upward at nearly a 45-degree angle. To be honest, I needed the outing and the exercise more than she did. We stayed about 15 minutes, as she ecstatically chased an increasingly-filthy fuzzy ball hurled by a Chuck-It. Returning home, I put her to bed, bathed and settled down to watch the excellent I Wake Up Screaming via Turner Classic Movies OnDemand.

The choice of film–other than its sudden aviability–was in keeping with my discussion of film noir with the girls the previous day, during which I used “oneiric” to describe the dream-like quality of many films noir. This spurred a conversation about we all are having intense, more-anxiety-than-nightmare dreams during our “lockdown.”

Also in keeping with Friday’s “lecture,” our younger daughter and I watched Stranger on the Third Floor on Sunday evening. She very much enjoyed it, patiently allowing me to pause the movie at times to explain the difference between “high-key” and “low-key” lighting.

As to why we watched this particular film, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book I am writing—and need to finish soon:

Another myth to be exploded was film noir’s origin story. In the traditional telling, first outlined in Schrader’s essay, waves of mostly-German émigré filmmakers arrive in Hollywood throughout the 1930s, bringing with them the cinematic techniques of Expressionism and, later, French poetic realism. Vincent Brook, as we saw in the Introduction to Part 1, argues these filmmakers were often deeply and specifically influenced by their Jewish heritage, a primary reason they abandoned Europe, however temporarily, in the first place. Meanwhile, starting in 1931, Universal Studios—aided by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had arrived in Hollywood two years earlier—makes a series of dark shadowy horror films (about which more in Chapter 8).  That same year, rival studios like Warner-First National, later Warner Brothers, start to produce high-quality gangster films, inspired by the lawlessness of Prohibition, ironically set to be repealed just two years later. Needing work for this influx of cinematic talent, studio heads take a long second look at works of hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately relegating their new talent to the B-movie backlots to turn those works into films. Applying everything they know about filmmaking, and drawing upon the visual style of the popular horror films and the rapid-fire plots of the gangster films, they make films that would later be labeled film noir. The quality of these films is only enhanced throughout the 1940s by a slow loosening of the restrictive Hays Code of “voluntary” censorship, Italian neo-realism and technological advances. And the first of these films is almost certainly a 64-minute-long B-movie directed by an Eastern European émigré named Boris Ingster—and featuring an Eastern European actor named Peter Lorre—called Stranger on the Third Floor. Released on August 16, 1940, it has 33.0 POINTS, tying it for 71st overall—and, if forced to choose, it is what I designate the first film noir as commonly understood today.

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 23

The night before, Nell had drawn this homage to author Mo Willems—whom we once met in Maine—on the ever-popular white board.

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

Our younger daughter had again had a very rough morning—literally getting no work done even as our older daughter continued to thrive; indeed, on Tuesday, the latter would finish her work by at 11:30 am then ask “Is that it?!?” Still, the former daughter recovered sufficiently to sit attentively through the first hour of “Pop school,” during which we discussed the history and composition of American political parties.

March 23

For…reasons…our daughters have assigned nicknames to some of our early national leaders. Alexander Hamilton is “Hottie” Hamilton, while his rival Thomas Jefferson is “Smoking Hot” Jefferson. Our seventh president is now, unfortunately, “A**hole Jackson.” Our older daughter thought the name “Martin Van Buren” sounded “nice,” but she did not assign him a nickname.

We used two handouts to explore two ways to understand contemporary political parties:

  1. Elected officials and voters who share a common philosophy of government and policy preferences
  2. Coalitions of groups based on such factors as demographics, socioeconomic status, religiosity and cultural outlook.

The first sheet condensed an analysis I performed in August 2017 of issues on which a majority of Democrats—and often Independents—differed from a majority of Republicans. Our older daughter, fully in the throes of puberty and naively exploring her own sexuality, was particularly interested in partisan stances on LGBTQ+ rights.

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

The second sheet, however, provoked the most interest. Less so from our fading younger daughter, but definitely from the older daughter, who delighted in reading aloud for Daddy to note on the white board which groups had voted, on average over the previous four presidential elections, at least 55% for the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee; data taken from CNN exit polls conducted in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

You can see how that ended, complete with the tissues I use in lieu of a proper eraser:

Group voting for president

Following a break of an hour or so, we reconvened to begin to learn about probability. Which meant we each flipped a penny 30 times; by a neat fluke, in total, we had 45 heads and 45 tails—there was an a priori 8.3% chance this would happen. Then we rolled a die 30 times—the totals diverged sharply from 1/6 for each number; the number two noticeably received very little love. Our younger daughter asked to record my rolls on the white board, and, regretfully, I grew testy with her when she did not write numbers evenly on the row. I apologized immediately; clearly sheltering in place takes its toll on everyone at some point.

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Knowing the Commonwealth would be shuttering its doors the following day even more than it already had, I was tasked with making a run to our local Star Market. I chose to drive to one ten minutes away on Commonwealth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the main campus of Boston University; not surprisingly, we call it “the BU Star.” It normally closes at midnight, and with the campus all-but-deserted I thought this would be a relatively sane place to search for the 27 items listed in a text message from Nell on my iPhone, mostly varieties of fresh fruit and vegetable.

I never got the chance to determine it sanity, however. When I drove by its lower rear entrance, I could see the vast parking lot to my left was practically empty. Nonetheless, I parked and walked across the street to the locked sliding glass doors. A series of notices taped to those doors informed me this Star now closes at 8 pm every night.

Rather than turn around and drive home, though, I realized I was enjoying being out of the apartment and decided to drive over the nearby Charles River into Cambridge, through Harvard Square—eerily quiet—and north on Massachusetts Avenue to Porter Square. Like the BU Star, the Star Market used to be open 24 hours a day; it was my primary grocery store when I lived one block away in Somerville between September 1989 and February 2001. Driving to this Star always feels a bit like traveling back in time, with many landmarks remaining from two, three decades ago.

This Star now closes at 8 pm as well, meanwhile, which did not really surprise me. The silver lining is that a CVS sits in the same Porter Square parking lot; it is mandated by law never to close so that it can dispense emergency medications at any time of the day. When Nell nearly “broke her face” falling into a gate latch four years ago this May, this is where I acquired her pain medications after she was released from the hospital at around 1 am.

The older, deeply-freckled, red-haired manager of the CVS wore a blue face mask and darker-blue gloves. There was a strip of duct tape on the carpeting every six feet reminding patrons to observe social distancing. I collected what foodstuffs from the list I could find—including fresh-looking cut strawberries in clear plastic containers—and went to a register to pay. The manager scanned and helped bag my groceries—using the reusable bags I always keep in my car–as we chatted amiably.

As I thanked him for being there, he pointed out a woman I had noticed earlier—heavy-set, a bit unkempt and of indeterminate age—hunched over a wheelchair loaded with items she was pushing slowly around the store.

“I have to worry about thieves,” he said.

“Really? Her?” I responded, or words to that effect.

“Last week she managed to get all the razors…This never happens when George is in charge.”

He may not have been that upset, though, as he cheerfully handed me four dollars bills and some change—“You could have bought one more thing!”—before gently warning me not to forget my iPhone.

My route back to Brookline took me past the 7-Eleven on Market Street in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, which was also still open. They had respectable-looking bananas, limes, lemons and small red and green apples, so I purchased a handful of each along with a few other items. Returning home five or so minutes later, I thoroughly washed my hands before putting away the four total bags of groceries.

A few hours later, as I was preparing a steaming-hot bath, Nell—who had gone to sleep hours earlier but now was restlessly tossing and turning—informed me she had put her wakefulness to good use by placing an Amazon Fresh order on her iPhone. She added that rather than give the recommended $10 tip, she chose to give $25 instead.

“Was that right?” she asked me as I soaked sleepily.

Of course it was,” I assured her.

When Nell placed the order, meanwhile, she thought it would arrive Tuesday night at 6 pm, only to realize later that morning it would not arrive until Thursday.

C’est la vie.

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The next afternoon, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.” Apparently there was no “word of the day.”

March 24

“FATHER COLLEGIO” did not start until 2:52 pm, as I was moving slowly this day. Once we assembled, though, after a BRIEF review of political parties, I began to tell the story of the 2000 presidential election by way of introducing American presidential elections generally and the Electoral College specifically. And our younger daughter was riveted.

March 24

The night before, Nell and I had discussed whether she should start taking her Ritalin on weekday mornings again. The last time she had taken any was two Thursdays earlier, her last day at her elementary school before it temporarily closed due to COVID-19, in part because we thought it was why she had been having a hard time falling asleep at night recently.

But despite refusing to take any of “her medicine” that morning, she was fully attentive and engaged as I described watching CNN continually reverse itself on who had won Florida that November night in 2000. Her attention did not wane as I walked through the history and defenses of the Electoral College, breaking more than 200 years of elections into a handful of epochs. We concluded with a discussion of how few states actually appeared to be in play as the 2016 presidential election approached—mooting the argument repealing the Electoral College would limit campaigning only to the most populous areas. At this point, our older daughter turned to her and said, “You probably don’t even remember that election. You were only [pause for arithmetic] six.”

I reminded them how both had cried the following morning upon learning that Hillary Clinton had not, in fact, been elected the first female president.

Breaking at 3:45 exactly, we reconvened one hour later to do two things as our “applied math” lesson:

Discuss how exactly Clinton lost the Electoral College in 2016 while winning the national popular vote

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

This is where our older daughter perked up again. While both daughters read from the one-page sheet, it was the older daughter who said “Wow!” every time I described how the Republican percentage of the non-urban vote in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2016. And when we were finished, this is what the white board looked like.

Discussing 2016 election

Incidentally, you may find the answer to the question posed in the upper right-hand corner of the white board here.

I also used my wall maps of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections to help to illustrate why the notion of a Democratic “blue wall” was absurd—voting patterns can clearly change dramatically from one election to the next. Those wall maps, by the way, are covering up an original painting by my maternal first cousin once removed; yes, that really is what my great-aunt and uncle named her. 

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

A few years ago, I developed 3W-RDM to assess how much more or less Democratic a state is—at least at the presidential level—than the nation as a whole.

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

Using the attached list of states and the District of Columbia, we each colored in our blank map as follows:

  • Dark blue = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Democratic
  • Light blue = 3-10 points more Democratic
  • Purple = between 3 points more Republican and 3 points more Democratic
  • Light red/pink = 3-10 points more Republican
  • Dark red = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Republican

Given how much both our daughters love to draw—they doodle and do other art projects as they sit and listen to me talk—this was easily their favorite afternoon activity so far. Even as our younger daughter was trying to keep up with which states were which—she got there soon enough—our older daughter was touting her “perfectionism” in carefully coloring in each state. She even gently chided me for my blunt-instrument approach to filling in “all those islands off of Alaska,” which she delicately colored one by one.

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

This is what my final map looked like. I may not be as good at drawing as my cousin, or even my wife and daughters, but I still think I produced a solid work of art, despite the single sweep of dark red across the Aleutian Islands.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing II

In a previous post, I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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On Thursday, March 19, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 19

Unlike the previous day, our daughters had a much smoother morning. Nell set up the video game Just Dance on the big screen HD television in our living room, which was particularly good for our 6th-grade daughter, who requires a great deal of regular physical activity. Our 4th-grade daughter would generally prefer to sit quietly in a darkened bedroom with an iPad. Both daughters have also made extensive use of FaceTime to stay in touch with their many friends.

When “Dad Academy” began, our older daughter read aloud the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (“Constitution”). We then proceeded to work through much of Article I, establishing the nature and role of the House of Representatives (“House”) and the Senate. After a brief foray into Article II and the qualifications for the presidency, however, it was clear their doodling minds were wandering.

As a result, I shifted gears and walked them through the scenario I detail below: what would happen as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021 if there were no November 2020 elections for the House, Senate, vice president and president. I had tweeted my initial thoughts on Wednesday, but as I sketched it out—much to their delight, I am pleased to report—I realized I had forgotten a crucial element. After a quick check of this year’s Senate elections, I made the appropriate revisions on Twitter and, more importantly, the white board.

This quickly devolved into both daughters sketching out their own mind-bogglingly grin doomsday scenarios on the white board, all of which seemed to end up with 50,000 or 100,000 survivors living on Antarctica and dividing up only whatever food they could carry with them. Hey, they were using their imaginations, thinking about geography and doing arithmetic, so I was not complaining.

After an hour-long break, we reconvened to resume learning about basic statistics. After quickly reviewing frequencies, range, mode, median, mean and a few statistical distributions, I decided to change my lesson plan again. Rather than begin to discuss relationships between variables, I put my doctorate in epidemiology to good use and explained “sensitivity” and “specificity” of testing for some condition like, say, the novel coronavirus. They quickly grasped the underlying idea:

  1. Persons who have the condition AND test positive are True Positives
  2. Persons who do not have the condition AND test negative are True Negatives
  3. Persons who do not have the condition AND test positive are False Positives
  4. Persons who do have the condition AND test negative are False Negatives

If you divide True Positives by the sum of True Positives and False Negatives you get sensitivity: the percentage of persons who truly have the condition who test positive for it.

If you divide the number of True Negatives by the sum of True Negatives and False Positives you get specificity: the percentage of persons who truly do not have the condition who test negative for it.

It is nearly impossible to have a test be both 100% sensitive AND 100% specific because of the likely gray area between an extremely tight case definition (e.g., you must meet all 10 criteria)—which gives you higher sensitivity—and a relatively looser definition (e.g., you only need to meet five out of 10 criteria)—which gives you higher specificity. For a host of reasons I will not review here, mostly related to accuracy of categorization, epidemiologists generally prefer to have the specificity of a test be as close to 100% as possible, even at the risk of lower (by which I mean, say, 90% instead of 95%) sensitivity.

Think of it this way, though: the lower the specificity of the test, the more False Positives you have. And the more False Positives you have, the more people you have being treated for the condition at the expense of other people who actually need to be treated. Moreover, given that most conditions being tested are fairly rare, there will always be many fewer False Negatives than False Positives; one exception, though, would be if you only test persons you are already very certain have the condition, which bring the number of False Negatives much closer to the number of False Positives.

And with that—and a review of some of our older daughter’s algebra problems—school was out for the day.

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Ohio was supposed to hold its 2020 Democratic presidential primary on March 17. It was postponed until June 2, however, due to concerns over spreading the novel coronavirus. Five other states have done the same thing, meanwhile, leading to speculation President Donald J. Trump may attempt to postpone—or outright cancel—the November 2020 federal elections (Congress, vice president, president).

Leaving aside whether such an action is even feasible—for one thing, while under Article I, Section 5, the House and Senate have broad authority over the timing of elections to their respective houses, those elections are actually administered by each individual state. The same is true for elections for vice president and president—and that is before considering that the Electoral College essentially mandates 51 distinct elections, one within each state and the District of Columbia.

But let us assume, as a kind of thought experiment, it actually would be possible to delay these elections. So long as the presidential and vice-presidential elections were held long enough before December 13, 2020—the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when electors are required to meet in their respective states to cast their presidential ballots—there would be more than enough time to swear in a president the following January 20.

However, if these elections simply never occur…well, this is where two sections of the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (PSA) come into play.

  • Under Amendment XX, Section 1: “The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January,
  • “…and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January.”
  • Under the PSA, the line of succession to the president is the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate—the longest-serving member of the Senate of the majority party—and members the Cabinet, beginning with the Secretary of State.

In other words, barring a non-starter Constitutional amendment, an Act of Congress (hard to see Democrats going along with this) or a very-unlikely ruling by the Supreme Court (the Constitution explicitly states that as as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021, Trump and Michael R. Pence would no longer be the president and vice president of the United States, respectively.

And for the previous 17 days, there would also be no Speaker of the House because the term of every one of the 435 members of the House would have ended at noon on January 3, 2021.

I note at this point that Amendment XX, Section 1 ends with “the terms of their successors shall then begin,” so it is just barely possible an argument could be made the terms of the president, vice president, House members and Senators would not end because there are no successors. Without a successor, there are no occupants of those offices, effectively shutting down the federal government.

Here is the counter-argument, however, and where things get really interesting.

There would still be a United States Senate, albeit one 35% smaller, at 12:01 pm on January 3, 2021, meaning there would still be a President Pro Tempore to assume the office of the presidency, and who would then nominate someone to be vice president pending Senate approval.

There would still be a Senate because only 35 of the 100 Senators are reaching the end of their terms this year.[1] Fully 65 Senators will still be serving at that time: 35 Democrats (including two Independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats) and 30 Republicans.

That is right: rather than the current Senate, which has a 53-47 Republican majority, this “abridged” Senate would have a 35-30 Democratic majority. And the longest-serving Democratic Senator—who is not up for reelection in 2020—is Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who was first elected in 1974!

So…Leahy would absolutely become the 46th president of the United States, sworn somewhere by Chief Justice John J. Roberts?

Well…not so fast.

And that is because of what I had forgotten on Wednesday: under Amendment XVII, governors are empowered to appoint a replacement for a Senator who leaves office before the end of her/his term—just about always a member of the same party as the governor.

In this scenario, these governors immediately appoint replacement Senators as soon as those 35 Senate terms expire at noon on January 3, 2021…and they are sworn in immediately. Traditionally, the vice president swears in each new Senator, so that may be the fly in the ointment here. Presumably, though, in this unusual circumstance Chief Justice Roberts could swear in all the appointed Senators at one time, somewhere in Washington, DC.

As for the governors themselves:

  • In the 12 states where a Democratic Senate term is ending there are
    • 8 Democratic governors
    • 2 Republican governors
    • 1 Democratic governor up for reelection in Delaware
    • 1 Republican governor up for reelection in New Hampshire
  • In the 22 states where a Republican Senate term is ending (with two in Georgia) there are
    • 15 Republican governors filling 16 seats
    • 6 Democratic governors
    • 1 Democratic governor not seeking reelection in Montana

Excluding the three states where a gubernatorial election is being held (or not…as our younger daughter pointed out, why would there be elections for governor if all the federal elections were postponed?), the new Senate would now include:

  • 35 + 8 + 6 = 49 Democrats
  • 30 + 2 + 16 = 48 Republicans

This is still a bare 49-48 Democratic majority, making Leahy the 46th president.

IF gubernatorial elections are held in Delaware and New Hampshire this November, though, it is very likely the incumbent wins both races, which adds one new Democratic and one new Republican Senator, for a bare 50-49 Democratic majority…and President Leahy.

That leaves it all up to Montana.

IF there is a Montana gubernatorial election this November, the Republican nominee would likely be favored to win. In that case, we would wind up with a 50-50 tie in the Senate. And with no vice president to break the tie, it is not clear whether Leahy or Republican Charles R. Grassley of Iowa, who was first elected in 1980. Of course, if a Democrat were elected the next governor of Montana, that would result in a 51-49 Democratic Senate majority…and President Leahy.

Perhaps the nod still goes to Leahy in the case of a 50-50 Senate split, as the longest-serving Senator overall. Perhaps there is something like a coin flip. Or maybe these two men—who have served together in the United States Senate for 40 years and are around 80 years of age—decide to serve jointly, with one as president and one as vice president.

The bottom line, though, is that it is far more likely than not that if there are no federal elections this November, Democratic Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy of Vermont would be sworn in at 12:01 pm EDT on January 20, 2021 as the 46th president of the United States.

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

[1] Including Republican Kelly Loeffler, appointed to replace retiring Republican Johnny Isakson in December 2019.

January 2020 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 2020 lighthouse.JPG

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

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

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

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Super

Tuesday

Post-

SuperTues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2019 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

With the sixth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California, here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-15 declared candidates. Since the previous update, four candidates exited the race: Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam on November 20, former United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania on December 1, Montana Governor Steve Bullock on December 2, and, rather surprisingly given that she had qualified for the sixth debate, United States Senator (“Senator”) from California Kamala Harris on December 3. The 13 candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

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

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

Dec 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019(as of 1:00 am EST on December 19, 2019), including:

  • 284 national polls (including 50 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls and 30 weekly YouGov tracking polls)
  • 38 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 39 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 12 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 33 South Carolina primary polls
  • 73 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 78 polls from 20 other states.[3]

There are now 558 total polls, up from 488 last month.

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

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.1 19.9 20.8 27.3 36.3 27.2 25.7
Warren 16.0 18.3 17.6 18.8 12.6 18.2 17.0
Sanders 16.5 15.5 17.5 19.0 11.7 16.2 16.0
Buttigieg 6.2 15.1 11.1 6.1 4.5 6.4 9.1
Steyer 0.5 2.1 1.5 3.1 3.1 0.3 2.1
Yang 2.0 2.0 2.6 2.7 1.4 1.4 2.1
Klobuchar 1.5 4.0 2.0 1.3 0.9 1.3 2.1
Booker 2.1 2.1 1.7 1.5 2.8 1.5 2.0
Gabbard 1.0 1.4 2.9 1.1 0.9 0.9 1.6
Castro 0.9 0.5 0.2 1.0 0.2 1.1 0.55
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.3 0.5 0.2 0.30
Delaney 0.3 0.5 0.4 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.28
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.3 0.28
Bloomberg 0.7 0.2 0.2 n/a 0.3 0.3 0.21
Patrick 0.05 0.00 0.05 n/a 0.1 0.1 0.04
DK/Other 23.6 18.0 20.8 17.4 24.2 24.4 20.6

The race continues to follow the same pattern. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (25.7, down from 26.2), primarily because of his 23.7-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, essentially unchanged from 24.0 last month. However, he is less strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the two candidates battling for second place—Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren (17.0, down from 17.3) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (16.0, up from 15.8)—are much closer to first place. And this more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.6 and Warren rises to 18.2; Sanders is at 15.8. Rounding out the Big Four, overall and in the four earliest states, is South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (9.1—up from 8.1, and 7.1 the month before). These four candidates account for more than two-thirds (68.0%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

Looking only at Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, shows an even tighter race, especially when only post-first-debate polls are considered. Using these more recent polls, Iowa is effectively a four-way tie, with Warren at 19.7, Biden at 18.9, Buttigieg at 16.0 and Sanders at 15.0. There is a similar scrum in New Hampshire, with Biden at 19.5, Warren at 19.4, Sanders at 17.0 and Buttigieg at 11.4.

In the next tier are five candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.6 and 2.1 who are running out of chances to rise into the top four: billionaire activist Tom Steyer, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—essentially tied for 5th place—followed by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Other than Booker, these candidates rose in the last month, particularly in the early contests. However, only Steyer, Yang and Klobuchar will be joining the Big Four on Thursday’s debate stage, despite protests by Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who remains mired around 0.6. The top nine candidates total more than three-quarters (77.7%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

While Castro and the remaining six candidates divide just 1.7 between them, nobody else seems close to ending their campaign soon. Indeed, Castro missed the December 9 deadline to run in 2020 against Texas Senator John Cornyn. Meanwhile, the upsurge in NSW-WAPA for “Don’t Know/Other” reflects lingering support for Harris.

Returning to the debates, seven pollsters—six nationally[4] and one in South Carolina[5]–conducted polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the October 2019 debate) and after the November 2019 debate. Simple average differences in polling percentage (South Carolina poll results weighted four times national results) show measurable gains for Buttigieg and Steyer (+1.7 points each), Gabbard (+0.9) and Booker (+0.6), as well as measurable declines for Biden (-2.9) and, especially, Warren (-4.1). Warren’s decline was even sharper after weighting averages by pollster quality (-5.9) and number of days between polls (-7.9): her decline was steepest in higher-quality polls conducted farther apart in time. This decline is reflected in the decline in Warren’s NSW-WAPA from 19.1 last month to 18.2 now using only polls conducted after the first Democratic candidate debate. By contrast, “Don’t Know/Other,” Castro, Sanders, Booker and Klobuchar saw higher increases in support, albeit still small, with higher-quality polls conducted farther apart in time.

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On December 13, 2019, FiveThirtyEight unveiled its own 2020 Democratic presidential nomination polling aggregations. We use different aggregation methods, so while values we estimate for each candidate are broadly similar, there are clear differences, most notably in the relative standings of Buttigieg and Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire. I encourage you to compare our methods and results, especially since I base much of my own methods on their example.

Here are four key areas where our aggregation methods differ.

First and foremost, I combine state and national polling averages into a single overall value: NSW-WAPA; FiveThirtyEight does not. Similarly, when a state has not been polled for a while, FiveThirtyEight adjusts each candidate’s standing in that state by the change in their national standing, or “secular trend.” I do not do this. The first four states are polled often enough to make such adjustment unnecessary there, and I use time-and-quality weighted averages of a) the 10 Super Tuesday states and b) all subsequent states, mitigating the need for secular trend adjustment. Moreover, while I think such adjustment is necessary for general election polling, particularly the closer the election is, I am skeptical state-level primary polling moves in tandem with national polling, if only because there is no “national presidential nomination primary” to assess.

That secular trend is apparent in how much worse Warren is faring in Iowa and New Hampshire in FiveThirtyEight’s models compared to mine, likely due to her polling decline since the last debate, as well as the corresponding stronger position of Buttigieg in those states.

Second, the way I weight elapsed time since a poll was conducted compared to the way FiveThirtyEight does means NSW-WAPA is slower to detect sustained movement in a candidate’s standing. Still, it caught the major movements: the decline in support for Biden and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke since the start of the debates, the rise of Harris after the first debate and her subsequent decline, and the slow steady ascent of first Warren (with a recent decline) then Buttigieg.

Third, FiveThirtyEight adjusts for the tendency of some pollsters to release more favorable results for some candidates, on average, relative to others. I do not, simply because I had not performed or seen the calculations. Also, adjusting for this mathematical “bias” in my general election polling aggregates rarely alters final aggregates very much. However, if I can obtain the bias estimates FiveThirtyEight uses, I may consider using them.

Finally, FiveThirtyEight assigns a higher weight to polls with a larger sample size; I do not weight by sample size at all. For one thing, this would give inordinate influence to Morning Consult tracking polls, whose average sample size in 2019 has been 14,562—while their pollster rating is B/C (which I code 2.5/4.3 = .581). There is in fact a slight inverse relationship between average sample size and pollster quality: r=-0.20 for 24 polling agencies who have conducted two or more national Democratic nomination contest polls in 2019.[6] Moreover—and here my epidemiological training comes into play—increasing sample size makes an estimate more precise (i.e., smaller margin of error) but does not reduce any systematic bias; the latter is reduced through the sort of adjustment discussed in the previous paragraph. Simply put, I see no valid methodological reason for giving more weight to polls with higher sample sizes.

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There has been a slight pro-Trump trend in recent polls of hypothetical matchups between potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominees and President Trump I may address in a later post. For now, though, here are the averages: Biden would beat Trump nationally by 7.6 points, Warren by 3.1 points and Sanders by 4.9 points, while Buttigieg would lose by 0.3 points and Booker by 0.7 points[7]; Bloomberg, based on eight polls—seven released in the last two months, would win by 1.2 points. The other eight candidates for whom I have matchup data would lose by between 2.9 (Klobuchar) and 9.3 (spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson) points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of winning the nomination (NSW-WAPA/.794), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 3.4 points, broadly in line with the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. Excluding Biden and Sanders, however, decreases the margin to -0.2 points, with the caveat from the preceding paragraph.

Comparing available state-level results,[8] which decide presidential elections via the Electoral College, to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDM implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.7 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 5.8 points. Most encouraging to Democrats should be polls from North Carolina (R+6.0), Georgia (R+9.6), Arizona (R+9.7) and Texas (R+15.3), which show Democrats either even (Georgia) or within five points of Trump; on average, they imply a national Democratic lead of 8-9 points, confirming strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest.

By contrast, polls from Democratic-leaning Nevada (D+2.0) show Democrats anywhere from 0.7 points ahead to 2.1 points behind, implying Democrats would lose nationwide by 1.3-4.1 points. And while Democrats are 2.1-5.5 points ahead in the swing state of Michigan, which Trump won by 0.16 points in 2016, their position is…wobbly…in Florida (R+3.4), Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7), all of which Trump won narrowly in 2016.

On balance, however, Democrats remain extremely competitive in a wide range of swing and Republican-leaning states against an incumbent president, with the most likely nominees—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg—beating him by a combined 4.8 points.

Until next time…

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

[2] Primarily California (31), Texas (19) and North Carolina (8)

[3] Primarily Wisconsin (13), Florida (12), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins.

[4] Morning Consult Tracking, Monmouth University, Fox News, YouGov, IBD/TIPP, CNN/SSRS, Quinnipiac University

[5] YouGov

[6] The correlation increases to -0.43 if you exclude Morning Consult.

[7] Although this matchup has not been assessed since late September.

[8] From 27 states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia.

Emerson College polls: Post, and ye shall receive

Five days ago, I wrote about the sharp Republican shift since September 1, 2019 in polls conducted by Emerson College of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups between President Donald J. Trump and possible Democratic nominees. Emerson College is a high-quality pollster, rated A- and showing no partisan skew in recent elections according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s pollster ratings. What distinguishes Emerson College from other similarly high-quality pollsters assessing these matchups, though, is that the results they release have 0% choosing undecided or an unnamed candidate; this is likely, at least in part, because approximately 70% of Emerson College polls are conducted using automated voice response (aka “robopolling”).

I Voted sticker

When I first wrote in June 2019 about Emerson College polls of these hypothetical matchups, it was to compare their results with those of HarrisX, a C+ pollster with a strong Republican bias of 1.3 percentage points (“points”). I calculated then that “[HarrisX”] polls have an average of 28.0% undecided between the named Democrat and Trump (or would choose a third-party candidate); I estimate these voters would break roughly 7-4 in favor of the Democratic nominee.” That rises to 2-1 if polls assessing former Vice President Joe Biden or United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders are excluded.

However, as though in response to my November 25, 2019 post, Emerson College just released results of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups in New Hampshire. They assessed five possible Democratic nominees: Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang; they surveyed 637 registered voters between November 22 and November 26,  2019.

Actually, the FiveThirtyEight.com poll tracker lists two sets of results: one with 0% “undecided/other” and one with between nine and 12% “undecided/other” (mean=10.8%); note that the former results are based upon 547 voters, 90 fewer than the latter results. We can thus directly assess how those roughly 1 in 9 voters would vote if “forced” to choose; results may be found in Table 1.

Table 1: Comparing Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominees in New Hampshire

Democrat With Undec/Other Without Undec/Other %Undec/Other %Trump by Undec/Other
Biden D+4 D+5 12% 45.8%
Warren D+4 D-2 10% 80.0%
Sanders D+7 D+3 9% 72.2%
Buttigieg D+8 D+6 11% 59.1%
Yang D+5 D-2 12% 79.2%
AVERAGE D+5.6 D+2.0 10.8% 66.7%

Poll results with a non-zero percentage choosing “undecided/other” show the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee beating Trump in New Hampshire by an average of 5.6 points, slightly higher than the 4.6 points I calculate using all polls released since January 1, 2019. Moreover, all five Democrats lead Trump by between four and eight points. Once “undecided/other” voters are forced to choose, however, that average drops sharply to 2.0 points; Warren and Yang now trail Trump. That is because, on average, “undecided/other” voters choose Trump 2-1; this masks a curious divide, though: when offered Biden or Buttigieg, the split is nearly even, but when offered Warren, Sanders or Yang, the split is closer to 3-1.

While not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, “undecided/other” voters breaking 2-1 for Trump is an exact reversal of my June analysis, when analogous voters broke nearly 2-1 against Trump. This reversal feels…implausible…if only because for years, the general rule of thumb was that these voters would ultimately break toward the non-incumbent, perhaps by as much as 2-1, as the incumbent was such a well-known quantity that opinions were basically fixed: a voter already knew if they approved of her/him or not. Still, that “rule” no longer seems to apply, so the best thing to do is to continue to aggregate all polls as best we can.

At the same time, the Emerson College results, when applied to other recent polls of hypothetical 2020 presidential election match-ups, are…odd. For example, consider this comparison of national SurveyUSA (A rating, D+0.1; 3,850 registered voters [RV]. November 20-21, 2019) and Emerson College polls (1,092 RV, November 17-20, 2019):

Table 2: Comparing National November 2019 SurveyUSA and Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee

Democrat SurveyUSA Emerson College SurveyUSA

%Undec/Other

%Trump by Undec/Other
 

Biden

52%

D+13

49.5%

D-1

9% 155.6%
 

Warren

49%

D+7

50%

D+0

9% 88.9%
 

Sanders

52%

D+12

50.5%

D+1

8% 137.5%
 

Buttigieg

48%

D+7

48%

D-4

11% 100.0%
 

AVERAGE

50.2%

D+9.8

49.8%

D-0.5

9.2% 120.5%

In the four SurveyUSA polls, the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee tops 50% on average, with a nearly-10-point lead over Trump and only about 1 in 11 choosing “undecided/other.” By contrast, the four Emerson College polls—with every respondent forced to choose either Trump or his Democratic opponent—show a dead-even race, with Trump edging the Democrat by 0.5 points, on average. But for these two sets of polls to exist simultaneously, not only would every single (or, in the case of Warren, 89%) “undecided/other” voter have to break for Trump, but a small proportion of Democratic-leaning voters would also have to switch to Trump as well.

Which, again, seems…implausible.

As always, caveat emptor.

Until next time…

About those recent Emerson College polls…

I first wrote about Emerson College polls here, using the fact their polls of hypothetical 2020 matchups between a Democrat and President Donald J. Trump force respondents to choose a candidate (i.e., have 0% “other/undecided”) to assess Harris X polls, which often have very high proportions “other/undecided.” At the time, I concluded “other/undecided” Harris X polls respondents likely would vote for the 2020 Democrat presidential nominee roughly 2-1.

When I wrote that post in June, margins reported by Emerson College polls were broadly in line with those reported by other, non-Harris-X polls of these hypothetical matchups. Since the end of August, however, they have taken a sharply Republican turn compared both to previous Emerson College polls and to all other polls, based upon analyses of my WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average).

Table 1 clearly demonstrates this pro-Republican shift.

Table 1: Polling margin for specified 2020 Democratic presidential nominees over President Trump, Emerson College vs. All Other Polls and January-August 2019 vs. September-November 2019

Biden–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 7.24 8.35
Sep-Nov 0.29 8.03 Difference
-6.95 -0.32 -6.63
Warren–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 1.52 1.82
Sep-Nov 1.29 4.66 Difference
-0.23 2.84 -3.07
Sanders–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 4.28 4.99
Sep-Nov 0.12 5.10 Difference
-4.16 0.11 -4.27

While the post-August-2019 Republican lean of Emerson College polls for the three current polling leaders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—is apparent, it is most notable for Biden. Thus, while in all other polls, Biden’s WAPA declined modestly from 8.35 to 8.03, in the Emerson College polls it dropped from 7.24 to essentially even! Put another way, there was a 6.63 shift Republican in Emerson College polls for Biden starting around September 1, 2019. The shift was similar for Sanders—4.16 more Republican in Emerson College polls and no meaningful shift in other polls. Warren, meanwhile, had a sharp increase in her WAPA—from 1.82 to 4.66—in non-Emerson-College polls after September 1, 2019, while dropping slightly in the Emerson College polls. Overall, across all three candidates, there was a 4.66 pro-Republican shift in Emerson College polls after September 1, 2019.[1]

I Voted sticker

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Before addressing what could have caused this shift, let us address what did NOT cause this shift. On November 5, 2019, FiveThirtyEight.com updated its pollster ratings, which I use in calculating WAPA. Emerson College was upgraded from B+ to A-, making it one of the highest-quality pollsters regularly assessing the 2020 presidential election. Moreover, Emerson College’s “mean-reverted bias”—how much more or less Democratic its average polling margins are compared to other pollsters in the same (already-concluded) election—barely changed, shifting from D+0.1 to R+0.0 (which I code as D-0.025). Finally, mean sample size of Emerson College polls—still of registered voters—dropped only slightly after September 1, from 1,120 to 1,043.

But what about other pollsters? If anything, the mix of pollsters assessing the 2020 presidential election improved after September 1, 2019, from B-/B to B, albeit with a slightly more Democratic skew (D+0.2 to D+0.3).

Moreover, here are the averages of unskewed pollster-average margins for Biden, Warren and Sanders across all pollsters with at least a B+ rating,[2] before and after September 1, 2019:

  • Biden: 9.3 percentage points (“points”) to 10.8 points
  • Warren: 2.4 points to 6.6 points
  • Sanders: 5.8 points to 7.5 points

Clearly, both the more recent Emerson College polls and the lower-rated pollsters are finding much closer races between each of these three candidates and Trump than are the higher-rated pollsters. And while I removed the skew from these margins, the higher-rated pollsters have a mean skew of D+0.5—so take these averages with a modicum of salt.

Nonetheless, polls conducted by pollsters similar in quality to Emerson College—albeit with some small percentage of “undecided/other” voters—show the three leading Democratic candidates increasing their hypothesized margins against Trump by 1.5 to 4.2 points after September 1, 2019, while the Emerson College polls show declines in support from 0.2 to 7.0 points.

So what gives?

There are two broad categories of possible, non-mutually-exclusive explanations.

  1. Starting September 1, Emerson College pollsters adjusted how they weigh their samples by various demographic factors, such that their polls skew sharply more Republican relative to other high-quality pollsters.
  2. Emerson College pollsters, perhaps because they force respondents to make a choice, are capturing a genuine pro-Republican shift in the electorate other high-quality pollsters are missing.

Taking each possible explanation in turn…

Emerson’s sampling methodology did not change after September 1, remaining a combination of Interactive Voice Response (i.e., “robocalls”) of landlines—but not cellphones—and an online voter panel. However, their sample weighting, based upon 2016 turnout, did change subtly—from age, region, income, and education in their August 2019 national polls to age, [interview] mode, party registration, ethnicity and region in their November 2019 national polls.

Given how strongly education is now associated with partisanship, especially among white voters, that could account for at least some of the difference. I am perplexed, however, how interviewing mode is associated with turnout—other than landline-users tending to lean Republican (older, whiter, less urban). For that matter, I am not clear why a poll of registered voters would adjust for turnout at all. Adjust for the relative proportions of these groups in the universe of registered voters, sure—but adjustment for participation rates (i.e., turnout) of various groups in 2016 seems more appropriate for a likely voters model. Still, without seeing the raw data, I will not even speculate how these changes in sample weighting would affect publicly-released polling margins.

There is, meanwhile, an argument to be made that the universe of “decided” voters has drifted Republican in recent months, especially with the announcement by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Nancy Pelosi on September 24, 2019 that the House would formally begin an impeachment inquiry into Trump. While polling at first showed approval for this action higher than disapproval, the difference is closer to even now as House Republicans have rallied behind a president of their party.

Also, while Democrats fared well in recent governor’s races in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, the final actual margins were an average 2.8 points more Republicans than the final WAPA, perhaps reflecting a substantial Republican bias among “other/undecided” voters—essentially what the Emerson College polls might show. Moreover, the A+-rated Siena College/New York Times Upshot (R+0.3), recently released a set of state-level polls that also show leading Democrats faring less well against Trump than the consensus of other pollsters in those states.

While some combination of these two possible explanations—a change in sample weighting and an actual pro-Republican shift in the electorate—probably accounts for the clear shift towards Trump in recent Emerson College polls, it is entirely possible their last three national polls are showing these shifts purely by chance; even the best sampling strategy will be well wide of the mark at times (this is, in fact, the basic logic behind polling aggregation). However, three such wide sampling “misses” in the same direction and of the same size are extremely unlikely, though far from impossible.

In the end, the best those of us who track election polling can do is throw every publicly-available poll into the analysis, weighting, averaging and adjusting as best we can—all the while remembering that even the best estimates are just that, estimates.

Until next time…

[1] Values were similar for South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris, but with each having only one post-August-2019 Emerson College poll assessing support versus President Trump, I excluded their polls from the analysis.

[2] IBD/TIPP, CNN/SSRS, Fox News, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, ABC News/Washington Post, SurveyUSA, Quinnipiac University. There is no post-August-2019 NBCNWSJ polling for Sanders.

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

With the fifth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-18 (19?) declared candidates. Since the previous update, United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) Tim Ryan of Ohio exited the race on October 24, followed by former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke on November 1. The nine candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

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

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

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

Nov 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

The race continues to follow the same storylines. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (26.2, down from 27.2), primarily because of his 24.0-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, itself down from 25.2 last month. However, he is less strong in Iowa, New Hampshire and (to a lesser extent) Nevada, where the two candidates battling for second place—Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren (17.3, up from 16.5) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (15.8, down from 16.1)—are closer to first place. And this more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.9 and Warren rises to 18.9; Sanders is at 15.4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, Biden would beat Trump nationally by 8.1 points, Warren by 3.5 points, Sanders by 5.2 points and Harris by 1.6 points, while Buttigieg would essentially tie Trump and Booker would lose by 0.7 points; Bloomberg, based on three polls, would win by 1.9 points. The other 11 candidates for whom I have match-up data would lose by between 5.2 and 12.7 points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of being the nominee (NSW-WAPA/.843), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 3.6 points. This is broadly in line with the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin decreases to 0.3 points, with the caveat fom the preceding paragraph.

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

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

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

Until next time…

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

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

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

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

[5] Civiqs

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

[7] From 27 states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia.