Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

This is how I conclude the opening section of Chapter 1 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own (publication TBD):

I also learned that by 1920, Pennsylvania was the 2nd most common American state for the last name “Berger” (14%), behind only New York (23%),[i] which meant I had plenty of company for every lame “ham-Berger” joke I endured as a child. That said, one appeal of Perry Mason reruns for me was that Mason’s primary opponent, played by film noir stalwart William Talman, was District Attorney Hamilton Burger…get it?

Perry Mason, which aired from 1957 to 1966, makes multiple appearances in my book, both as a marker on my film noir “personal journey” and as a fondly-remembered part of my childhood:

My final memory of Robindale is a nasty upper respiratory ailment which kept me home multiple days in January 1979. I mostly watched my small black-and-white television in bed, at least when I was not making myself read the paperbacks—primarily In Search of… volumes—collected in a shoebox. I also listened to WIFI-92, hoping to hear one of my favorite songs at the time: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” and The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Mostly, though, I was waiting until 11:30—on weeknights—to watch Perry Mason on Channel 48, after which the station ended its broadcast day.[ii]

For some reason, my wife Nell and I did not watch the HBO Perry Mason prequel series, which debuted on June 21, 2020, when it originally aired. This past Saturday night, though, having just finished re-watching Sherlock with our younger daughter—who absolutely loved it—we queued up the first episode. We were immediately hooked—though we quickly decided its content was too mature even for our Riverdale– and Stranger-Things-obsessed daughter.

Nell and I were watching on the night of Monday, April 19, 2021 when I let out a squeal of delight when a character—a Yale-educated lawyer and aspiring district attorney—said his name was, you guessed it, “Hamilton Burger.”

A short while earlier, however, I was on the verge of tears.

Nell was scanning her iPhone, when she suddenly said, “Oh, Walter Mondale died. He was 93.”

**********

Late in 1982, I visited my best friend at his house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. I do not know why I walked through his parents’ bedroom—to use a bathroom, maybe?—but on top of a dresser in that room was a recent copy of Time magazine, or perhaps Newsweek. I was drawn to a story featured on the cover about the emerging race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, then shaping up to be a battle between two liberal icons: Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy and former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, as well as Ohio Senator John Glenn, who possibly had the right stuff. Arguably, Kennedy had severely damaged Mondale’s chances to be reelected vice president four years earlier by unsuccessfully running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

While I had followed the 1980 presidential campaign to some extent—jumping briefly on the bandwagon of Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown—I had not yet begun to focus on 1984. However, something about that article galvanized me toward Mondale. Perhaps I had never warmed to the idea of Ted Kennedy as president, making Mondale the obvious choice for a passionate young liberal. Perhaps it was that Mondale had recently been vice president, so it was his “turn.” Perhaps it was a vague memory of Mondale’s son Ted visiting Bala Cynwyd Middle School on April 18, 1980, during that year’s Pennsylvania presidential primary, to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket.[iii] As I note here, Barbara Bush, wife of the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had spoken to my fellow 8th graders and me the previous month.

Perhaps…I have no idea why.

At any rate, Kennedy announced in early December that he would not seek the nomination, after all. It is possible that this was the article I saw in Wynnewood that day.

At the time, our cable package had a kind of ticker-tape news channel. I began to watch—well, read—it regularly, waiting for the next Democrat to announce his candidacy. Joining Glenn and Mondale were former Florida Governor Reuben Askew, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Oh, and when I toured Yale University in late August 1983, there were signs advertising an address by a young Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, who had worked on McGovern’s campaign. As intriguing as some of these candidates were, though, I never wavered in my support for Mondale. In fact, in my role as co-News-Editor of the Harriton High School Free Forum, I wrote the “meet the candidates” article on Mondale (and on Glenn, actually.)

I also schlepped this around senior year…

…and taped this to the cover of a school notebook, cementing me as “the Mondale guy” at the centrist-Republican-leaning Harriton.

It is not necessary to review the nomination battle beyond this: while Mondale dominated the February 20 Iowa caucuses, it was Hart—not Glenn—who finished a strong second. Nine days later, I raced home from Harriton to watch CNN’s coverage of that day’s New Hampshire primary—and the same video clip featuring ice sculptures of the candidates—only to be stunned by Hart’s 39%-29% victory over Mondale, with Glenn well back at 12% and Jackson at 6%. After two contests, it was essentially a three-person race between Mondale, Hart and Jackson—who won or tied in contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

It was a seesaw campaign, though it is possible this moment in a March 11 debate ultimately gave Mondale the nomination. For context, the original “Where’s the Beef?” ad follows.

As the April 10 Pennsylvania presidential primary approached, the Philadelphia area was dotted with Mondale and Hart lawn signs, with quite a few Jackson signs in the city itself. Mondale won solidly 45.1% to 33.3%, with Jackson earning 16.0%. About two months later, on June 5, Mondale effectively clinched the nomination by winning primaries in New Jersey and West Virginia.

By this point, I had taken a white pull-down window shade, scrawled MONDALE in large block letters on it using—something or other—and suspended it from one of the brick walls on our small patio. Naturally, I followed the chaotic selection process to be Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, thrilling at the diversity of the choices, but concerned by the very public “audition” process. I was very excited when he chose New York member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman chosen for a major-party ticket.

If memory serves, I actually put on a coat and tie to watch the Democratic National Convention, which ran from July 16-19, 1984, in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. I remembered Democrat Mario Cuomo being elected governor of New York two years earlier but, like most of the nation, I was not prepared for how electrifying his keynote address on the opening night of the convention was.

While writing this essay, I re-watched Cuomo’s speech.

Do yourself a favor, watch it yourself.

It is that good…and that prescient.

I also re-watched Mondale’s acceptance speech, which—after a slow start—was much better than I remembered. The only thing I had previously recalled from it was Mondale’s discussion of the need to raise taxes in order to bring down the massive federal budget deficits President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies had created.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes. So will I.

“He won’t tell you. I just did.”

This statement was an enormous political risk because of the “tax and spend” Democrat stereotype. And it only endeared him to me more.

Otherwise, Mondale appears resolute, experienced and clear-eyed, frequently flashing a surprisingly warm smile for a man unfairly criticized for lacking charisma.

The primary purpose of the convention was to unify a Democratic Party badly split by the months-long battle between Mondale, Hart and Jackson, one about to face a unified and well-organized Republican Party in November. It is striking that Cuomo never mentions Mondale or Ferraro by name—or any Democrat other than New Mexico House Member Mo Udall, who had spoken earlier that evening, and five former presidents, including Carter who watches in approval with his wife Roslyn—only obliquely mentioning them only at the end of his speech.

Did it work?

**********

The raison d’etre of the character first introduced by Erle Stanley Gardner in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933 was to defend persons whose guilt appeared obvious to the state but who were genuinely innocent: “the friendless and unjustly accused.” It is no accident Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1940 to do in reality what Mason did in the fictional courtroom.

The HBO series provides an “origin story” for Mason, as well as for his indefatigable private secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake (brilliantly reimagined as an African-American Los Angeles police officer) and Burger. It takes some time for all four to appear in the same scene as tenuous allies, but the wait is worth it.

What I always loved about Perry Mason, besides the actual whodunit and the brilliant courtroom scenes, was that as much as Mason and Burger are rivals, in the end both want not just to win, but to make sure the correct killer is identified. As irritated as he clearly is by Mason’s tactics, Burger is quick to realize when he has been beaten and the actual guilty party identified, who is then usually taken away by Lieutenant Tragg.

They both seek true justice, not merely fleeting victory. They are respectful opponents, not bitter enemies.

**********

The selection of Ferraro gave the Mondale campaign a much-needed jolt, but soon Ferraro was facing a barrage of questions about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro. In August, she held a marathon press conference which temporarily stemmed the tide of negative press.

A few weeks later, I began my freshman year at Yale University, where I became active in the College Democrats and other political organizations. It was through the latter I saw Ferraro speak in New Haven on September 8,[iv] despite what I later wrote on this card.

On September 30, I turned 18, meaning I was eligible to vote for the first time in the November 6 election. One week later, I watched—likely with my then-girlfriend on a common room television set—as Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale. He appeared old, tired and very confused—and, once again, Mondale rallied in the polls. However, while Ferraro also did well against Vice President George H. W. Bush in their October 11 debate, Reagan rallied in the second and final presidential debate on October 21. In fact, the only line anyone remembers from either debate is a confident Reagan saying “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.”

Mondale laughs right along with the audience, even though he seems to know how devastating that moment is.

**********

Mondale was born in Ceylon, MN on January 5, 1928. An activist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, Mondale was elected state Attorney General in 1960. When Humphrey was sworn in as Vice President in January 1965, Mondale was appointed to fill his seat, serving until he himself became Vice President in January 1977.

On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis, MN while a white police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. This death—captured on video—inspired a summer of protests and calls for fundamental changes to our system of justice and policing. One day after Mondale—who had long since returned to his beloved Minnesota—died in Minneapolis, a jury in that city found Chauvin guilty on all three counts in the death of Floyd: manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. It is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a white police officer to be held accountable for the death of a civilian of color; this was a historic verdict.

In fact, just as I teared up when I heard the news of Mondale’s death, I felt a rush of emotion—relief mixed with jubilation—when I watched the verdict live on MSNBC. It is fitting it was announced while the nation mourned Mondale, a profoundly decent public servant who forcefully advocated for racial, gender and economic justice his entire career. It is also fitting Nell and I watched the final three of the eight Perry Mason episodes that same night, watching Mason complete the journey from bedraggled and cynical private investigator to indomitable fighter for justice.

**********

After casting my first-ever vote—and still one of my proudest—for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket on Tuesday, November 6, I had dinner with my then-girlfriend at a new restaurant called Audubon’s, a few blocks east of the main campus; the strike which closed down all of Yale’s dining halls for most of my first semester there was still in effect. We figured we would have plenty of time to settle into watch the returns by 8:30 pm or so, optimistic about Mondale’s chances to the very end.

But beginning around 7 pm, we watched in stunned disbelief on the television set in Audubon’s—or perhaps in windows as we hustled back to campus—as state after state after state was quickly called for Reagan. Before long the only question left was whether Mondale-Ferraro would win ANY state besides the District of Columbia. Minnesota did, finally, vote for its native son, but only by 3,761 votes. Nationally, Reagan-Bush beat Mondale-Ferraro 58.8-40.6%, winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. It was a humiliating and historic defeat.

Nell has since claimed responsibility for what happened on November 6—something about dumping beer cans she was drinking while under age in the trash bins behind Mondale’s house in Georgetown—but much larger forces were at play. Reagan had won election in 1980 by soundly defeating Carter, who himself had beaten Gerald Ford for reelection four years later. Ford only became president because he was vice president—having been appointed when Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973—when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Nixon had himself beaten a Democratic Party badly divided in 1968 over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and civil rights legislation. Johnson, finally, ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

That is five presidents in 20 years, after there had been only three presidents in the preceding 28 years. Voters, I think, desperately wanted continuity and stability in 1984, and with the economy seeming to recover strongly, they overwhelmingly awarded Reagan a second term.

Mondale returned to Minnesota until President William J. Clinton named him Ambassador to Japan in 1993. Nine years later, on October 25, 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, just 11 days before he was to face election to a third term. Mondale, now 74 years old, was hastily named to run in his stead, losing to Republican Norm Coleman by 2.2 percentage points—a bittersweet end to a long and distinguished career.

As always, though, Mondale graciously shrugged off the loss and went back to private life. Six years later, Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the first woman so named since Ferraro 24 years earlier. Eight years later, the Democratic presidential nominee was Hillary Clinton, the first woman so selected by a major party. Not of these three women became vice president or president, however.

It was only in November 2020 that a woman finally broke through: California Senator Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, was elected Vice President to serve with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Mondale, happily, lived long enough to see her victory…and it is very apt that Vice President Harris was one of the last people Mondale called before his death.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mondale. You served your nation with honor, compassion and dignity, and you will always be one of my biggest heroes.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=berger

[ii] e.g., “TV Today,” PI, January 16, 1979, pg. 17-D

[iii] Cusick, Frederick, “They can’t vote but can question,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 19, 1980, pg. 2-B

[iv] Lender, John, “Ferraro Raps Reagan in Stop at Festival,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 9, 1984, pg. A1

2020 Iowa Caucuses: How did my polling averages fare?

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

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

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

Iowa Visitor Center Sep 1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP, Iowa Caucuses (1972-2020)

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

 No more.

 This is ridiculous.

 #IowaCaucuses #iowacaucus2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to New Hampshire!

Until next time…

The 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucuses: Final Update

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa Visitor Center Sep 1990

**********

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

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

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

1. Caucuses differ in key ways from primaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Absent poll numbers

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Des Moines Register endorsement

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.

Until next time…

[1] Without rounding, I believe.

Organizing by themes I: American politics

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Given that I have multiple degrees in political science, with an emphasis on American politics, it is not surprising that I have written a few dozen posts in that field…and that is where I begin.

I Voted sticker

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I started by writing about the 2016 elections, many based on my own state-partisanship metric (which I validate here).

The absurdity of the Democratic “blue wall” in the Electoral College

Hillary Clinton’s performance in five key states (IA, MI, OH, PA, WI)

Why Democrats should look to the south (east and west)

How having (or not) a college degree impacted voting

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

An early foray into what I call “Clinton derangement”

The only statistic from 2016 that really matters

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Here are a few posts about presidential polling (before FiveThirtyEight jumped on the bandwagon)…

Be careful interpreting President Trump’s approval polls

…and the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (GA-6)

Ossoff and the future of the Democratic Party

Using GA-6 polls to discuss statistical significance testing (spoiler: I am not a fan)

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And then I started looking ahead to 2018…first to control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”). Note that posts are often cross-generic…

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

The impact of voting to repeal (and not replace) Obamacare (May 2017)

I debut my simple forecast model (June 2017)

Making more points about polls and probability

A March 2018 update

A followup March 2018 update (after which I stopped writing about the 2018 House elections)

…then the United States Senate

The view from May 2017

What it meant that the Senate voted NOT to repeal Obamacare in July 2017

The view from December 2017

…and, finally, races for governor in 2017 AND 2018.

The view from June 2017

A tangentially-related post may be found here.

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After Labor Day 2018, I developed models (based on “fundamentals” and polls) to “forecast” the Senate elections…

September 4

September 13

October 23

…and those for governor (the October 23 post addressed both sets of races)

September 16

These culminated in…

My Election Day cheat sheet

And my own assessment of how I did (spoiler: not half bad)

Speaking of assessments, I took a long look at my partisan lean measure here.

And I carefully examined some polling aggregation assumptions here.

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Beginning in April 2019, I turned my attention to the 2020 elections.

First came a wicked early look at the relative standings of the dozens of women and men actually or potentially seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination:

April 2019

Then came a wicked early look at the 2020 presidential election itself.

April 2019

And, of course, a wicked early look at races for Senate (2020) and governor (2019-20).

With a post-Labor-Day update. Which I followed with an October update.

With the first of regular updates to both the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and the 2020 presidential election in May 2019

This post both set up the first Democratic debates and had good news for Democrats looking ahead to 2020.

This post set up the second Democratic debates and drew some conclusions about who “won” and “lost” the first debates.

This post updated the data for August 2019 and drew some conclusions about who “won” and “lost” the second debates.

Ditto for September 2019, October 2019, November 2019,  December 2019, January 2020

Once voting commenced in the 2020 Democratic presidentil nomination process, I wrote posts specific to the

As for the 2020 general election:

I also weighed into the question of who former Vice President Joe Biden should name as his vice-presidential running mate.

Shortly after the elections, I wrote a comprehensive summary of the elections, including assessing my own projections.

I then analyzed the not-so-changing geography of U.S. Elections.

And three assessments of Emerson College polls (one, two, three).

And one comparison of Emerson polling to that of Quinnipiac University.

As for the 2022 elections:

  • I took a very early look at Republican likelihood of regaining the House here.
  • I took a wicked early look at 2021 and 2022 governor’s races here.
  • I took a wicked early look at 2022 Senate races here.

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Finally, there are other politics posts that defy easy categorization.

I indulged in some speculative alternative history about the presidential elections of 1948 and 2000.

I delineated issue differences between Democrats and Republicans.

I got a bit personal here and here, concluding with the fact that, despite overlapping in the same residential college at Yale for two years, I did NOT know Associate Justice Brett Kavanagh at all.

I argued for the abolition of the Electoral College…then observed the advantage Republicans have in it.

I mourned the deaths of John McCain, George H.W. Bush and Walter Mondale.

Until next time…