2020 Elections Post-Mortem

On November 3, 2020, the United States ended a weeks-long electoral process. At stake was the presidency, control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) and House of Representatives (“House”), 11 governor’s mansions, and thousands of state and local offices. That day, I published “cheat sheets” to guide election viewers through state-level presidential returns, 35 Senate elections and the gubernatorial elections.

[Ed. note: This post, my 200th, is the longest I have written to date. It is fitting that a blog which found its data-driven footing in the wake of the 2016 elections would have its 200th entry address the aftermath of the 2020 elections, beyond mere repetition of the number “20.”]

As I write this on midnight EST on November 17, 2020, precisely two weeks after the elections concluded, these are the top-line results:

  • Only one governor’s mansion changed partisan hands: Republican Greg Gianforte won back the statehouse in Montana for the first time in 16 years. As of January 2021, Republicans will hold 27 governor’s mansions, and Democrats will hold 23.
  • Democrats basically held serve in state legislative races. For more details, please see here.

On balance, the 2020 elections affirmed the status quo: a nation roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, though it remains possible the former could control, however narrowly, the White House, Senate and House for the first time since 2010.

Presidential election

Biden-Harris are closing on 79.0 million votes (50.9%), shattering the previous record of 69.5 million votes won by Democrat Barack Obama and Biden in 2008. Trump-Pence have just under 73.3 million votes (47.3%), ranking them second in history. Biden has now appeared on three of the four presidential tickets to receive the most votes, with Obama-Biden earning 65.9 million votes in 2012, edging out Clinton-Kaine in 2016 by about 65,000 votes. Third party candidates are receiving more than 2.8 million votes (1.8%), significantly lower than the 8.3 million votes (6.0%) such candidates received in 2016. Approximately 155.1 million votes have already been counted, with an estimated 4.1 million votes—mostly in California and New York—left to be counted. This ~159.2 million vote projection, or about 2/3 of all Americans eligible to vote, also shatters the previous record of 137.1 million votes set in 2016.

Biden-Harris’ 3.6 percentage point (“point”) margin is a 1.5-point increase from 2016, and 0.3-point decrease from 2012, making it the third consecutive presidential election in which the Democratic ticket won the national popular vote by between two and four points; adding 22 million voters did not fundamentally alter the partisan electoral divide. Based on my Electoral College model, a Biden-Harris win of 3.6 points equates to 296 EV, nearly the 306 EV they received; for a Republican ticket, this equates to 327 EV.

How did Biden-Harris win the Electoral College?

Table 1: 2020 and 2016 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Biden-Harris Margin

StateEVWinnerClinton-Kaine MarginBiden-Harris MarginDelta
DC3Biden86.886.6-0.2
Vermont3Biden26.435.49.0
Massachusetts11Biden27.233.05.8
Maryland10Biden30.032.52.5
California55Biden26.429.63.2
Hawaii4Biden32.229.5-2.7
Rhode Island4Biden15.520.85.2
Connecticut7Biden13.620.16.7
Washington12Biden15.719.33.6
Delaware3Biden11.319.07.7
Illinois20Biden14.016.62.6
Oregon7Biden11.016.25.2
New Jersey14Biden16.915.5-1.4
New York29Biden22.513.7-8.8
Colorado9Biden4.913.58.6
New Mexico5Biden8.210.82.6
Virginia13Biden3.010.16.9
Maine4Biden (3)5.38.73.4
New Hampshire4Biden0.47.47.0
Minnesota10Biden1.57.15.6
Michigan16Biden-0.22.62.8
Nevada6Biden2.42.40.0
Pennsylvania20Biden-0.71.01.7
Wisconsin10Biden-0.80.61.4
Georgia16Biden-5.10.35.4
Arizona11Biden-3.50.33.8
North Carolina15Trump-3.7-1.42.3
Florida29Trump-1.2-3.4-2.2
Texas38Trump-9.0-5.73.3
Ohio18Trump-8.1-8.2-0.1
Iowa6Trump-9.4-8.21.2
Alaska3Trump-14.3-10.13.3
South Carolina9Trump-20.4-11.78.7
Kansas6Trump-18.5-15.13.4
Missouri10Trump-19.0-15.63.4
Indiana11Trump-20.2-16.14.1
Montana3Trump-14.7-16.4-1.7
Mississippi6Trump-25.1-17.87.3
Louisiana8Trump-19.6-18.61.0
Nebraska5Trump (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Utah6Trump-17.9-20.2-2.3
Tennessee11Trump-31.8-23.38.5
Alabama9Trump-26.0-25.60.4
Kentucky8Trump-27.7-26.01.7
South Dakota3Trump-29.8-26.23.6
Arkansas6Trump-29.8-27.62.2
Idaho4Trump-26.9-30.8-3.9
Oklahoma7Trump-36.4-33.13.3
North Dakota3Trump-35.7-33.42.4
West Virginia5Trump-41.7-39.02.7
Wyoming3Trump-46.3-43.42.9
Average  Trump+3.6Trump+0.8D+2.8

As Table 1 reveals, Biden-Harris won 25 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”) by an average of 17.4 points, while Trump-Pence won 25 states by an average of 19.8 points; medians are 14.6—reflecting the 86.8-point margin in DC—and 18.6, respectively. Biden-Harris won seven states and DC totaling 97 EV by 20 or more points, while Trump-Pence won 11 states totaling 65 EV by that margin.

Biden-Harris won 19 states, DC and the 2nd Congressional district in Nebraska by at least 6.0 points, for a total of 228 EV. Add Nevada (6) and Michigan (16), which the Democratic ticket won by ~2.5 points, below their national margin, and the total increases to 250 EV.

At around 10:30 am EST on Saturday, November 7, the major news networks declared Biden-Harris the projected winner in Pennsylvania—and its 20 EV put Biden-Harris over the total of 270 needed to win the presidency. It also makes Pennsylvania—the state in which I was born—the “tipping point” state, as it puts Biden-Harris over 270 EV when states are ranked from most to least Democratic. But the margin stands at just 1.0 points, or just 68,903 votes; Biden-Harris also won Wisconsin (0.6 points), Arizona and Georgia (0.3 points each) by similarly small margins. The Democratic ticket has a total winning margin of 104,025 votes in these four states.

In the 25 states, plus DC, won by the Democratic ticket, the average increase in margin from 2016 was 3.4 points, while in states won by the Republican ticket the average increase was 2.1 points; overall, the average margin shift was 2.8 points. In the five states which switched from Republican to Democratic, the average increase was 3.0 points, led by a 3.8-point increase in Arizona and a 5.4-point increase in Georgia. While Biden-Harris lost North Carolina by 1.4 points and Texas by 5.7 points, they improved the margin by 2.3 and 3.3 points, respectively.

However, while Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 margins by an average 3.7 points in these four southeastern/southwestern states—states I suggested were fertile ground for Democrats—they basically held serve in Iowa (D+1.2) and Ohio (no change), while falling further behind in Florida (D-2.2); I will not speculate what role undelivered ballots in Miami-Dade County played in the latter state. This should not be surprising, as these were perhaps the most disappointing states for Democrats during the otherwise “blue wave” 2018 midterm elections.

In 2016, Trump-Pence won 306 EV by winning six states Obama-Biden won in 2012: the aforementioned Florida, Iowa and Ohio, plus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The latter were decided by a combined 77,736 votes; Clinton-Kaine also lost Georgia by 211,141 votes and Arizona by 91,234 votes. In 2020, as Table 2 shows, Biden-Harris won the former three states—more than enough to give them an Electoral College victory—by a combined 233,945 votes: a shift of 311,681 votes, or just 0.2% of all votes cast. But the Democratic ticket also increased their margin in Arizona by 101,691 votes and in Georgia by a remarkable 226,296 votes.

Table 2: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Five Key States

State2016 Dem Margin2020 Dem MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Michigan-10,704+144,532+155,236
Pennsylvania-44,284+68,903+113,187
Wisconsin-22,748+20,510+43,258
Arizona-91,234+10,457+101,691
Georgia-212,141+14,155+226,296
TOTAL-381,111+258,557+639,668

Overall, across these five states, the margin swung toward the Democratic ticket by about 640,000 votes, which is still less than 1% of all votes cast. But we can get even more granular than that. Early in 2017, I observed that in the three states that swung the 2016 election to Trump-Pence, the Clinton-Kaine ticket did about as well in the Democratic core counties—the urban centers of Detroit, Milwaukee/Madison and Philadelphia/Pittsburgh—as Obama-Biden had in 2012. What changed was a massive increase in Republican turnout in the other, more rural counties of those states. I ultimately concluded this resulted from a split between white voters with a college degree (more Democratic suburban/urban) and without a college degree (more Republican rural).

Table 3: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Pennsylvania Counties

County2016 D Margin2020 D MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Phila Suburbs   
Bucks+2,699+17,415+14,716
Chester+25,568+53,598+28,030
Delaware+66,735+87,066+20,331
Montgomery+93,351+133,343+39,992
TOTAL+188,353+291,422+103,069
    
Major Urban   
Philadelphia+475,277+457,649-17,628
Allegheny+108,137+146,706+38,569
TOTAL+583,414+604,355+20,941
    
All Other Counties-816,051-826,874-10,283
TOTAL-44,284+68,903+113,187

Table 3 shows just how this split played out in 2020, using Pennsylvania as an example. Compared to 2016, the margins for the Democratic ticket increased only at 21,000 votes in the heavily urban Democratic counties of Allegheny (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia. And the 61 counties outside these two counties, excepting the four-county ring around Philadelphia, also held serve for the Republican ticket; Erie and Northampton Counties switched, barely, from Trump-Pence to Biden-Harris. In fact, the two parties may have reach voted saturation in these two areas. But those four suburban Philadelphia counties, swung even further toward the Democratic ticket, from a margin of 188,353 votes to nearly 291,422 votes, for a total increase of 103,069 votes, nearly the entire swing from 2016 to 2020.

What about the polling?

With most of the vote counted, Biden-Harris lead Trump-Pence nationally by 3.6 points, which is 4.6 points lower than my final weighted-adjusted polling average (“WAPA”) of 8.2 points.

For my final post tracking national and state polling of the 2020 presidential election, I estimated the probability Biden-Harris would win a given state. In 24 states/DC totaling 279 EV, the probability was at least 94.7%; Biden-Harris won all of them. In 20 states totaling 126 EV, the probability was 1.3% or less; Trump-Pence won all them. The remaining seven states were:

  • Florida (80.1%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Arizona (77.5%), which Biden-Harris won
  • North Carolina (69.0%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Georgia (56.4%), which Biden-Harris won
  • Ohio (39.1%), Iowa (37.0%) and Texas (28.4%), each of which Trump-Pence won

Florida and North Carolina were the only “misses,” though it should be noted Trump-Pence still had a non-trivial 19.9% and 31.0% chance, respectively, to win those states. Further, my final back-of-the-envelope EV estimate was 348.5 for Biden-Harris—subtracting the 44 combined EV of Florida and North Carolina essentially gets you to 306. The latter value is also very close to the 297.5 EV I estimated Biden-Harris would receive if all polls overestimated Democratic strength by 3.0 points.

Along those lines, my 2020 election cheat sheets included a projected Democratic-minus-Republican margin (“JBWM”), which adjusts final WAPA for undecided votes, along with recent polling errors in selected states. Compared to the final FiveThirtyEight.com margins/polling averages (“538”), JBWM margins were about 1.2 points more Republican.

Even so, as Table 4 shows, the JBWM margins were, on average, 3.4 points more Democratic than the final margins, and the 538 margins were 4.6 points more Democratic. When the direction of the difference is ignored, meanwhile, the differences between the two method vanish: an average absolute difference of 4.5 from JBWM margins compared to 4.8 for 538.

However, this overall difference masks a stark partisan difference: the mean JBWM difference was only 1.1 points more Democratic in states/DC won by Biden-Harris, while it was 5.9 points more Democratic in states won by Trump-Pence. The correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM difference is 0.73, meaning the more Republican the state, the better Trump-Pence did relative to the final polling. In short, pollsters continue to undercount “Trump Republicans” in the most Republican states.

Table 4: 2020 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateEVWinnerJBWM ProjectionBiden-Harris MarginDelta
West Virginia5Trump-20.4-39.0-18.6
New York29Biden28.313.7-14.6
Wyoming3Trump-32.1-43.4-11.3
South Dakota3Trump-15.6-26.2-10.6
North Dakota3Trump-23.2-33.3-10.1
Montana3Trump-7.1-16.4-9.3
Kentucky8Trump-17.2-26.0-8.8
Oklahoma7Trump-24.9-33.1-8.2
Texas38Trump1.6-5.7-7.3
Utah6Trump-12.9-20.2-7.3
Alabama9Trump-18.6-25.6-7.0
Indiana11Trump-9.6-16.1-6.5
Tennessee11Trump-16.9-23.3-6.4
Nevada6Biden8.62.4-6.2
Missouri10Trump-9.6-15.6-6.0
Kansas6Trump-10.2-15.1-4.9
Idaho4Trump-26.0-30.8-4.8
New Jersey14Biden19.515.5-4.0
Maine4Biden (3)12.58.7-3.8
Mississippi6Trump-14.1-17.8-3.7
Florida29Trump0.2-3.4-3.6
Alaska3Trump-6.7-10.1-3.4
Iowa6Trump-5.0-8.2-3.2
Connecticut7Biden23.020.1-2.9
Louisiana8Trump-15.8-18.6-2.8
South Carolina9Trump-8.9-11.7-2.8
Wisconsin10Biden3.20.6-2.6
Arizona11Biden2.90.3-2.6
Washington12Biden21.719.3-2.4
Hawaii4Biden31.629.5-2.1
Ohio18Trump-6.2-8.2-2.0
Michigan16Biden4.42.6-1.8
New Hampshire4Biden8.97.4-1.5
Nebraska5Biden (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Massachusetts11Biden34.333.0-1.3
Oregon7Biden17.516.2-1.3
New Mexico5Biden12.010.8-1.2
Pennsylvania20Biden2.21.0-1.2
Delaware3Biden20.219.0-1.2
Virginia13Biden11.210.1-1.1
Minnesota10Biden7.97.1-0.8
Georgia16Biden0.60.3-0.3
North Carolina15Trump-1.1-1.4-0.3
Illinois20Biden16.216.60.4
California55Biden29.129.60.5
Arkansas6Trump-29.1-27.61.5
Maryland10Biden30.231.91.7
Rhode Island4Biden19.020.71.7
Colorado9Biden11.413.52.1
Vermont3Biden28.835.46.6
DC3Biden74.986.611.7
Average  Biden+2.6Trump+0.8D-3.4

To again get more granular, Table 5 lists the pollsters who assessed the national popular vote at least five times since January 1, 2019, sorted by distance from the actual national margin of 3.6%. Margins are weighted for time, but not adjusted for partisan “bias.”

Table 5: Top 2020 Presidential Election Pollsters, Final WAPA National Margin

Pollster538 RatingFinal MarginDelta
OpiniumC+14.1-10.5
NORC (AllAdults only)C+11.3-7.7
CNN/SSRSB/C11.1-7.5
QriouslyC+10.5-6.9
USC DornsifeB/C10.4-6.8
Quinnipiac UniversityB+10.4-6.8
NBC News/Wall Street JournalA-10.1-6.5
Global Strategy Group/GBAO (Navigator Res)C+9.9-6.3
Data for ProgressB-9.8-6.2
Redfield & Wilton StrategiesC+9.6-6.0
ABC News/Washington PostA+9.2-5.6
Marist CollegeA+9.1-5.5
Echelon InsightsC+8.8-5.2
SurveyUSAA8.8-5.2
IpsosB-8.5-4.9
LégerC+8.4-4.8
Change ResearchC-8.3-4.7
Fox NewsA-8.3-4.7
YouGovB8.2-4.6
Research Co.B-7.8-4.2
PureSpectrumC+7.6-4.0
Morning ConsultB/C7.6-4.0
Monmouth UniversityA+7.4-3.8
Firehouse Strategies/OptimusB/C7.4-3.8
RMG ResearchB/C7.1-3.5
Harris XC6.5-2.9
Suffolk UniversityA6.2-2.6
IBD/TIPPA/B5.5-1.9
Emerson CollegeA-3.8-0.2
Zogby*C+3.60.0
Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion ResearchC+3.20.4
CiviqsB/C3.10.5
AverageB/B-8.2-4.5

           * John Zogby Strategies/EMI Solutions, Zogby Analytics, Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics

These 32 pollsters accounted for 556 (80.6%) of the 690 polls conducted. On average, they estimated Biden-Harris would win the national popular vote by 8.2 points, identical to my final WAPA; the average miss was 4.5 points in favor of Biden-Harris. There was only minimal difference by pollster quality: the 11 pollsters with a rating of B or better missed by an average of 4.2 points, while the 21 pollsters with a rating of B- or lower missed by an average of 4.7 points. That said, three of the four pollsters who came closest to the final national margin—Zogby, Rasmussen and Civiqs—had ratings of B/C or C+; the fourth was Emerson College, rated A-. At the other end of the spectrum are seven pollsters who anticipated a double-digit national popular vote win for Biden-Harris: low-rated Opinium, NORC (who polled adults, not registered/likely voters), CNN/SSRS, Qriously and USC Dornsife; and high-rated Quinnipiac University and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Overall, though, the polling captured the broad contours of the 2020 presidential election—if not the precise margins—fairly well, with JBWM and actual Democratic margins correlated a near-perfect 0.99; the order of states from most to least Democratic was accurately predicted. It forecast a solid, if not spectacular win by Biden-Harris in the national popular vote, a restoration of the upper Midwestern “blue wall,” and continued Democratic gains in southeastern/southwestern states such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, even as Florida, Iowa and Ohio become more Republican.

One final note: it is exceedingly difficult to beat an elected incumbent president. Since 1952, it had happened only twice (1980, 1992) in eight chances prior to 2020[1]; Biden-Harris beat those 1:3 odds convincingly.

Senate elections

Democrats entered 2020 needing to flip a net four seats—or three seats plus the White House—to regain the majority for the first time since 2014. As Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

Table 6: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Democratic Margin, Compared to Pre-Election “Fundamentals”

StateWinnerFundamentalsFinal Dem MarginDelta
Rhode IslandReed24.433.08.6
MassachusettsMarkey28.532.94.4
DelawareCoons18.921.52.6
OregonMerkley15.117.62.5
IllinoisDurbin21.116.9-4.2
New JerseyBooker18.415.8-2.6
New HampshireShaheen6.515.79.2
VirginiaWarner7.912.04.1
ColoradoHickenlooper1.89.37.5
New MexicoLujan8.56.1-2.4
MinnesotaSmith5.75.2-0.5
ArizonaKelly-8.32.410.7
MichiganPeters8.61.5-7.1
Georgia Special???-8.0-1.07.0
Georgia???-10.0-1.78.3
North CarolinaTillis-6.4-1.74.7
IowaErnst-5.1-6.6-1.5
MaineCollis5.5-8.9-14.4
TexasCornyn-15.7-9.85.9
MontanaDaines-19.0-10.09.0
South CarolinaGraham-16.1-10.35.8
MississippiHyde-Smith-18.1-11.26.9
KansasMarshall-21.4-11.99.5
AlaskaSullivan-19.6-12.96.7
KentuckyMcConnell-29.1-19.59.6
AlabamaTuberville-24.2-20.63.6
LouisianaCassidy-22.6-25.9-3.3
TennesseeHagerty-23.8-27.1-3.3
IdahoRisch-34.6-29.35.3
OklahomaInhofe-38.5-30.28.3
South DakotaRounds-26.2-31.5-5.3
ArkansasCotton-28.6-33.3-4.7
NebraskaSasse-26.2-41.3-15.1
West VirginiaCapito-35.9-43.3-7.4
WyomingLummis-43.7-46.1-2.4
AverageD+1 to 3GOP+8.9GOP+7.0D+1.9

Table 1 summarizes these elections; for the Georgia special election and Louisiana, margins are for all Democrats and all Republicans. Democrats John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly defeated Republican incumbents in Colorado (Cory Gardner) and Arizona (Martha McSally), respectively, while Republican Tommy Tuberville defeated Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in Alabama. This leaves Democrats two seats shy of 50-50, pending the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Incumbent Republican David Perdue edged Ossoff on November 3 by 1.7 points, but fell 0.3 points short of the 50.0% needed to win outright. In the special election necessitated by the retirement of Republican Johnny Isaakson in December 2019, Warnock (32.9%) led incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler (25.9%) by 7.0 points in the all-candidate “jungle primary;” overall, Republican candidates earned 49.4% of the vote and Democratic candidates earned 48.4%, with 2.2% split between a handful of third-party candidates.

When I took a “wicked early” look at these elections, I assessed the Democrat’s chance in each election using their “fundamentals,” or the sum of the state’s partisan lean (calculated using my 3W-RDM), the Democratic margin on the generic ballot and incumbency advantage.[2] For Table 6, the generic ballot is the difference in the percentages of the total vote for all Democratic House candidates and for all Republican House candidates; Democrats are ahead by 2.0 points.

On average, Democrats overperformed “expected” margins by 1.9 points. In the 13 elections won by Democrats, the overperformance was 2.5 points, while in the 20 elections won by Republicans, the overperformance was just 0.9 points; Democrats overperformed in the two Georgia Senate races by 7.0 and 8.3 points, confirming how rapidly it is moving toward swing-state status. The biggest Democratic overperformance—fully 10.7 points—was in Arizona, which in 2021 will have two Democratic Senators (both of whom beat McSally) for the first time since 1953. Other Senate elections in which the Democratic candidate overperformed by at least 9.0 points were New Hampshire, and three states where Democrats fell short in their attempt to win back a Republican-held seat: Montana, Kansas and Kentucky.

On the flip side, setting aside a 15.1-point underperfomance in Nebraska, the biggest Republican overperformance was in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins, first elected in 1996, “should” have lost by 5.5 points. Instead, she won by 8.9 points; this is a 28-point decline from 2014, when Collins won by 37 points. Pending the results of the Georgia runoff elections, Maine is the only state in 2020 to have a Democratic presidential victory and a Republican Senate victory, with a gap of 17.6 points. It will be interesting to see whether Collins adjusts her voting in the next Senate. Other large Democratic underperformances, finally, took place in Michigan, where first-term Democratic Senator Gary Peters beat Republican John James by only 1.5 points and in West Virginia, which grows more Republican every year.

On the whole, though, expected and actual margins aligned nearly perfectly, with a 0.94 correlation.

What about the polling?

As with the presidential election, the final polling averages/projected margins were far less accurate, as Table 7 shows; I did not calculate a projected final margin for the Louisiana Senate election.

Table 7: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateWinnerJBWM ProjectionDemocratic MarginDelta
West VirginiaCapito-20.6-43.3-22.7
WyomingLummis-30.2-46.1-15.9
MaineCollins3.3-8.9-12.2
South DakotaRounds-19.9-31.5-11.6
NebraskaSasse-30.8-41.3-10.5
KentuckyMcConnell-9.7-19.5-9.8
OklahomaInhofe-20.5-30.2-9.7
AlaskaSullivan-3.7-12.9-9.2
AlabamaTuberville-11.5-20.6-9.1
New JerseyBooker24.615.8-8.8
MontanaDaines-1.3-10.0-8.7
DelawareCoons29.621.5-8.1
TexasCornyn-2.3-9.8-7.5
IllinoisDurbin23.716.9-6.8
KansasMarshall-5.4-11.9-6.5
South CarolinaGraham-4.7-10.3-5.6
TennesseeHagerty-21.9-27.1-5.2
MississippiHyde-Smith-6.4-11.2-4.8
ArizonaKelly6.62.4-4.2
New MexicoLujan10.06.1-3.9
Georgia???1.7-1.7-3.4
MichiganPeters4.71.5-3.2
IdahoRisch-26.1-29.3-3.2
MinnesotaSmith8.45.2-3.2
VirginiaWarner15.112.0-3.1
IowaErnst-3.6-6.6-3.0
North CarolinaTillis1.1-1.7-2.8
OregonMerkley20.017.6-2.4
ArkansasCotton-33.0-33.3-0.3
ColoradoHickenlooper9.39.30.0
MassachusettsMarkey31.432.91.5
New HampshireShaheen14.415.71.3
Georgia Special???-3.9-1.02.9
Rhode IslandReed29.633.03.4
AverageDem+1 to 3GOP+0.6GOP+6.4D-5.8

The polling may have been within historic parameters for the presidential election, but it was far worse in the Senate elections, with the JBWM margins overestimating Democratic margins by an average of 5.8 points, almost exactly the 6.0 points by which 538 margins erred on average; ignoring direction, the average misses are 6.3 and 7.0 points, respectively. That said, the correlation between the actual and projected Democratic margins was 0.97, meaning the polling correctly forecast the order of Senate elections from most to least Democratic.

These overall averages again mask substantial partisan differences. In the 13 states where the Democratic nominee won, the average miss was a historically-reasonable -2.9 points, but in the 19 states (excluding Louisiana) where the Republican nominee won, the average miss was an astounding -8.3 points. Put another way, in the 15 states Trump-Pence won by at least 10 points which also held a Senate election, the average Senate miss was -8.9 points, while it was -3.3 points in all other states. Somewhat reassuringly, in the five states whose presidential margin was within five points also holding a Senate election (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina), the miss was only -2.2 points. Overall, the correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM margin error was 0.57, confirming the idea pollsters systematically undercounted Republican support in the most Republican states.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate was a net gain of five Democratic seats in the Senate, with at least a 77% chance Democrats would regain control; these values dropped to 30% and either two or three seats with the assumption all polls systematically overestimated Democratic strength by three points. Democrats will ultimately net between one and three seats, corresponding more with the latter assumption. I estimate the probability Democrats win both Georgia Senate runoff elections—and thus the Senate—is between 25 and 50%, depending on the degree of ticket-splitting.

From a purely mathematical perspective, the largest Democratic underperformances occurred in the Senate elections in West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska: four extremely Republican states. But from a strategic perspective, the most disappointing elections were in Maine (-12.2) and North Carolina (-2.8), where incumbent Republican Thom Tillis narrowly held off a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, who may have been hurt by a sexting scandal; given the narrowness of his victory (1.7 points) and the increasingly swing status of North Carolina, Tillis’ voting patterns also merit watching. These were the two states besides Arizona (98.1%) and Colorado (99.5%) in which I estimated the Democratic nominee had at least an 85% chance to defeat a Republican incumbent; I also thought Democrat Theresa Greenfield was roughly even money to defeat incumbent Republican Joni Ernst, despite projecting a final margin of 3.6 points for Ernst; the latter won by 6.6 points.

There were four additional Senate elections—in Alaska, Kansas (open seat), Montana and South Carolina—where I estimated the probability of a Democratic flip was between 11.7 and 26.4%. In a sign of how good these elections were for Republicans, their nominees won all four elections by an average of 11.3 points, a mean 7.5 points more Republican than projected. In fairness, these states tilted an average 19.2 points more Republican than the nation as a whole coming into the 2020 elections. A similar story can be told in Texas, which tilted 15.3 points more Republican, but where Democrat M.J. Hegar “only” lost by 9.8 points to incumbent Republican John Cornyn, beating expectations by 0.6 points.

Put simply, assuming a loss in Alabama, Democratic hopes of winning back control of the Senate relied on flipping two Senate seats in Democratic states, then winning at least two more seats in states ranging from somewhat Republican—Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia—to extremely Republican—Alaska, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Texas—all while Trump sought reelection. To date, Democrats have only flipped seats in Colorado (D+2.2) and Arizona (D-9.7) while winning back the Vice-Presidency, losing tough elections in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, while never really being in contention anywhere else. Senate control now rests on Democrats winning two Senate runoff elections in a nominally Republican state (D-9.6), but one where Biden-Harris won, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s by 5.4 points.

Gubernatorial elections

Unlike those for the White House and Senate, there was very little drama in these elections. Two Democratic incumbents—John Carney of Delaware and Jay Inslee of Washington—were expected to win easily; they won by margins of 20.9 and 13.6 points, respectively. Six Republican incumbents—Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Mike Parson of Missouri, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Phil Scott of Vermont and Jim Justice of West Virginia—as well as Republican Spencer Cox of Utah were expected to win easily, though I projected Parson to win by “only” 8.0 points (he won by 16.6 points). They won their elections by an average margin of 31.6 points!

The only possible drama was in Montana, where Republican Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney vied to win the governor’s mansion being vacated by Democrat Bullock, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper—who won extremely narrowly in 2016—faced Republican Dan Forest. Gianforte defeated Cooney by 12.4 points, easily exceeding a projected 4.5 points, while Cooper won by 4.5 points, not the projected 10.4 points. Still, my global projection was correct: a net gain of one governor’s mansion by the Republicans, giving them a 27-23 majority; this an overall net gain of seven governor’s mansions by the Democrats since 2016.

In these elections, Republicans strongly overperformed fundamentals (7.1 points) and JBWM projections (7.6 points). However, expected values were strongly skewed by Scott’s 41.1-point victory in extremely-Democratic Vermont (D+27.7) and Sununu’s 31.8-point victory in swing New Hampshire (D+0.1); exclude those two margins and DEMOCRATS overperformed expectations by 1.0 points—with Democrat Ben Salango exceeding what were admittedly very low expectations by 8.5 points. Meanwhile, in the four states with governor’s races won by Biden-Harris, Democratic gubernatorial nominees finished an average 8.9 points lower than projected, while in the seven states won by Trump-Pence, they finished an average 6.8 points worse than expected. Once again, the extreme disparity in presidential/Senate and gubernatorial voting in New Hampshire and Vermont—two of three states in solidly-Democratic New England, along with Massachusetts (Charlie Baker), to have very popular Republican governors. In fact, gubernatorial elections are among the only ones in which ticket-splitting is still relatively common: Biden-Harris won six states with a Republican governor,[3] while Trump-Pence won five states with a Democratic governor.[4]

House elections

A wide range of forecasters expected Democrats to net between five and 10 House seats[5]. I was highly dubious of this, to be honest, given the likelihood the margin for Democrats in the total national House vote would decline from the 8.6-point margin they earned in 2018; it would also be higher than the 1.1 points by which they lost in 2016, when they still managed to net six seats. However, because I was not closely tracking House races, I said nothing about my doubts.

According to the Cook House vote tracker, Democrats had earned more than 75.1 million House votes (50.1%), Republicans had earned just under 72.1 million votes (48.0%), with the nearly 2.2 million votes (1.8%) going to third-party candidates. A total of 150.0 million votes have been counted, 5.1 million less than those cast in the presidential election. The 2.0-point margin by which Democrats are winning the House vote—just under 3.1 million votes—is also lower than the 3.6 points, and 5.6 million votes by which Biden-Harris currently lead Trump-Pence. It is also much lower than the 9.7-million Democratic vote margin in 2018, albeit with 36.3 million more votes cast in 2020, reinforcing the conclusion a few million Republican-leaning voters “balanced” a vote for Biden-Harris with Republican votes elsewhere…or simply chose not to vote in down-ballot elections.

In the races that have already called, Republicans have gained 11 seats held by Democrats (two each in California and Florida, one each in Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah), while Democrats have gained three seats held by Republicans (two in North Carolina, one in Georgia). This gives Democrats 221 seats, three more than needed for the majority, and Republicans 208 seats. Of the six seats yet to be called, Democrats currently hold four, with freshman Democrat Tom Malinowski leading by ~5,000 votes in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District (“CD”). Giving that seat to the Democrats—and giving Republicans their open seat in New York’s 2nd CD—increases the totals to 222 Democrats and 209 Republicans.

That leaves four seats truly in doubt:

  • California’s 21st CD, where incumbent Democrat T.J. Cox trails Republican David Valadao, in a 2018 rematch, by 2,065 votes.
  • California’s 25th CD, where Democrat Christy Smith is within 104 votes of unseating Republican Mike Garcia, who won a special election in May 2020 after first-term Democrat Katie Hill resigned.
  • Iowa’s 2nd CD, where Democrat Dave Loebsack did not seek reelection; Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads Democrat Rita Hart by only 47 votes!
  • New York’s 22nd CD, where Republican Claudia Tenney’s lead over incumbent Democrat Anthony Brindisi continues to shrink as New York votes are slowly counted.

Democrats will thus lose a net 8-12 seats compared to the 234-201 margin they had after the 2018 elections. This is a bad result for the Democrats, right?

Well, no…it suggests that polling-based expectations were flawed, because the fundamentals always pointed toward a net loss of House seats for the Democrats. Moreover, the comparison should be to 2016, because that is the last election in which Trump appeared on the ballot.

Following the 2016 elections, Republicans had a 241-194 House majority. Democrats were convinced, wrongly I thought, that gerrymandering by Republican legislators and governors would keep them in the minority for the foreseeable future. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, knowing Democrats needed to net 24 seats to regain the majority, I looked at all House elections from 1968 to 2016, and I noticed that what “predicted” net change in seats from one election to the next was not the national margin in a given election, but the change in that margin from the previous election. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this.

Figure 1:

In 2018, Democrats net a surprisingly-high 41 House seats, 17 more than they needed, most by narrow margins. It is then reasonable to expect that even a small decline in the Democratic share of the total national House vote would allow Republicans to “claw back” some of these seats Democrats currently lead the total national House vote by 2.0 points, fully 6.6-point decrease f 2018. Entering this value into the OLS regression shown in Figure 1 yields an estimated Democratic loss of 22.4 seats.

In other words, while Democrats expected to gain seats—based on what we now know was polling that underestimated Republican margins by 3-7 points—they should actually have been bracing themselves for a possible loss of the House itself. Instead, they “only” lost between eight and 12 seats, meaning they did far better than history would have suggested. Moreover, Democrats have net between 29 and 33 seats since 2016, earning control of the House in back-to-back elections for the first time since 2006-2008, something that seemed nearly impossible early in 2017.

Summary

Both Democrats and Republicans can find 2020 election results to celebrate.

Democrats won back the White House after just four years (beating 1:3 odds to defeat an incumbent), rebuilding their upper-Midwestern blue wall while expanding into the southeast and southwest; no Democratic presidential nominee has won both Arizona and Georgia since 1948. They also maintained control of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate; with two more wins in Georgia in January 2021, they regain control of the Senate as well. Democrats have not controlled both the White House and House since 2010.

Republicans, even as they lost the White House, gained as many as 12 seats in the House and staved off losing control of the Senate until January 2021 at the earliest. They net one governor’s mansion, giving them a 27-23 majority, and held their own in state legislative elections. Once again, Trump’s name on the ballot encouraged many more exurban and rural voters to vote than expected, ironically helping all Republicans but himself and his running mate.

Fans of bipartisan “balance” can also celebrate 11 states seeing different parties win their state’s electoral votes and serving as governor. Moreover, a record-smashing 155.1 million—and counting—Americans cast a ballot for president, which equates to two in three of all adults eligible to vote.

Finally, the polls erred substantially in favor of Republicans, with a miss of around 3.5 points compared to my final projections and 4.7 points relative to those from 538. Republicans fared even better in Senate and gubernatorial elections, beating final projections by around six points in the former and nearly eight points in the latter. These values mask a partisan split, with polls far more accurate for Democratic candidates than Republican ones. In the end, though, polls were far less accurate—in this Trump-led cycle at least—than simply considering a state’s recent partisan lean, the national partisan environment and incumbency. These fundamentals remain extremely predictive, at least relatively.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2012

[2] Democratic full-term incumbents=4.4, Democratic partial-term incumbents=2.2, non-incumbent=0, Republican partial-term incumbents=–0.4, -0.6, -1.6; Republican full-term incumbents=-2.4

[3] Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont

[4] Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina

[5] The Cook Political Report hedged a bit, labeling 229 seats at least Lean Democrat, 179 seats at least Lean Republican, and 27 seats Toss-up. Of the Toss-ups, nine are held by Democrats, 17 by Republicans, and one by Justin Amash of Michigan, who switched from Republican to Independent in July 2019.

Quinnipiac University and Emerson College: Mirror-image pollsters?

In three earlier posts—most recently here—I analyzed all polls conducted by Emerson College (“Emerson”) of 2020 presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial elections. I found that they had a clear bias towards the Republican candidate, on average, compared to all other polls of the same election.

As I continue to analyze polls of the presidential election between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and President Donald J. Trump, as well as this year’s 35 Senate and 11 gubernatorial elections, I have observed the opposite mathematical bias for Quinnipiac University (“Quinnipiac”) polls.

In fact, as we will see, the two polling organizations nearly mirror each other in their mathematical bias.

**********

Let us begin with the national race between Democrat Biden and Republican Trump. Using all 632 publicly-available polls released since January 1, 2019, I calculated a weighted-adjusted polling average (WAPA) of 8.3. That is, adjusting for time (with polls conducted after August 29 weighted and additional 1.5 times higher and polls conducted since September 29 3.0 times higher), pollster quality and partisan lean, Biden leads Trump by a little over eight points nationally. Emerson has an A- rating, and a historic lean of 0.3 points Democratic, while Quinnipiac has a B+ rating, and a historic lean of 0.2 points Democratic.

Table 1: State-level 2020 presidential election polling averages by Emerson College and Quinnipiac University compared to all other pollsters in the same state

StateQuinnipiac  Emerson 
 WAPAOtherDeltaWAPAOtherDelta
Arizona   4.62.72.0
California   29.328.60.8
Florida8.62.46.1   
Georgia5.70.25.5   
Iowa   -0.40.5-0.9
Kentucky-15.8-17.41.6   
Maine18.712.85.9   
Massachusetts   36.934.32.6
Michigan   11.07.43.7
Montana   -12.1-6.1-5.9
Nevada   -0.16.0-6.1
New Hampshire   7.88.1-0.3
North Carolina   0.92.1-1.2
Ohio1.40.41.0-0.30.5-0.8
Pennsylvania9.95.84.14.15.9-1.8
South Carolina-4.2-7.12.8   
Texas-0.9-1.60.7-1.1-1.60.4
Wisconsin   7.05.71.3
AVERAGE All States3.5  -0.5
AVERAGE Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas1.9  -0.7

However, using the same calculation method—except for ignoring partisan lean—the 20 Emerson polls conducted by Emerson give Biden “only” a 3.7-point lead, which is 5.3 points more Republican than the average of the other 612 polls. At the same time, the 13 Quinnipiac polls give Biden a 9.9-point lead, which is 1.0 points more Democratic than the average of the other 619 polls. Put another way, Quinnipiac polls “see” a race that is 6.3 points more favorable to Biden than Emerson polls do, though both give Biden a solid lead.

While national polls are interesting—and plentiful—it is the Electoral College that determines who wins presidential elections. Table 1 compares state-level presidential polling averages by Emerson and Quinnipiac, in states where they have assessed the presidential election at least twice, to those calculated by all other pollsters in the state; positive values indicate a Democratic lead or pro-Democratic bias, and negative values indicate the opposite. Emerson has conducted one poll of the presidential election in Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, New Jersey and South Carolina; Quinnipiac has conducted one poll of the presidential election in Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin.

In the 13 states where Emerson has assessed the 2020 presidential election, the average bias is only 0.5 points towards Trump, fully 4.8 points lower than its national bias toward Trump. By contrast, in the eight states where Quinnipiac has assessed this election—five of them in the south, the average bias is 3.5 points toward Biden, 2.5 points higher than its national bias toward Biden. The gap between the two polling organizations also narrows from 6.3 to 4.0 points at the state level.

Notably, while Quinnipiac has an average bias toward Biden in all eight states—ranging from more than five points in Georgia, Maine and Florida to around one point in Ohio and Texas—Emerson’s bias is evenly split across its 13 multiple-assessment states, ranging from nearly six points towards Trump in the western states of Montana and Nevada to between two and four points toward Biden in the disparate states of Arizona, Massachusetts (where Emerson College is located) and Michigan.

Curiously, Emerson and Quinnipiac have both assessed the 2020 presidential election in only three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas—multiple times since January 1, 2019. In these three states, the bias is relatively narrow: Trump +0.7 for Emerson and Biden +1.9 for Quinnipiac, for a gap of “only” 2.6 points.

**********

Turning to other statewide elections in 2020, Table 2 compares Senate election polling averages by Emerson and Quinnipiac, in states where they have conducted such polls at least twice since January 1, 2020, to those calculated by all other pollsters in the state. Emerson has conducted one Senate election poll in Georgia, assessing both seats on the ballot this year, as well as in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey; Quinnipiac has conducted one Senate election poll in Iowa and Michigan. For the “jungle primary” in which Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler seeks reelection, I analyze the difference between the total percentage for all Democratic candidates and the total percentage for all Republican candidates.

Table 2: 2020 Senate and gubernatorial election polling averages by Emerson College and Quinnipiac University compared to all other pollsters in the same election

StateQuinnipiac  Emerson  
 WAPAOtherDeltaWAPAOtherDelta
Georgia–Loeffler-1.0-8.27.2   
Georgia–Perdue4.4-1.86.2   
Kentucky-9.5-9.3-0.2   
Maine9.14.74.5   
Montana   -8.4-0.8-7.6
North Carolina   2.65.1-2.4
South Carolina0.0-2.82.8   
Texas-7.0-6.5-0.5   
AVERAGE  3.3  -5.0

In a reverse of state-level presidential election polling, Quinnipiac has assessed six Senate elections multiple times—again focusing on the south, while Emerson has only assessed Senate elections in Montana and North Carolina more than once; no Senate election has been polled multiple times by both pollsters. Quinnipiac has an average 3.3-point bias toward Democratic Senate nominees, nearly identical to its 3.5-point state-level presidential election bias. By contrast, albeit only in two Republican-leaning states, Emerson has an average 5.0-point bias toward the Republican Senate nominees, nearly identical to their Trump bias nationally, and fully 4.5 points higher than their state-level bias toward Trump. Overall, and recognizing this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, Quinnipiac Senate election polls lean 8.3 points more Democratic than Emerson Senate election polls.

Quinnipiac has been especially Democratic-leaning in Georgia’s two Senate elections, with average pro-Democratic-nominee biases of 6.2 and 7.2 points, and in Maine, while they have shown minimal bias in Kentucky and Texas. As with the presidential election, meanwhile, Emerson has a whopping 7.6-point bias toward incumbent Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines in his race against Democratic Governor Steve Bullock; they are relatively closer to the mark in North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham has a small lead against incumbent Republican Thom Tillis.

Quinnipiac has conducted no gubernatorial election polls this year, while Emerson has conducted one poll in New Hampshire and multiple polls in Montana (6.5 points more Republican) and North Carolina (7.4 points more Republican), with a large average pro-Republican bias of 6.9 points!

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Table 3 lists the average partisan biases for Emerson and Quinnipiac for each set of races.

Table 3: Average partisan biases in Emerson College and Quinnipiac University polls across multiple election categories

StateQuinnipiacEmerson
Presidential–nationalDEM+1.0GOP+5.3
Presidential–stateDEM+3.5GOP+0.5
SenateDEM+3.3GOP+5.0
Governorn/aGOP+6.9
AVERAGEDEM+2.6GOP+4.4

While Quinnipiac has had only a relatively small pro-Biden bias in national polls, they have had an overall lean of 2.6 points Democratic across all elections they have assessed multiple times. By contrast, while Emerson has been very close to the all-polls average in their state-level presidential election polling, they have had an overall lean of 4.4 points Republican across all elections they have assessed multiple times. Overall, Quinnipiac has leaned fully 7.0 points more Democratic than Emerson has.

I will not attempt to “explain” these relative partisan biases, though they almost certainly result from some combination of how the demographic distribution of the likely 2020 electorate is modeled, the fact Quinnipiac shifted to “likely voters” models more recently than Emerson did, how hard they “push” initially undecided voters to choose one candidate, and the relative partisan leanings of demographic categories within their respective samples.

I will say, though, that the final Democratic-minus-Republican margin will almost certainly be very close to the midpoint of the two polling averages plus one point Democratic—at least in elections assessed at least once by Emerson and by Quinnipiac.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…and if you have not already voted, please do so as soon as you can!

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

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

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

Did these events change the trajectory of this election?

The short answer is…no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Only for the 42 states with both measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

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

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2

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

**********

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


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

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

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

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

The Republican advantage in the Electoral College is real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning Electoral College

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

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

How is this possible?

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

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

Dem Electoral College

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

GOP Electoral College

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

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

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

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

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

And for the Republican presidential nominee, the formula is:

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

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

An update on Emerson College polling

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

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

I Voted sticker

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

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

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

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

(12/2019)

-1.8 -2.2 D+0.4
Texas 3

(5/2020)

-1.4 -2.1 D+0.7
New Hampshire 3

(11/2019)

6.7 4.7 D+2.0
Massachusetts 2

(5/2020)

34.4 30.6 D+3.8
Ohio 2

(5/2020)

-0.4 1.0 D-1.4
California 2

(5/2020)

29.3 27.6 D+1.9
Michigan 2

(11/2019)

11.0 7.0 D+4.0
Nevada 2

(11/2019)

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from three months out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden v Trump since Jan 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        * Only for the 40 states with both measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

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

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

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

Quantifying Biden’s choices for running mate

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

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

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

However, I excluded any woman who was:

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

My final list contained 123 candidates, including:

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

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

Nora Drawing May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

I calculated a score for each variable, as follows:

1. Demographic balance.

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

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

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

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

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

Harris has a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.

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

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

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

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

Asian

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

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

2. Governmental experience.

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

I weight experience as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

For this category, I considered eight questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other large deductions were:

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

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

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

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

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

Ran for president;

To left of Biden;

Popular with base

California;

Only 4 years in Senate

4.18
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin;

58;

8 years in Senate/14 years in House

White;

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

2.56
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 53;

12 years in Senate;

Well to left of Biden;

Ran for president

White;

New York; Disappointing presidential run; Suspected inauthenticity

2.55
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Black;

Florida;

10 years in House

78 2.52
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Michigan;

20 years in Senate

White;

70;

Slightly to right of Biden

2.40
Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty Black;

Ohio

70;

Ideologically similar to Biden

2.22
Florida Representative Val Demings Black;

62;

Florida; Orlando Chief of Police

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

North Carolina

73;

Ideologically similar to Biden

1.92
New York Representative Yvette Clark Black;

55;

12 years in House;

Left of Biden

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

46;

Georgia; Progressive reputation

No foreign policy or national security experience;

No office higher than state House

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

8 years in Senate

White;

70;

Loss of Senate seat; Massachusetts

1.75
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell 61;

20 years in Senate

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

53;

14 years in House

White;

Slightly to right of Biden

1.69
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Black;

Georgia;

50

No foreign policy or national security experience;

Never run statewise

1.63
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath  Black;

59;

Georgia;

Left of Biden

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

50;

Texas;

Left of Biden

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

21 years in House;

Left of Biden

California;

73

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

69

1.53
Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence Black; Michigan;

66

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

28 years in House

New York;

67

1.40
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell Black;

54;

10 years in House

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

51;

14 years in House

California 1.23
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis Latina;

62

California;

Out of federal office since 2013

1.13
California Representative Karen Bass Black;

66

California 1.02

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

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

14. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis

13. California Representative Linda Sanchez

12. Alabama Representative Terri Sewell

11. Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence

         10. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

9. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell

8. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

7. Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams

6.  New York Representative Yvette Clark

5. Florida Representative Val Demings

4. Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty

3. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

2. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin

1. California Senator Kamala Harris

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from six months out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This could mean any or all of three things:

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

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

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

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

        * Only for the 39 states with both measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

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

Updating the Doctors: 13 is not a lucky number for Jodie Whittaker

One of the first data-driven essays to appear on this website was a three-part assessment of every episode of Doctor Who following its revival in March 2005. You may find those three essays—as well as a, frankly, much better written July 2018 update—here; you will also find a much longer essay I wrote demonstrating the influence of classic film noir on the revised series. 

On December 25, 2017, Jodie Whittaker debuted as the 13th incarnation of the multi-thousand-year-old Doctor. Since then, Whittaker has portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord in 21 additional episodes, with the most recent airing on March 1, 2020.

With two seasons of Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor behind us, here is an updated assessment of the 165 total episodes of the revived Doctor Who.

**********

Just as I collected ratings data to rank every Charlie Chan film, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my own guilty pleasures, I collected ratings data to assess the relative popularity of the 165 episodes of the resurrected Doctor Who[1], from “Rose” (March 26, 2005) through “The Timeless Children” (March 1, 2020). Excluding John Hurt’s  irascible War Doctor, there have been five incarnations of The Doctor during this time period: 9 through 13. These 165 episodes comprise 12 Series of between 10 and 13 episodes plus 13 Christmas specials and four stand-alone specials, three featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) as well as the November 2013 50th anniversary epic, in which Doctors 10 and 11 (Matt Smith) teamed with the War Doctor to save Gallifrey, The Doctor’s home planet.

For each episode, I collected four values:[2]

  1. Its BBC “Audience Appreciation Index” (AI) Score, an integer from 0-100 revealing how much the British audience enjoyed each episode when it first aired. Higher scores indicate greater enjoyment.
  2. Where the episode ranked that week in Great Britain (Chart), with a lower score indicating more viewers.
  3. Its weighted-average Internet Movie Database (IMDB) score on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the most favorable, and…
  4. The number of IMDB “raters” whose scores were averaged. The higher the number of raters, in principle, the more “compelling” the episode—though higher ratings could also simply reflect a longer rating time frame or a trollish desire to “trash” an episode.

Analyzing these data will reveal:

  • How popular individual episodes are now,
  • How an episode’s current popularity compares to how popular each episode weas when it first aired,
  • The comparative popularity of individual Series, and
  • The comparative popularity of Doctors 9-13

I decided mostly to set aside “Chart” values as they are difficult to compare over time.

Table 1 provides details on each Series. It excludes the 13 Christmas specials from 2005 through 2017, two 2009 10th Doctor specials (“Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars”) and “The Day of the Doctor.” However, given its chronological and story-arc proximity to the prior 10 episodes, I chose to include the 2019 New Year’s Day special “Resolution” as the 11th and final episode of Series 11.

Table 1: Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

# Dates # Episodes Doctor Primary Companion(s)
1 March 26-June 18, 2005 13 9 Rose Tyler
2 April 15-July 8, 2006 13 10 Rose Tyler
3 March 31-June 30, 2007 13 10 Martha Jones
4 April 5-July 5, 2008 13 10 Donna Noble
5 April 10-June 26, 2010 13 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
6 April 23-June 4, 2011;

August 27-October 1, 2011

7

6

11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7a September 1-29, 2012 5 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7b March 30-May 18, 2013 8 11 Clara Oswald
8 August 23-November 8, 2014 12 12 Clara Oswald
9 September 19-December 5, 2015 12 12 Clara Oswald
10 April 15-July 1, 2017 12 12 Bill Potts
11 October 7, 2018-January 1, 2019 11 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair
12 January 1-March 1, 2020 10 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair

Individual episodes. Overall, the resurrected series has been very well-received with a “global” IMDB rating of 8.6 (192,481 unique raters). Upon first airing, average AI score was a remarkable 84.3, with a small standard deviation (“sd”) of 2.9; all but 12 episodes have an AI Score between 80 and 89. Enthusiasm has only somewhat diminished over time: average IMDB rating is 7.78 (sd=1.1), with 113 episodes (68%) between 7.0 and 8.9. In the previous version of this post, average AI Score was a tick higher (84.9) while average IMDB rating was higher still (8.13). While the former, as we shall see, represents a diminution of the show’s popularity in recent years, the latter suggests more recent IMDB raters are not as enamored with these episodes as prior raters; only the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars” had a higher IMDB rating, increasing from 8.7 to 8.8.

Two extremely highly-regarded episodes—2007’s “Blink” (9.8) and “The Day of the Doctor” (9.4—each attracted more than 15,000 raters (median=5,050; 120 [73%] between 3,000 and 5,999), accounting for the discrepancy between the series’ global IMDB rating and the mean across all 165 individual episodes.

Table 2: Most- and least-admired Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) when first aired

Title Series-Episode Doctor AI Score
Journey’s End 4-13 10 91
The Stolen Earth 4-12 10 91
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 89
Doomsday 2-13 10 89
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 89
Asylum of the Daleks 7a-1 11 89
The Parting of the Ways 1-13 9 89
The Big Bang 5-13 11 89
The End of Time: Part Two 10th Doctor Specials 10 89
14 Episodes 3  to 50th Anniversary 10 (8), 11 (6) 88
5 Episodes 1,9,11-12 9,12,13 80
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror 12-4 13 79
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10 13 79
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 79
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 78
Sleep No More 9-9 12 78
Praxeus 12-6 13 78
Orphan 55 12-3 13 77
Rose 1-1 9 76
Love & Monsters 2-10 10 76
The End of the World 1-2 9 76

      * The Unquiet Dead (1), Heaven Sent (9), Demons of the Punjab (11), Resolution (11-NYD), The Haunting of Villa Diodati (12)

The first thing we learn from Table 2 is that British viewers did not immediately warm to Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor upon Doctor Who’s resurrection: the first two new episodes (“Rose,” “The End of the World”)—are tied with the execrable Series 2 episode “Love & Monsters” for lowest AI Score. More recently, however, there are signs British audiences may be cooling to the show and, specifically, the ascension of Chris Chibnall as Doctor Who showrunner. Setting aside the even-more-execrable Series 9 episode “Sleep No More,” the other six episodes with the lowest AI Score date from his tenure, evenly divided between Series 11 and 12. Overall, 13 13th Doctor episodes (54%)—14, if you include “Twice Upon a Time”—rank in the bottom 24 in AI Score; no episode in which Jodie Whittaker portrays The Doctor tops 83.

Meanwhile, four of the five episodes with the highest AI scores came as the 10th Doctor’s song was ending: the spectacular two-part Series 4 finale (“The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) and the equally-brilliant two-part “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” The top nine is rounded out by four other “finale” episodes: “The Parting of the Ways” (9th Doctor’s regeneration), “Doomsday” (Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] gets trapped in a parallel universe), “The End of Time: Part Two” (10th Doctor’s regeneration) and “The Big Bang” (Series 5 finale), as well as the first episode of Series 7a, “Asylum of the Daleks.”

But while AI Scores are a fixed starting point, albeit solely with British audiences, the IMDB ratings (flaws and all) in Table 3 signal how attitudes toward Doctor Who episodes have evolved over time, after they have been watched and re-watched, shared with others, and discussed at length.

Table 3: Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) with highest/lowest IMDB ratings

Title Series-Episode Doctor IMDB Rating # User-Raters
Blink 3-10 10 9.8 17,343
Heaven Sent 9-11 12 9.6 8,935
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 9.5 7,789
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 9.4 7,480
The Day of the Doctor 50th Anniv 10/11 9.4 16,566
Doomsday 2-13 10 9.3 7,291
Vincent and the Doctor 5-10 11 9.3 8,961
The Girl in the Fireplace 2-4 10 9.3 9,064
5 Episodes* 1,3,4,10 9 (1), 10 (2), 12 (1) 9.2 4,001-7,138
3 Episodes 2,8,11 10 (1), 12 (1), 13(1) 6.0 4,475-6,787
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 5.9 2,154
Sleep No More 9-9 12 5.8 4,185
Resolution 11-NYD 13 5.7 3,751
The Timeless Children 12-10 13 5.6 2,481
The Witchfinders 11-8 13 5.6 4,531
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10  

13

5.2 3,868
Praxeus 12-6 13 5.2 2,517
Arachnids in the UK 11-4 13 5.0 6,048
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 4.9 5,582
Orphan 55 12-3 13 4.1 3,778

      * The Empty Child (1), The Family of Blood (3), Journey’s End (4), World Enough and Time (10)

        † Fear Her (1), In the Forest of the Night (8), The Ghost Monument (11)

Twenty-four resurrected Doctor Who episodes have an IMDB rating of 9.0 or higher, topped by “The Day of the Doctor,” “Silence/Forest,” the penultimate Series 9 episode “Heaven Sent” and, of course, “Blink.” The extremely high number of “Blink” raters supports the idea this is the episode most often used by Doctor Who fans to introduce the show to non-fans; if you are wondering, my wife Nell’s and my introduction was the remarkable “The Eleventh Hour” (88, 8.6), the first episode of Series 5. Somewhat less often used this way (ranked 3rd and 4th in raters) are the bittersweet episodes “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Series 2) and “Vincent and the Doctor” (Series 5). The heartbreaking “Doomsday” rounds out the top eight. My personal favorite episode, “A Good Man Goes to War” (Series 6), is in a 7-way-tie for 13th with a 9.1 IMDB rating.

Bringing up the rear, by contrast, are 13 episodes with IMDB ratings ≤6.0, all but three from Series 11 and 12. In the previous version of this post, “Sleep No More” ranked lowest at 6.0; even though its IMDB rating dropped to 5.8, fully eight episodes are now ranked below it, including the Series 11 episode “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (4.9) and the wretched Series 12 episode “Orphan 55” (4.1).

There is clear overlap across these three rankings: “Doomsday,” “Silence/Forest,” “Stolen/Journey’s,” “The End of Time: Part Two,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Good Man” and “Day” remain among the most admired and oft-rated episodes, while “Sleep No More” and “Love and Monsters” are still best forgotten. It is likely too soon to know if attitudes toward the two most recent Series will evolve. On the other hand, an episode like “Heaven Sent,” which was relatively poorly received when it first aired in November 2015 (AI score=80), is now the 2nd-highest rated episode on IMDB!

A correlation coefficient (r) measures how well two measures “agree” in a linear way. R ranges between -1.00 and 1.00; if r is negative, then as one measure increases, the other decreases, and if r is positive, as one measure increases, the other measure increases. When r=0.00, the association is completely random.

The correlation between AI score and IMDB rating is a very solid 0.61, while that between IMDB rating and number of raters is a solid 0.46. These associations are seen more clearly in Figures 1 and 2 below. The correlation between AI score and number of user-raters was a more modest, though still positive, 0.28 (data not shown).

Figure 1: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 1

Figure 2: IMDB Rating vs. # Raters, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 2

Attitude evolution. Comparing each episode’s AI scores and IMDB ratings reveals which episodes have increased in appeal over time, and vice versa. To do this, I converted each value to its z-score (number of SD above/below average) to account for differing scales; every z-score has average=0 and SD=1. For example, “A Good Man” has an IMDB rating of 9.1. Subtracting the average of 7.8 from 9.1, then dividing by the SD of 1.1 yields a z-score of 1.25, meaning this episode is 1.25 SD more highly regarded than average based upon its IMDB score.

Figure 3: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating (z-scores), Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 3

Two-thirds (66%) of these episodes remain either better regarded than average (both z-scores>0, n=55) or less well regarded than average (both z-scores<0, n=54). Once again, “Blink” and “Stolen/Journey’s” were, and remain, highly regarded, while “Love and Monsters” and “Orphan 55” continue to be episodes best to avoid.

Twenty-seven episodes (16%) went from above average to below average in public esteem–as shown in the lower right quadrant of Figure—most notably the Series 3 episodes “Daleks in Manhattan” and “The Lazarus Experiment.” The latter declined 1.7 SD from a respectable AI score of 86 to a well-below-average IMDB rating of 6.6, while the former dropped 1.6 SD (87 to 7.0). The only other episodes to decline at least 1.5 SD while going from more- to less-well-regarded than average are “The Curse of the Black Spot,” “The Poison Sky” and “Planet of the Dead.” Other than “Curse,” these four episodes feature the 10th Doctor, though nothing else obviously links them.

Finally, 29 episodes (18%) went from below average to above average in regard (upper left quadrant of Figure 3), most notably “Heaven Sent,” which has increased an astonishing 3.2 SD (80 to 9.6) since its November 2015 debut; this episode—the Groundhog Day of Doctor Who—rewards repeat viewing. The next highest increase in SD is 1.85 for “Listen” (82 to 9.0), one of the 12th Doctor’s earliest and most personal adventures. In fact, four of five episodes to increase at least 1.5 SD to become more well-regarded than average, including “Hell Bent” and “The Doctor Falls,” feature the 12th Doctor. Perhaps his imminent departure from the series prompted this positive reevaluation; “The Girl in the Fireplace” rounds out the list.

Series. As seen in Table 1, there have actually been 13 resurrected Doctor Who Series, as Series 7 was split into two halves: one with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and one with companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). While Series 6 featured a nearly three-month gap between the first seven and the final six episodes, I consider it a single Series because it features the same companions and a unifying story arc.

Further complicating the demarcation of individual Series are the 13 Christmas episodes, three 10th Doctor specials and the 50th anniversary special (Table 4). It is not clear into which, if any, Series these episodes should be placed. Christmas episodes were equally admired at initial airing (average AI score=84.1 vs 84.4 for all other episodes) and are slightly better-regarded now (average IMDB rating=7.99 vs. 7.76 for all other episodes). The four stand-alone Specials, however, were—and, excepting “Planet,” are—much better-regarded.

Table 4: AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Christmas and Special Episodes (2005-17)

Title Year/Date Doctor AI Score IMDB Rating
Christmas Specials
The Christmas Invasion 2005 10 84 8.1
The Runaway Bride 2006 10 84 7.6
Voyage of the Damned 2007 10 85 7.6
The Next Doctor 2008 10 86 7.5
The End of Time: Part One 2009 10 87 8.2
A Christmas Carol 2010 11 83 8.6
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe 2011 11 84 7.2
The Snowmen 2012 11 87 8.4
The Time of the Doctor 2013 11 83 8.4
Last Christmas 2014 12 82 8.3
The Husbands of River Song 2015 12 82 8.5
The Return of Doctor Mysterio 2016 12 82 7.4
Twice Upon a Time 2017 12 81 8.1
 

10th Doctor Specials (after Series 4, excluding Christmas)

Planet of the Dead April 11, 2009 10 88 7.5
The Waters of Mars November 15, 2009  

10

88 8.8
The End of Time: Part Two January 1, 2010  

 

10

89 8.9
 

50th Anniversary Special

The Day of the Doctor November 23, 2013 War, 10, 11 88 9.4

For simplicity, then, I assessed individual Series using only the 148 episodes listed in Table 1.

Figure 4: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

DW Figure 4

Series 1 started slowly (Figure 4; AI Scores divided by 10 for apples-to-apples comparison), although four of the final five episodes rank among the most well-regarded now (“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” average IMDB score=9.0).

While Series 2 is now slightly less well-regarded than Series 1, and average IMDB rating for Series 3 drops to 7.94 without “Blink,” Series generally became better-regarded through Series 4. This latter Series is the best-regarded of the revived Doctor Who, both when first aired (average AI score=88.1) and now (average IMDB rating=8.42). It started slowly: while “Partners in Crime” through “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (n=7) have a solid AI score average of 87.3, their average IMDB rating is only 7.73. Starting with the brilliant two-part “Silence/Forest,” however, the six episodes through “Journey’s End” have an astonishingly-high average AI score (89.0) and IMDB rating (9.20)! Outside of the three-episode sequence “The Name…” (88, 9.2), “The Day…” (88, 9.4) and “The Time of the Doctor” (83, 8.5), this is the pinnacle of the resurrected Doctor Who, rivaled only by the conclusion to Series 9.

Following the 10th Doctor’s regeneration, however, Series 5 and 6 dropped back to the more-than-respectable levels of Series 1-3. Series 6 had two distinct parts: the seven-episode sequence of “The Impossible Astronaut” through “A Good Man” have solid average AI score (86.7) and IMDB rating (8.16), which drop to 85.7 and 7.95, respectively, for the final six episodes (“Let’s Kill Hitler” through “The Wedding of River Song”).

Starting in Series 7a, these measures diverge, with average AI score jumping to 87.2 and average IMDB rating dropping to 7.98; the Series started (“Asylum of the Daleks,” 89, 8.6) and ended (“The Angels Take Manhattan,” 88, 9.0) well, though it faltered in between (n=3, 86.3, 7.43). The advent of companion Clara Oswald in Series 7b appeared to spike a further decline in public esteem, which only deepened when she teamed with the 12th Doctor in Series 8 and 9, excepting the average IMDB rating of 8.90 for the three-part Series finale (“Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”). Series 10, with the first openly lesbian companion (Bill Potts [Pearl Mackie]), then signaled a return to Series-8-level regard.

And then…the popularity of Doctor Who took a nosedive over cliffs as steep as those which dominate Broadchurch, which also starred Tennant and Whittaker.

To be fair, average AI Score did not decline nearly as much, perhaps because Britons wanted to give the first female Doctor a fair chance. Indeed, the first full Whittaker episode—“The Woman Who Fell to Earth”—was the top-rated program of the week, the first time that had happened since “Day” in November 2013. And that episode has an OK 6.9 IMDB rating to go with its respectable 83 AI Score. “Rosa,” featuring American civil rights icon Rosa Parks two episodes later, has similar scores of 83 and 7.0. Overall, the first seven episodes averaged 5th place in their respective weeks, rivaling only the 2009-10 Tennant Christmas and standalone specials. Moreover, those seven episodes have been rated by an average of 6,548 IMDB users, rivaling the average 6,740 IMDB raters for the last six episodes of Series 4, which aired a full decade earlier.

For all that attention, however, those seven episodes have a mean IMDB rating of 6.06, which does not materially differ from the Series 11 average of 5.93 and is lower than the Series 12 average of 6.26; the latter series featured the only three other 13th Doctor episodes with IMDB ratings of 7.0 or higher: “Ascension of the Cybermen” (7.0), “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (7.3) and “Fugitive of the Judoon” (7.7). And every one of these episodes still ranks below the overall average of 7.78. Plus, the 14 episodes which followed “Kerblam!” ranked an average 23rd in their respective weeks, following the historic pattern of a sharp ratings decline over the course of each Series.

Nine of these 21 episodes (43%), meanwhile, have IMDB ratings between 4.1 and 5.9. For context, here are 38 movies in the same range (full disclosure—I have seen each one multiple times, and I genuinely like some of them):

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

Batman Forever (1995)

The Big Mouth (1967)

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989)

Bright Lights, Big City (1987)

Casual Sex? (1988)

City Heat (1984)

Cookie (1989)

Delirious (1991)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Doctor Detroit (1983)

Dog Park (1998)

Earth Girls are Easy (1989)

The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992)

Hexed (1993)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Legal Eagles (1986)

Mannequin (1988)

The Marrying Man (1991)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

The Meteor Man (1993)

Mixed Nuts (1994)

Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

Once Upon a Crime… (1992)

The Opposite Sex, and How to Live With Them (1993)

The Phantom (1996)

The Pick-Up Artist (1987)

Queens Logic (1991)

Random Hearts (1999)

The Spirit (2008)

Summer Lovers (1982)

Sunset (1988)

Tapeheads (1988)

Thank God, It’s Friday (1978)

Wholly Moses (1980)

Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989)

Wild Wild West (1999)

Young Doctors in Love (1982)

It is certainly possible that these 21 episodes, as was the case with the first Eccleston episodes, will be positively reevaluated in later years.

Figure 5: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Doctors (2005-17)

DW Figure 5

Doctors. Figure 5 displays average values for all 9th (n=13), 10th (n=47), 11th (n=44), 12th Doctor (n=40) and 13th Doctor (n=21) episodes; excluding Christmas episodes and Specials made no appreciable difference.

While websites like WatchMojo.com suggest David Tennant’s 10th Doctor is the best-regarded Doctor ever (rivaling Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor), this is not necessarily borne out by the data. The 10th and 11th Doctors have essentially identical average AI Scores—86.3 and 86.0, while the 12th and 9th Doctors are not that far behind at 82.7 and 82.2, respectively; even the 13th Doctor’s average AI Score of 80.7 is broadly respectable. Moreover, Tennant’s 8.12 average IMDB rating is not appreciably higher than Smith’s 8.04, Eccleston’s 8.01 and Capaldi’s 7.89—though all are considerably than the lowly 6.08 for Whittaker’s 21 episodes.

Conclusions. Overall, the resurrected Doctor Who has been enormously popular by all three primary metrics used above. Its 8.6 overall IMDB rating places it in the rarefied heights between Back to the Future and The Dark Knight. Still, the show did not find its footing until late in Series 1. The 10th and 11th Doctors are held in modestly higher regard than the 9th and 12th Doctors, even if the ends of Series 1 and 9 are very highly-regarded now. The pinnacle of the revived series is the latter half of Series 4, although the most highly-rated episode currently is “Blink” (Series 3), followed by “Heaven Sent” (Series 9) and the 50th-anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor. “Blink” and “Day” also have received the most IMDB user-ratings by far (>15,000 each). By contrast, it is best to avoid the Series 3 episode “Love and Monsters,” the Series 9 episode “Sleep No More” and many episodes in Series 11 and 12, though not “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” While many 10th Doctor episodes have lost stature over time, a similar number of 12th Doctor episodes have done the opposite. Finally, there are extreme warning signs in the dramatic decline in ratings and public esteem following the ascension of Chibnall as show runner and the first female Doctor.

We shall see if this changes in Series 13 in 2021.

If you are interested, here is a PDF of the data compiled for these analyses.

Doctor Who Episode Data, 2005-20

Until next time…please stay safe, sane and healthy…

[1] The “classic” series aired from November 1963 to December 1989, with only one 1996 television movie—intended to be an American series pilot—before its triumphant return in 2005.

[2] As of March 28, 2020

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing V

On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order extending the closure of all public schools in the Commonwealth until at least May 4, 2020.

In four previous posts (I, II, III, IV), 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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To give our daughters something of a break during the week—especially our younger daughter, who has a yet-to-be-formally-diagnosed learning disability and attention deficit disorder—there is no “school” on Wednesday mornings. This means that when I came downstairs on March 25, 2020, Nell had not written a daily schedule on the flip chart. This likely saddened our younger daughter who was apparently going to have free reign over what the afternoon classes would be called.

To be fair, the girls had done something broadly educational that morning. With Nell, they had watched and discussed two episodes of The Blue Planet.

And they are continuing to produce drawings at a solid clip.

Wall of art March 25

The framed painting in the middle is one of two I bought when I first moved back to the Boston area—Waltham, to be precise—from my native Philadelphia in early September 2005. I do not recall why I entered the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Newbury Street (which appears recently to have closed), but once inside I was quite taken with a collection of paintings by Liudmila Kondakova. Using funds from a recent inheritance, I bought this painting and a smaller one. Both depict Paris street scenes, and both have my last name written somewhere in them.

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The break from school work does not extend to the afternoons, so we convened just after 2:45 pm to discuss the history of the American presidential nominating system. My attached notes for this class were a bit more scattershot than usual, but they worked well enough to tell a series of what I hoped would be interesting stories.

March 25.docx

I noted in “Dispatch IV” our daughters’ penchant for assigning monikers to historical figures. Well, they came close to doing that when I came to the 1960 Democratic nomination process, and I explained one of the primary contenders that year was United States Senator (“Senator”) Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

“Who names a kid ‘Hubert?” asked our older daughter. “Did his parents want him to get teased his whole life?”

After observing his middle name was Horatio—he was once erroneously referred to as Hubert Horatio Hornblower—I defended the late Vice President as a good and honorable man, though I never did get around to discussing his groundbreaking speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic national convention.

We concluded with a rapid-fire discussion of how Democrats—proportionally, with a minimum of 15% statewide or in a Congressional district—and Republicans—mostly winner-take-all—differ in the way they apportion nominating convention delegates.

This was followed by easily the most cringeworthy moment I have thus far endured as a parent.

I had been talking about the role “expectations” play in the modern primary and caucus system, One example I used was the way then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton used a 2nd place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic Primary to label himself “The Comeback Kid.”

They had been vaguely aware of Clinton’s marital indiscretions, and they understood he had been impeached for lying under oath about cheating on his wife while he was president of the United States. What they did not know, though, were the sordid details.

And they very much wanted to know what they are; they essentially promised to hear the end of my spiel in exchange.

So…after pouring myself a fresh cup of hot black coffee, half-decaffeinated to brace myself…I told them.

I did not use the words “blow job” or “fellatio,” but I described how a government shutdown in 1995 had allowed Clinton to spend time alone in the Oval Office with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. And how one time she had worn a blue dress. And how she kept that dress after it came to have Clinton’s semen on it after a certain action I described…

…at which our older daughter interjected, “Oooo, gross! He peed through that! Why would anyone ever want to do that?!?”—or words broadly to that effect. Our younger daughter, meanwhile, just sat quietly, listening.

They particularly wanted to know why Ms. Lewinsky had kept that dress.

“Well, Clinton kept lying about what they had done. So she kept it as proof.”

And that was that.

Oy.

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At just after 4:45 pm, we reconvened for what I had thought would be the most fun part of the afternoon.

I wanted to talk about random sampling—the idea that you could get, for example, a fairly accurate impression of the distribution of attitudes in a very large population by randomly identifying a much smaller proportion of that population. However, I should have known that things would go awry when I used this example: a group of one million people includes 750,000 (75%) who prefer chocolate ice cream and 250,000 (25%) who prefer vanilla ice cream. Rather than ask every one of those people which flavor they prefer one could simply randomly select 1,000 of them to ask. Most of the time, if you sample properly, you will come within a few percentages either way of 75 and 25.

Well, our younger daughter simply wasn’t having it.

“What if someone doesn’t like either?” she began.

I explained this was merely an example, but that did not work.

“What if you like some other flavor?”

“It is a forced choice,” I weakly noted.

At this point, her sister chimed in.

“Well, which one do you prefer?”

This led to a long pause which ended in a non-answer.

At this point, I simply began talking about the activity we were about to do, one that involved 100 carefully selected cards from an UNO deck.

What I wanted to do was illustrate how queried multiple random samples from an identical population will center around “true” values within that population. My original conception was to put something like 60 blue and 40 red of the same small objects into a hat—Nell’s grandfather’s top hat lives in my home office—and have them draw 15 balls from that hat 10 times. We would record those draws to see how close they came to 60% blue and 40% red in the aggregate.

Of course, we did not have quite the objects I was envisioning, and I did not really want to cut up small bits of blue- and red-colored paper. That was when I remembered our bedraggled deck of UNO cards. There were enough cards remaining for me to compile a deck of 100 cards:

  • 50 blue and green cards, with the former “definitely voting Democratic” and the latter “leaning toward voting Democratic”
  • 43 red and yellow cards, with the former “definitely voting Republican” and the latter “leaning toward voting Republican”
  • 7 wild cards, for undecided voters

What I had not counted on was just how hard it is to shuffle—and I mean really, properly, thoroughly shuffle—a deck of 100 cards. Thus, what I thought would be a fun exercise where the girls alternated which one drew 15 cards and which one tallied the colors on the white board quickly devolved into a “why is this taking so long?” battle of long stretches of card shuffling, slow drawing and slower tallying.

Perhaps I was still reacting to the news we would be home schooling five weeks longer than we had anticipated. Perhaps I was overtired—this is more exhausting than I had expected. Or perhaps I was mad at myself for choosing an overly-thick deck of cards I could not properly “randomize.”

Whatever the reason, I snapped multiple times at both daughters, making the older one huffy and the younger one teary. I apologized—again; Nell, who taught elementary school for more than a decade, gently pointed out this is why you do not teach children “at 5:30…they are toast.”

For all the drama, however, we managed to draw 15 sets of cards. As you see, the results were not what I had anticipated. The 21 yellow cards kept making a disproportionate appearance.

Sampling results March 25

Here is a graphical representation of the results. Had I not counted the cards very carefully, I would almost think I simply had the “true” totals reversed; it is more likely simply very difficult properly to shuffle a double-deck of cards…and that randomness does not guarantee anything.

Biased sampling March 25

Even teachers have things to learn from their own lessons.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…