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Es el móvil de los excesos. No te va a faltar de nada. Potencia, cámara, pantalla... Un terminal de lujo que si te gustan los teléfonos grandes y tienes presupuesto, merece la pena valorar
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Nate Silver on why 2020 isn’t 2016
Photo illustration by Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images The FiveThirtyEight founder on polling error, Trump’s chances, and the possibility of an electoral crisis. We are days away from the 2020 election, and that means an anxious nation is obsessively refreshing FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast. Nate Silver is, of course, the creator of that forecast, and the founder and editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight. His forecasting model successfully predicted the outcome in 49 of the 50 states in the 2008 US presidential election and all 50 states in 2012. And in 2016, Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave Donald Trump a 29 percent chance of victory, and Silver was rare among analysts in emphasizing that meant Trump really could win. So I asked Silver to join me on my podcast to talk about what’s changed since 2016, what’s new in his forecast this year, whether the polls can be trusted, how the electoral geography is reshaping campaign strategies, how Biden’s campaign strategy has worked, whether Trump is underperforming “the fundamentals,” and much more. An edited transcript from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show. Subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Ezra Klein What went wrong in the polls in 2016? Nate Silver Well, there are degrees of wrong. Polls often miss an election by 2 or 3 or 4 points, which is what happened in 2016. Ahead of an election, people need to be prepared for the fact that having a 2- or 3- or 4-point lead — which is what Clinton had in the key states — is not going to hold up anywhere close to 100 percent of the time. You might win 70 percent the time, like in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. That said, there are a couple of things that are identifiable. One is that a bulk of the undecided voters in three key states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — went toward Trump. If those undecided voters had split 50-50, Clinton would have won nationally by 5 or 6 points. The thing that I think you blame pollsters for is education weighting. If you just randomly call people in the phone book or use a list of registered voters, traditionally, you get older people more than younger people, women more than men, and white people more than people of color. So polls weight responses to account for those disparities. But it’s also true that people who are college-educated are more likely to respond to polls. It used to be that there was no real split along educational lines in who voted for whom, but now — at least among white voters — there’s a big split between the college-educated Biden and Clinton voters and the non-college Trump voters. So if you oversampled college-educated white voters and undersampled non-college white voters, you’re gonna have a poll that leans toward Clinton too much. Ezra Klein Two questions on that, then. First, how does Biden’s lead compare to Clinton’s in 2016? And second, do you think pollsters have corrected the mistakes they made in 2016, such that their polls are likelier to be reliable this year? Nate Silver First, let me back up and say, Trump can still win. In 2016, our final forecast said Trump had a 29 percent chance, and that came through; right now we give him a 12 percent chance to win in November. That’s not trivial, but it is a different landscape. One difference is that there are fewer undecided voters this year. In 2016, there were about 13 or 14 percent undecided plus third party; it’s around 6 percent this year. That’s a pretty big difference. So that first mechanism that I described that helped Trump is probably not going to be a factor. Trump could win every undecided voter in these polls and he would still narrowly lose the Electoral College. Biden’s lead is also a little bit larger. After the [FBI Director James] Comey letter, Clinton’s lead went down to 3 or 4 points in national polls and 2 or 3 points in the average tipping point state. Biden is ahead by more like 5 points in the average tipping point state. We can definitely find cases in the past where there was a 5-point polling error in key states — that’s why Trump can win. But a 2016 error would not be quite enough: If the polls missed by exactly the same margin, exactly the same states, then instead of losing those three key Rust Belt states by 1 point, Biden would win them by 1 or 2 points. He might also hold on in Arizona, where the polls were fine in 2016. So it would be a close call, but one that wound up electing Biden in the end, pending court disputes, etc. Ezra Klein The data analyst David Shor shared a chart showing that the 2018 polls were still underweighting Republican voters in some of those same Midwestern states they did in 2016. Even though they were trying to use education as a proxy and weighting it differently, it still didn’t fully measure what was getting missed in the Republican electorate. Do you think that the way those states are being polled in 2020 is better? Nate Silver It’s possible that even within, say, the demographic group of non-college-educated people, Trump supporters just answer your polls less. That’s always a concern. But there is a long history of the direction of polling error being unpredictable: If the polls miss in one direction — say, the Republican direction — in one year, then they’re equally likely the next year to miss again in the Republican direction or the Democratic direction. That’s because polling is a dynamic science and pollsters don’t want to be wrong. They particularly don’t want to be wrong the same way twice in a row, so they will make all types of new adjustments. So polls can be wrong, but it’s hard to know in which direction they’d be wrong if they were wrong. Ezra Klein I think it is easy to imagine for people how the polls could be wrong in Donald Trump’s direction, because people lived through that and have a visceral feeling of it. But as you often point out, in 2012 the polls were a little bit wrong, but in Barack Obama’s direction. If the polls were wrong in Joe Biden’s direction, what do you think would be the likeliest reason why? Nate Silver So I think you have a story that would start with the fact that maybe pollsters were not prepared for this early voting surge. You have likely voters in polls. That’s based on some combination of their vote history and responses. Well, some of those people won’t vote. Their car won’t start on Election Day, or they will have a Covid outbreak in their area. However, if you’ve actually already voted, then you’re 100 percent likely to vote. So it may be that Democrats weren’t given enough extra credit for early voting. It’s also worth thinking about incentives here. Imagine you’re a pollster and you have a choice between two turnout models. One is a newfangled turnout model that accounts for early voting. The other is a more traditional, conservative model. One of them has Biden up 6 points in Wisconsin. And one has him up 10 points. There’s not much incentive to publish the 10-point lead. If Biden wins by 10 when you had him up by 6, people will say it was a pretty good poll nevertheless. But if Trump wins, you’re going to look that much worse. So I think there are a lot of incentives to be sure that you’re not missing the white working-class voters that may not apply to Hispanic voters in Arizona or to younger voters who have not been reliable voters in the past but are evidently turning out this year. Ezra Klein As we’re speaking, the FiveThirtyEight forecast has Biden at an 88 out of 100 shot of winning the election and has Trump at a 12 out of 100 shot. We’ve been talking about the probabilities on one side of that distribution, the one where Trump wins. What does the outcome look like on the other side? In the 12 percent of best-case scenario outcomes for Biden, what is he winning? Nate Silver A 5-point polling error in Biden’s favor means he wins by 13 or 14 points. That would be the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent since Hoover. It would exceed the margin that Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. It would mean that Biden would win almost all of the states that are commonly considered competitive, including probably Texas, Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia. Once you get beyond Texas, there aren’t many other close toss-up states. In a lot of our simulations, a good Biden night tends to peak at him winning Texas. Beyond that would take a really big polling miss. Ezra Klein I think one of the really interesting things you’ve done in the FiveThirtyEight model in 2020 is add an uncertainty index. What goes into that index, and what has it taught you so far? Nate Silver We analyzed lots of factors that historically are correlated with uncertainty and they point in opposite directions this year. On the one hand, the fact that you have few undecided voters and few third-party voters. The fact that you have stable polling and higher polarization — those all lead the model to be more certain about the outcome. But there are other factors that point in the other direction. The two most important ones are the degree of economic uncertainty and the amount of news. This last one has become infamous. We use an index based on how many full-width New York Times headlines there are. The more of those you have, the more uncertain the news environment. When, for example, Donald Trump got Covid-19, that was a banner headline at the New York Times for three or four days. That is something that moved the polls. But for the most part, these monumental events have not moved the polls very much. When the US first had our Covid crisis, initially, there was a little bit of a sympathy bounce for Trump that began to wear off. Then in June, when you had this second peak more in Southern states plus the George Floyd protests, that moves things a little bit. But you have these monumental historic events and you go from Trump minus 6 to Trump minus 9. That’s not nothing, but it means like 1.5 percent of Americans are changing their vote. So people seem pretty darn locked in about how they feel about Trump and about Joe Biden. Ezra Klein I wrote a whole book about polarization, and one of the big arguments I make is that as polarization goes up, American politics becomes more stable in terms of people’s preferences because the decisions are clearer for them. You all put that into the model. But if you had told me a year ago what was going to happen over the next year — coronavirus, 200,000 Americans dead, the kind of economic volatility we’ve seen, George Floyd and the national protests — I would not have predicted that one year later his approval rating would be up by 1 point. Are you surprised by the level of stability? Nate Silver I certainly think the hypothesis that polarization begets more stable public opinion is pretty sound. It has been tested in a pretty good way this year. Although one other prediction of polarized politics is that you get narrower outcomes. So you have more close elections. I’m not sure that Trump was necessarily going to lose this election absent Covid. It’ll be a famous debate if he does lose. But if you look at what polls of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania were saying in March or April, they were very close races — within a point or two. So things have shifted in ways that are meaningful, but only in relative terms. One other funny thing about this election is that because of Trump’s Electoral College advantage, there is not much middle ground between a Biden landslide and an extremely competitive, down-to-the-wire photo finish. If Trump beats his polls by 2 points, that’s a toss-up. If Biden beats his polls by 2 points, then it’s Obama 2008, which people consider a landslide. So the Electoral College edge makes a big difference and is why there’s been this very bifurcated, binary kind of world where we seem to oscillate between, “oh, my gosh, 2016 again” and “Trump is Herbert Hoover.” The degree to which American political institutions lean Republican — and why that matters in 2020 Ezra Klein There’s a finding by political scientist Alan Abramowitz that I think about a lot. He found that from 1972 to 1984, individual states would swing, on average, 7.7 points from one presidential election to the next. But since the 2000s, that change has been just 1.9 points. So there has been this really big drop in volatility. It strikes me that there is a different incentive set for politicians who are at real risk of losing voters they had before as opposed to politicians who, basically no matter how they perform, are going to keep the voters they had before. I’m curious how you assess that. Nate Silver There are two big fundamental things that govern every aspect of American politics. Number one is the increasing degree of polarization. It’s probably the most robust trend of the past 30 years that shows up in all types of ways. Number two is the GOP advantage in political institutions, particularly the Senate, because of overrepresentation of rural areas. We talked before about what a landslide it was when Obama won in 2008. He won by 7 points. The GOP has about a 6- to 7-point inherent advantage in the Senate, meaning that the median state is around 6 points more Republican in the country as a whole. So Democrats can win, but only if they win in a landslide. That has a couple of implications. One is that you have public policy catered to an older, more rural, whiter electorate. The GOP does not take advantage of that by saying, we’re going to win every election for all of eternity — we can have a stable, majoritarian coalition. Instead, they say, we’re going to actually pass very aggressive policies that the median voter would not like. But we don’t need to win the median voter. That governs a whole lot of decisions that they make. Ezra Klein How does that change for Democrats if they add DC and Puerto Rico decides to become a state as well? How would that change the Senate map? Nate Silver That shifts it to around a +4 for Republicans. If Democrats were to add DC and Puerto Rico and divided California in thirds, where all those Californias were at least somewhat blue, then the Senate would be still a +2 lean Republican. Ezra Klein What does the Electoral College partisan lean look like to you? How big is the GOP advantage there? And how durable is that advantage, given what demographics look like going forward? Nate Silver It was about 3 points in 2016. Clinton lost Wisconsin by about a point when she won the popular vote by 2 points. It looks similar for Biden — around a 3-point gap. I do think the Electoral College gap is more ephemeral. In 2008 and 2012, if you had had a photo finish election like you had in 2016, Obama would have won the Electoral College — he outperformed his national margins in the tipping point state. So it can flip back and forth pretty easily. If Texas flipped, that would make a big difference. The one state that is underrated as a problem for Democrats, though, is Florida, which has a ton of electoral votes. Florida, if anything, has been one of Biden’s worst states this year relative to the fact that he’s ahead by 8 or 9 points nationally. Ezra Klein Do you have an estimate on how big the Republican lean is in the House? Nate Silver It’s a little hard to estimate in the House because the advantage is partly is tied into incumbency; once you gain the incumbency advantage like Democrats have now, that can be hard to overcome. But it’s probably around 3 or 4 points. It’s been a bit of a moving target because in 2010 you had a very Republican year, so you had a lot of gerrymandering that favored the GOP. There’s also a lot of clustering of Democrats in urban areas. And most urban areas are more Democratic than most rural areas are Republican. That creates an inequity that makes the median district more Republican-leaning. With that said, you had a lot of suburban districts that have become what are sometimes now called “dummymanders.” If the suburbs of Houston or Dallas were 10 points in favor of the GOP in 2010 and things have shifted by 12 points, then all of a sudden now you have it perfectly inefficiently configured the other way where Democrats narrowly win all these districts in Texas or the suburbs of Atlanta or California or whatnot. So that advantages is less profound now. One other inequity here is that when Republicans get the trifecta in a state, they will, generally speaking, gerrymander as much as they can get away with. Democrats will often appoint some type of nonpartisan commission so they fight things back to 50/50. One other thing to keep in mind is because the GOP gerrymanders were so effective in 2010 in some states, it’s hard for Democrats to win back the state legislature in states like Wisconsin. Usually you wipe the slate relatively clean after 10 years, but in a state where you don’t have a lot of demographic change — where it favors a party that already had a gerrymandering edge — that can become a repeating error that persists for decades. Why Biden won the Democratic primary — and why he’s winning now Ezra Klein If the presidency was decided by the popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump would have lost. In that world, I think there would have been a lot of frustration among Republicans that the Trumpist faction of the party had nominated a candidate who blew a winnable election. And, maybe, because of that, the Republican Party would have reformed itself. The Democrats have the opposite version of this: They have to win by pretty big margins at the presidential level, the Senate level, and the House level. They’ve actually responded to that, and Joe Biden was their response in 2020. Joe Biden was not the favorite pick of most Democratic factions that I know of, but he was an answer to the question: Who would be acceptable to white working-class voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — the kinds of voters Democrats feared they were losing? The polls seem to be indicating that this has been strategically successful — that Biden is actually changing the coalition. Do you think Biden has actually changed the coalition? Or do you think this election would be the same under any Democrat? Nate Silver In the primary, you had a fairly explicit contrast between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Bernie’s pitch explicitly was: We are going to win this with a high turnout of younger people and people of color. We’re the biggest coalition. So we’re going to win and we’re going to win the White House that way, too. Turnout, turnout, turnout. Whereas Biden is about persuasion and the median voter. The median Democratic voter liked Medicare-for-all but liked the public option a little bit more and felt like it seemed a little safer electorally. For better or worse, Joe Biden’s pitch has come true: The reason he is way ahead in these polls is not because Democratic turnout is particularly high relative to GOP turnout — it’s because he’s winning independents by 15 points and moderates by 30 points. He’s winning back a fair number of Obama-Trump voters and keeping a fair number of Romney-Clinton voters. The story the polls are telling is that Biden is persuading the median voter not to back Donald Trump. Biden is a throwback politician in so many ways. He’s also a throwback in the sense he’s very coalitional. He’s not a very ideological guy. He gets branded as a moderate, which I think also reflects the bias that if you’re an older white man you can have the same policy positions but will be branded as much less radical than a young Latina might. But still, he’s able to perfectly calibrate himself to what the median Democratic voter wants, and is good about listening to different coalitions within the party. That’s why he’s been successful over a long time. He’s very transactional and good at listening to different demands from different party constituencies. Ezra Klein After Democrats nominated John Kerry and lost to George W. Bush In 2004, there was this view that the Democrats have to win back the heartland. They started thinking about guys like Brian Schweitzer in Montana. And then what actually happens in 2008 is they run Barack Hussein Obama from Chicago, Illinois, and have this gigantic victory. This is a way in which the immediate post-election punditry really fails. There is a desire to refight the last war. Democrats were responding to ’04, but ’08 was just a different election in a different context and something else ended up working. I think that’s happened here, too. One of the dominant views after 2016 was Donald Trump gave people something to vote for. You may not like him, but at least he doesn’t think the system is okay. So there was a rise in politicians who responded to that. Populist politicians on the left like Bernie Sanders or, in a different way, Elizabeth Warren. Other kinds of figures on the left who try to match Donald Trump’s energy but really push hard on a diversifying America. And here comes Joe Biden with what is almost a strategy of being inoffensive — he has popular policies, he says nice stuff. And what you see in these polls is 70-30 Trump voters say they’re voting for Trump, not against Biden. And roughly 70-30 Biden voters say they’re voting against Trump, not for Biden. And Biden is way ahead! In a way, Donald Trump provides the enthusiasm and Joe Biden just keeps denying him something really significant to run against. Biden has this weird rope-a-dope of an election strategy that seems to be paying off. Nate Silver I think to say 2016 was about enthusiasm is a misdiagnosis. If you look at David Shor’s work, he’s tried to break this down. Probably 80 percent of the shift toward Trump was Obama to Trump voters, and because of persuasion, not turnout. One basic piece of math behind that is that if I persuade you, Ezra, to switch from Trump to Biden, that’s a net +2 for Biden. You were -1, now you’re a +1. If I turn someone new out for Biden, that’s only a +1. So persuasion matters more. Ezra Klein I want to go back to the Bernie theory because I think we weren’t 100 percent fair on it. The Sanders campaign had a real theory about low-attachment voters — people who don’t turn out. And the idea was that those people don’t turn out because they aren’t given a clear enough choice. But if you propose ambitious policies like Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal and others — something the Bidens and Clintons of the world haven’t done — those folks will have a reason to vote. That didn’t really pan out in the primary. A lot of those people didn’t come out to vote for Bernie Sanders. And that raises the question: Why don’t people vote? We often have turnout in the 50 to 60 percent range for presidential elections. What do we know about these marginal voters — people who may turn out but often do not? Nate Silver Generally, the idea that your views on 10 or 12 different issues are highly correlated makes sense for strong partisans, but that doesn’t make sense for a lot of voters. There was a great episode of The Dailywhere they randomly picked voters to talk about the Amy Coney Barrett [Supreme Court] nomination. There was one woman said, “Well, I’m pro-life, but if I’m really pro-life, then is Donald Trump really the pro-life candidate in this election?” She’s thinking more broadly about what that means, so she probably feels very conflicted. She likes Donald Trump’s Supreme Court picks; she doesn’t like his treatment of women or how he acts on Twitter or that he doesn’t seem to want to have a health care policy in the country. So I think as things become more polarized, then the people who drop out tend to have more heterodox political views. There are also people who feel like it’s going to be hard for them to vote or their vote doesn’t matter. Voter suppression has different effects based on different time spans. In the short run, if you try to suppress the vote and people find out about it, they might be more motivated to vote. In the long run, though, if I know that every time I have to vote, there’s a long line, that can have a cumulative effect. Ezra Klein One implication of the polarization conversation we were having earlier is that there is less of a penalty for nominating candidates who are more ideologically extreme. Even if you think Ted Cruz is really conservative or Donald Trump is kind of nuts, you just can’t stand Hillary Clinton, so you vote for Trump or Cruz anyway. Or, on the other side, even if you think Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are too liberal, you aren’t going to vote for Donald Trump, so you support a candidate more liberal than you are. So do you think it actually would have made much of a difference if Sanders were the nominee? How differently from Biden do you think he would have performed? Nate Silver So we actually find that there still is a pretty big effect from where you line up on the issues. It’s a little bit hard to define liberal versus conservative, so we look at how often members of Congress vote with their party. Members who break with their party more often do quite a bit better, other things held equal. And that advantage has not diminished since 1990, which is when our data set starts off. I think that Bernie would have given Trump a different vector to campaign on, where he could say, “the socialists are coming!” He’s trying to say Biden is a Trojan horse for AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Bernie and Warren. Maybe that argument works for some voters, but you’re also conceding that Biden himself isn’t that bad, which is a weird strategy. Look, Biden’s up by 8 or 9 points. I think the penalty for being more left is probably not enough to make Sanders an underdog — he’d be the favorite. But I do think when we kind of look at this stuff and measure ideology, it seems to have an effect. Now, Bernie could have been effective for other reasons. One thing where I think Biden’s people have not done very well is signing up new people to vote. They also were not doing a lot of door-knocking operations until recently. So Bernie would have done certain things better. But I’m someone who still believes in the median voter theorem, I suppose. Ezra Klein Let me ask about the flip of this: Donald Trump. Trump has never won an election with more voters. He has never been above 50 percent in average approval ratings. Do you think another Republican candidate, a generic Republican, would likely be in a stronger position today than Trump? Nate Silver One big question that’s pertinent to how we think about this election is where do the fundamentals point in our specification? That’s a very nerdy way to put it. But we actually think that a generic Republican should be running neck and neck with a generic Democrat because the economic recovery was pretty robust in the third quarter and because you have an incumbent and incumbents usually get reelected more often than not. If you look around the world, approval ratings for many leaders went up during the early stages of coronavirus. I think if Trump showed some basic empathy uncovered and just said the right things and didn’t get in the way of basic things that every country needs to do — and then we have this 30 percent GOP rebound in quarter three — I’m not sure that he’d be losing his campaign. At the very least it might be close enough where his 3-point Electoral College edge would come in handy for him. So he has not been a very effective politician from an electoral standpoint. Why Silver thinks we shouldn’t be too worried about the possibility of an electoral crisis Ezra Klein When we talk about elections, I think people mentally index to the idea that there are two outcomes: win or lose. And in this election, it seems to me there are three: win, loss, and crisis. When we talk about, say, the possibility of a 3- or 4-point polling error in Donald Trump’s direction, that would make the election very close in the key swing states. In the world where you have lots of mail-in voting because of Covid-19, a bunch of Republican attempts to prevent or discredit those votes, and a Supreme Court with Amy Coney Barrett possibly having the last word on election rulings, that’s a situation where we could face a real legitimacy crisis over who won. As crazy as Bush v. Gore was, I really worry that if you replay that now, it gets a lot crazier. Your models explicitly do not try to measure the effect of electoral chicanery, but I’m curious how you think about that possibility. Nate Silver I always worry about these conversations because the chaos scenario is so bad that whether it’s 2 percent or 5 percent or 15 percent, you still have to be very worried about it. And it’s certainly somewhere in the low to mid-single digits, if not a quite bit higher — although not the modal outcome by any means. But I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind.One, people forget just how close Florida was in 2000. It came down to something like 537 votes in a state with 10 million people. That’s not just within the recount margin — it’s exactly on the nose. And it’s still quite ambiguous who ultimately really won Florida, depending on dimpled chads and the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County and everything else. Two, the issue most likely to affect the debate is ballots that are returned after Election Day. Those actually aren’t that many ballots, and may not be as Democratic as people assume because Democrats are being more diligent about sending their ballots in early. If you look at mail ballots returned so far, Democrats have around a 30-point edge on partisan ID in terms of who has returned more ballots; if you look at the mail ballots that have not yet been returned but were requested, it’s only a 12-point edge for Democrats. It’s possible that the attempts at voter suppression can backfire if they make the people you’re trying to suppress more alert. You can imagine Democrats being more diligent about getting their ballots in early, finding different ways to vote, following all the rules — in which case, these things might not help the GOP. The last thing I think about a little bit is: Is it harder or easier to vote than it has been in the past? You’re always calibrating a model based on past history. There has always been voter suppression that disproportionately affects people of color and people who are more likely to be Democrats. That’s priced into the models. However, it’s probably easier to vote now in most states than it ever has been. The Brennan Center does a write-up every year on the voting rights that passed in the past year. And for the past couple of years, you’ve actually had more pro-voting laws than voter suppression laws, which is different than the era from 2012 to 2016. So it’s probably easier to vote now than it has been in the past. And that could potentially help Democrats. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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It's the Friday before Election Day
With the election just days away, the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden heats up. Here's the latest news on campaigns, voting and more.
Black voter turnout was down in 2016. This time looks to be different.
Black Lives Matter supporters show off their “I VOTED” wristbands after leaving the polling place in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 13. | Jon Cherry/Getty Images For many Black Americans, the best way to fight a pandemic and systemic racism is to vote. D’Angelo Crosby says the demands placed on Black Americans this year are so heavy, they’re incapacitating — leaving him undecided in the election. “I don’t think [former Vice President Joe] Biden is willing to help the American people. ... I just think that he’s been in the office a long time. And I don’t notice what he did for young Black men — or Black people in general,” said Crosby, a junior at Morehouse College who is attending classes remotely from his home in Illinois. “I could say this, that my father said that he made more than he had ever made with [President Donald] Trump [in office] than he did Obama.” One of Crosby’s problems with Biden is that he fears the Democrat would take an overly restrictive approach to containing the coronavirus, including by encouraging the sorts of lockdowns that led to his mother losing her job. “My mom during the pandemic got laid off. And that was a really heartbreaking experience for me. Because my mom had been working that job for over 30 years,” Crosby said. “Before the pandemic, everything was running smoothly. She was on the path to retire and everything.” Lucy Hewett for Vox D’Angelo Crosby feels that Black Americans won’t be in a “great position” no matter who wins the presidential election. Crosby says the president wasn’t “well equipped” to handle the pandemic, and both his parents got sick with Covid-19 this year. “They were, fortunately, two that pulled out,” Crosby said. And they were, in fact, fortunate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black people make up nearly 20 percent of US Covid-19 deaths, despite making up 13 percent of the population. Crosby tuned in to the first presidential debate to help him settle on a candidate, but he found it disappointing. “It was like everything was a joke,” he said. The second debate helped Crosby decide on Biden, but he still has many reservations. There are many factors motivating voters this year, from the pandemic to the ongoing struggle against systemic racism. The extraordinary force with which these factors have shaped Black American life is animating Black voters this year — pushing them to vote with far greater energy than they did in 2016. Now Black voters have lived under a Trump administration, and many wonder if they can survive another; they have seen their friends, family, and neighbors taken by Covid-19, and watched Black people taken time and again by police; they’ve been inspired by the Black Lives Movement but remain deeply fearful about the future. “I’m not excited. I’m scared,” Crosby told me. “I would definitely say that it feels like, either way that it goes, Black people — just, it doesn’t seem like we’re in a great position. It just really doesn’t.” This year, there are highhopes for Black voters to turn out Fewer Black Americans voted in 2016 than did in 2012. And while some election watchers, like the New York Times’s Nate Cohn, have argued that a shift of white voters from Democrats to Republicans was the source of Trump’s victory in 2016, others, like Osita Nwanevu for Slate, have posited that lower Black turnout cost Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the election. Black voter turnout decreased by 7 percentage points from 2012 to 2016. It was the first decline in Black voter turnout in 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, and the steepest decline in participation by any ethnic group since white turnout fell by about 10 percentage points from 1992 to 1996. It is possible the decline is due to Barack Obama not being on the ticket; the last election without him, held in 2004, had a Black voter participation rate of 60.3 percent, 0.7 percentage points higher than in 2016. Other hypotheses have been raised as well — like that Black voters soured on Clinton due to her association with criminal justice policies that negatively affected Black communities (and her use of racist language to defend them) or that the Black vote was suppressed by Russian actors and Republican policies. Whether any, or all of these, or something else entirely was the root cause of the decline is difficult to say — and that’s something that’s still being researched today. But the 17 activists, party officials, and voters that I spoke to across the country said they think things might be different this time. “After the election in 2016, you could literally just see all the organizations collaborating with all hands on deck,” Terri Minor Spencer, founder and president of West End P.O.W.E.R., said. Spencer, who is based in Pittsburgh, said her organization began collaborating with the county jail, working to get voter registration forms to men and women who found themselves there. And ahead of November’s election, Spencer said the group has worked to ensure the imprisoned know their rights: “If you are not sentenced, you can vote. If you are sitting in there because you cannot make bond, you can vote. If you’re on pretrial, you can vote.” Like Spencer, many other activists and organizers have been hard at work in their communities for four years — if not longer. And this year, all of their efforts have only been compounded by the ongoing protests over systemic racism and police violence. Megan Jelinger/AFP via Getty Images Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest outside the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29. Jon Cherry/Getty Images Black Lives Matter protesters gather in Jefferson Square Park in Louisville, Kentucky before a march to an early voting center on October 13. “The Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged people to realize that we have to participate in the system and create some type of change,” Cooper Blackwell, an activist and entrepreneur in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, told me. It was a sentiment that was echoed by most I spoke to. The importance of voting has been a fixture at many of the ongoing protests for racial justice — and there appears to have been an increase in voter registration, particularly among Democrats and independents, because of them. A message that has been stressed repeatedly at these protests nationwide is that police, mayors, and city budgets are not controlled at the federal level. And many I spoke to said that message has been fully absorbed. “We are actually seeing a lot of people taking more interest in the local races, understanding that, obviously, the presidency is very important, but honestly, I don’t feel like it’s a key draw anymore,” Peggy West-Schroder, the statewide campaign coordinator for Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), a civil rights group in Wisconsin that advocates for the currently and formerly incarcerated, told me. Spencer described how focused those her organization works with have become on the power local magistrates hold over the quality of housing, and how this has inspired some to work towards becoming magistrates themselves. And Christopher Walton, the chair of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County, told me of the new energy Democratic voters have around stopping Wisconsin’s legislature from achieving a veto-proof majority in this year’s elections. “The revolution takes place within our communities, on the ground,” Blackwell said. “The system changes as a result of that.” The work of activists and the energy created by the Black Lives Matter movement has culminated in a moment where Black voters — particularly young ones, whose turnout was also depressed in 2016 — are feeling as if they have an obligation not just to vote but to ensure others do, too. Darylette Parker, a 23-year-old from Illinois who said she regretted not voting in 2016, told me she and many of her friends have been motivating one another to vote — and that she was spurred to action by Michelle Obama, who has spent much of the past few months attempting to drive up turnout. Here’s my full closing argument for Joe Biden. I hope you’ll share this, too.— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) October 19, 2020 “Through her Instagram, [Obama] made a video and she said, ‘If you think things can’t get worse, you’re wrong,’” Parker said. “So that was kind of like a wake-up call. And that really motivated me to go make sure I was registered.” Social media has been a powerful agent for convincing people in Malik Martin’s life as well. A sophomore at North Carolina A&T University, Martin said he’s felt a lot of pressure from his classmates online to vote — and that he’s seen what happens to those who say they won’t participate. “I have seen some people on Twitter ... say that, ‘Well, I’m not gonna vote because this or this,’ and the way that the students responded to it — they were really upset,” Martin said. The students who said they didn’t want to vote were on the receiving end of a lot of harsh DMs and tweets, according to Martin, “just trying to get them to understand that they should vote.” One other powerful force driving Black voters to fill out ballots this year is the same thing driving turnout among many suburban women, young Latinx voters, and Rust Belt workers: Trump. “The Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged people to realize that we have to participate in the system and create some type of change.” According to Walton, Trump’s actions, words, and record have many Black Americans “just enraged at him, especially amongst the older African American population, because they’ve seen this before. … People are like, we spent a lot of time fighting to make sure this was never going to happen again. And here it is happening. And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stand by and allow it to happen again.” Preliminary indications suggest efforts to energize and empower Black voters have been working. In an analysis conducted in mid-October, the Associated Press found that about 10 percent of the more than 20 million early votes cast nationally (both in person and mail-in) were submitted by Black Americans, a number roughly in line with their share of the national electorate. Since then, the number of early voters has more than tripled, and in the states that provide voter data by race, Black voters have markedly improved on turnout compared to this time in 2016. Black voters could swing races in key states — but must overcome voter suppression efforts first Part of what gives Black voters their power is the Electoral College — a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that a little more than a third of Black eligible voters live in swing states, and that in many, they make up a sizable portion of the electorate. In North Carolina, 22 percent of eligible voters are Black, far more than enough to decide a close race. And North Carolina, home to 15 electoral votes, is expected to be very close. The state went to Trump by only 3.8 percentage points in 2016, and the Biden campaign hopes to run up his vote total in Democratic strongholds like Raleigh, but also in swing counties like Nash, which Trump won by 118 votes. So in the weeks before the election, top Biden surrogates, like Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), have been dispatched there to secure it for him. But Trump has also worked hard in recent weeks to boost Republican turnout in the state. Reportedly, 70 percent of the paths to victory his campaign envisions run through North Carolina, making it a pivotal state for him. It’s one of the few swing states in which he has spent more than Biden, and he and his allies have traveled there repeatedly, even holding events in districts that went for him by a large margin in 2016. Biden has a slight lead in most North Carolina polls, but Kevin Jones, the first vice chair of the Nash County Democratic Party, said he’s concerned about the level of enthusiasm among some of his fellow Democrats. “It’s bad,” Jones said. “If Donald Trump needs 15 electoral votes to win the presidency, and it comes down to one vote in North Carolina, it won’t be my vote that gets him in there. But, you know, I don’t feel too good about it.” And there’s one big reason for this, Jones thinks: “The BLM [Black Lives Matter] piece has supercharged, I think, Trump’s base. I think that the BLM, that’s been used as a tool and a firestarter, if you will, to really rally people.” Nearly all of those I spoke with in North Carolina cited a similar concern about the effect anti-BLM sentiment will have on voting in the state. Many also said they were worried about a related issue: finding ways to empower voters in the face of attempted voter suppression. Grant Baldwin/AFP via Getty Images A poll worker assists voters as they enter an early voting center in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 15. D’atra Jackson — the national co-director of the BYP100 Action Fund, who is based in Durham, North Carolina — said there is a “very real threat of white supremacist, white nationalist violence in North Carolina. And those are things that have been threats, literally every election.” Threats from white nationalists have led her organization, and its partners, to set up a program around polling sites to reassure Black voters and to provide for their safety. Blackwell, who hopes toovercome any concerns with positivity, is organizing virtual parties and DJs outside of polling places,andrecounted how even in Rocky Mount — a city largely controlled by Black people — the risk of violence is inescapable. Citizens there faced have implicit and explicit threats, including the appearance of a noose in a park after a Confederate monument was recently removed. Narratives like these are a reminder that it’s not necessarily a dislike of either candidate, or apathy, or a lack of Obama on the ballot that may have led to lower Black voter turnout in 2016, but concern for safety. There are barriers put up by state actors as well: Cooper complained that a longstanding polling place had been moved to an area more difficult to access — and nationally, nearly 21,000 polling places have been shuttered this year, according to Vice News. Activists in swing states said this had been an acute problem for them this year. “There was only four polling places open in a whole city, and it was just — it was bad,” West-Schroder said of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most recent elections. “And we do feel like some of that was done to disenfranchise Black voters.” The number of polling places has been expanded for the general election, but she said EXPO faces a new challenge in the amount of “miscommunication, misinformation that’s being spread. And I think that that is a deliberate attempt to stifle the Black vote.” “So what we like to teach our members,” West-Schroder said, “is that if your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to take it away from you.” Not all Black voters are thrilled about Biden and Harris — particularly because of their backgrounds Most Black voters seem poised to vote for Biden, based on recent polls; Morning Consult’s tracking poll for the week on October 25, for instance, found 86 percent of Black likely voters favored Biden, and 9 percent favored Trump. But Jones says he’s still nervous about the results of the election because “the enthusiasm is not there.” This too is reflected in polling; for example, an Economist/YouGov poll taken in mid-October found Black voters to be split when it comes to their enthusiasm about Biden — 48 percent said they were enthusiastic about the nominee; 49 percent said they were not. Part of that gap might stem from a longing for another candidate like Obama. “I don’t care how good you are at basketball, if you go play for the Chicago Bulls you’re gonna be measured up against Michael Jordan,” Jones said. “I think for the rest of my lifetime, we will measure up every Democratic presidential candidate against Barack Obama .... and Joe Biden, you know, can’t be Jordan.” Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images A voter casts a ballot in Washington, DC on October 27. Perhaps a more widespread issue, however, is the slightly more distant past: Many told me voters often bring up a 1994 crime bill as a reason they can’t get behind Biden. That bill, called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, was written in part by Biden, and he played a key role in getting it passed into law during his time in the Senate, two things he bragged about as recently as 2016. Essentially, the law was meant to stem a decades-long rise in crime and signal to voters that Democrats were tougher on crime than Republicans. As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, it was not very successful at doing either, but it did do a lot of other things: The law imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and encouraged states to do the same. It provided funds for states to build more prisons, aimed to fund 100,000 more cops, and backed grant programs that encouraged police officers to carry out more drug-related arrests — an escalation of the war on drugs. At the same time, the law included several measures that would be far less controversial among Democrats today. The Violence Against Women Act provided more resources to crack down on domestic violence and rape. A provision helped fund background checks for guns. The law encouraged states to back drug courts, which attempt to divert drug offenders from prison into treatment, and also helped fund some addiction treatment. Particularly during the past 10 years, advocacy groups, think tanks, and scholars have argued that the 1994 crime bill helped encourage racially biased mass incarceration and, along with the crime laws of the 1980s, exacerbated systemic inequality. The general consensus now, as Princeton African American studies professor Naomi Murakawa put it to the Marshall Project in 2015, is “that 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.” Throughout the Democratic primary campaign, Biden’s then-rivals brought up this record; Sen. Cory Booker called the crime bill “shameful,” while Biden’s current running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, accused him of contributing to mass incarceration. The attacks stuck — and were quickly adopted by Trump, who has continued to use them against Biden in the general election. But Curmilus Dancy II, a political blogger in North Carolina, argued that the criticism makes little sense: “You want Black folk to be mad because you say they were hard on them, but I see it as them doing a job, and what some Black folk wanted, at that particular time.” To Dancy’s point, the crime bill was popular at the time. As the Brookings Institution’s Rashawn Ray and William A. Galston have explained, in 1994, “58% of African Americans supported the crime bill, compared to 49% of white Americans.” After several different responses to these attacks (some less convincing than others), Biden has simplified his message. “It was a mistake,” he said when asked about the crime bill at the second presidential debate. “I’ve been trying to change it since then, particularly the portion on cocaine.” It’s an answer that impressed Crosby, and Biden’s new stance on the bill has impressed others as well; that he’s willing to say when he is wrong and knows when “it’s time to step up” is something Spencer said she liked about him. While Biden was ultimately able to satisfy Crosby’s concerns about his record on criminal justice, Harris has been able to do no such thing. “She prosecuted so many Black men, and it’s just like, do you, also feel the struggle of Black people? Or are you at a place right now where it’s just you and your family, and you don’t care about oppression anymore?” Crosby asked. “That’s so sad to me, to see that you cannot be empathetic and sympathetic to Black people, your own race.” He went on to explain that he cannot understand why Harris accrued the record she did as San Francisco’s district attorney, and later as California’s attorney general. Harris had a somewhat contradictory record in those two roles, as Vox’s Lopez explained: She implemented some progressive reforms, but there are also prosecutorial choices she made that critics say were particularly harmful to people of color. This record means that when she was announced as Biden’s vice presidential pick, “We weren’t as excited maybe as some other people were, just because her track record hasn’t hasn’t been that great in regards to criminal justice, reform, and second chances,” West-Schroder of EXPO said, noting the group is nonpartisan. Harris has since stressed that she has left behind the “smart on crime” stances she took while in California in order to advocate for progressive criminal justice reform in the Senate — including by introducing bail reform, anti-lynching, and marijuana decriminalization bills. And like Biden, she clarified where she stands now during a recent debate, saying, “We need reform of policing in America, and our criminal justice system.” Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images Sen. Kamala Harris hosts a discussion outside of White’s Barber and Beauty Shop in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 28. This new stance won over some of the voters I spoke with; but others were excited more by what she represents — potentially, the first Black and first Asian American woman to be vice president. “A lot of people were already like, ‘Eh, yeah, I’ll vote for him, I’ll do what I got to do.’ And then when she was put on the ticket, it was, ‘I’m voting!’” said Walton, the Milwaukee party chair. “The fact that she would be the first woman vice president is lit,” Blackwell said, noting that he also thought she would be helpful in balancing a potential President Biden: “It’s hard to trust any old white man with a lot of power, to be honest.” “There’s a contradiction that folks are holding,” Jackson said, noting “there’s a particular political terrain that we need to be on” to achieve aims like defunding the police. But many are willing to embrace that contradiction and come out for Biden and Harris regardless of their pasts, because, as Jackson said, “this is such a high-stakes election.” There is a lot at stake for Black Americans The stakes feel — and are — existential for Black Americans. For many, the Covid-19 death toll isn’t just numbers of a graph; they have been personally swept up by the first, second, and third waves. Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, told me, “In Detroit, you know, it’s six degrees of separation, everyone is seeing someone that they know who passed from from Covid. I know somebody — we’ve had … two of our members pass, we’ve had staff members who’ve been infected.” More than 27,000 Black Americans have died. And that means Black Americans “have the kind of collective experience of grieving and mourning people that should be here,” Jackson said. It is not just the coronavirus that is taking Black lives. This year, Black Americans have been killed by vigilantes and police officers, by guns and knees, on snow-covered pavement and in their own homes. Black men have a 1-in-1,000 chance of being killed by police, a recent study found. One in 920 Black Americans has been killed by Covid-19. It can feel as though if one does not get you, the other will. “I just don’t understand it,” Crosby said. “I don’t see why we’re not getting helped.” Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images Relatives of Covid-19 victims drive past photographs of their family members in Detroit, Michigan. Spencer expressed similar frustration: “How are we still fighting for the same things that my mom was fighting for? My mom is 90. How? How? I mean, how?!” Many I spoke to expressed particular concern for racist violence from non-state actors. “The KKK, the white supremacists, the racist individuals, they have taken off their hoods,” Spencer said. “They are no longer hiding who they are. They are embracing it, actually. They are embracing white supremacy.” The president has had a strong hand in this. In the words of my colleague Fabiola Cineas, “Trump is the accelerant” — he habitually quickens racist fires, from insisting that Obama was a Muslim with ill intent to telling the far-right hate group the Proud Boys to “stand back” and “stand by” on national television. In his staffing choices, rhetoric, and policies, he has advanced the cause of white nationalists, who desire a physical or spiritual white state. Spencer said many Black voters she’s talked to believe the price of a second Trump term will be high. She said they are “extremely worried that if there’s four more years of this administration, we will be under 2.5 seconds away from chains and cotton fields.” Even if such a dire reprisal of history isn’t in Black Americans’ future, they will still be faced with the economic remnants of that past. In good times, Black Americans faced a desolate economic landscape, one bereft of benefits accessible to white Americans, like homeownership and being on the high end of a persistent wage gap. Now is not a good time, nor will the foreseeable future be. There is no simple solution to these monumental problems that are so ingrained in American life. Trump may be the accelerant, but he is not the root cause. “We’ve got to delete Trump out of the picture,” according to Blackwell. “It’s not about him. It’s about us.” Crosby was always sure he was going to vote, but he also wanted to be sure he was casting his ballot for the candidate who would most benefit his community. And he said, after watching the final debate, he’s no longer undecided. Lucy Hewett for Vox “It upsets me to think that people don’t think that America is still racist,” Crosby said. With a pandemic, systemic racism, economic inequality, and the shadow of white nationalism haunting the US, he said, “I don’t know who’s truly going to help me. But it sounds like Biden is more on the side of trying to help people.” That is enough for him, and enough for nearly everyone I spoke to. They all just want to use their voting power to install leaders who will actually work for — and with — them to make life better. “We just have to get to the next level,” Blackwell said. “So we can change, really, the system.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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