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The Morning Dispatch: Brokered Convention Blues
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The Morning Dispatch: Brokered Convention Blues

Plus, we chat with a virologist about why the world is struggling to keep coronavirus under control.

Happy Friday! And congratulations to long-suffering fans of the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins—it looks like your days of being torched by Tom Brady twice each year could be coming to a close.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The stock market continued its coronavirus-sparked slide Thursday; the Dow has now fallen by about 10 percent since its peak earlier this month. Stocks are trending towards their worst week since the financial crisis in 2008.

  • A whistleblower in the Department of Health and Human Services claims American health officials interacted with quarantined Americans without proper protective equipment and training, potentially putting themselves and the public at risk of spreading the coronavirus.

  • Vice President Mike Pence, whom President Trump tapped Wednesday to head up the U.S. coronavirus response, announced Thursday that he will appoint State Department ambassador-at-large and HIV/AIDS expert Debbie Birx to serve as his “coronavirus response coordinator.”

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state is monitoring about 8,400 people for the coronavirus, confirming 33 cases of it thus far.

  • More than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed by airstrikes in northwestern Syria. Turkish officials blamed Syrian government forces, but the strikes could set up a clash between Russia and Turkey.

  • Georgia Republicans are fretting that an increasingly intense Senate primary between recently appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins may imperil the seat in the special election this November, where Pastor Raphael Warnock, an Atlanta pastor and Democrat, is also expected to be a competitive candidate. (Sarah discussed this scenario earlier this week for The Dispatch.)

A Virologist on COVID-19

In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we broke down some of the political and economic implications of the virus. Today, we’ll look at some of the medical ramifications.

To do so, we talked to Anthony Fehr, a virologist at the University of Kansas who focuses on coronaviruses and how they infect people.

Fehr told The Dispatch that COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to the flu—coughing, sneezing, malaise, headaches, difficulty breathing—but has an incubation period (the time between contracting the virus and showing symptoms) of one to two weeks. Therefore, while the United States was able to quickly identify and quarantine the first few coronavirus patients due to their symptoms and travel history, that’s about to become much harder.

Since the virus has spread beyond China, “all it takes is a few U.S. people that have been traveling in Italy or backpacking across Europe,” Fehr told us. “They get infected, they come over here—maybe asymptomatic patients, maybe younger individuals that come over here—and they have a number of contacts. Maybe they’re going to school, maybe they’re in big lecture halls. And then the transmission may start happening very quickly.”

“Very quickly” in this instance would mean a figure in the low hundreds in a week or two. After studying the virus’ spread in South Korea, Fehr concluded it follows a logarithmic progression. “It goes very slowly, and then there’s a very quick ascension,” he told us. “Usually there’s maybe 10 or 15 cases. Then the next day there’ll be another 10 or 15 cases. And then within a few more days, maybe you’re up to 50 cases a day, then a hundred.”

“Hopefully we’ll never see the kind of spread that happened in China where it got to the point where you had 3,000 cases a day. But you just never know at this point.”

Contrary to what acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told the Senate earlier this week, the mortality rate for those with the coronavirus is significantly higher than for those with the flu, approximately 2 percent to 0.1 percent. The lack of a vaccine is the main reason why, per Fehr.

If you’re vaccinated and get the flu, you “have some level of preexisting immunity,” he told us. “Even if the the vaccine doesn’t completely protect you from getting infected, it oftentimes lessens the severity of the disease … We have no preexisting immunity to this virus, there’s absolutely none.”

“The sooner we get to a potential vaccine, the better,” Fehr said. But—even on an expedited track—a vaccine will likely take 12 to 18 months to develop. “Whether or not they work or not is going to be the question. We have no idea if any of these vaccines are going to actually be effective.”

Looking ahead, Fehr calls the virus “a serious problem,” but notes that while “some people are understating it, other people might be overstating it.”

“I’m highly skeptical that we’ll be able to stamp out the virus completely,” he said, noting that it could potentially die down a bit over the summer months and come back next winter. But early containment efforts seem to be effective.

“The Chinese have shown kind of how to deal with it,” he said. “Despite the fact that they had nearly 80,000 cases, their number of cases are dwindling quickly. And so they’ve obviously been fairly successful at this, and though their measures are pretty extreme, obviously they seem to have worked.”

Are We Headed Toward A Brokered Convention?

It’s not a coincidence that every presidential nominee since 1952 has won on the first ballot. From a purely actuarial standpoint, that makes a brokered Democratic convention unlikely despite the punditry’s enthusiasm for exciting political hypotheticals. 

There are a couple party rules that have helped to prevent brokered conventions for the last 70 years. On the Republican side, some states have winner-take-all primaries, which prevents delegates from being splintered over a large field of candidates. On the Democratic side, all delegates—regular delegates who are pledged to one candidate and “superdelegates”—voted on the first ballot at the convention, which made the outcome more predictable and prevented lower-tier candidates from staying in the race on the small chance of a late ballot surprise.  

But in the wake of the 2016 primary, as Elizabeth Warren noted during her town hall this week, the Sanders team wanted to dilute the importance of superdelegates and worked with the DNC to change the rules for this time around. 

This year, therefore, only the 3,979 pledged delegates that are allocated proportionally among candidates above the 15 percent threshold in each jurisdiction are counted on the first ballot. This means a candidate needs to have won 1,991 delegates during the primary season to secure the nomination on the first ballot. If not, it moves to the second ballot in which all of the first-round delegates are free to vote for any candidate, the 771 superdelegates get to vote, and a candidate would need more than 2,375 delegates to secure the nomination. And so it goes until there is a nominee. 

If Sanders doesn’t amass enough delegates to win 1,991 votes on the first ballot, he could have a problem. The New York Times published an article headlined, “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders,” in which they interviewed 93 superdelegates and found “overwhelming opposition to handing Mr. Sanders the nomination if he fell short of a majority of delegates.” Only nine of the 93 superdelegates interviewed for the article said they believed the nomination should automatically go to whichever candidate received a plurality of votes on the first ballot.

As of today, Bernie Sanders leads the delegate race with 45, Pete Buttigieg has 25, and Joe Biden is in third place with 15—a minuscule fraction of the 1,991 delegates any one of them would need to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. After Tuesday, however, almost 40 percent of the 3,979 pledged delegates will have been committed. Buckle up!

House GOP to Pentagon: Don’t Get Cute With the Taliban

With the White House and the Taliban reportedly close to a negotiated drawdown of  U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a group of 22 GOP lawmakers sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday deploring the prospect of a peace deal and seeking assurances that the terms of any agreement be made public.

“The Taliban is a terrorist group that celebrates suicide attacks,” the group, which includes Reps. Liz Cheney, Dan Crenshaw, Will Hurd, and Adam Kinzinger, wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Washington Free Beacon. “The Taliban also has a history of extracting concessions in exchange for false assurances. They will accept nothing less than a full-scale U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as they seek to establish their totalitarian ‘Islamic Emirate.’ Our withdrawal would then allow terrorist groups in Afghanistan to grow stronger and establish safe havens from which to plot attacks against us.”

The agreement, which is slated for signing Saturday, will reportedly reduce America’s military presence in Afghanistan to just above the number of troops who were there when Trump took office—down from 12,000 to 8,600. It comes after a week of what the Defense Department has described as a planned “reduction of violence,” during which insurgent attacks on coalition forces have decreased from 50 to 80 a day to about half a dozen.

But lawmakers caution that such overtures of peace may prove illusory, and that the Taliban cannot be trusted. The letter urges Pompeo and Esper not to “put American security at risk by pretending that the Taliban is a reliable counter-terrorism partner” and insists that the deal contain no commitment to a full U.S. withdrawal.

As is standard operating procedure for congressional Republicans pushing back on Trump administration actions, the letter takes pains not to characterize itself as criticizing the president’s decisions, but only Esper’s and Pompeo’s.

“President Trump has taken crucial action to keep our nation safe, including eliminating the world’s most dangerous terrorists and destroying the ISIS caliphate,” it concludes. “He knows a bad deal when he sees one. We urge you not to commit America to a dangerous deal with the Taliban that would abandon the President’s track record of strengthening America and putting our security and interests first.” 

Worth Your Time

  • This piece made us do a double-take: How did we miss the day when Barack Obama pardoned the guy who tried to steal a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card from Charlie Sheen? Writing in Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim has given us a complete retelling of the theft from New York’s All-Star Café and its aftermath. Read it here.

  • Joe Biden’s discursive, meandering style has sparked a thousand online arguments this campaign season about whether he’s lost a step or whether he’s always been this way. But at a CNN town hall Wednesday night, Biden was not only sharp and lucid—his answer to a question about how his religious faith shapes his life, asked by a pastor whose wife died in the racist shooting at a Charleston church in 2015, was one of the most powerful moments of the campaign. The video of the exchange is well worth your time.

  • National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis is consistently worth reading on abortion politics issues, and her latest piece on Sen. Ben Sasse’s Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which we mentioned in yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, is no exception. “One survey from March 2019 found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe doctors should be required to care for infants who survive abortion,” she wrote. “Another survey found even higher support: 82 percent said they oppose removing medical care from viable infants. But will Americans ever find out that Democrats disagree with them? Given the way prominent media outlets have covered the born-alive bill, that seems unlikely—and that’s what Democrats are banking on.” Read the whole thing.

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Pop Culture Recommendation

The Invisible Man—a contemporary adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel of the same name—is out in theaters today, and one of your Morning Dispatchers saw it last night. Or at least he saw bits and pieces of it through his interlocked fingers—according to his Apple Watch, his heart rate hovered around 110 bpm for the duration of the film.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thomas Joscelyn’s latest Vital Interests newsletter (🔒) laments the delay of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment hearings—hosted by both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees—explaining why they matter and what to look for when they are eventually held. Check it out here!

  • David’s Thursday French Press(🔒) covers some positive news: Divorce rates are down, the percentage of kids living in intact married families is up, and the abortion rate is at an all-time low. David also has a web piece today, looking at the effort by some congressional Republicans to get William Barr to combat pornography. David points out that’s almost impossible to ban it, but it is possible to “zone” it away from children online. 

  • Jonah has a piece today looking at what Bernie Sanders gets wrong about authoritarianism. Given the answer is “almost everything,” we think he kept it pretty short and to the point.

Let Us Know

President Trump on Wednesday tried to pin part of that day’s stock market tumble on the previous night’s Democratic debate. And then the stock market fell again Thursday. What was the cause this time?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Cameron Nightingale wearing mask and glove as a precaution against coronavirus in San Francisco by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images.