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The Morning Dispatch: One Week Left
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The Morning Dispatch: One Week Left

Plus: The nation rockets up the hill of its biggest COVID spike yet.

Happy Monday! We’re a week and a day from Election Day—where the heck did 2020 go?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • At least five of Vice President Mike Pence’s aides—including his chief of staff—have tested positive for the coronavirus. Pence has been in close contact with many of them, but he is continuing on with his campaign schedule after testing negative on Sunday. The New York Times reports White House chief of staff Mark Meadows tried to keep the diagnoses from going public, pressing the White House medical office to shelve a planned press statement. 

  • The Senate voted 51-48 on Sunday to advance the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to a final vote. Barrett is expected to be confirmed to the Supreme Court later today with 52 votes, as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced over the weekend she would vote for the nominee.

  • President Trump announced Friday that Israel and Sudan have agreed to normalize relations. The news comes just days after the United States removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan is now the third Arab government in recent weeks to agree to officially normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed over the weekend to a ceasefire brokered by the United States. After four weeks of fighting over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces will stop hostilities, effective 8:00 a.m. local time on Monday.

  • The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Friday that ballots could not be thrown out over voter signature discrepancies. The ruling is a blow to Republican efforts to challenge Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s guidance for mail-in ballot processing. 

  • Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Washington D.C. archdiocese to the College of Cardinals. Gregory is the first African-American cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • The United States confirmed 61,251 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.5 percent of the 1,113,149 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 444 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 225,215. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 41,753 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

The State of the Race—and How Trump Could Still Win

On “60 Minutes” last night, CBS’ Norah O’Donnell asked Joe Biden if he believed his opponent could still win the election next week. “Sure … it’s not over until the bell rings,” the former vice president responded. “We feel good about where we are, but I don’t underestimate how he plays.”

There’s no upside for Biden in declaring an early victory, of course. But the question itself is more warranted than it’s been since perhaps 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton cruised to reelection over then-Sen. Bob Dole with 379 electoral votes and an 8.5-percentage-point lead in the national popular vote.

If the polls are accurate—of course a big if—Biden’s in line for a similar-sized victory. He leads Donald Trump by just over 9 percent in national polls, and FiveThirtyEight currently projects the former vice president to win the electoral college 87 times out of 100—earning an average of 344 electoral votes in simulations.

Last time around, the odds of Trump securing 270 electoral votes were about the same as the odds of former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz getting a base hit in a given at-bat (29 percent). This year, Trump’s chances have shrunk to about the likelihood of Ortiz getting an extra-base hit (13 percent).

Why the difference? For starters, eight days out from the 2016 election—the same timeframe as today—Clinton’s lead in national polls over Trump was only 4.7 percentage points, not 9.2. Her lead in Michigan was 5.3 points; Biden’s is 8.1. North Carolina: 0.7 v. 2.1. Florida: 0.6 v. 2.3. Wisconsin: 5.5 v. 6.3. Pennsylvania: 5.0 v. 5.5.

But perhaps the biggest discrepancy between then and now is in the number of undecided and third-party voters left at this point. Clinton was leading Trump in key state polls four years ago, but she was doing so with only 44 percent to 46 percent in many of the battlegrounds. In Michigan, for example, polls on Election Day showed about 15 percent of voters were either undecided or leaning third party. Those late deciders—and voters who disliked both candidates—broke heavily for Trump.

There are far fewer undecided voters this time around—and third-party candidates are much less of a factor. Biden’s net favorability rating currently stands at +11—significantly better than Clinton’s -5 at this time last cycle—and the former vice president is winning voters who dislike both him and Trump by a landslide.

All this explains why Joe Biden’s chances of prevailing on Election Day are so high. But as baseball fans know, David Ortiz hit his fair share of doubles and home runs in his day. So how could Trump pull it out?

Election analyst (and creator of the FiveThirtyEight model) Nate Silver said yesterday that there isn’t any one very likely path to 270 electoral votes for Trump. Rather, “there are several theories for why Trump could win that very probably aren’t true,” Silver said. “But if you add up a lot of longshot possibilities, it’s not that hard to get to a 10-15% chance, which is something worth taking seriously.”

Let’s break down how it could happen.

How Trump Can Win

The Polls Tightened: If the race was held today (which, given early voting, it kind of is), Trump would almost assuredly lose. Polling errors happen, but very rarely are they large enough to erase the leads Biden has built up in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes. All Biden needs to do is hold Clinton’s 2016 map and flip Wisconsin (where he’s up by 6.7 percentage points), Michigan (8.0), and Pennsylvania (5.6). Even if the polls this year are as wrong as they were in 2016 (and wrong in the same direction), Biden still takes the White House with 280 electoral votes. But if the polls narrow a bit, that’s no longer the case.

In 2016, Clinton’s national polling lead tightened in the final days of the race—likely due in large part to FBI Director James Comey’s letter released October 28—from 4.7 percentage points eight days out to 3.6 percentage points on Election Day. (Remember, Clinton ended up winning the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points.)

Biden’s leads in key swing states have narrowed slightly since early October. The former vice president was up 4.5 points in Florida on October 13; his lead there is 2.4 points today. He was ahead 4.4 points in Arizona on October 7; now he’s up 3.0 points. North Carolina was Biden +3.3 on October 13; now it’s Biden +2.5. For Trump to be a polling error away from victory, he’ll need some of the Rust Belt/Midwest states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan—to grow similarly close. 

The Polls Are Irreversibly Broken: An oft-discussed theory among pollsters is the “shy Trump voter phenomenon,” the idea that Trump voters are either less likely to be truthful when speaking to a pollster, or less likely to answer a pollster’s call in the first place.

As Sarah wrote in The Sweep last week, both are unlikely. If Trump supporters were lying to pollsters en masse, “we’d expect to see unusually high numbers of registered Republicans defecting from Trump, but that’s not the case. In fact, Trump’s strength with Republicans remains both high and consistent,” she writes.

While national polling was fairly spot-on in 2016, state polling—in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania—was not. Part of that can be explained by the number of undecided voters four years ago, but those results had more to do with incorrectly weighting the electorate; Trump turned out more non-college white voters than pollsters expected.

Pollsters have theoretically corrected for this. “Over all, 46 percent of the more than 30 pollsters who have released a state survey since March 1 appeared to weight by self-reported education, up from around 20 percent of battleground state pollsters in 2016,” wrote New York Times elections analyst Nate Cohn in May. College graduates made up just 38 percent of a recent Pennsylvania poll showing Biden up 51 percent to 44 percent, Cohn pointed out, compared to 48 percent four years ago.

But there’s a chance these adjustments aren’t enough. “I don’t really see how Trump can win,” GOP strategist Rob Stutzman told The Dispatch. “If he does, it would mean there is a white grievance vote that truly stays off the radar of polling. There’s some demographic evidence to suggest that’s possible, but not likely.”

Electoral Issues Arose: As Sarah detailed in an August edition of The Sweep, mail and absentee ballots have significantly higher rejection rates than in-person votes do. Due in part to the partisan nature of coronavirus psychology, and in part to President Trump’s vendetta against (other people) voting by mail, Democrats are more likely to have their votes invalidated.

Most states are doing all they can to avoid mass invalidations. Between massive voter education campaigns and extending mail-in deadlines, this likely won’t be as significant an issue as many feared a few months ago. Some secretaries of state we’ve talked to are even instructing poll workers to call voters if there’s an error with their ballot so that they can fix it prior to Election Day.

But if the race is close—following both tightening and another polling error—a few thousand ballot rejections could make a difference in the outcome of the race. And that’s when the litigation would start.

A Weekend of Bad COVID News

For weeks now, watching the TMD COVID-19 charts grow has reminded us of a rollercoaster’s lift hill—the initial section that raises the train to a peak from which it can descend. Over the weekend, that peak reached startling new heights. And just like a real rollercoaster, it’s too late to get off the ride.

The United States reported 83,183 new coronavirus cases on Friday—the most ever in a single day. The record didn’t last long: 84,236 infections were confirmed on Saturday.

“We’re at a dangerous tipping point right now: We’re entering what’s going to be the steep slope of the curve of the epidemic curve,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CBS News yesterday. “These cases are going to continue to build. There’s really no backstop here. I don’t see forceful policy intervention happening any time soon. We have a moment of opportunity right now to take some forceful steps to try to abate the spread that’s underway. But if we don’t do that, if we miss this window, this is going to continue to accelerate and it’s going to be more difficult to get under control.”

The Trump administration seems to be conceding that last point. “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Jake Tapper yesterday. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigations. … What we need to do is make sure that we have the proper mitigation factors, whether it’s therapies or vaccines or treatments, to make sure that people don’t die from this.” 

The Biden campaign pounced on the chief of staff’s comments. “This wasn’t a slip by Meadows,” a statement from the former vice president read. “It was a candid acknowledgement of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away.”

Meadows has a point on mitigation: Although an average of 733 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 every single day this month, that figure actually represents a decrease from September (777 per day), August (975 per day), and July (817 per day). Between newly approved therapeutics and doctors gaining experience, we are getting better at treating the virus. But hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, and the record surge in recent days portends nothing good. 

At least five of those new cases can be traced back to Vice President Mike Pence’s office. Although Pence himself tested negative on Sunday, his chief of staff, his body man, and at least three other aides have come down with the virus.

The news over the weekend wasn’t all bad. “We will know whether a vaccine is safe and effective by the end of November, the beginning of December,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said yesterday, though he added it would not be widely available until several months into 2021. In the meantime, simple measures like mask-wearing go a long way to reduce the virus’ spread, particularly as we enter flu season.

“We are at a critical juncture in this pandemic, particularly in the northern hemisphere,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday. European countries are experiencing similar surges, with many of them beginning to reinstitute more restrictive containment measures. “The next few months are going to be very tough and some countries are on a dangerous track.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing in The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann considers the possible futures for a post-Trump Republican Party. As Erick Erickson puts it in the piece, Republican voters are increasingly embracing a “populism of a growing percentage of Americans who feel shut out. It’s younger, blue-collar voters—a coalition of grievance. They’re not conservative or liberal. They have grievances against the elite.” As Lemann sees it, three scenarios are available: Remnant, a “high Trumpism” strategy that relies on the “idea of an outpowered cohort of traditional Americans who see themselves as courageously defending their values” to replicate Trump’s victories; Restoration, in which Republicans “recapture their essential identity for the past hundred years as the party of business” and go back to things as usual; and Reversal, in which the GOP successfully transforms into a “worker’s party” against the backdrop of an increasingly wealthy Democratic electorate.

  • Disinformation expert Thomas Rid had a piece in the Washington Post over the weekend ruminating on how we should think about the alleged Hunter Biden emails—particularly in light of 2016’s Russian hack-and-leak operation targeting Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. He notes that we can’t know for certain whether or not the materials are part of a foreign election interference gambit, but adds that reflexively crying “disinformation” without knowing the facts can be just as damaging as ignoring those concerns entirely. “If we continue to ascribe too much power and influence to shadowy foreign spies, downplay our own agency and blame our domestic political problems on outside interference, then we are not only behaving like the old-school Soviet active measures playbook wants us to behave—worse, we’re becoming a little more like Russia ourselves.”

Something Fun 

Speaking of probabilities and baseball, the Rays had about a 17 percent chance of winning this game when Brett Phillips stepped up to the plate.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s latest French Press celebrates prominent Evangelical pastor John Piper for his recent essay on the presidential election. Virtue in a leader matters, David argues, just as much today as it did in 1998. But “we’re no longer in a position (especially in parts of the American Christian community) where one can point out a political leader’s serious moral defects and expect believers to think there is any serious problem with those defects,” he adds. “Unless and until one can tie those defects to specific poor policy choices.”

  • Friday’s G-File highlights just how many people are still stuck in 2016, with the psychological shock of Trump’s victory—positive or negative—causing them to think and act irrationally. But, Jonah writes, those stuck in “neverending 2016 have a problem seeing—and therefore believing—that large swaths of ‘the American people’ don’t see what they see.” He expands on this and more in his weekly Ruminant podcast.

  • National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar joined Sarah and Steve on Friday’s Dispatch Podcast for a conversation on the state of the race: Voter turnout, Senate scandals, party infighting, and more.

  • When longtime Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested in August, authorities found him off the coast of Connecticut on a yacht belonging to Chinese expat billionaire Guo Wengui. And the website that posted an alleged Hunter Biden sex tape over the weekend? Also connected to Wengui. In fact, there are indications Wengui had the much-debated Hunter Biden materials before the New York Post first splashed them on its pages earlier this month. So, who is he and what’s he up to? On the site today, Charlotte looks at the mysterious case of a Chinese billionaire who keeps turning up in American political news.

Let Us Know

We know what the fancy schmancy “models” and “data” forecast for Election Day. But what does your gut tell you is going to happen?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.