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The Morning Dispatch: Polls Look Good for Biden Ahead of Debate
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The Morning Dispatch: Polls Look Good for Biden Ahead of Debate

Plus, how schools are faring one month after many students returned.

Happy Tuesday! Tonight’s the night! After months of anticipation, Trump and Biden are set to duke it out on the debate stage in Cleveland.

REMINDER: Immediately after the debate ends, there will be a post-debate Dispatch Live with Jonah, Steve, David, and Sarah—and you’re all invited! Click here for more details and, if you’re a member, submit questions for the gang during the debate.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 33,575 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 3.2 percent of the 1,043,622 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 281 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 205,031.

  • President Trump announced Monday that the federal government will begin shipping Abbott Laboratories rapid coronavirus tests to states, with 6.5 million expected to go out this week and 100 million expected to be shipped over the next month. The administration is strongly encouraging states to use the tests to aid in the reopening of K-12 schools.

  • California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties are under mandatory evacuation orders, as two fast moving fires have started in the wine-growing region.

  • The U.S. government has been weighing plans to remove its diplomatic personnel from Iraq in response to threats identified by American intelligence. Senior U.S. officials have reportedly told Iraqi leaders they will soon close the U.S. Embassy unless Iraq intervenes to stop Iranian-backed militias launching rockets at the outpost.

  • Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces engaged in clashes in the Nagarno-Kharabakh region on Monday, leaving dozens dead.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a new, $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief proposal in a last-ditch effort to jumpstart negotiations with the White House. The bill is smaller than the $3 trillion HEROES Act the House passed back in May, but Republicans in recent weeks have indicated they won’t go any higher than $1.5 trillion.

  • The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 on Monday to win the Stanley Cup.

Toto, We’re Not in 2016 Anymore

In many ways, the presidential debates—starting tonight—represent President Trump’s last chance to alter the trajectory of the race, which Joe Biden has consistently led by between 6 and 9.5 percentage points since early June. The former vice president currently holds a 7-point advantage in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, the largest at this point in the race since Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. With just 35 days until November 3, and voting already (or soon to be) underway in many states across the country, Trump is running out of time to make up ground.

Trump’s widely unexpected Electoral College win in 2016 has shaped mass perception about the performance of the polls four years ago. The numbers in a few key states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—were off, but national polling was pretty much spot-on. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average four years ago today showed Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 2.6 percentage points. When the dust settled, she won the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points.

Biden’s lead this time around appears different; it’s stronger and more durable. First, Biden has led Trump for the entirety of the race. The pandemic, mass protests, and unrest over racial disparities, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death—nothing has significantly changed the polling of the race. Biden keeps humming along at around +7, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. But second, and most importantly, Biden is consistently hitting 50 percent in polls. Clinton was leading Trump at this point in the race four years ago, but it was 43 percent to 41 percent. A historically large proportion of Americans remained undecided into October 2016, leaving Clinton particularly vulnerable to late-breaking news like FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress about her use of a private email server.

After four years of the Trump presidency, however, few remain genuinely undecided about him. Most people have an opinion one way or another, you might have noticed. Just 2 percent of voters in a recent Monmouth University poll and 1 percent of voters in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll were undecided. Voters can, of course, still change their minds in the next 35 days. But switching from Biden to Trump at this point in the race is a much bigger leap for a voter than switching from undecided to Trump. Biden’s lead is significantly more baked-in than Clinton’s was four years ago.

American presidential winners are not crowned by the national popular vote, however, so let’s take a look at state polling. As of now, the most likely tipping-point state—the state that will put either candidate over the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win—is Pennsylvania. Just days after Biden received the endorsement of Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of the Keystone State, his campaign got more good news. Two polls—the New York Times/Siena College one and the Washington Post/ABC News one—showing Biden up on Trump by 9 and 10 points, respectively.

Here is where things currently stand in other battleground states.

Barring a completely unforeseen black swan event, Biden is almost assuredly going to win the popular vote when all the ballots are counted later this year. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley points out, the Electoral College’s current Republican tilt may work to Trump’s advantage. FiveThirtyEight’s projections currently give Trump just an 11 percent chance of winning the popular vote, but a 22 percent chance of winning the Electoral College.

Biden’s steady lead is bolstered by his strong support among female voters. Per 2016 exit polls, Trump lost women to Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points. He’s losing them to Biden by a staggering 31 percentage points now, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. Biden’s lead is even stronger among young female voters. A mid-September NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found the Democratic nominee with a 51 percentage point lead among women under 40.

Like Biden’s lead, Trump’s approval rating has remained remarkably stable throughout the tumultuous past few months. Unfortunately for the president, it’s remained stable between 40 and 43 percent, 6 to 13 percentage points lower than Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton approval ratings stood at this point in their tenure. Seventy-one percent of respondents in a late-September Morning Consult poll think things in the country have “pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.”

If nothing else, 2016 taught pundits the folly of overconfidence in predictions. A lot can happen in 35 days, starting with the debate tonight in Cleveland. But there’s a reason the Biden campaign has kept its candidate pretty much under wraps: He’s winning, and they are just trying to run out the clock. If nothing changes, we’ll see President Joe Biden come January 2021. The Trump campaign knows this and will spend the intervening time doing everything it can to change those dynamics. If it weren’t such a cliche to say “buckle up,” we’d say that here.

A Month In, Schools Are Holding Fast

A month and change into the school year here in America, here’s the good news: There’s no sign so far that reopened schools have become significant sites for the spread of the coronavirus. The question now is: Can that last?

Getting any kind of real-time comprehensive data about America’s 50-million plus schoolkids is always a tricky proposition. But as of now, we can still say with confidence that schools haven’t yet shown themselves to be COVID hotspots. Why? Because there’s plenty of local and regional groups out there watching reopened schools very closely, with a vested interest in sounding the alarms should outbreaks occur.

Teacher’s unions, for instance, were among the groups making the loudest doomsday predictions as school reopenings approached. And yet here’s Zeph Capo, the president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, in the Washington Post last week: “I am not seeing at this particular point the rate [of transmission] I had expected.”

This isn’t to say that COVID cases haven’t been cropping up among staff and students at U.S. schools. Brown University’s Covid-19 School Response Dashboard, a fledgling data collection project intended to provide a general survey of how schools are doing during the pandemic, puts the current confirmed infection rate of the students it tracks at 0.07 percent, and the confirmed infection rate of teachers at 0.14 percent.

But COVID showing up at schools is one thing, and COVID spreading at schools is another. It should shock nobody to hear that the coronavirus, still present in pockets of our communities, shows up in schools, too. But from a policy perspective, the question is whether having schools open makes the problem worse. So far, the anti-virus measures like masking and distancing have helped keep the spread manageable through the summer months and into early fall.

All this is to the good. But it’s important to note that whether the virus has affected schools and whether it can affect them are different questions. Several countries, including Israel and South Korea, have previously been forced to backtrack on school opening plans amid worsening COVID outbreaks.

The trouble is that it’s almost impossible to consider any individual contributing factor to COVID transmission without considering the state of the pandemic as a whole. In an environment where there’s relatively little community transmission happening, schools can apparently do very well. But in the last few days, we’ve started to see an uptick again in several important pandemic metrics: not just new COVID cases, but new hospitalizations too.

Again, the currently available evidence doesn’t lay the blame for this uptick on schools. But the worse the pandemic grows, the more nodes of possible infection arise in a given community, and the riskier each potential spreading activity becomes. If we do endure another reinvigorated wave of COVID this winter, don’t be surprised if a substantial number of schools are forced to retreat to online instruction for a while.

“I’m in the camp that thinks we need to do everything possible to get schools open,” said Howard Forman, a health policy professor at Yale, told The Dispatch. “My colleague Josh Sharfstein had a Washington Post op-ed in July where he basically said, ‘If you want to open the schools, close the bars.’ That’s where I am: I’m of the opinion that we should do everything we can to have schools open, but that requires a lot of other mitigating factors, including testing, including keeping bars closed, including all the major social distancing and masking measures that we’ve seemingly come to believe work at this time.”

2016’s Conservative Third-Party Voters Are Breaking for Biden in 2020

A couple days ago, we asked you to email Declan if you voted for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin in 2016 and were willing to discuss that vote and the decision in front of you this year. More than 300 of you did, and he is incredibly grateful. He wasn’t able to respond to each and every email (though he tried!), but he spent the past week reading every word you sent in. The result is this piece, which went up on the site today.

The results represent a small slice of the over TMD readership and we are happy to count as Dispatch members enthusiastic Trump supporters and eager Biden backers—and everyone in between. But we thought it worth sampling our third-party voters to get a sense of what they’re thinking heading into November.

The bottom line? Less than 10 percent of respondents who had a relatively clear idea of their November intentions plan to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. In fact, Trump trails not only Biden, but Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen, write-in candidates, and leaving the presidential line on the ballot blank.

These results are unscientific, and the survey’s methodology introduced plenty of selection bias: Respondents subscribe not only to The Dispatch, but the Morning Dispatch newsletter. They opted in to the study, and proactively emailed Declan their preferences.

The data may have their limitations, but coupled with the hundreds of qualitative responses Declan sifted through, a relatively straightforward narrative emerged. These voters are opposed to Trump almost entirely on character grounds; they appreciate the conservative policy triumphs of the past four years, but no amount of these “wins” can persuade them to join the president’s team in 2020.

Sean, a network administrator in Roanoke, Virginia expressed relief that Trump hasn’t reverted to his pre-Republican ways. “Many conservatives like myself thought that someone as ungrounded ideologically as Trump would end up shifting to liberal positions whenever he thought it would be politically convenient. That hasn’t generally been true,” he said. But Sean would still rather vote for “a genetically engineered semi-sentient crossbreed of poison ivy and salmonella” than the president. “[Trump is] vindictive, cruel, and undisciplined,” he continued. “On any particular issue, when there’s a smart, well-supported conservative argument for it, he still manages to find the dumbest, most racist-sounding, or ignorant version of that argument to put forward.”

For some voters, this deprioritization of candidates’ platforms represented a noticeable shift in their voting strategy. “Prior to Trump,” said Adam, an operations manager at an Amazon facility in Minnesota, “I tended to believe holding the right policy positions were more important than having good character. My opinion on that has been entirely flipped on its head in the last four years.”

Check out the full story for more on these voters’ thoughts about Joe Biden, their decoupling from Republican orthodoxy, and the impact they could have on the race in November.

Worth Your Time

  • According to Lynne Cheney—author, historian, and wife to former Vice President Dick Cheney—America’s past is ever-present. For the Wall Street Journal, Emily Bobrow spoke to Cheney about her new book, The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation. Cheney’s passion for the contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe shines through in the interview, as she explains how the Virginians’ positioning on the “periphery of civilization” allowed them to break free of traditional thinking about the English monarchy and European hierarchies.

  • In his latest piece for National Review, Kevin D. Williamson notes the extraordinarily high level of public support the Black Lives Matter movement garnered at the start of this summer’s protests, when “a majority of Republicans supported the George Floyd protests,” and almost 70 percent of Americans said that the killing of George Floyd represented a deeper problem with American law enforcement. But rather than leading to broadly popular reforms, this temporary consensus was squandered by riots, radicalism, and looting that detracted from more broadly amenable messages. Maybe some Democrats would rather engage in radical-chic activism than ask hard questions, Williamson concludes: “A vague problem vaguely related to the vaguely racist actions of vaguely identified vaguely Republican people elsewhere is a much more comfortable discussion for the powers that be in Minneapolis than the question of how Minneapolis is run, who runs it, how they run it, who benefits from that, and who pays the worst social costs.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • Be sure to catch the latest episode of Advisory Opinions for Sarah and David’s thoughts on today’s polling roundup, electoral litigation in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and Trump’s newly released tax returns.

  • Sarah, Andrew, and Audrey teamed up for Monday’s edition of The Sweep, taking a closer look at a few key questions: Can Latino voters help Trump take Florida? Does he need the swing state to win the electoral college? Thanks to Florida’s outsized conservative-leaning Cuban American population, the answer to the former question could be yes.

  • Did the Luzerne County Board of Elections knowingly discard ballots cast for Trump? The jury (an ongoing FBI inquiry) is still out, but most of what we know about the case indicates an honest mistake on the part of the county. Check out Alec’s Dispatch Fact Check for a deep dive into the incident that ignited concerns over mail-in ballots.

Let Us Know

If, hypothetically, one was to create a presidential debate bingo card for Morning Dispatch readers, what are some phrases/actions one should include?

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

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.