This is the fifth in a series of articles examining the politics and demographics of 2020’s expected swing states.
Wisconsin is proof that politicos have short memories. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried Wisconsin by just 0.4 percentage points — making it the closest state in the country. Four years earlier, it had been even closer — Democrat Al Gore won the Badger State by just 5,708 votes, or 0.2 points.
But Democrat Barack Obama really connected with Wisconsin voters, winning the state by 14 points in 2008 and 7 points in 2012. Going into 2016, that contributed to a sense that Wisconsin was a safe bet for Hillary Clinton — part of the mythical “blue wall.” It had, after all, voted Democratic in seven consecutive presidential elections by that point.
We all know what happened next: Now-President Trump carried Wisconsin by 0.8 percentage points, reaffirming its status as a swing state. It was the third time in five presidential elections that Wisconsin was decided by less than a point. Fast forward to 2020, and both sides are rightly treating it as a potential tipping point state. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast,1 Wisconsin has a 13 percent chance of providing the decisive vote in the Electoral College; only Pennsylvania and Florida are likelier tipping points.
Conventional wisdom says that Clinton lost Wisconsin because she infamously did not visit the state at all during the final seven months of the 2016 campaign. But that’s probably not true; Clinton devoted a lot of effort to winning Pennsylvania and still lost there, for instance. Instead, Wisconsin probably got redder in 2016 for the same reason that Pennsylvania and other Midwestern states did: demographics. The one-time home of progressive stalwarts like Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette and Victor Berger could not escape the modern reality that white people without a bachelor’s degree — who make up 59 percent of Wisconsin’s population age 25 and older — have become more and more Republican, especially in the Trump era. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, white voters without a college degree in Wisconsin went from supporting Mitt Romney 52 percent to 47 percent in 2012 to supporting Trump 56 percent to 38 percent in 2016. And as you can see in the map below, counties with the highest shares of white residents without a college degree veered the sharpest to the right:
These trends have left Wisconsin a light red state; according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric (newly updated for the 2020 cycle!),2 the state is 2.8 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. Yet Democrats could easily still win it in 2020, given Biden’s double-digit lead against Trump nationally, and considering they have multiple (non-mutually exclusive) paths forward in the state.
First, they could keep improving among suburban voters. As the map above shows, the Milwaukee suburbs were pretty much the only part of Wisconsin that actually moved toward Democrats in 2016. The problem is that, unlike, say, the Philadelphia suburbs, Milwaukee’s are still deeply Republican. The so-called “WOW counties” — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — have historically been the center of Republican power in the state, producing such politicians as former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and former Gov. Scott Walker. And all the Trump era has done is turn them from maroon to crimson: Even as Republicans bombed in other suburban areas around the country, Trump still carried the WOW counties in 2016 by 28 percentage points, and Walker carried them by 35 points in Wisconsin’s 2018 gubernatorial race. It will be very interesting to see if Biden can continue to eat into that margin, though — if so, it could have long-term implications for Wisconsin politics.
Second, Democrats could fix their turnout problem among Black voters. According to the CAP analysis, 74 percent of eligible Black voters turned out to vote in Wisconsin in 2012, but only 55 percent did in 2016. Given that Black Wisconsinites voted for Clinton 92 percent to 4 percent, that was a huge blow to Democrats: According to CAP’s calculations, Clinton would have won Wisconsin if Black voters had turned out at 2012 levels but everything else had stayed the same.3
Third, of course, Democrats could win back some non-college-educated white voters. This may be the path of least resistance: In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Democrat Tony Evers won six predominantly white, working-class counties in southwest Wisconsin that Trump carried in 2016. And according to a Siena College/The New York Times Upshot poll of Wisconsin from early October, Trump led Biden just 50 percent to 44 percent among white voters without a bachelor’s degree — much closer to the 2012 margin than 2016’s.
Indeed, it appears that Biden is on track for something much closer to the comfortable Democratic victories he and his old boss enjoyed in Wisconsin in 2008 and 2012 than Clinton’s showing in 2016. The FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Biden an 88 in 100 chance of winning the state; the average projected vote share margin is Biden 53.0 percent, Trump 46.1 percent. But Biden owes that commanding lead mostly to his overall national strength: We’re expecting him to win the national popular vote by 8.3 points — which means that Wisconsin is still more Trump-friendly than average.
So even an Obama-level Biden win would not solve Democrats’ underlying problems in the state. If Trump were to make a national comeback, or if there’s a significant polling error, or even just looking ahead to 2024, Republicans could be well-positioned to win Wisconsin once again. The combination of high support among white voters without a college degree, suburbs that are still dark red and the decisiveness of Black turnout makes Wisconsin, in the long term, arguably the most likely brick in the Midwestern “blue wall” to be painted red.
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Poll(s) of the week
Just eight years ago, it would have been weird to put Iowa and Ohio in the same electoral category as Georgia and Texas. In the 2012 election, President Obama won Iowa by 6 percentage points and Ohio by 3 points while losing Georgia by 8 and Texas by 16.
But in the early stages of the Trump era, Georgia and Texas got a bit more blue, while Iowa and Ohio got more red. (Exactly why these shifts happened at the same time is complicated, so let’s leave that aside for the moment.) In 2016 and 2018, these four states voted similarly — about 11 points, give or take, to the right of the country overall. That gave Trump fairly comfortable wins in all four states in 2016 — when Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by just 2 points — but Republicans barely won in several key statewide races in these four states in 2018, when Democrats won the national U.S. House vote by about 9 points.
Fast-forward to 2020, which is looking about as blue as 2018 — and perhaps even more so — and all four states look competitive. You can see that in the latest polls. Morning Consult surveys released this week showed President Trump with just a 2-point lead in Georgia and Texas, and a 3-point lead in Ohio. A CBS News/YouGov poll had Biden and Trump tied in Iowa. Those are just a few polls, obviously, but they largely match the FiveThirtyEight polling averages in each of these states.
Biden doesn’t need to carry these states — he can win a comfortable Electoral College victory without carrying them. Trump does need them, however — but he also needs bluer states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to win reelection. Similarly, Democrats can win a Senate majority without carrying any of the four Senate seats up for grabs in these states (none in Ohio but two in Georgia).
But these states are still important. Winning the Senate races there would likely mean that Democrats have 53 or 54 seats overall, giving them room for defections on key votes. A strong performance from Biden in Texas, meanwhile, could help down-ballot Democrats there, as the party could flip several U.S. House seats and the Texas House of Representatives. Symbolically, winning Georgia and particularly Texas would suggest that Democrats have really arrived in the South after years of talk about their potential strength in that region. And winning Iowa and particularly Ohio would suggest that Democrats’ decline in the Midwest have been overstated.
So let’s look at these four states more closely. (I have generally ordered them from Democrats’ best chances to their worst.)
Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield has a 53 in 100 chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast for Iowa; Biden has a 42 in 100 chance of winning, per our presidential forecast1
Even with the national swift toward the Democrats, Greenfield’s strong standing has been a bit surprising. Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst, as both a Republican woman and former Army reservist, was a compelling candidate when she ran for the Senate in 2014 and seemed like a rising star in the GOP after she won by 8 points in a state Obama had carried two years earlier. She has probably been more aligned with Trump than a senator from a swing state should be for electoral reasons, but she hasn’t made any major gaffes or had any big scandals in her Senate tenure. And Greenfield, who runs a real estate firm in Des Moines, doesn’t particularly have a unique biography, and she has never been elected to any office before.
Part of the story here is likely that people in politics like me assumed that Ernst was a strong candidate because her 2014 margin looked really big at the time, but that margin was really about Iowa shifting to the right more than Ernst herself. (Trump won big there in 2016.) So Ernst is struggling now because Iowa has moved back left and she doesn’t have much popularity separate from the broader GOP.
Our model has Biden doing slightly worse than Greenfield — or put another way, Trump is doing better than Ernst. That might just be random polling effects, and the presidential and Senate results could end up lining up fairly closely. But there is an obvious explanation for this dynamic: Democrats are spending a lot of money in Iowa to try to win the Senate race, but not much in terms of the presidential race. Biden and various organizations backing his campaign have spent just $3.3 million on TV commercials in Iowa to boost him, according to a recent NPR analysis. That compares with $154.1 million in Florida, the state where they are spending the most. But Democratic-aligned groups have spent more than $56 million in the Ernst-Greenfield race, more than all but one other Senate campaign (North Carolina). This makes sense. Winning a Democratic Senate seat in Iowa is just as valuable as winning one in Texas. But for Biden, Iowa is far less valuable — it has only six electoral votes.
Biden has a 49 in 100 chance, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast2
Biden’s chances in Iowa and Ohio are fairly similar, reflecting the national dynamics we explained above. But here’s one factor to watch in the next few weeks: It’s likely that Biden and Democratic groups backing his campaign will invest more heavily in trying to win Ohio than to win Georgia, Iowa or Texas (at the presidential level). Ohio has way more electoral votes (18) than Iowa. And Ohio is fairly demographically and culturally similar to states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that Biden has been targeting for months.3 So Biden doesn’t need to adapt his approach to win in those states, while Georgia and Texas are much different politically from the Midwestern states.
In fact, Biden was in Ohio this week, but his campaign seems hesitant to send him to Texas.4
Biden has a 50 in 100 chance, according to FiveThirtyEight’spresidential forecast; Democrats have a 49 in 100 chance of winning Georgia’s special Senate election, with Raphael Warnock as their likely candidate, and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has a 28 in 100 chance in the state’s other U.S. Senate race5
Biden may have a better chance than Democrats at the Senate level largely because of Georgia election law. At the presidential level, the winner of the plurality of the vote gets the state’s 16 electoral votes. But for the Senate (and other races in Georgia), you can win only if you get 50 percent of the vote or more. So it’s possible that both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate races will go to a runoff, which would take place on Jan. 5. Based on current polling, Democrats may have won the House, the presidency and the Senate by that date. I would expect Republicans to try really really hard to win one or both of these Senate races in such a runoff, and this is already a GOP-leaning state in the first place.
But the rules aren’t the only reason to be skeptical of Democrats’ chances of winning in Georgia, particularly at the Senate level. Candidate strength is another. Stacey Abrams’s decision not to run for either of these Senate seats made sense for her (Abrams said she didn’t want to be a senator) but was problematic for Democrats in Georgia. In the race against incumbent Sen. David Perdue, Ossoff won the Democratic primary in a crowded field. Ossoff, a one-time staffer to Georgia congressman Hank Johnson, is perhaps most famous for his 2017 U.S. House campaign in suburban Atlanta that got a lot of national attention because it was one of the first congressional races after Trump’s election. But Ossoff lost that race and has never won or held political office before.
Similarly, in the race for the seat held by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Democratic Party establishment has coalesced around Warnock, who has never even run for office before. Of course, it makes sense why Democrats have boosted Warnock despite his lack of electoral experience. He is the kind of person the Democratic Party would like to elect to the Senate to represent Georgia — a Black man who serves as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, the church Martin Luther King Jr. once led.
But Democrats have a chance in these races because of the blue-leaning national environment but also because the GOP candidates are not exactly juggernauts either. First elected in 2014, Perdue has been a strong defender and ally of Trump, including his anti-immigration policies. And Perdue, like Trump, has done little outreach outside of his base. That approach likely ensures he will get almost total opposition from Georgia’s large bloc of Black voters6 and will lose badly in the Atlanta suburbs. So if Ossoff can peel off a few white swing voters and the Democratic base turns out at really high levels, he can win this seat.
Loeffler is also likely to have trouble wooing voters outside of the GOP base because of the particular dynamics of her race. She was appointed in December 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp, after longtime Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson retired. Because of that appointment, her race is officially a special election, with different rules than the Ossoff-Perdue contest. There were no party primaries. So more than a dozen candidates from both parties are running, with the top two advancing to face off on Jan 5. Kemp picked Loeffler with the idea that a 49-year-old woman who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA team could run for this seat and appeal to more moderate voters. But GOP congressman Doug Collins, who represents an area in more rural northeastern Georgia, opted to run too. Collins is very conservative. So Loeffler, worried that Collins and Warnock would finish ahead of her, has aggressively moved to the right, looking to secure enough GOP votes to make it to the runoff.
In some polls, she is ahead of Collins and seems likely to make it into a runoff against Warnock. But she attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, and the players on the Atlanta Dream are now strong critics of her. Loeffler’s more moderate branding is gone. She is now like Perdue, a Republican who must run up the score among more conservative and rural Georgians to overcome opposition by Georgia’s urban, suburban and Black voters.
Biden has a 31 in 100 chance, according to our presidential forecast; Democratic candidate M.J. Hegar has a 13 in 100 chance, per our Senate forecast for the state7
Why do Democratic chances seem slimmer in Texas? In terms of the Senate, the Republicans have a stronger candidate compared with those in Georgia and Iowa. Incumbent Sen. John Cornyn has won six statewide races in Texas: Supreme Court twice, attorney general once and Senate three times. In contrast, Hegar, a former Air Force pilot, has never held elective office. She ran and lost in a U.S. House race two years ago. As with Abrams in Georgia, it’s worth considering if ex-congressman Beto O’Rourke, who ran such a strong 2018 campaign for Senate in Texas, would be polling better than Hegar if he had run. Also, Democratic groups aren’t spending that much in the Texas Senate race since they can try to win smaller, less-expensive states like Iowa.
Similarly, as I alluded earlier, Biden’s campaign also hasn’t spent much time or resources trying to win Texas. That makes sense — Texas will almost certainly not be a tipping state that determines the election. But if Democrats fall short of winning the Texas House of Representatives, not investing in Texas might end up looking like a mistake. A Texas dominated by Republicans can draw district lines for congressional races that will make it hard for Democrats to win seats and keep their U.S. House majority.
Other polling bites
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina led his opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, 51 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, according to a Monmouth University poll released this week. Among likely voters, Cooper led Forest 51 percent to 37 percent in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.About 79 percent of Black Americans think that structural and systemic racism is a “major obstacle” to Black people in America achieving equal outcomes compared with white people, according to a new poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic Americans and 43 percent of white Americans agreed. About 73 percent of Black adults said that individual acts of discrimination and racism were a major barrier for Black people, compared with 67 percent of Hispanic adults and 46 percent of white adults.In that same survey, 65 percent of Black men and 59 percent of Black women said that it is a “bad time” to be a Black man or Black woman in America. Just 25 percent of Black men and 34 percent of Black women said it is a good time. Black Americans are expressing much more negative views on their lives than when these questions were previously asked. In a 2006 KFF/Washington Post/Harvard University poll, 60 percent of Black men said that it was a good time to be Black in America, compared with 28 percent who said it was a bad time. In a 2011 KFF/Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Black women said it was a good time, while 15 percent said it was a bad time. (This was a really interesting poll, and I highly recommend reading it in full.)According to a recent Navigator Research survey, 52 percent of registered voters said that the “worst is yet to come” in terms of dealing with the novel coronavirus. That’s compared with 32 percent who said “the worst is over” and 16 percent who said they didn’t know. The poll also found that 78 percent support laws in their states requiring people to wear masks in public places. That includes 92 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.Just 21 percent of registered voters support adding justices to the Supreme Court, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll; 46 percent oppose the idea, and 33 percent are not sure.New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, leads his Democratic opponent for governor, state senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, by 55 percent to 31 percent among likely voters, according to a new Suffolk University poll. The same survey found Biden ahead of Trump 51 percent to 41 percent in New Hampshire. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, is ahead 51 percent to 36 percent in her reelection bid against her Republican opponent, Corky Messner.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,8 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 54.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.6 points). At this time last week, 43.2 percent approved and 53.4 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.2 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 43.1 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.6 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,9 Democrats currently lead by 7 percentage points (48.9 percent to 41.9 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.5 points (49.3 percent to 42.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.5 points (48.6 percent to 42.1 percent).
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.
We’re less than three weeks away from Election Day, and although we’ve already seen an enormous uptick in the number of absentee ballots requested — more than a third of Americans plan to vote by mail because of the coronavirus — many people will still cast their votes in person. This means that people will assemble at polling places, as they did in the primaries held earlier this year and as they’re doing in states that have started early voting. This, of course, raises a difficult question: Could the simple act of voting worsen a public health disaster?
We have spent seven months now living under the threat of the novel coronavirus. And unfortunately, given the increasingly politicized way in which COVID-19 has been handled, voting during the pandemic has itself become a partisan issue. Distrust in science is high, even though now is when such trust is most needed, and we find ourselves in a situation where the discussion around potential effects of the election on the pandemic is transpiring in the absence of a comprehensive assessment of the risks.
Earlier this year, we undertook an analysis of in-person voting in the primaries to better understand the risks of voting in the general election.1 Of course, a comparison between primaries and the general election is imperfect, but our analysis does offer us a window into the impact voting could have on the spread of COVID-19. And what we found should offer some comfort to those who plan to vote in person: We saw noincrease in overall COVID-19 mortality due to in-person voting in the primaries.
Modeling the spread of COVID-19 is very challenging. First, the underlying data is of uneven quality. The U.S. has struggled to test enough people since the very beginning of the outbreak; particularly in the early days, there were simply not enough tests to track the number of cases. That’s why our analysis used mortality data collected by The New York Times, instead of the number of reported positive test results, since mortality data remains the most reliable measure for assessing the status of the epidemic.
Second, to better capture the dynamics of the epidemic, we used two different techniques from statistical and epidemiological modeling. (The current preprint of our paper, along with data and code, is available here.)
We should note that our analysis is what statisticians call “ecological.” We examined whether primary elections affected the course of the pandemic in a county, not whether, at the individual level, going to the polls affects an individual’s risk of contracting the infection.
Our first approach relies on a technique called “matching.” In an ideal world (at least from a statistician’s point of view), we would be able to explore a counterfactual — “What if this state had not held its primary during a pandemic?” — and then compare the number of COVID-19 deaths under each scenario.
Of course, we only have access to the world as it actually unfolds. So, we approximate this alternate world by using “matches,” defined for our purposes as counties that did not hold a primary but otherwise have similar characteristics relevant to the incidence of COVID-19 (e.g., population density, the percentage of the population over 65, median income, the share of the vote President Trump won in the 2016 election) and that, most importantly, share a similar cumulative COVID-19 death rate in the 20-day period surrounding the primary.2 Accordingly, matched counties are similar to one other when it comes to the course of the COVID-19 epidemic and risk factors — but one county held its primary and the other has not.
Let’s look at Chippewa County, Wisconsin as an example. Wisconsin’s chaotic April 7 primary was the first major election with in-person voting since states began issuing stay-at-home orders. We matched Chippewa with five3 of the most demographically similar counties that had similar cumulative COVID-19 death rates but had not held their primary, including Sumner County, Kansas; Madison County, Kentucky; and Rensselaer County, New York. These counties each had cumulative death rates similar to Chippewa in the period around the Wisconsin primary, and scored relatively closely on our demographic measures.
Once we had this set of counties, we compared the observed mortality rate after the primary in Chippewa to the average of its five matches over the same (post-primary) period. Performing this procedure across all of the counties that held primaries in our data, we found that there was no overall average increase in the mortality rate in counties that held primary elections compared to their matches.4
In our second approach to the data, we wanted to replicate our results using a method specifically tailored to study the transmission of a virus but that relied on a wholly different set of assumptions.5 In our analysis, we tested the effect of two key dates: the date a state’s governor issued a stay-at-home order and the date of the state’s primary election (if applicable, in either case). We then combined information from across the U.S. into a single model that estimated the overall effect of holding a primary election.
While statewide lockdowns appeared to have reduced the transmission of COVID-19, the primary elections had no effect. Below, you can see the rate at which the virus spreads in Florida and Illinois, two populous states that held primaries in the early phase of the virus, throughout the spring. This is only two of the 34 states we looked at, but the effects on COVID-19 transmission in Florida and Illinois are representative of the overall average that we calculated across all of the states included in our analysis.
In other words, we found no evidence in our two separate analyses that the primaries had any effect on the spread of the coronavirus. That said, we should interpret these findings cautiously. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the coronavirus; moreover, tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has been challenging due to the aforementioned testing shortages and reporting delays. Additionally, we faced difficulties in uncovering certain aspects of the primaries — for example, there is no reliable data on in-person turnout at the county level.
In short, we did not find a spike in the mortality rate associated with the primary elections. This led us to conclude, based on our analysis, that in-person voting remains a viable way for Americans to have their voices heard this November.
There are, though, several key differences between the primaries and the general election in November that should be kept in mind with respect to the safety of voting in person. First, most of the primary elections were held under fair-weather conditions, enabling individuals to wait in long lines outside, at a lower risk of transmission. That risk will be higher if voters are crammed indoors to avoid cold weather. Second, turnout numbers are generally much higher in the general election than in the primaries. And given the particularly contentious nature of this presidential election, it could be that above-average turnout increases the risk of the virus spreading, perhaps because of large crowds at the polls.
Superspreader events do happen when people assemble. A single wedding in Maine has been linked to at least 270 cases and eight deaths, representing over 5 percent of the total deaths in the state, and Trump’s recent bout with COVID-19, linked to a White House event, has already been associated with more than two dozen positive test results in his circle. However, these superspreader events are intimate affairs associated with close contact and a lack of precautions. Voting, on the other hand, is generally not a social activity. People tend to stay apart, and are often in relatively large and well-ventilated spaces such as school gymnasiums. What’s more, people tend to be quiet, or even silent, while voting (loud talking and singing have been associated with viral transmission and outbreaks).
And as our research shows, there is no inherent relationship between voting in person in the primaries and the spread of COVID-19. If anything, voting may be similar to shopping at a grocery store in terms of risk. Provided that voting sites equip poll workers with personal protective gear and voters take the necessary precautions, such as wearing a mask and physically distancing while waiting in line, there’s no reason why people who do not fall into high-risk groups for COVID-19 should rule out voting in person.
This research was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.
For all the turmoil in the country this year, our presidential election forecast has been remarkably stable. Dating back to June 1, the first date that we ran the forecast,1 only two states had flipped between Donald Trump and Joe Biden at any point: North Carolina and Ohio.2 On Wednesday, though, they were joined by a third state, Georgia, where for the first time all year, Joe Biden is the favorite — the ever-so-slight favorite! — in our forecast.
Look which state just turned blue in the snake.https://t.co/ajG88SznSA pic.twitter.com/sHnroFJKtS
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 14, 2020
Of course, it’s a bit silly to talk about states switching sides when FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts are probabilistic. With the addition of a new Quinnipiac University poll showing him 7 percentage points ahead there — more about that poll in a moment — Biden’s chances in Georgia rose from 46 percent to 51 percent. (They’ve since fallen to an even 50/50.) So a) that’s not really that big of a change and b) the race is tossup; Trump could easily re-emerge as the nominal favorite (turning Georgia red again in the snake diagram) by the time that you’re reading this.
In another sense, though, the shift in Georgia should come as no surprise. Consider:
In 2016, Trump won Georgia by only 5 points in an election where he lost the popular vote by 2 points nationally. Thus, Georgia was only 7 points more Republican than the country as a whole.In 2018, Brian Kemp won Georgia’s gubernatorial election by 1 point over Stacey Abrams, in an election where Democrats won the popular vote for the U.S. House by 9 points. Thus, Georgia was 10 points redder than the country overall.
And if Georgia is 7 to 10 points more Republican than the country as a whole, then you might expect it to turn blue with Biden having a 10-point lead in national polls, as he currently does.
Our model has been a bit more skeptical about Biden’s Georgia chances, though, for a couple of important reasons. First, the state is relatively inelastic, meaning that it tends not to swing as much as the country as a whole does. That’s because there haven’t traditionally been a lot of swing voters in Georgia. Republicans have a base of conservative, religious, white voters; Democrats have a base of Black voters, plus younger white, Asian and Hispanic voters in Atlanta and in college towns. The Republican base has historically been slightly larger, though, so while Democrats could get to 45 percent or 48 percent or 49 percent statewide … 50 percent has been hard.
Second, Georgia has strict voting laws, and according to the Cost of Voting Index, a measure of how easy it is to vote in each state, those laws have gotten stricter since 2016. Our research shows that enacting stricter voting laws tends to hurt Democrats, too, which is factored into our estimates of the partisan baselines in each state.
So even as Atlanta’s suburbs have been shifting blue — leading to a win by Democrat Lucy McBath in the 6th Congressional District in the upscale northern suburbs of Atlanta in 2018 — these are still some fairly big hurdles for Democrats to overcome to achieve statewide wins. That’s why even though Biden had already been ahead in our Georgia polling average, our forecast — which also accounts for these other factors and also slightly discounts Biden’s current national lead — still had Trump slightly favored in Georgia.
Then came the Quinnipiac poll. What should you make of a poll that has one candidate 7 points ahead when everybody else has the race tied, or virtually so? Well, you should … throw it in the polling average. Generally speaking, it’s good when high-quality pollsters such as Quinnipiac are willing to deviate from the consensus; it means they’re not herding toward what everybody else says.
At the same time, Quinnipiac has produced perhaps the best set of numbers for Biden of any major pollster. Another recent release of Quinnipiac polls had Biden ahead by 11 points in Florida, 13 points in Pennsylvania and 5 points in Iowa, far better than the FiveThirtyEight averages in each state.
I’m not one to play poll doctor and dive into the crosstabs and declare whether a particular firm’s approach is right or wrong. Unless there’s something egregious, I think the right approach is to trust the process of averaging the polls. At the same time, a 7-point lead coming from Quinnipiac doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it would from a pollster like, say, Monmouth University, which has tended to show results for Biden that are near to or slightly worse than the consensus. (Monmouth’s most recent Georgia poll — taken before the debate — had shown Trump slightly ahead.)
Our model tries to account for all of these tendencies with our house effects adjustment; it accounted for the fact that Quinnipiac had previously shown Biden ahead by 3 points in Georgia, for instance, at a time when Trump was leading in our polling average there. Still, a 7-point lead for Biden was enough to impress our model, even coming from Quinnipiac.
Next question: Although Georgia could obviously go either way, could it actually be decisive in the election? In other words, could it be the tipping-point state, the one that nets Biden or Trump his 270th electoral vote?
That’s pretty unlikely: The model says there’s only a 2.4 percent chance that Georgia is the tipping point. That’s because if Biden has won Georgia, he’ll probably also have won at least one of its neighbors, North Carolina or Florida, where he has somewhat clearer leads in polls. And if Biden wins North Carolina or Florida, Trump is probably toast, with or without Georgia.
In theory, Georgia could matter if Biden completely collapsed in the Midwest: If he lost Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania and Wiscosnin then Biden could still win the Electoral College by flipping Georgia and North Carolina and Florida while holding the other states that Hillary Clinton won. Again, though, we’re talking about some long-shot scenarios.
But where Georgia could be of great importance is in the U.S. Senate, where it actually has two races: a standard Class II Senate election between the Republican incumbent David Perdue and the Democrat Jon Ossoff, and a special election where the appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler is defending her seat against challengers from both parties.
Georgia requires runoffs if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, so the Perdue-Ossoff race could potentially require a runoff if the Libertarian candidate gets enough votes there. And the special election is very likely to require a runoff, since it has more than a dozen candidates and no candidate is polling particularly close to 50 percent of the vote there.
Recent developments have been favorable to Democrats in the special election, too. One Democrat — Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church — has consolidated the large majority of the Democratic vote following endorsements from Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats. He is very likely to advance to the runoff, based on recent polls. Meanwhile, the second runoff slot is a bitter feud between Loeffler and another Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, who have been trying to outcompete one another by bragging about how conservative they are and how much they support Trump. This is potentially toxic messaging in an increasingly purple state where Trump isn’t that popular. And indeed, Loffler and Collins have fallen behind Warnock in some recent polls that test one-on-one matchups.
Our model tries to consider all of these complexities — as well as the likelihood that the environment might not be as favorable for Democrats in January as it is in November — and now has Warnock with a 50 percent chance of eventually winning, Loeffler with a 29 percent chance and Collins with a 21 percent chance. The other candidates, such as Democrat Matt Lieberman, have virtually zero chance.
In the regular Georgia Senate race, Perdue has a 72 percent chance and Ossoff a 28 percent chance, per our “Deluxe” forecast. There’s around a one-in-four chance that race will require a runoff, too, which could mean there could be two uncalled Senate until the runoff is held on Jan. 5.
So there are certainly no sure things for Democrats in Georgia. But the fact that a formerly red state has become perhaps the most competitive battleground in the country is a bad sign for Republicans.
It’s a question we’ve asked before with other appellate judges who have been nominated to the Supreme Court — most recently with Justice Brett Kavanaugh — but it’s surprisingly difficult to answer with any precision. On the one hand, we know that Barrett’s appointment would mean a huge rightward shift on the court, as she is far more ideologically conservative than the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But on the other hand, we don’t really know how conservative Barrett would be if she’s confirmed.
We can look to her track record on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though, for clues. Barrett has served on that court for almost three years now, and two different analyses of her rulings point to the same conclusion: Barrett is one of the more conservative judges on the circuit — and maybe even the most conservative.
University of Virginia law professors Joshua Fischman and Kevin Cope analyzed more than 1,700 cases that the 7th Circuit has heard since Barrett joined the court in 2017, including 378 where Barrett cast a vote,1 and according to their analysis, Barrett is part of a cluster of conservative judges at the rightmost edge of the 7th Circuit.
However, even though her ideological estimate was furthest to the right of the judges currently on the 7th Circuit, Barrett was statistically indistinguishable from the three other Trump appointees and three judges appointed by other Republicans, including prominent conservative Judges Diane Sykes and Frank Easterbrook. “[Barrett is] clearly near the right side of the conservative spectrum on the court,” Fischman told us. “She’s not off the charts, though — she’s in line with other well-known, well-respected conservative judges on the court.”
But there are some differences between Barrett and her current conservative colleagues. Fischman and Cope also dug into how judges ruled on various types of issues and found that Barrett is closer to the middle of the court on cases involving employment discrimination, labor and criminal defendants, but much more conservative in cases involving civil rights — a category that is mainly composed of cases involving prisoners’ rights and civil rights claims against government employees, but also includes hot-button issues like gun rights, voting rights and abortion rights.
Barrett is particularly conservative on civil rights issues
Share of decisions in which Amy Coney Barrett voted conservatively, compared to all judges on 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, since 2017
conservative share of decisionsType of casesBarrett7th CircuitDiff.Discrimination + labor83.8%83.2%+0.6Criminal + habeas corpus87.986.2+1.6Civil rights83.277.6+5.6Each decision was coded as liberal or conservative, where “liberal” generally meant a decision was in favor of a criminal defendant or against the state. Decisions that were part liberal and part conservative were coded as a fraction of a decision for each side. Does not include about a thousand cases that could not be classified as liberal or conservative.
Source: Fischman & Cope
Barrett’s record on abortion has come under a lot of scrutiny, but Fischman noted that she might also be especially conservative on gun rights. She only heard a handful of cases involving Second Amendment rights during her time on the 7th Circuit, but she came out strongly against several of her conservative colleagues in a case involving a law stripping felons of their gun rights, arguing that the Second Amendment doesn’t allow such a blanket ban. Those views could be especially relevant on the Supreme Court, which hasn’t heard a major case involving gun rights in almost a decade.
We can also look at how Barrett has ruled in special cases known as “en banc” hearings, which are used when there’s a serious disagreement among the judges about an outcome, or when circuit precedent is being reconsidered. These cases are not very common — Barrett, for instance, has only sat on six en banc panels in her three years on the court — but they can offer a clearer snapshot of a judge’s ideology, as judges often have more freedom in how they rule in these cases, in part because they are not constrained by circuit precedent as they normally would be. En banc hearings are also more comparable to cases the Supreme Court might hear because the legal issues are knottier. And they’re more similar to how the Supreme Court works, because they require all the circuit judges to vote together rather than splitting them into smaller panels of three judges, which is how the appeals court normally operates.
An analysis of 7th Circuit en banc cases by Tom Clark, a political science professor at Emory University, mirrored what Fischman and Cope found: After just six cases, Barrett fell on the rightmost edge of the court, along with two other Trump appointees and Sykes. (There was considerably more uncertainty in her estimate, though, since Clark’s model was drawing on less data for judges who have been on the court for less time.)
“Things could be different with more data, of course,” said Clark. But overall, he thought her ideological profile was remarkably clear. “She’s voting very consistently in these cases so far. Even with this small number of cases, she’s showing up on the far right edge of the court.”
It’s hard, of course, to directly extrapolate from Barrett’s record as an appellate judge to how she might rule as a Supreme Court justice, but it’s reasonable to expect she will be reliably conservative. That said, Barrett has not always ruled in line with fellow conservatives on the 7th Circuit, and even the conservative justices on the Supreme Court disagree with each other on some topics or differ on which issues are more important. It remains to be seen just how persuadable Barrett might be if she’s confirmed, or how her perspective might change after a few years on the bench.
This is important, too, because to keep the Supreme Court from moving quickly to the right on hot-button issues, Chief Justice John Roberts may try to peel off another conservative vote. Whether Barrett might be amenable to such overtures is hard to say, but we do know that during her time on the 7th Circuit, Fischman and Cope found that she has voted in a liberal direction about 20 percent of the time when at least one Democratic nominee is on the panel but only about 9 percent of the time when the panel is composed of three Republican nominees. That could indicate that Barrett is open to the arguments of her more liberal colleagues — or that she is choosing not to dissent in some cases for the sake of collegiality. Either way, though, it’s a sign that she does vote slightly differently depending on the composition of the panel, rather than being consistently conservative regardless of who she’s voting with.
Clifford W. Berlow, a partner at the law firm Jenner & Block who specializes in appellate litigation, said that this is in line with the 7th Circuit’s general reputation as a polite, respectful circuit. “I don’t think you’ve seen from Barrett or any of the other [Trump appointees] the sort of scathing, scorched-earth dissents or biting concurrences that you might see in some other circuits,” Berlow said. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if Barrett carried this sense of collegiality with her to the Supreme Court.
Overall, though, it’s plain from Barrett’s record why Republicans are eager to confirm her before the election and why Democrats are dead-set against her. With only a few years under her belt as a judge, she’s established herself as one of the most conservative members of a court that already has a lot of Republican appointees. If she’s confirmed, it seems fairly safe to assume that she would continue that pattern — even if she’s occasionally willing to break from her fellow conservatives.
On Monday morning, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham kicked off the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett with a surprisingly bald admission: Pretty much nothing that will be said over the next four days is likely to change anyone’s mind. “This is probably not about persuading each other unless something really dramatic happens,” Graham said during his opening statement. “All the Republicans will vote yes, all the Democrats will vote no.”
He’s right, of course. Barring some extraordinary revelation about Barrett or an unexpected roadblock, Senate Republicans have the votes to confirm her, meaning Barrett is likely to be Justice Amy Coney Barrett before Election Day rolls around.
That doesn’t mean the hearings don’t matter, though. They will shape how Barrett’s nomination is perceived even if they don’t change how the senators vote. And that’s important, because the reputation of the court is at stake. Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court has waned over the past couple decades, and a majority of Americans still want the Senate to wait until after the election to vote on Barrett’s confirmation (remember we’re just three weeks away from the election at this point, and if confirmed, Barrett will land on the Supreme Court closer to a presidential election than any other nominee in U.S. history).
So at this point, it’s full steam ahead for Senate Republicans. Today’s hearing mostly set up the battle lines for the rest of the week. The senators on the Judiciary Committee delivered opening statements about Barrett, giving us some clues about how Republicans and Democrats will make their case for and against Barrett over the next few days. Democrats homed in on the fact that if confirmed by Election Day, one of Barrett’s first cases as a Supreme Court justice will be about the fate of the Affordable Care Act, positioning Barrett’s confirmation as a possible referendum on Americans’ health care protections. Republicans, meanwhile, focused mostly on her biography — including her role as a working mother of seven and her Catholic faith — and her credentials, while offering few specifics about her record as a law professor and judge.
Democrats argued that the fate of the ACA hinges on Barrett
If you popped in and out of the confirmation hearing this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a hearing about the ACA — not the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice. Democratic senator after Democratic senator on the committee emphasized the risk Barrett poses to the ACA during their opening statement, often spotlighting the stories of ordinary Americans who have come to rely on the health care protections in the law.
“That’s a big reason why Senate Republicans are rushing this process,” Sen. Kamala Harris said during her remote opening statement. The Democratic vice presidential candidate added, “They are trying to get a justice onto the court in time to ensure they can strip away the protections of the Affordable Care Act.”
The Democrats’ laser-focus on the fate of the ACA makes a certain amount of sense. One week after the election, the Supreme Court will hear yet another challenge to the landmark health care law, and Democrats are now arguing that if Barrett is on the court, it’s plausible the law will be overturned. Barrett publicly criticized Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2012 vote to save the ACA in a 2017 law review article, and in the 2012 decision, Roberts was the only conservative justice to side with the liberals. If Barrett is confirmed, though, she could side with the other four conservative justices and overrule Roberts.
Notably, there was not as much discussion of Barrett’s record on abortion rights — even though both liberals and conservatives generally agree that she’s likely to be open to cases restricting or even overturning the constitutional right to abortion. At this point, Democrats have clearly decided that the threat to the ACA is a stronger argument against Barrett than her track record on abortion — although Barrett will almost certainly get questions about her stance on abortion, among other issues, during questioning on Tuesday and Wednesday.
We’re also likely to hear more about Barrett’s potential role in deciding election-related cases as soon as she’s seated on the court. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut went as far as to call on her to recuse herself from any case dealing with the election.
Republicans are focusing on her biography and credentials
Republicans, meanwhile, tried to turn the tables on Democrats and portray them as partisan actors bent on painting a qualified nominee as a political hack. They focused very little on the specifics of Barrett’s judicial record and instead emphasized her biography and credentials, especially the fact that she is a working mother of seven.
In her opening statement, Sen. Joni Ernst warned that Democrats were trying to “undermine, coerce and confuse the American people” and “undermine” Barrett. “Women all over the world are painfully familiar with this strategy,” she said. “We are all too often perceived and judged based on what someone else needs or wants us to be, not on who we actually are.”
There were also plenty of callbacks to Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearing when she was nominated to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals back in 2017. During that hearing, Democrats got a lot of blowback for taking aim at Barrett’s affiliation with a very small, conservative Catholic religious community. Today, Republicans repeatedly accused the Democrats of imposing a religious test on Barrett — even though Democrats did not devote time to discussing her Catholic faith today.
Barrett, though, after sitting silently all day at a table in the hearing room wearing a large black face mask, got the last word. She took a well-trodden path for would-be Supreme Court justices and positioned herself as a neutral, non-political jurist, declaring in her opening statement, “The policy decisions and value judgments of government must be made by the political branches elected by and accountable to the people.” She went on to add that the public should not expect the courts to uphold public opinion, nor should the courts try to do so. That assertion is likely to be challenged many times over the next two days, as Barrett faces fierce questioning from Democrats who are likely to focus on how Barrett, as part of a powerful 6-3 conservative majority, could transform the Supreme Court.
In the summer of 2020, public tolerance for companies advertising with racist images was at an all-time low. Brands including Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Uncle Ben’s all announced plans to change their product imagery and in some cases even their names in reaction to widespread public protests against anti-Black racism. The world of sports wasn’t far behind.
After decades of activism and protest against the Washington NFL team’s longtime use of a widely recognized racial slur against Native Americans, change seemed to come swiftly. While owner Dan Snyder had once declared to the media that he would “NEVER” — “use caps,” he told the reporter — change the moniker, it took less than 24 hours after corporate sponsors threatened to pull out of their deals before the team announced it would “review” the name, and 10 days later the team committed to changing it.
Indigenous people have been advocating against the name for years: Amanda Blackhorse, one of the movement’s leaders, was among five Native Americans to push for the cancelation of Washington’s trademark, a drive that initially won a court battle in 2014 before a Supreme Court ruling in a different case rendered the previous Washington decision moot. The crux of their argument is simple: Native mascots dehumanize Indigenous people by employing disparaging stereotypes of Native Americans that cause real harm. This claim has been repeatedly supported by research, and the causes of that harm extend far beyond the Washington football franchise. Condemning the commercial use of an obvious racial slur is the lowest-hanging fruit. But are teams ready to confront the names, symbols and associated behaviors that haven’t been so universally criticized?
Native mascots exist in every level of sports, from high school basketball courts to billion-dollar stadiums. While high-profile teams like Washington and the Cleveland Indians may come to mind first, most Native American mascots are used in secondary schools. Although the number has been shrinking, there are currently 1,232 high schools with Native American team names, according to my analysis of data from MascotDB. That includes 411 Indians and 107 Chiefs or Chieftains, and there are still 45 schools that bear the former name of the Washington Football Team.
To arrive at those numbers, I pulled Mascot DB’s full list of Native-associated team names and logos and reviewed them all. I researched any potentially ambiguous team names and weeded out any that did not directly reference Native culture or imagery — for example, teams called the Warriors were excluded unless they also pictured an Indigenous person or use imagery like feathers — and removed any teams that had changed their branding since they were added to Mascot DB. The remaining 1,232 schools, then, are just those that clearly reference Native culture in their name or logo.1
High schools are governed locally by districts and states, making oversight difficult and consistent regulations unrealistic. Although clashes over the future of Native mascots are likely happening at schools in every state, top-level guidance has been minimal. In my research, I found just four states — California, Maine, Oregon and Wisconsin — that have either laws or department of education policies that to some degree prohibit using Native mascots in public schools. However, it’s possible that this list may soon expand: In reaction to the renewed public interest in Native mascots, proposed legislation could force the removal of these mascots in Illinois and Massachusetts. Lawmakers have also begun discussions in Nebraska, and Washington.
These regulations vary widely. Maine’s comprehensive law, which was signed by Gov. Janet Mills in May 2019, states that public high schools and colleges in Maine “may not have or adopt a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a Native American tribe, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead or team name of the school.” Meanwhile, California’s 2015 law disallows using the Washington Football Team’s former name or logo and bans schools from buying new equipment featuring that branding, but it allows them to continue using existing equipment until it wears out. Essentially the state is hoping that current uniforms and stadium decorations will be retired in the coming years.
These kinds of policy moves also tend to face strong pushback. In January, a proposed resolution to remove Native mascots failed by a landslide in the Wisconsin Association of School Boards delegate assembly, with 101 in favor and 218 against. In Utah, Republican state Rep. Rex P. Shipp introduced a bill that would discourage the removal of names, images and symbols of Native Americans from schools; it has yet to be voted on.
Similarly, Tennessee passed a bill in 2007 protecting Native mascots. In reaction to pressure from the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs to ban Native mascots, the state legislature passed a bill that stated that “no state agency has the authority to require or to prohibit or impair in any way the right of any public or private institution to continue to honor certain persons or cultures through the use of symbols, names, and mascots.”
Even laws on the books have proven ineffective. Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 that triggered a review of a school’s logo or mascot if a single person filed a complaint that it was offensive, making the state one of the first to take action to phase out Native mascots. Yet in the wake of resistance from one affected high school, former Gov. Scott Walker signed a new bill in 2013 that substantially weakened the previous review process. The new law shifted the burden of proof from the school itself to those lodging the complaint, and it required a petition with signatures from the equivalent of 10 percent of the district’s school population. A new effort to ban Native mascots was quashed by the state school board this year.
The case against these mascots isn’t always cut and dried. Of the 1,232 high school mascots in the Mascot DB, 23 are in use at tribal high schools — those operated or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. These schools, which are often on reservations or near Indigenous communities, primarily serve students who identify as Native American. Their mascots go by many names, including Indians, Apache Chiefs and Braves. Schools not associated with the Bureau of Indian Education may also have genuine ties to Native culture and community, so the number of schools who serve Native students and use a Native mascot is likely more than those I was able to identify.
For these schools, the conversation around Native mascots is about authentic representation rather than appropriation. These students and communities are harnessing Native mascots to honor their own identities and heritage. The traditions that many consider racist when imitated by non-Native athletes and fans take on a new meaning in Indigenous spaces. Currently, about 2 percent of Native mascots are used at tribal high schools.
Yet the business of allowing exceptions for schools like these can be tricky — just ask the NCAA. The governing body of collegiate sports intensified conversations about Native mascots in 2001, the same year the organization banned states that fly the Confederate flag from hosting national championship events. After several years of discussion, the NCAA Executive Board voted unanimously that Native mascots must go, declaring that teams with “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” would be prevented from hosting NCAA championship events and required to use equipment that didn’t display that imagery in championship games.
Facing intense backlash after the 2005 announcement, the NCAA agreed to hear appeals from universities vying to keep their Native mascots. In a nod to Native sovereignty, the governing body allowed tribes to endorse schools that used the names of their tribes, but it rejected appeals from names using general descriptors like Indians, Redmen and Savages. In some cases, the NCAA allowed nondiscriminatory monikers to remain as long as all references to Indigenous people and their traditions were removed. Bradley University kept its Braves name and introduced a non-Native mascot, Kaboom the Gargoyle, in 2014; the College of William & Mary retained “the Tribe” as a nickname but stripped a pair of feathers from its imagery and adopted a griffin as a mascot in 2010.
Five institutions — the Catawba College Catawba Indians, Central Michigan University Chippewas, Florida State Seminoles, Mississippi College Choctaws and University of Utah Utes — successfully appealed the mandate on the basis that their institutions had the support of a local Indigenous tribe. Yet this policy masks the complex politics of Indian Country. Histories of forced removal and trends toward urbanization call into question who can speak on behalf of a tribe and its people. For instance, only a single band of the Seminole tribe — the band that resides in Florida — supports Florida State University’s use of the Seminole mascot. According to the NCAA, one is enough.
For most institutions, there was no path forward. The University of Illinois was allowed to keep its Fighting Illini moniker, but without the support of the Peoria tribe, it was required to retire its Chief Illiniwek mascot.
The NCAA’s top-down policy was effective, if hotly debated. Schools were given three years to change their mascots, and by the end of that time period, many had done so. If high schools moved to the same appeal model as the NCAA, the number of schools with a Native mascot would decrease substantially. If professional sports joined in, the number of national franchises would likely dip to zero.
Rather than follow the NCAA’s example or try to get ahead of state legislation on the issue, the NFL has stayed silent on the topic of Native mascots. While the media has focused on the Washington franchise and its scramble to rebrand itself, the executives in Kansas City are busy polishing their Lombardi Trophy and dodging the inevitable question: Are we next?
They’ve received no public guidance from the NFL on the matter. But that silence isn’t specific to pro football. Over the past several decades, professional sports leagues have been noticeably quiet as their embattled teams defended the sanctity of Native mascots on the grounds that they are an athletic tradition. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred waded deepest into these troubled waters in 2018 when he said the league had “encouraged dialogue with the Indians organization about the club’s use of the Chief Wahoo logo.” This dialogue eventually ended in the announcement that the racist image would be removed from Cleveland uniforms the following season, although the team would still sell merchandise with the caricature.
On Aug. 20 of this year, the Kansas City Chiefs issued a statement announcing a new set of policies that prohibited certain fan behaviors and costumes at games, including wearing headdresses and face paint that references Native people or culture, and promised a continued partnership with local American Indian organizations. By the team’s own admission, this conversation with Indigenous partners has been going on since 2014 — and prior to its most recent statement, results had been limited.
Although the positive steps taken this summer may seem momentous, professional sports leagues had been relatively stagnant on this issue overall. Prior to announcement that the Washington Football Team would eliminate Native imagery in its name and logo, MLB, the NFL and the NHL together had five franchises with Indigenous names2 and two more that use Native-inspired logos or imagery — the Seattle Seahawks and Vancouver Canucks. (In addition, the Phoenix Coyotes continue to use their original logo, which has well-recognized Native influences, on home throwback sweaters.) Each team is navigating relationships with local Native American and First Nations people independently. While some teams have successfully incorporated Indigenous people into conversations about inclusion and representation, others continue to swim upstream in a constant search for endorsement.
Why are teams so reluctant to let go of their Native mascots? Research has repeatedly shown the mental harm that these icons inflict on Indigenous people, and tribal leaders continue to speak out against teams’ disrespect and appropriation. Finally, in 2020, it seems that broader public opinion might be catching up. Football fandom, perhaps, has not.
Financial implications are certainly a factor. But that can cut both ways, as the Washington Football Team’s refusal to change its name eventually led its sponsors to threaten to withdraw financial support for the franchise. In fact, while economists who studied the financial implications of franchise rebranding have shown that teams may take on additional costs in the first year — including paying lawyers to secure the rights to a new name and logo and changing the branding on merchandise, signage and the stadium itself — they could recoup those deficits in the ensuing seasons.
When the Chiefs secured their first win this season in Arrowhead Stadium in front of crowds limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, headdresses and red face paint were no longer allowed past the gates. The Arrowhead Chop and pregame beating of the drum were under review, although NBC still prominently featured the former in its prime-time broadcast. They scored in end zones declaring “end racism” in block text next to the Chiefs name and near the arrowhead logos. In a year when Washington chose to go by its city name rather than choose a new identity, the controversy over the use of Native mascots will continue to weigh on franchises and fans. As the country celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day in cities like Seattle, Chicago and Kansas City, the pressure to change these names continues, with the teams under an even brighter spotlight.
It’s Wednesday, Nov. 4, and the vote count is too close to call. Neither President Trump nor former Vice President Joe Biden is conceding defeat, recounts are being conducted, disputes over recounts are being lodged, and a court case will soon be making its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Trump has voiced his belief that there is widespread ballot fraud and as a result there’s already some degree of civil unrest.
This is the nightmare scenario for 2020, one in which a disputed election drives the country further apart. It’s also one that’s vaguely familiar. In 2000, there was no clear winner in the contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. That triggered a recount and a controversial Supreme Court decision that ultimately determined the presidency for Bush. Yet even in the direct aftermath of Bush v. Gore, Americans still kept the faith in democratic institutions and the process. I went looking for lessons from that period of disruption. But all I found were the first cancer cells that have metastasized in our political system over the past 20 years.
It’s not that Americans didn’t think something had gone wrong in 2000 — in a CBS News poll conducted after the Supreme Court’s decision in mid-December, 60 percent of people said there had not been a fair and accurate count of votes. Still, 59 percent of people in an ABC News/Washington Post poll from the same time said their opinion of the court remained unchanged. The same poll asked what people would think if there were an unofficial recount and Gore were declared the winner. Would they consider Bush legitimately elected? Eighty-four percent answered, “Yes.”
It’s difficult to imagine similar sentiments in December 2020 if the Supreme Court intervened. Already, Americans say they are worried about something going wrong. In a late September Monmouth University poll, 39 percent of people said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the 2020 election would be conducted “fairly and accurately.” A FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll from about the same time found that while 60 percent of people surveyed said the election would be fair, 39 percent said it wouldn’t be. The open seat on the Supreme Court has only complicated matters.
Journalists’ recitation of engrained partisanship is now somewhat rote, but the scale of our almost-religious alienation from one another is sort of breathtaking; we were not this divided a nation in 2000. Pew Research tracked partisanship trends in America from 1994 to 2017 by measuring responses to the same questions about things like views on gay marriage and immigration. In 1999, there was a 15-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on these questions. In 2017, the difference was 36 points.
But man, did we think we had it bad back in the 15-point difference world.
The history of the 2000 election recount generally tells about the partisan spin that polluted the airwaves during the counting of the ballots. (If you are too young to know what a “hanging chad” is, please Google; it was important in American life for a few weeks, but I just don’t have the strength to get into it here.) Gore’s team wanted officials to recount ballots by hand in four heavily Democratic counties where the vote was quite close, while Bush’s team wanted to stop the recount entirely.
James Baker was Bush’s point-man in Florida, having served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, and was quick to realize that the campaign would need to wage a war for public opinion. “We’re getting killed on ‘count all the votes.’ Who the hell could be against that?” Jeffrey Toobin quoted Baker as saying in his book about the recount, “Too Close to Call.” Gore’s team thought it had the “moral authority to make his case,” according to a New York Times report from two days after Election Day. It allowed “Democrats to suggest that the Republicans are trying to subvert the will of the people.”
As the drama unfolded, many Americans thought more votes needed to be tallied, but they also thought Gore should concede defeat. In a Fox News survey from late November, the plurality of people, 47 percent, thought that not all the votes in Florida had been counted. But the same survey also found that 56 percent of people thought Gore should concede.
This psychology is fascinating when seen through 2020’s rearview mirror. It speaks to a certain satisfaction some people had with the general political state of things: Either Bush or Gore would do just fine. It’s the sort of laissez-faire attitude toward election outcomes that 15-point partisan differences buy you. In the 36-point era, we’re discussing all-out civil war if things are too close to call on election night.
We have accelerated the formation of our separate partisan worlds over the past four years. These worlds accept different realities. Democrats generally accept fact-based conclusions (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs), and Republicans — or at least the Republican Party — generally eschew the conclusions of experts on things like climate change and COVID-19 (alongside their partisan, subjective beliefs). Given all this, doesn’t it necessarily follow that we would continue down this garden path of separate realities when it comes to an initially indeterminate election outcome? One version of reality accepts a President Biden while the other accepts a President Trump, each with baroque arguments — about the eligibility of certain ballots or the legitimacy of the Electoral College — nicely retrofitted to match a predetermined conclusion.
In a piece in the 2010 collection “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment,” David Greenberg, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, traced this inability to accept a common reality to the 2000 election and the postmodern brilliance of Baker and company: “The Bush team didn’t just contend that a recount would fail to identify the true winner more accurately; more radically, they argued that any accurate tally was unattainable — that the truth was unknowable.”
Greenberg points to a famous quote given to the New York Times Magazine by a Bush aide for further proof of the roots of this kind of thinking:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Professionally, I’m a member of the reality-based community. I try to think empirically about America, her culture, people and oh-so-screwy politics. That’s been a challenge as Trump and the Republican Party have perfected the creation of one’s own reality and the belittling of the reality-based community. During the first debate, the president waffled on whether he would concede defeat, falling back on his go-to line about the fraudulent — and unfounded — dangers of mail voting. If he actually does this post-Election Day, media organizations will be forced to grapple with reporting on the news of the day — the president’s words — and battling misinformation and mistrust. It’s more than the press had to contend with in 2000, and it’s an unwinnable scenario. But it’s the reality of our 36-point world.
Four planned days of Senate confirmation hearings for President Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, begin today. And they are going to be a doozy.
Confirmation proceedings have generally gotten much more contentious over the years. But the fight over Barrett could be among the most rancorous yet. The presidential election is only three weeks away, yet Republicans are pushing ahead with the confirmation even though most Americans think they should wait; Trump and two Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee have tested positive for COVID-19, throwing the whole timeline into jeopardy; and Barrett, if confirmed, would replace a justice who was in many respects her polar opposite, making the court the most conservative it’s been in 70 years.
Even in a moment of deep partisan hatred, this is a particularly explosive brew.
But the ideological fate of the Supreme Court isn’t the only thing on the line this week. The Supreme Court’s reputation as an apolitical, independent branch of government is also at stake.
During their confirmation hearings, would-be Supreme Court justices usually present themselves as neutral arbiters of law who make their decisions above the political fray. And that’s for good reason, since they’re unelected officials who would serve lifetime appointments on the most powerful court in the country. But faith in the Supreme Court is lower than it used to be, and confirmation hearings have been getting more and more partisan.
A bruising confirmation process will still likely result in Barrett’s ascension to the court, but that doesn’t mean its reputation as an institution isn’t at risk. If Americans become convinced that Barrett and the other justices are brazen political actors, public confidence in the court could erode further, opening the door to radical changes to the court, including the possibility that Democrats will try to add justices if they win the White House and Senate in November.
Faith in the Supreme Court has been waning
The Supreme Court is the branch of government Americans trust most. But at a moment when trust in most parts of government is at an all-time low, that isn’t saying much. According to polling by Gallup, Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court has fallen significantly over the past two decades. A 2020 poll conducted before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death found that only 40 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, down from a two-decade high of 50 percent in 2002.
That relatively low level of confidence isn’t the worst the Supreme Court has seen in recent years, though. In 2014, only 30 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the high court, and nearly as many (24 percent) said they had “very little” confidence. The court’s current levels of support may be bolstered by the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts, who has held the crucial “swing” vote since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in 2018, joined the liberals in several high-profile decisions this year, effectively keeping the court in line with public opinion.
Polling by the Pew Research Center has also seen Americans’ views of the Supreme Court rebound a bit since hitting a low point around 2015. But that could easily change if Democrats’ support for the court plummets. And as I wrote last year, a wide partisan gap in how the court is viewed is especially bad news for the justices, because it could underscore the idea that the court itself is a partisan institution.
Confirmation votes are increasingly partisan
It’s hard to know, of course, how much Americans’ views of the Supreme Court are influenced by the confirmation process. But it’s clear that partisan tensions around the court have ramped up a lot in the past decade. As the table below shows, it was once common for justices to be confirmed with the support of most senators. Even as recently as 2005, the vast majority of senators voted to confirm Roberts, who had strenuously reassured them during his confirmation hearings that he would not be an ideologue.
Supreme Court confirmations are growing more contentious
Supreme Court confirmation votes in the U.S. Senate, since 1975
VotesYearNomineeYesNo2018Brett M. Kavanaugh50482017Neil M. Gorsuch54452010Elena Kagan63372009Sonia Sotomayor68312006Samuel A. Alito Jr.58422005John G. Roberts Jr.*78221994Stephen G. Breyer8791993Ruth Bader Ginsburg9631991Clarence Thomas52481990David H. Souter9091987Anthony M. Kennedy9701987Robert H. Bork42581986Antonin Scalia9801986William H. Rehnquist*65331981Sandra Day O’Connor9901975John Paul Stevens980*Confirmed as chief justice
Source: United States Senate
Confirmation votes are rarely so harmonious today.
Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, received only 54 votes when he was confirmed in 2017, and Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by a narrow two-vote margin the following year. Barrett will probably be confirmed by a similarly tight vote. And Democrats will likely go out of their way to portray her as a partisan conservative who will overturn precedents she disagrees with, rather than be a neutral jurist who respects the court’s prior decisions. Her record advocating restrictions on abortion rights is likely to come under scrutiny, as is a 2017 law review article in which she criticized Roberts’s 2012 vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act.
The partisan hostility will be elevated, too, by the recent memory of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to block the confirmation vote for Judge Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s choice for the seat that was eventually filled by Gorsuch. At the time, McConnell argued that the winner of the upcoming presidential election — which was happening more than eight months after Justice Antonin Scalia had died unexpectedly, leaving the seat vacant — should get to fill the seat. But now, McConnell and Senate Republicans are rushing to confirm Barrett with only three weeks left before a presidential election.
It’s risky for the court to veer outside the mainstream
There’s no obvious reason for Barrett or any other Supreme Court justice to care about public opinion once they’re safely ensconced on the court. After all, one argument for giving judges a lifetime appointment is to insulate them from the vagaries of politics. But if Barrett is confirmed, Democrats’ efforts to paint her as a partisan figure could be especially damaging if the conservative majority then takes a hard right turn on closely watched issues.
“If Barrett is confirmed and pushes the court’s decisions to the right, I suspect many decisions will be much more conservative than the public prefers, these decisions will get a lot of media attention, and public confidence in the court will decrease,” Peter K. Enns, a political science professor at Cornell University who studies the Supreme Court and public opinion, told me in an email.
It’s possible that if Barrett is confirmed on schedule, and takes a seat on the Supreme Court before Election Day, controversial rulings won’t be far behind either. On the day after the election, the court is hearing a major case that could allow private organizations receiving public funding to deny services to LGBTQ people. Broader religious liberty protections are a priority for several of the conservative justices, too. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito already wrote this month that the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage was wrongly decided and has put significant burdens on religious Americans who object to gay marriage. A week after the election, the justices will then hear another challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
Research by Enns and other scholars has found that the Supreme Court rarely gets too far outside mainstream public opinion. But when that does happen, faith in the court drops and calls for court packing or term limits usually aren’t far behind. In recent times, politicians haven’t acted on those threats — but that was because the court backed down. Most famously, in the late 1930s, after then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his plan to add as many as six new justices to the Supreme Court, a member of the court’s conservative majority suddenly started voting to uphold New Deal legislation that was very similar to laws he and the other conservative justices had gutted the year before.
If Barrett is confirmed by Election Day, and the Democrats win the White House and Senate, the Roberts court could be heading for a similar reckoning. Packing the court or enacting term limits for Supreme Court justices would be radical, historic moves — but if the court’s legitimacy is eroded in the eyes of the public, it could be easier for them to become reality.
President Trump has boasted that the treatment he has received for COVID-19 has cured him of the disease and made him feel better than ever. It’s very difficult to know whether that’s true, given how little we know about his condition, how unreliable his health reports have been and how experimental his course of treatment is. But we do know that these drugs often come with considerable side effects — side effects that could change the behavior of the leader of the free world.
In particular, one of the drugs he has been given, dexamethasone, can cause psychiatric side effects, which has raised concerns. Of course, just because side effects could affect behavior doesn’t mean they are doing so.
“We need to exercise caution in attributing any particular form of behavior to side effects of medication,” said Edward Shorter, a medical historian at the University of Toronto. “Trump has such a long history of bizarre and erratic behavior that the latest manifestation of it need not be a medication side effect at all.”
Rather than jumping to conclusions, it’s helpful to take a step back and consider what the science tells us about these therapeutics. Let’s run through the three major drugs doctors have prescribed to Trump and what their side effects might be.
Regeneron: Little is known
This antibody cocktail is the treatment we know the least about, because it’s a new, experimental therapeutic that has not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Regeneron has conducted a drug trial of its treatment — which uses lab-grown, antibodies specific to the novel coronavirus to help fight off an infection — but the results have not been published, aside from a promising press release from the company last week. The release didn’t mention any potential side effects. We do know the cocktail is administered intravenously, and any IV treatment can potentially cause certain side effects like fever and chills. But other than that, until more details are published, it’s hard to say whether the cocktail changed anything for the president, including his claims of it “curing” him.
Remdesivir: Mostly mild side effects
This antiviral drug was originally developed in 2009 as a potential treatment for hepatitis-C. While it didn’t prove effective for that disease, early trials in the COVID-19 pandemic found it could reduce the duration of infection and increase the likelihood of survival. It was authorized for emergency use by the FDA in May.
While there is still work to be done to learn the full scope of the drug’s effects, so far the most common side effects reported, such as nausea and constipation, are mild. Some COVID-19 patients have experienced more severe symptoms while taking remdesivir, including worsening respiratory failure and high levels of certain enzymes in the liver, which can cause damage, but these are more rare. In a phase 3 trial of remdesivir published in May, 8 percent of patients experienced worsening respiratory distress and 7 percent had elevated enzymes in their liver. But because the research on this drug is still limited, we don’t fully understand the link between the drug and these adverse effects.
“Even though any drug can have side effects, including remdesivir, on balance it doesn’t have a lot,” said Dr. Rajesh Gandhi, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “It can have effects on the liver occasionally, which is why we routinely do liver checks and I’m sure the president is having routine liver checks.”
Indeed, in a briefing on Sunday, Trump’s physicians said they’re monitoring the president’s liver functions, which are indicating “normal findings.” (Though we don’t know to what norm they’re comparing Trump’s levels. Normal for a COVID-19 patient, or normal for a healthy person?) On Monday, his doctors said Trump was given a five-day course of remdesivir, with the final dose on Tuesday.
Dexamethasone: A long list of side effects
We know the most about this drug because it’s been around for half a century, and perhaps as a result it comes with the longest list of possible side effects, ranging from acne and hair growth to severe psychiatric effects. This is typical for corticosteroids like dexamethasone — they’re versatile and effective but also can wreak all kinds of havoc on the body and mind. Corticosteroids are synthetic versions of hormones the body naturally produces and are effective in reducing inflammation. For this reason, they’re typically used to treat conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. But dexamethasone has also been found to be effective in treating COVID-19 in cases in which the patient required oxygen or ventilation.
Naturally, the potential psychiatric side effects are concerning given Trump’s job. Nobody wants the guy with the nuclear codes to be experiencing psychosis. But we don’t have a great understanding of how common the psychiatric effects are.
“This has not been widely studied because dexamethasone largely went out of style,” Shorter said.
A meta-analysis published in 2006 (the most recent I could find) looked at psychiatric side effects of corticosteroids broadly. The analysis found that studies have placed the rate of psychiatric side effects at everything from 1.8 percent to 57 percent, a range the authors chalk up to both the lack of understanding and the different definitions used. If someone has a bit of trouble falling asleep while taking a steroid, one researcher might consider that an adverse psychiatric event, while another might not even clock it. Another review, from 1983, reported a similar range, with adverse effects occurring in from 1.6 percent to 62 percent of patients, depending on the study.
But those figures include the full range of psychiatric symptoms, and the majority of those reported are mild or moderate — the 1983 review found severe effects occurred only 5 percent of the time. Even mania, which sounds concerning, can manifest in a mild way that basically just means the patient feels a little more energetic or “revved up,” according to Ghandi. That’s not to say that the more severe side effects aren’t worth paying attention to. Some patients experience serious psychiatric impacts from these drugs, including hallucinations and psychosis — a case study published last year described a patient who received just one 5 mg shot of dexamethasone and then experienced such intense psychosis he tried to cut out his own testicle with a kitchen knife.
While it’s not totally clear how often these side effects occur, we do know they typically have a lot to do with dose and duration. The higher the dose, and the longer a person is on it, the higher the risk of adverse effects. The trials of dexamethasone for COVID-19 recommended no more than 10 days on the drug, at a dose of 6 mg per day, which would be on the lower end of the risk range.
Trump’s age and sex don’t put him at any higher risk for these adverse effects, either. Studies have found no link between age and psychiatric side effects and when it comes to sex, women are at a slightly higher risk than men.
Even if Trump has not had any side effects yet, there is a risk that some could still develop. What research we do have shows that these symptoms can arrive after several days, and sometimes last for weeks, even after completing the course of the drug.
“The vast majority of these patients develop symptoms less than two weeks from [the first dose] and more typically three or four days after the initiation of corticosteroid therapy,” the 2019 case study read. “In most cases, any associated delirium commonly resolves within days and psychosis within a week, though depression or manic symptoms may last up to six weeks after discontinuation of steroids.”
On Monday, Trump’s doctors said he was “continuing” dexamethasone, but it’s unclear how long he will be receiving the drug. On Friday, he told reporters he was not currently taking any medication for COVID-19.
“He’s probably no longer on it, is my guess,” said Dr. David Juurlink, the head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “The study that guided our decision-making on that was up to 10 days, and it was only patients who needed oxygen.”
Of course, all of these statistics are averages, and each individual patient is different. Understanding the risks associated with the drugs can provide useful context, but without more transparency from Trump and his doctors, it’s impossible to guess what, if any, side effects he may be experiencing.