The Sweep: Midnight Train to Georgia’s Special Elections

In the presidential race, everything's over but the crying. But Republicans still have a good shot to hold the Senate.

One Lawsuit, Two Lawsuits, Red Lawsuits, Blue Lawsuits

While election litigation does technically continue, the chances of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits overturning any votes—let alone enough to flip at least two states—are rapidly diminishing. For an in-depth look at the various lawsuits, you can tune into Advisory Opinions episodes here. But even as I type this, several of the pending lawsuits are being withdrawn, being dismissed, or fizzling as those who have brought them struggle to substantiate their allegations in the courtroom. 

Over the weekend, the President tweeted: “Our big cases showing the unconstitutionality of the 2020 Election, & the outrage of things that were done to change the outcome, will soon be filed!” But there’s no indication yet of what such a case would allege or why it would be more successful than the two dozen or so cases filed by Trump’s team or other Republicans that have already failed.

In Arizona, for example, the Trump folks filed a lawsuit claiming that Maricopa County encouraged some voters to use Sharpies to fill out their ballots knowing that the ink would be read by the machine as an “overvote” and voided. But as it turned out, the machines read Sharpie ink just fine—and even if they didn’t, the machines are programmed to alert the voter if there is an overvote and push the ballot out so that the voter can get a new one. And as in every state, a spokesperson explained, “tabulators are certified for accuracy by state and federal agencies, and we do a logic and accuracy test before and after each election so voters can be sure that that equipment is verifying those votes and counting them.” That lawsuit was quietly dropped last week. 

In Pennsylvania, the Trump team has dismissed several of its own claims but is still pursuing the argument that some counties encouraged voters to fix their absentee ballots and others didn’t. It’s not a frivolous claim on its own—states should have uniform election rules for all of their citizens—but it affects so few votes that even if the Trump folks won, it would have no effect on the outcome of the state’s electoral college vote. For example, Bucks County sent 1,600 voters notices about ballot errors, but it’s unclear how many people actually showed up to cast provisional ballots, and in Montgomery County 49 ballots were fixed by voters. 

More than 68,000 votes separate Joe Biden and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania. And even if Pennsylvania switched its electoral votes to Trump, he would still only be at 252 votes. And then, even if he flipped Arizona, he’d still only be at 263 votes. You see the problem. 

And that brings us to Georgia. 

Biden is currently leading Trump by 14,000 votes in Georgia. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that the state would recount all its votes by hand, meaning that no voting machines would be used. 

This is particularly interesting because some Georgia counties used Dominion voting machines, which have been the target of several of the President’s tweets claiming that the software used on these machines was compromised and that it switched or deleted votes that were cast for him. While these claims have been fact checked to death, the Georgia hand recount means that we will be able to know whether the voting machines correctly counted the ballots that were fed into them, putting this theory to rest one way or the other. The count will be completed by Wednesday at midnight, and so far, several counties have already finished without issue. 

Realizing a hand recount could undermine claims about problems with voting machines, the President has started on a new line of attack about the Georgia recount specifically. He tweeted that “Their recount is a scam, means nothing. Must see fraudulent signatures which is prohibited by stupidly signed & unconstitutional consent decree.” 

Under Georgia law, an absentee voter must sign the outer envelope of their ballot and that signature is compared to the one on file in the voter registration system. Back in March, the Democratic Party had sued claiming that “minorities were disproportionately affected when they had their ballots rejected.” The consent decree was a court order agreed to by both parties—basically a settlement binding the state moving forward. 

The agreement included language indicating that “if the registrar or absentee ballot clerk determines that the voter's signature on the ballot envelope does not match the signature on file, that reviewer must get two others to also review it” and after that “a majority of the reviewers must agree that the signature is not a valid match in order for the ballot to be thrown out.” It also provided “steps for local election officials to notify a voter—by phone, mail or email—in a timely fashion about problems with a signature.”

An Atlanta attorney filed a lawsuit claiming that this agreement violated the Georgia constitution because the “change was made ‘unilaterally’ and ‘without the approval or direction of the Georgia General Assembly.’” Georgia’s Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs dismissed the allegation as “baseless” and “grasping” on Friday. “Signature match is intact and the General Assembly passed legislation to allow voters who failed to include a signature time to add one,” he said. “We strengthened signature match, and will continue to do so, period.”

Regardless, remember that the ballots have now been irrevocably separated from their envelopes and cannot be matched back together. So the only option for the Trump team now is to go through the envelopes and find at least 14,000 signatures that should have been rejected. If they were able to do that to a judge’s satisfaction then, because we don’t know how those people actually voted, Trump’s lawyers could argue that the only remedy would be a new election. 

So, what are the chances of finding any new votes in a recount anyway? Really good, it turns out … if you only need a couple hundred votes. There have been 31 statewide recounts since 2000. The average change was 282 votes.

Georgia and Pennsylvania have both had recounts for statewide judicial races in the last 20 years—one changed by 15 votes and the other by 281. In fact, only 3 statewide recounts have ever changed the result of an election—the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, the 2006 Vermont state auditor election, and most famously, the 2008 Minnesota senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. Coleman was ahead 215 votes before the recount and lost to Franken by 225 votes in the end. 

After the 2016 election, plenty of Democrats wanted a recount in some of the closer states. Marc Elias, general counsel for the Hillary Clinton campaign, sought to downplay expectations, writing at the time that “the number of votes separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the closest of these states—Michigan—well exceeds the largest margin ever overcome in a recount.” He was right, of course. Even so, Wisconsin recounted its votes that year, adding 131 into Trump’s column

That was a very long way of saying: Joe Biden will be the President-elect, regardless of how the lawsuits or recounts play out. Here’s a look at how it all shook out (h/t to Bruce Mehlman, a former George W. Bush political appointee, whose PowerPoint about the election, “Everything Changed and Nothing Changed,” I highly recommend): 

Georgia on My Mind

Now all eyes are on Georgia and the two special elections that will decide control of the Senate for the first two years of the Biden administration. 

In recent days, I talked to two voters in Georgia about how they are feeling. Neither voted for Trump in 2016; both did in 2020. And both plan to vote for the Republican senators in the special election.

Sarah: How would you say your vote for Trump balanced between his personality (“he fights for us,” “he isn’t like those other Republicans,” “he doesn’t sound like a politician”) and the policies he pursued over the last four years?

RM, a non-white single woman who works in public relations: Donald Trump’s personality was a high negative for me—including/along with his character, personal behavior, and rhetoric. Those are key aspects of why I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016—along with the fact that he didn’t have a track record in public policy and I didn’t think we could trust his promises, particularly on social policy and even on foreign policy. (I was part of the NeverTrump movement in 2016, speaking out against him and voting independent for the first time.) 

Four years later, however, we did have a track record and a solid one at that. The policies he pursued, championed, or at the very least allowed to advance were significant and there are many tangible successes for conservatives to point to under his Administration on fiscal, social, and foreign policy (and of course, the judges). 

SC, a black man who works in economic development: I held my nose and voted for Trump. I didn’t like his behavior, but some policies have been beneficial … or the policies of his administration. So it might have been smarter people underneath him who he takes credit for. But he does not fit the mold of being presidential. There’s plenty of times he could have opted to take the high road and been more of a leader instead of getting down in the muck. But I voted for him because I was concerned about the left’s agenda in general and I was concerned about [Kamala Harris’s] influence. I felt like no matter what their rhetoric was now, their past resumes showed differently in dealing with the black community and I didn’t think that would change once they were in office.

Sarah: How do you respond to Trump’s recent statements about the election being rigged and vote fraud costing him the race? What parts resonate with you and what parts don’t?

RM: I do not believe this election was rigged or stolen. I do believe that pockets of voter fraud exist, but I do not think it’s widespread enough to have cost him the election. I think there is significant inefficiency, disorganization, and confusion within the voting process and that is lamentable—it should not be that way in the USA. So I think there does need to be reform in that regard. But I don’t believe voter fraud cost Trump the election and I think it’s highly problematic to perpetuate that myth. 

SC: Unless you’re a diehard Trump supporter, you’re not out in the streets yelling stuff was rigged or stolen. I do think there was some level of voter fraud, whether it be individual poll workers throwing out ballots. I don’t know if it’s up to the conspiracy that somebody’s chief of staff made the voting machines and programmed it to flip votes? That’s kind of far-fetched. The simplest answer is usually the easiest. But there are folks who have an unbridled hatred of Donald Trump and could throw out ballots. Was it millions of votes that could swing the electoral college? I don’t think so, but for someone who wants fair and protected elections, individuals need to be investigated and prosecuted. But I don’t think it swung the election. 

I was watching Meet the Press with my parents and to have that kind of a coordinated effort just seems very unlikely. But it fits his personality not wanting to concede, not wanting to give up power, or go down swinging. But at the end of the day hopefully we’ll have a semi-smooth transition of power. So, yeah, Trump’s rhetoric just adds more to his character flaws and overshadows some of the good policies that have been put in place.

Sarah: Assuming that you’re voting in the special election, are you concerned that other people are being dissuaded from voting because they don’t think their vote will be counted based on what POTUS has said?

RM: I will be voting in the special election, supporting both Republican candidates and doing whatever I can to help their campaigns in the coming weeks. I am not concerned that other people are being dissuaded from voting for this reason. Rather, I think all the hype and controversial rhetoric will cause people on both sides to turn out in high numbers. I am concerned that Trump’s continued defiance may be hurting the GOP more broadly, including here in Georgia. 

SC: Not in Georgia. I don’t think it’s going to keep people at bay. We know how important keeping McConnell as senate majority leader is, and having that crucial check to keep those wild-out progressives in check. Red wave in 2022? Who knows. But this is that linchpin to keep a Biden White House and a Pelosi House in check. Conservatives know that’s important. That’s the only thing being pumped on the airwaves: our two seats are the only two things standing between an infringement on our rights. I don’t think Trump tweets about fake elections, calling out our Secretary of State—people aren’t really paying attention to that. I don’t see it impacting the runoff. 

Sarah: Why do you think Republicans will win or lose those races?

RM: I think Republicans will win both races, primarily because both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are far-left in their policy proposals and personal beliefs. I’m convinced that Georgia is still a center-right state (though I acknowledge that demographics have drastically shifted in recent years), and I think as people take a closer look at the candidates in the coming weeks they will determine that Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue best represent the values and priorities of Georgians. I was shocked to see Biden win Georgia, but I think that had more to do with the anti-Trump sentiment (rather than a pro-Biden, pro-Democrat, pro-Leftist view), and I don’t think that will filter down to these Senate run-offs. 

SC: I have a lot of confidence Republicans are going to keep both Georgia senators. It’s a game of turnout. On the conservative side, conservatives normally come out for runoffs anyway. A lot of turning out the vote will be on the progressive side. Democrats are going to have to convince folks to come back in the same large numbers. And Republicans don’t have to be reminded. We know when the runoff is. Most conservative voters don’t need to be reminded when Election Day is. Period. 

On the phone with SC I asked a few more questions related specifically to his experience as a black man who voted for Trump. 

Sarah: Can GOP make more inroads with black men?

SC: Can they? Yes. Will they? That’s a different story.

Sarah: Do your parents know you voted for Trump?

SC: My parents are very conservative, but they vote Democrats 99 percent of the time. My mom doesn’t know I voted for Trump, but maybe they can guess because I haven’t exactly been cheering about Biden winning. I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but this time around it was a clear choice of two evils—and I decided to ride with the evil that I knew.

Sarah: Do you tell people you voted for Trump? 

SC: I might not volunteer the information. But I have thicker skin than most. If someone pegged me in a corner, I’d tell them. I’m not going to debate his personality flaws. We all know that. 

Sarah: Do you think Trump is racist?

SC: I wouldn’t want to go as far as to say he’s racist, because progressives have taken the term of racist to apply to anyone who doesn’t think like them. And you can’t label everyone with the blanket brush of racism. Do I think Trump only thinks about himself? I don’t know. I’ve never been close to President Trump. I’ve never shook his hand. I don’t know the man as an individual. I don’t think he’s racist. Does he have implicit biases? Yeah, we all do. Because he didn’t outright condemn white supremacy groups, that has framed a lot of the perception about who he is. 

I don’t care what anybody says—even though, yes, that was annoying. What policies did he put in place? What bills did he try to push through? What laws actually came out? Those are substantial things. If you can point and say, yeah, that’s a racist law or that disproportionately hit minority groups. And I didn’t see any of that in those 4 years. But I wasn’t an insider. So maybe it was a really good cover up job, but from a layman out in the public, I didn’t see orders that came out that directly impacted minority groups. Maybe I just didn’t see them. But plenty of people have condemned white supremacy and then done stuff behind our backs.

From a polished politician, yes, [Trump’s Charlottesville comments were] a flub. Had it happened to Romney, that would have been a totally different thing because Romney is a statesman and a political professional and someone who would know how to handle that question. That’s not Trump. I’m not going to hold him to a standard that he never was. Am I saying I love the guy? That I’ve got a MAGA hat? No. Should he have said something different? Yes. But am I upset that he didn’t? No, because his policies haven’t done anything to negatively impact my community.

At the end of the day, if you’re only upset about what he says ... Where do we draw the line? If he has the KKK down at the White House for being outstanding U.S. citizens or something, then I’d be like “okay, we have something to discuss.” Until then, let’s focus on the important things instead of getting distracted by the little stuff. 

Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images.

The Sweep: Don’t Trust The Exits. Do Trust the Vote!

What you need to know to understand both exit polls and claims of voter fraud.

I’ve worked on three presidential campaigns, but most relevant to today’s discussion is my work in 2012 as the national Election Day operations manager for Mitt Romney’s run. As part of the legal team, it was my job to work with the state staff in the top half-dozen battleground states to ensure they were prepared for Election Day and any potential legal proceedings afterward if we needed to contest the results. 

So with Election Day behind us, it’s time to dissect this year’s results—what we know and what we don’t. And whether we can trust the vote. Let’s dig in ...

First, I have already chastised David French for relying on exit polls, but it’s important to explain why even raccoons turn down this hot garbage.

There are three reasons. And I’ve asked pollster and FOTS (Friend of The Sweep) Kristen Soltis Anderson to help out.

First, what are exit polls and how do they work? From KSA: 

This year there are two “exit polls”: the traditional network consortium National Exit Poll conducted by Edison Research on behalf of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc., and the new voter analysis survey conducted by NORC at UChicago, which is what the AP, Fox News, NPR and PBS are using as their “exit poll.”

For years, the traditional exits have been conducted largely through in-person interviews in randomly selected precincts. At each precinct, the exit poll worker surveys people at random as they leave the polling place. Those results are fed back in waves to the networks, each of whom have teams quarantined who can access the data waves early. At 5 p.m. that data leaves “quarantine” and can be reported. But crucially, they are not final numbers!

If an exit poll worker surveys 10 people and six of them say they are voting Trump and four say they are voting Biden, but the results from that precinct come back 50-50, the interviews from that precinct would be weighted accordingly.

The benefit weeks later is you have a survey weighted back to actual election returns which means you’ve eliminated any “shy Trump” effect type issue. You’ve pegged the survey to a real vote total.

So now let’s break down the problems. 

  1. The results aren’t weighted yet. So all these people running around with exit poll data are basically just spouting the raw data from these interviews that have no analytical relation to the actual outcomes from that precinct. 

  2. This problem is compounded by the fact that in-person voting wasn’t evenly spread across party lines this year. As should be obvious by now to even the aliens watching us from across the universe, Democrats were more likely to use mail-in ballots and Republicans were more likely to vote in person. So if the survey is based strictly on in-person interviews? Yep, the hot garbage this year is even stinkier and more maggot-filled.

  3. Lastly, but hard to ignore, is that the polls themselves had some serious weighting problems this year. It’s not just that the polls were nearly all outside the margin of error from the final results in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. It’s that they were all wrong in the same direction, which means the formulas the pollsters are using to weight individual responses are not working. So even after the exit polls are weighted (and especially before), one has to wonder why we would trust the exits when we will never be able to compare them to something like election results to know whether they are accurate.

But the networks know all of this. So why are they still using them? Back to KSA: 

If the numbers are a mess in raw form, only to become valuable once re-weighted, it limits their usefulness as a tool to project or explain results on the night of. This is why some media outlets left the original exits. 

The Fox/AP exit poll instead relied exclusively on surveys done before the election. Over 100,000 interviews in fact! So they were prepared for a pandemic before one even came.

I wondered if this methodological difference explained why on Election Night the Network Exit Poll had a split on questions like “which would you prefer, focusing on beating COVID or focusing on reopening the economy” that were pretty split while the Fox/AP one started out with 6 in 10 preferring to stop COVID more. If network polls were more heavily looking at in-person voters, they’d have a more right-leaning sample. And it might explain why Fox and AP called Arizona while no other networks did. Fox and AP were working with a different underlying data set. They trusted it, and they made a call accordingly.

And now to the most important question of all: “Buuuuuut, Sarah, I want to make sweeping generalizations about what both parties should do moving forward and how am I supposed to do that if you won’t let me use rotting refuse?”

Even pre-weighted exit data can be useful to form a hypothesis, but then you’ve got to dig into actual voter data to see whether you can find evidence to support your hunch.

Or you could just read this newsletter. 

  1. So were there shy Trump voters after all? 

I don’t think so. There are people who will disagree with me about this, but I still see no evidence for the idea that Trump voters were telling pollsters that they were voting for Biden because Trump was such a divisive figure. If that had been the case, you would expect those voters to have no problem being honest about less colorful candidates. And they don’t get less colorful than Sen. Susan Collins in Maine.

Going back to August, not a single poll in Maine showed Collins winning. In fact, many showed her losing by more than 5 points. But she won by 8 points. So were there shy Collins voters too? 

On the other hand, polls rely on their pollster’s weighting formula. And those are built on a lot of assumptions about who is going to vote and that the 5 percent of folks who respond to polls are representative of the 95 percent who don’t. So what’s more likely: Collins voters also lied to pollsters or that there is a more fundamental problem with polling? My money is on the latter.

  1. Does Biden’s win mean Hillary Clinton was just a terrible candidate?

A lot of folks (including me) thought that Trump won in 2016 because Hillary Clinton was such a deeply unpopular candidate with a flawed campaign strategy that allowed Donald Trump to win over some Obama voters and convince another chunk of Obama voters to stay home. Biden, on the other hand, had none of the Clinton baggage and 7 percent fewer voters viewed him unfavorably compared to Trump, meaning that a Biden win would prove that Clinton cost herself the 2016 election. And Biden won, so case closed, right? 

Not exactly. If Clinton’s unpopularity had cost her the election four years ago, we would have expected Biden to get back those Clinton defectors that had flipped from Obama to Trump and we would have expected the Trump high water mark of 2016 to recede back to 2008/2012 numbers in the county data. And then we might expect to see turnout dropoff a little in Republican counties where voters might not support Biden but stay home rather than vote for Trump (a reverse Clinton).

But that’s not what it looks like in the county data. Remember all those pivot counties I described last week? Trump won all four of the pivot counties in Wisconsin again. In Michigan, Trump won Macomb County again by 8 points; and even in ones he lost like Saginaw County, Biden beat him by less than one third of 1 percent. All 31 pivot counties in Iowa stayed with Trump in 2020—every single one.

That means Trump’s support among Trump voters increased. Right now, he’s on track to win 10 million more votes than 2016. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible that there are things that a non-Clinton candidate could have done to win that race. But it’s not a given. And looking forward, it means some of those counties Obama won 2008 and 2012 aren’t coming back to the Democrats as the two parties shift and their constituencies in the Midwest reshuffle.

  1. Did Trump improve his performance with Hispanic voters?

Yes. The exit polls definitely showed Donald Trump picking up support with Hispanic voters compared to four years ago. But exit polls only give us an idea of what to go look for, remember? So what do we actually know?

In this case, there’s plenty of evidence in the voter data that shows Trump had more support from Hispanic voters this time around. There’s Miami-Dade—a county that is 70 percent Latino—where Trump picked up 200,000 more voters than last time, closing a 30-point gap down to 9 points. Yes, about 25 percent of Miami-Dade residents are Cuban-born—a group that has always been particularly Republican-friendly. But it would be difficult to explain the sudden gains in Miami-Dade with a group that already voted heavily Republican. 

And it definitely doesn’t explain what happened in Texas. Clinton won Zapata County, which is 95 percent Hispanic, by 33 points in 2016. Last week, Trump flipped it and won it 6 points. In fact, Trump improved his performance in every Texas county that had a Hispanic population above 75 percent—about 20 counties—and his overperformance throughout the state was correlated to the percentage of the Hispanic population in a county, according to data collected by the Wall Street Journal:

Even looking next door at Texas’s blue neighbor, New Mexico, in which nearly half of the residents are Hispanic, Donald Trump picked up 80,0000 more votes than four years ago. Counties with high Hispanic populations—like San Juan County in the Northwest to Otero County in the Southeast—moved closer to Trump. Osceola County, Florida had the largest percentage point increase in Hispanic residents in the country, rising from 29 percent to 55 percent since 2000. Trump picked up 25,000 voters more in Osceola County last week narrowing the gap by more than 10 points in that county.

Democrats would be smart to take a hard look at what went wrong for them—too much focus on Trump’s immigration rhetoric and not enough focus on energy and job growth issues is my guess—and whether they can reverse the trend in time for the 2022 midterms.

  1. Did a bunch of split-ticket voters save the GOP Senate majority?

I told you last week that split-ticket voters were a dying breed and couldn’t be counted on to help Republicans keep the Senate, so was I right? 

Let’s start with this: Republican Senate candidates in Texas, Montana, Alaska, and North Carolina* were running in states that Trump ended up winning. So we would expect them to hold onto their seats. Trump lost Colorado and Arizona and so did the Republican Senate candidates in those states. 

Each of these races involved some ticket-splitting—but not always in a predictable direction. Sen. Cory Gardner did, in fact, get 60,000 more votes than Trump in Colorado. Sen. Martha McSally, on the other hand, got about 25,000 fewer votes than Trump in Arizona, and her opponent, Mark Kelly, got about 40,000 more votes than Joe Biden. 

If you’re curious about some other states: John James in Michigan got about 10,000 fewer votes than Trump, but his opponent also got 70,000 fewer votes than Joe Biden, making it a very tight race. Amazingly, in Georgia, David Perdue has only 825 more votes than Donald Trump.

That leaves Sen. Susan Collins as the only Republican senator who won reelection despite the president losing the state to Biden. Collins won 40,000 more votes than Trump in Maine, while Sara Gideon, the Democratic candidate, underperformed Joe Biden by 100,000.

What does all this mean? It looks like split-ticket voters did make the difference for Susan Collins. But in every other case, the president’s performance in the state also dictated the winner of the Senate seat because there just weren’t enough split tickets to overcome the top of ticket for either party. 

*I know North Carolina hasn’t been called by the major networks, but this newsletter is calling it for Trump for the purposes of this question.

  1. Is there something fishy about some of the results in these states?

No! As I’ve said repeatedly, voter fraud absolutely exists, but I have yet to hear even a theory as to how someone could—through fraud—change the statewide results of an election that was separated by more than a couple thousand votes. And to remind you, Biden is up 148,000 votes in Michigan, 43,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 31,000 votes in Nevada, 20,000 in Arizona and Wisconsin, and 11,000 in Georgia.

First of all, I highly recommend you go back and read my conversation with election lawyer Chris Gober for a fun overview from someone who has participated in a lot of recounts. 

Next, let’s break the voter fraud theories into three categories: Adding ballots, changing ballots, and hacking software. 

  1. Adding 20,000 ballots.

This is the theory where bags of ballots appear out of nowhere and are added to the count. And just yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he’d seen evidence of people “voting after they died” In Pennsylvania. 

First, it’s important to remember that all of these votes have to be counted at the precinct level. But 9 out of 10 registered voters vote. That means you’d have to spread the ballots out over about 150 to 200 precincts to ensure you don’t trip any alarm bells when the vote totals exceed the number of registered voters or come remarkably close to it, which means you’d need at least that many conspirators. That’s not going to work. 

But there’s another way—create fraudulent registrations to boost the denominator for those turnout numbers and then get mail-in ballots for all those fake people. This one is possible, just not at scale. To register to vote in Pennsylvania, for example, you need a Pennsylvania driver’s license or a Social Security number. If not, you can check a box. And then you need an address. Here’s the problem: That’s public information, and people check whether there are suddenly lots of people registered to vote who don’t have a license or a SSN. And they are definitely going to notice if a couple hundred new people are suddenly registered at a single address. And then they are going to spot check some of those. And the penalty if you’re convicted is a term of imprisonment not exceeding seven years, or a fine not exceeding $15,000.

All of that means that if you’re willing to risk seven years in jail, you can easily create a few fraudulent registrations and then vote those ballots when they arrive in the mail. I’d bet you could even do a few hundred of them if you spread them out around the state. But you can’t do it 20,000 times.

So what are we to make of the dead people voting? Most of the time, the person is real but their birthday wasn’t entered correctly into the database. Instead of 1992, the person hits 1902 (the 0 and the 2 are right next to each other on my keyboard). Now that voter looks 118 years old but in fact she is 28. Or the person shares a name and address with his or her deceased parent who is still on the voter roll, and they check off the wrong John Smith at 12 Smith Lane. This one is easy to double-check, because the younger John Smith will not have voted according to the voter rolls.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt some folks illegally fill out an absentee ballot that is sent to their dead parents or the former owner of their new home. Just not 20,000 times and all for the same candidate.

But as a Pennsylvania election official said, “There is currently no proof provided that any deceased person has voted in the 2020 election.”

  1. Changing ballots from Trump votes to Biden votes.

There’s really only one way to pull this off and that’s to collect a bunch of absentee ballots, steam open the security envelope that has the signature on it, change the vote, reseal, and drop off. Your risk of getting caught is definitely lower in one of the 14 states that allow unlimited ballot harvesting. Otherwise, you wind up like that North Carolina campaign manager for a Republican congressional campaign who got charged with illegal ballot handling last year. 

But according to a guy who says he used to do it regularly (so we are taking the word of an admitted felon at this point), this takes a seasoned pro about 5 minutes per ballot. That’s still only 12 ballots an hour. Let’s say you and your three most trusted friends were able to collect these ballots somehow and did this eight hours a day, for the week before the election … that’s still only 2,000 ballots. And according to this guy, he tried for 12 minutes to steam open a single envelope in Arizona and couldn’t do it. 

The other way to do this is in reverse. You go harvest a bunch of ballots from an area that is known to heavily favor your opponent and then you just throw those ballots in a trash can and light them on fire. But you still have at least one of the same problems as above—where are you finding these thousands of people who willingly hand over their ballot to a stranger? No doubt you could do it a few hundred times if you were very diligent. But 20,000? You’d get caught when a couple dozen people out of that 20,000 check to make sure their ballot was received. 

The last one is to help elderly folks fill out their ballots and pressure them to vote a certain way or fill it out with your preferred candidate and hope they don’t see what you did. No doubt this also happens sometimes. But again, not 20,000 times. 

  1. Hacking the individual voting machines.

This isn’t really voter fraud, but I’ll address it anyway because a reader recently asked me about a virus that sounds like it would work a lot like the idea in Office Space, causing every 20th vote for Trump to get recorded as a Biden vote by the machine. (Worth noting, it wouldn’t do you any good to hack any larger system like the secretary of state database because the votes are all recorded at the precinct level and by type of vote—absentee, in person, early, etc—so any error would be caught in the canvass or when a precinct official happened to go check the website.)

Now, of course, there’s a lot of security around these machines and the FBI monitors them for tampering, etc. But let’s say you were able to do it. You wouldn’t know which machine was going to which precinct so you would have to hack them countywide or at random, but you’d have to set the ratio high enough to swing 20,000 votes without raising eyebrows. 

But 38 states have paper backup for any ballot that runs through the machine. And of the 12 that don’t, only Pennsylvania and Georgia were close. If Trump had won Michigan and Wisconsin and Florida but lost Pennsylvania and Georgia, I would also be suspicious of this. But both turnout and support for Biden in the most urban counties (the places where 10,000 Trump votes would be least likely to be missed) were pretty consistent across all of those states.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The Sweep: Your 2020 Election Night Guide 

The swing counties and Senate races we'll have our eye on as returns come in.

I’m looking forward to breaking down the results on November 9 (the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and my birthday!) with Karl Rove and Joe Trippi. Get your tickets here! But before we get to that exciting conversation, there’s a lot that’ll happen in the next 24-48 hours (longer?) that’ll shape not only that discussion but the next several years of politics in America. 

The information will be coming at warp speed and it can be a lot to take in. So allow me to serve as a guide of sorts to Election Night by sharing with you some of what I’ll be watching closely with the hope that it’ll help you make sense of the chaos. Feel free to pull this up on your laptop or your phone as you sit down to watch returns tonight. And, if you’re so inclined, join us for Dispatch Live at 10 p.m., where I’ll be checking in on some of these places to help us understand what’s happening.

The Presidential Race: 19 Counties to Watch

There are 3,141 counties (or the equivalent) in the United States, and 206 of them are considered pivot counties that flipped for Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Below we’ll look at some of the most important counties to watch tonight—some of the top pivot counties, some of the swingiest counties, and some of the solid R or D counties where the candidates need to run up their margins to win the state.

Florida

Florida will be one of the first states to report results. Polls close at 7 p.m. ET in the majority of the state and 8 p.m. ET in the panhandle. Most importantly, they started counting their absentee ballots 22 days ago. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden up 2 points—within the margin of error—but the momentum has been with Trump. Trump does not have a realistic path to a second term without Florida; Biden does. Florida has 4 counties that flipped to Trump from Obama in both of his elections and we’ll look at each of them below. 

Pinellas: Out of all the counties on this list and in this country, this is the one to watch for me, because if Trump wins Pinellas, he’s won Florida and we’re in for a long night (month?). This county is in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and with more than 450,000 votes up for grabs, it’s the largest of the counties in Florida that flipped for Trump. Obama won this county both times—by 8 in 2008 and by 6 in 2012—and Trump won it by just over a point in 2016. One recent poll of this county has Biden winning by over 13 points. But in 2018, Andrew Gillum, the Democrat running for governor, and Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat running for reelection, both won this county—albeit by small margins—despite losing their elections.

St. Lucie: Tucked between Orlando and Miami on the Atlantic side, with around 150,000 voters, St. Lucie is part of what they call the Treasure Coast. Obama won this county by 12 in ’08 and 8 in ’12, and then Trump won it by just over 2 points in 2016. But just like Pinellas County, this county voted for both Gillum and Nelson in 2018.

Jefferson County: Unlike Pinellas and St. Lucie, Jefferson County, which neighbors Tallahassee on the east, flipped after going for Democrats in 2008 and 2012 and stayed that way in 2018. In fact, Trump won the county by 5 points in 2016, but Ron DeSantis, now the Republican governor of Florida, increased that lead and won it by almost 7 points two years later. Even though there are only around 7,000 voters in the county, it will be a bellwether that Trump will almost certainly need to win to stand a chance of taking the state.

Monroe County: Welcome to the Florida Keys. Believe it or not, these 35,000 or so voters may make the difference in 2020. Despite Obama’s back-to-back victories in the county, Trump won it by a comfortable 7 points. In 2018, Democrat Bill Nelson won the county by 16 votes (you read that correctly) and Republican Ron DeSantis won it by 1,333 votes. Keep an eye on this one; it could be a squeaker!

Pennsylvania

Polls close at 8 p.m. ET in Pennsylvania, but they don’t even start counting their absentee ballots until that morning. Because we expect more Democrats to vote by mail, if Joe Biden is winning Pennsylvania on election night, there’s a good bet his lead will only get bigger as mail ballot results trickle in. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden up five points, but he was leading by more than seven points just three weeks ago. Trump carried three Pennsylvania counties that Obama had won in 2008 and 2012, and we’ll look at each of them.

Erie County*: This is in the blue-collar manufacturing region in the northwest corner of the state. Obama won Erie by almost 20 points in 2008 and 16 points in 2012; Trump won it by 1.5 points in 2016. But then in 2018, the Democratic incumbent Bob Casey won it back and by 18 points—5 points more than his state total. On Tuesday, I’ll be watching Erie to see whether 2016 was just an anti-Hillary backlash or whether Democrats’ progressive rhetoric will cost Biden what clearly should be a reliable blue county.

Westmoreland County: This is part of the Pennsylvania fracking rainbow that starts in the Southwest corner of the state. Westmoreland sits just outside Pittsburgh—it’s big and it’s red. Republicans won the county in both 2008 and 2012, but Trump picked up an additional 13,000 voters from Romney, and Clinton lost nearly 4,000 voters from Obama’s 2012 performance, increasing his margin by more than 7 points. If Trump wins Pennsylvania, it’ll be because of big margins in Westmoreland, which is why Vice President Pence was there yesterday.

Luzerne County: This county is in the heart of the working-class, predominantly white northeast region of the state that delivered for Trump. Despite Obama winning the county by a healthy 8 point margin in 2008 and 4 points in 2012, Trump won it by a whopping 20 points just four years later. But Democrats showed signs of life in the midterms; Republican challenger Lou Barletta only won the county by 8 points over incumbent Senator Bob Casey in 2018. There is no realistic path for Trump to win PA without some healthy margins in Luzerne. 

Northampton County: Here’s the closest we get to a true swing county in Pennsylvania. Until 2016, Northampton had voted for the Democrat in presidential elections and had voted for Republican and Democratic Senators like Rick Santorum, Pat Toomey, and Bob Casey. In fact, for both offices, as goes Northampton, so goes the state. But Northampton’s 7th congressional district has been reliably red for decades. Until 2018. The county went for Democrat Susan Wild by 6 points.

North Carolina

Polls close at 7:30 p.m. and they started counting mail ballots two weeks ago. North Carolina’s polling has Biden up by 1.9 but has consistently been within the margin of error according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. There are 6 pivot counties in this state but they only account for about 3 percent of the state’s population. So even more important than those swing counties are the candidate’s abilities to juice turnout on their home turf. North Carolina didn’t have any statewide elections in 2018.

Union County: This is a perfect example of a Republican heavy suburban turnout county just outside Charlotte. Trump won Union County by 36.4 points in 2016 but the Republican lead was down to 20.5 points in the 2019 special congressional election. If Trump’s lead here is below 20, it will spell trouble for his chances to win the state.

Robeson County: This is a true pivot county that went for Obama by double digits in 2008 and 2012 and then flipped 23 points to vote for Trump in 2016, even though only 12 percent of voters were registered Republicans and 66 percent were registered Democrats. The demographics of this rural, former manufacturing county also aren’t what you might expect: “Of Robeson County’s 74,663 registered voters (as of mid-September), 35.1% are American Indian, 27.4% are Black and 28.5% are white.”

Cumberland County: Hillary Clinton underperformed Obama in this Fayetteville county by 4 points. It has a competitive congressional race (see NC-8 below) that could boost black turnout in a county that is 40 percent black. The Biden team will be carefully monitoring this county to gauge his support with black voters, hoping to see something closer to the 18-20 margin that Obama had.

Lenoir County: This tiny but mighty county has one of the best records in the country for predicting its state’s final result. Since 1992, it has deviated from the statewide result in North Carolina by only 1.17 points on average. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans won this county by less than a tenth of a point; Trump handily won it by 3.65 points. 

Wisconsin

Polls close at 9 p.m. ET and they did not start counting mail ballots until this morning. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden up nearly 9 points and that lead has only increased in the past month. Trump won 23 Wisconsin counties that had voted twice for Barack Obama. But in 2018, Democrat Tony Evers beat incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker by 1 point. We’ll look at 4 pivot counties below.

Winnebago County: This county sits in the Fox Valley, which the New York Times describes as “a three-county stretch from Green Bay to Oshkosh that is the most politically competitive region in one of America’s foremost battleground states.” Obama won this county by nearly 12 points in 2008, but in 2016, Trump carried it by 7 points. Walker overperformed in this county in 2018, winning it by 3 points.

Sawyer County: This northern vacation destination picks presidents. Sawyer voted for Obama, Bush, Clinton, and H.W. Bush. In fact, Sawyer has voted for the next resident of the White House every cycle since 1964. And in 2016, it wasn’t close. Trump won Sawyer with 56.7 percent compared to Hillary Clinton’s 38.3 percent. In 2018, despite incumbent Senator Tammy Baldwin winning the state by 11 points—Sawyer voted for her Republican opponent by 3 points.

Kenosha County: Trump won Kenosha by 238 votes. Before Trump, Richard Nixon was the last Republican president that this county supported. It’s the sort of manufacturing union county that used to be the backbone of the Democrat’s midwest blue wall and was home to racially-charged violence over the summer after a police shooting of a black man was captured on video. Trump will need to keep it competitive in Kenosha even if Biden wins it in the end. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Evers easily outperformed his statewide margins, winning Kenosha by more than 4 points.

Crawford County: Trump carried Crawford by 417 votes in 2016—the first Republican to take the county since 1984. Tucked in the southwest corner of the state, the 16,000 residents of this mostly rural county are 94 percent white and focused on agriculture and trade policies. During the midterms, Democratic challenger Evers carried this county by more than 3 points. 

Michigan

Polls close at 8 p.m. ET, but once again, we won’t have any results for mail ballots because they don’t start counting them until today. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden up over 8 points, and while any changes have been within the margin of error, late deciders look like they could be breaking toward Biden. Michigan might have been the most shocking state to flip to Trump in 2016 and for good reason—12 counties with over 18 percent of the state’s population flipped from Obama’s 08/12 ledger. But in 2018, the state easily elected Democrats for senate and governor. Hillary Clinton notoriously underperformed in some solid D counties in 2016. We’ll look below at where Biden will need to make up ground.

Wayne County: This is Detroit. It’s not a swing county and that’s putting it mildly. But here’s the problem: In 2016, Hillary won 66 percent of Wayne’s vote—a net loss of 76,000 votes from Obama’s total in 2012,when he won Wayne with 73 percent. Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. The Biden team will want to see him hitting over 70 percent this time around. 

Macomb County: Now we move to the Detroit suburbs. As US News called it, Macomb is “the birthplace of the blue-collar Reagan Democrat.” Obama won it in 2012 with 52 percent, Trump won it back in 2016 with 54 percent. Digging into the numbers, you’ll see that Hillary Clinton lost 32,000 of those Obama voters and Trump picked up 33,000 more voters than Romney—nearly a one to one tradeoff. Biden’s job is to get them back.

Saginaw County: Here’s one of Michigan’s pivot counties. Obama won Saginaw by 17 percent in 2008 and 12 percent in 2012. Trump won it by just over a point in 2016. Interestingly, Trump only picked up just over 2,000 votes from Romney’s total in 2012. But Hillary bled nearly 10,000 votes from Obama. 

Genesee County: Flint, Michigan, which Obama declared a federal state of emergency after high levels of lead were found in the water in 2015, sits in Genesee County. Obama won 64 percent over Romney’s 35 percent. But just four years later, Hillary Clinton squeaked out a win with only 52 percent, losing 26,000 of those Obama 2012 voters. Maybe that’s why Obama was there over the weekend to pitch Flinters on Biden and sank a shot on the high school’s basketball court, looking back to shout “that’s what I do” like it was no big deal.

The Senate: 15 Races to Watch

Republicans hold a three-seat majority in the Senate plus the tie-breaking vote of the vice president. To take the majority, Democrats will need to pick up a net of four seats or three seats and the White House. But the top of the ticket may control a lot of these races. As I explained last week:

Pew recently released a survey that showed 4 percent of voters intend to vote for a presidential candidate and a senate candidate from opposing parties. That’s down from 8 percent who split their ticket in 2016. This fits with everything we’ve been seeing about the decline of split ticket voters in general. As Pew noted, “In 139 regular and special elections for the Senate since 2012, 88% have been won by candidates from the same party that won that state’s most recent presidential contest.”

Sure, but that’s just a poll. We can also look back to 2016 to see which candidates outperformed Trump. In New Hampshire, Trump lost by .37 percent and Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost by .14 percent. Trump won Pennsylvania by .72 percent and Sen. Pat Toomey won by 1.43 percent. In North Carolina, Trump won by almost 4 points and Sen. Richard Burr won by 5. The only outlier worth mentioning appears to be Florida, in which Sen. Marco Rubio outperformed Trump by 6 points. 

The Swing State Shuffle 

Arizona: Republican appointee Martha McSally vs Democrat and retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

Because this is a special election, the winner can be seated at the end of the month—well before other Senate winners, who will have to wait until January. Mark Kelly, a former Navy combat pilot and astronaut, is the husband of former congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords, who was shot during an assassination attempt in 2011. McSally was the first U.S. woman to fly in combat and the first to command a fighter squadron. The race hasn’t had many game changing moments, but during a debate at the beginning of October McSally made headlines when she refused to answer whether she was “proud” of her support for President Trump. At a recent rally appearance with Trump, however, she tried to jerk-store an answer, declaring herself “a fighter who is proud to work with President Trump for the great American comeback.” Kelly has maintained a solid lead in nearly every poll this past month. 

North Carolina: Republican incumbent Tom Tillis vs Democratic former state senator Cal Cunningham.

This race has been a rollercoaster even by 2020 standards. As Audrey reminded us in her piece this week, “just hours after Tillis told reporters he had tested positive for COVID-19 on October 2, news broke that Cunningham, a married father of two, was sending romantic text messages to a woman who is not his wife.” Tillis, for his part, has never been very popular in the state. “Tillis’ approval rating fell to just 53 percent among GOP voters in the first quarter of 2019, which coincided with Tillis’ decision to write a Washington Post op-ed in February of 2019 criticizing the president’s national emergency declaration for the border wall—before reversing himself and backing it.” Cunningham has been consistently leading in the polls since the summer and the race is currently just outside the margin of error in most polls.

Iowa: Republican incumbent Joni Ernst vs Democrat and commercial real estate executive

Theresa Greenfield.

This race has gotten tense. Ernst had an embarrassing flub at a recent debate where she couldn’t answer the going price for soybeans. But the Des Moines Register summed up the last few weeks in which “Ernst has played to her base, appearing with President Donald Trump at a rally in Omaha earlier in the week, airing television ads that falsely accuse Greenfield of calling police officers racists and doubling down on her arguments that Greenfield is far too liberal on issues like the environment and health care.” And it seems like it’s worked. In the final Des Moines Register poll, the gold standard in Iowa, Ernst was up 4 percent over Greenfield. 

Georgia: Remember, there are two races here. 

First, Republican incumbent David Perdue vs Democrat Jon Ossoff, best known for spending $30 million to succeed Tom Price in the most expensive House race in U.S. history, only to lose to Karen Handel by 5 points in 2017. Polls have bounced back and forth in this race with Ossoff closing the margin in the last couple weeks. Now it’s the closest race on the map. 

Next up, the special election with Republican appointee and business executive Kelly Loeffler against the world. Bear in mind, every candidate—Republican and Democrat—runs on the November ballot and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent, there’s a runoff in January 2021. Democrats have consolidated behind Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Loeffler, on the other hand, is trying to fend off a challenge from the right from Rep. Doug Collins even to make it into the runoff.

The Last Best Hope for GOP Pickups

Michigan: Democratic incumbent Gary Peters vs Republican and veteran John James.

One of the few potential pickups for Republicans this year, James has long been considered a rising star as a black, young, charismatic Republican who can speak to the moment of racial tensions in the country while Peters has never been the darling of his party. James was the Republican nominee against Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018, losing that race by seven points. This was always an uphill battle for the GOP and polling confirms Peters is comfortably leading James in all but one state poll this past month. Still, Peters seems to be underperforming Biden in the state, making James’ best chance of winning that Trump somehow closes the gap to within a point or two of Biden and James can outperform him just a little.

Alabama: Democratic incumbent Doug Jones vs Republican and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. 

This will likely be the reason Democrats need four (plus White House) or five seats to take back the majority. On the one hand, Democrats had no business picking up a senate seat in deep red Alabama in 2018 after Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, but Republicans can thank Roy Moore for that one. And at least two polls have Tuberville winning by double digits. But if Democrats have any hope of holding onto his seat, it will be because there are very few polls in the state and Tuberville wasn’t able to consolidate his money or support after being forced into a runoff with Jeff Sessions who failed to reclaim the seat he had held for 20 years. Assuming Jones loses, look for Biden to find him a soft landing in his administration if he wins. 

Minnesota: Democratic incumbent Tina Smith vs former Republican congressman Jason Lewis

Like Michigan, this one is an unlikely GOP pickup, but Trump only lost Minnesota by 1.5 percent—just under 45,000 votes. Smith is relatively unknown in the state after just two years in office and Minneapolis City Council’s visible (if inconsequential) pledge to defund its police department (which Smith didn’t sign, but which was widely perceived to be a Democratic brainchild) didn’t help. Then again, Lewis isn’t the most compelling candidate the GOP fielded this year. As a former radio talk show host he has plenty of controversial statements that have come back to bite him in the land of Minnesota Nice. Bottom line: she’s raised more money and she’s still leading in every poll, but if Trump wins the state, Lewis could definitely pull it out.

The Blue State Blues

Colorado: Republican incumbent Cory Gardner vs Democratic former Governor and presidential candidate John Hickenlooper

Most analysts have written this race off. Hickenlooper is on track to win this race by double digits based on polls last month. Colorado isn’t a presidential battleground state for the first time in a few cycles, which may mean lower turnout, in which case Gardner could make it more competitive. Even so, Hickenlooper raised $23 million last quarter—three times as much money as Gardner—so it’s hard to see how the GOP can hold onto this one.

Maine: Republican incumbent Susan Collins vs Democratic state representative Sara Gideon

Like Colorado, Maine is another senate seat that most people are already putting in the Democrat’s column. Gideon is well known in her state as Speaker of the House. But there aren’t a lot of polls in the state and a few recent ones show Collins ticking up in the final stretch and within the margin of error. Collins raised $8 million last quarter, a record for her, but Gideon hauled in $39 million and started October with more than three times as much cash on hand.

The Red State Shockers

Montana: Republican incumbent Steve Daines vs Democratic governor and presidential candidate Steve Bullock

It’s the battle of the Steves. Like Colorado, a relatively new Republican incumbent is running against a popular former governor and former presidential candidate. But unlike Colorado, Montana is a quirky deep red state that nevertheless sometimes elects Democrats. The polls last month showed a true toss up. Is this the race where Trump—who won Montana by 20 points in 2016—will pull a candidate over the finish line?

Kansas (open): Republican congressman Roger Marshall vs Democratic state senator Barbara Bollier 

Already the most expensive senate race in state history, Bollier has wildly outraised Marshall $24 million to $6 million. A battle of the moderates, Bollier is a former Republican, and Marshall defeated far-right immigration hawk Kris Kobach in the primary. Good polls are few and far between here but there’s a few that show Bollier eking out a win and some others with Marshall comfortably ahead in the state Trump won by 21 points in 2016. This is almost certainly one of those races that will rise or fall on Trump’s coattails with wobbly Republicans in the state.

South Carolina: Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham vs Democrat and former lobbyist Jamie Harrison

Of the races nobody saw coming, this is the most shocking in some ways. Even though Trump won the state by 14 points last time around, the polling should not make the Graham team feel comfortable—half a dozen in the past month show Harrison even or winning outright. And then there’s the $57 million Harrison raised last quarter—roughly double Graham’s haul—which can buy a lot of name ID in the relatively cheap media markets in the state. As Senate Judiciary chairman, vocal Trump supporter, and serving in elected office since 1993, Graham is a well known commodity. In short, this may be the only race in the country that isn’t a referendum on Donald Trump. 

Texas: Republican incumbent John Cornyn vs Democrat and veteran pilot MJ Hegar.

She’s no Beto. But that’s all the more reason why MJ Hegar’s rise in the polls in Texas is raising eyebrows. She hauled in 8 times more money last quarter than the previous one and polls show her closing the gap—although as of today not a single poll has shown her winning the race. As unlikely as it may seem, if Hegar—a political unknown—comes even close to beating the former No. 2 in the Senate, John Cornyn—the blue wave will knock out a lot of lower ballot folks in the Lone Star State. Then again, we’ve heard predictions of a “blue Texas” for a decade now and Trump won the state by 9 points four years ago.

Alaska: Republican incumbent Dan Sullivan vs Independent and orthopedic surgeon Al Gross

This is certainly the most fun race in the country. Maybe it’s because the Alaska Democratic Party’s nomination didn’t go to a member of their own party (though Gross has said he will caucus with the Democrats). Or maybe it’s because one of the most controversial issues in the campaign was whether Gross actually killed a grizzly bear (he did). Or maybe it’s just this “Bear Doctor” jingle that everyone in Alaska has been subjected to for weeks now. Regardless, most polls show Sullivan—a native of Ohio, as Gross is quick to point out—winning a second term but it’s relatively close in a state that Trump won by 15 points in 2016. 

House: 4 Races to Watch

Since this is my newsletter and I don’t believe Republicans have any chance of regaining the majority in the House (20 seats? I don’t think so!), I’m not actually interested in many of the “toss up” races. (If you are, you can read about them here and here.) Instead, the only reason I care about House races tonight is to figure out what they mean further up the ticket. Republicans are listed first, Democrats second, and I’ve linked to a good story in the “vs” for each one. In that spirit, here are the ones I’ll have tabs open for: 

TX-21: Chip Roy* vs Wendy Davis

NE-2: Don Bacon* vs Kara Eastman

NC-8: Richard Hudson* vs Patricia Timmons-Goodson 

IA-4 (open): Randy Feenstra vs J.D. Scholten 

PA-10: Scott Perry* vs Eugene DePasquale

*Incumbent

Correction, November 3, 2020: An earlier version of this newsletter conflated two Pennsylvania counties: Erie County and Westmoreland County.

The Sweep: Sexual Tar Heeling

Sarah dives into the mailbag before looking at the Senate race in North Carolina.

Q (and A) Branch

With one more week to go, I just want to take a moment to thank all of you for reading this quirky little campaign newsletter. We wanted to give you something beyond horse-race punditry—a peek behind the curtain of how campaigns are run and the strategic decisions campaign operatives think about when they see the same news you do. 

In that spirit, I get wonderful emails from a lot of you with great questions that I try to answer. So this week, I’m going to share some of your most frequent questions (some of which I have combined/edited) and my best attempt to answer them!

  1. Do you trust internal polls vs. public polls? I would think an internal Pepsi poll would say it is more popular than Coke but we know that’s not true. Aren’t internal polls inherently biased?

First, let’s understand why internal polls exist. While campaign pollsters will always ask the question ‘who do you intend to vote for,’ this isn’t why campaigns pay $20-$50K for a poll. Internal polling is a tool a campaign uses to make strategic decisions about money and time. If strategists just wanted to know who was winning or losing, they could rely on all these great public polls.

Instead, a campaign uses internal polls to decide where to put resources and who their messages—both positive and negative—are resonating with. A campaign may put a poll in the field to test the opposition research it has against an opponent to see what could stick. A campaign may want to see whether its candidate is doing better in Florida or North Carolina to decide where to send her candidate in the final stretch. 

And most importantly, internal polls can oversample cross tabs. (What a great jargony nonsense sentence, right? Stand by, I’ll explain.) Cross tabs—the tables that break down how specific demographic groups responded—are a big reason why internal polls exist. A public poll might have 900 respondents with a margin of error of 3 points. Roughly 450 are female. And of those, 150 are females over the age of 55. So when a public poll shows that Biden is “winning female seniors” by 30 points, they are basing that on 150 respondents; not 900. As you might have guessed, that drastically changes the margin of error. An internal poll allows you to poll 900 people still, but it can ensure that 300 of the 900 are senior women and adjust the weighting of the poll accordingly. Now your margin of error is smaller and the campaign has much better data on how they are doing with that demographic.

And yet, you are thinking to yourself: But I see “the campaign’s internal poll shows them up by 3 points” all the time. Yes, you do. But think of the internal poll like a buffalo. The campaign wants to use all the parts of the poll. So the fundraising team will use it to tell voters that the candidate is doing well with senior voters. The field team will use it to prioritize which doors to knock and voters to call. The folks in debate prep will look at which attacks drive down support for their opponent. 

And then there’s the communications team. If a poll has a good message, they release it. If it doesn’t, they don’t, or they get cute with their phrasing to make it look better than it actually is. So that means that internal polls are great and usually quite accurate. But what you are seeing as a news consumer is cherry-picked. 

  1. President Trump just had 20,000 people attend a rally in Gastonia, NC. I had never heard of Gastonia, NC before. I do not understand how someone who is losing by 10 percent can do this in a place I’ve never heard of. Actually, I don’t understand how even a person who is winning by 10 percent can do this.

I also had never heard of Gastonia, NC, but luckily Google Maps had. Turns out, this little town is really more of an exurb less than half an hour from Charlotte, NC, which has a population of 850,000. But that doesn’t answer whether 20,000 is a lot or a little or a meaningful indicator of support or turnout. 

First, these rallies don’t just pop up out of nowhere. Campaigns think long and hard about where to send their candidates. They are looking at their internal numbers and also talking to their field directors to see whether they can pull together an event. From there, the field director will move most if not all of their phone banks and door knocking to turnout for the event. In this case, they are likely trying to target voters who are already firmly supporting Trump but maybe didn’t vote in the 2018 midterms. 

The theory is that rallies have the same effect as getting folks to donate under $20. It’s not the attendance at the rally or the amount of money, it’s building attachment to the candidate by ensuring the voter has psychologically invested. When voters attend that rally, they are surrounded by other supporters and subconsciously start to identify themselves as part of a group, “Trump supporters.” Group identity, of course, is great if you want to boost someone’s chances of voting. They become defensive of the group and—at least the campaign hopes—don’t want to let the group down. 

On the other hand, Alan I. Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, ran numbers from 2016 and found “the relative number of campaign trips to a state by Trump and Clinton had no effect on the results.” Interesting.

But back to Gastonia. Trump-leaning voters in Charlotte probably got bombarded with texts, emails, and phone calls in the run up to the event. Field directors are masters at knowing how many people they can turn out in their area for an event based solely on the day of the week and the campaign surrogate (i.e. there’s a big difference between an event featuring Joe Biden and one with Jill Biden).

Trump got 20,000 people near a city with 850,000. Does this mean the polls that show Trump down 1-2 points are wrong? They may be wrong, but this provides zero evidence for it. For me, rallies say far more about the talent of the field team than about the popularity of the candidate.

My evidence: In October 2012, Mitt Romney had 14,000 people in Fishersville, VA, 40 minutes outside of Charlottesville (population 45,000). He lost Virginia by 4 points.

  1. Can you explain why Biden and Harris are traveling to Texas and Georgia this week? How does this make any sense?

Imagine if the scoreboard broke in the final 2 minutes of Game 7 of the NBA championship. LeBron has the ball, and the last he saw, his team was up by 2 points. But he’s lost track of the last few possessions. He’s pretty sure they are still up by 2, but he could be wrong. He has an easy path to the layup—a guaranteed 2 points to win the game. But instead he wants to dunk the ball in a new and awesome way because that could increase his endorsements after they win the championship and he could then surpass Michael Jordan for the most expensive endorsement contract in history. 

The problem is this move runs a low but non-zero risk that by attempting this new and awesome move that has no bearing on winning the game, the ball will bounce off the rim, causing LeBron to fall backward onto his head, get a concussion, and lose the game and the championship and all those endorsements. Should he do it? 

(But it definitely can psych out your opponent to play on his home turf.)

  1. What chance is there that, because we are a no land-line couple, and don't answer calls not recognizable to us, we missed being polled altogether? As a household with one Republican and one Democrat, we ought to be interesting, but have not, to our knowledge, had the chance to respond to a pollster.

Let’s look at Florida. There have been about 40 Florida polls in October. Most polls report between 600 and 1200 respondents. Pollsters report a response rate of 5–7 percent. That’s probably around 700,000 people who were called for those polls. There are 14 million registered voters in Florida. So even in one of the most-polled states in the country, you had a 95 percent chance of not getting a call for one of those polls in October. 

  1. If Biden wins by 5 points nationally, could there be enough split ticket voters to save some of these [Republican] senate candidates?  

Or to put it another way: If Trump loses a state like Iowa, can a Senator like Joni Ernst survive?

Undoubtedly, there are quite a few conservative voters who don’t like Trump but nevertheless want Republicans to retain control of the Senate, or long-time loyal Democratic voters who like Trump’s style, or voters who just like divided government. 

Pew recently released a survey that showed 4 percent of voters intend to vote for a presidential candidate and a senate candidate from opposing parties. That’s down from 8 percent who split their ticket in 2016. This fits with everything we’ve been seeing about the decline of split ticket voters in general. As Pew noted, “In 139 regular and special elections for the Senate since 2012, 88% have been won by candidates from the same party that won that state’s most recent presidential contest.”

Sure, but that’s just a poll. We can also look back to 2016 to see which candidates outperformed Trump. In New Hampshire, Trump lost by .37 percent and Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost by .14 percent. Trump won Pennsylvania by .72 percent and Sen. Pat Toomey won by 1.43 percent. In North Carolina, Trump won by almost 4 points and Sen. Richard Burr won by 5. The only outlier worth mentioning appears to be Florida, in which Sen. Marco Rubio outperformed Trump by 6 points.  

So while there may be 4 percent of voters who cross parties for their senate seat, don’t assume they are all Republican-Biden voters. They cross both ways and the end result is that the senate outcome in any given state is likely to look a lot like the top of the ticket. 

Sweet Carolin-a

To quote the great political movie, The Campaign, when it comes to the North Carolina senate race, “it’s a mess.” Thankfully, Audrey has a piece on the site today in which she dives into the muck and mire so you don’t have to. 

More than 3 million North Carolinians have already voted in what has become one of the most expensive, scandal-ridden Senate races of 2020: a tight matchup between first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, an Army Reserve officer and former military prosecutor who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the GOP’s 53-47 Senate majority hanging by a thread—the incumbents in Maine, Arizona, and Colorado are in serious jeopardy of losing—Republicans are hoping that North Carolina will be the linchpin that prevents Democrats from winning the four seats they need to regain the Senate. (Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama is expected to lose reelection to Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, adding a slight cushion to the Senate Republicans’ fragile three-seat majority.) 

Though Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, a growing number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina have moved the once reliably red state into purple territory: Biden is now carrying the state by 1.2 points, according to today’s RealClearPolitics average. 

But the first week of October threw a wrench into Senate Democrats’ plans to unseat Thom Tillis—a fairly anonymous senator who has suffered from consistently poor approval ratings since 2014—with Cal Cunningham, a moderate Democrat who has centered his campaign around health care and his military service. Just hours after Tillis told reporters he had tested positive for COVID-19 on October 2, news broke that Cunningham, a married father of two, was sending romantic text messages to a woman who is not his wife. 

Even though the Army Reserve is currently investigating Cunningham—adultery is a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice—Cunningham’s sex scandal hasn’t put much of a dent in his steady 2 point average polling lead over Tillis. Only 26 percent of likely voters in North Carolina voters surveyed in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said Cunningham’s extramarital affair is “extremely” or “very important” to their vote. 

“I do think maybe there is something bigger going on and race like that [Tillis v. Cunningham], where people are kind of tired of the ‘gotcha’ politics and they just want to try and get past it all,” GOP strategist Dave Kochel told The Dispatch. “So maybe it’s just one of those things where it’s not going to help Tillis or hurt Cunningham at this point because voters don't think it's important enough in the race.” 

Given Tillis’ relative unpopularity among base voters, the incumbent is clinging onto Trump’s coattails, knowing the electoral price today’s GOP exacts on those who distance themselves from the president. 

With North Carolina’s Senate seat, gubernatorial contest, state legislature majority, and 15 Electoral College votes all up for grabs this Nov. 3, both parties are pouring advertising money into the state this election cycle. Though Biden is slightly favored to win in North Carolina, there’s a lingering hope that a narrow Trump victory in the state could pull down-ballot Republicans like Tillis across the finish line.

Photograph of Cal Cunningham and Thom Tillis from Wikimedia Commons.

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