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Sensemaker, 3 November 2020

Tuesday 3 November 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Central Vienna was sealed off by police after gunmen killed at least four people in what Austria’s chancellor called a “repulsive terrorist attack” (more below).
  • Mass Covid testing is to start in Liverpool on Friday with the help of 2,000 troops.
  • A “non-scalable fence” is being erected around the White House on election day in the US.

Power trip. Shops are boarded up, the National Guard’s on standby, self-styled militia groups are at the ready and a frazzled world watches through its fingers. Today America goes to the polls.

It’s a choice between two elderly white men but also between two fundamentally opposed world views – one based broadly on reality, the other on propaganda.

Anyone with an interest in democracy, or clarity, should be managing their expectations. As we’ve noted here before, an undisputed outcome in the US is unlikely tonight because of postal votes still uncounted and the low possibility that Trump or Biden will concede if they’re behind and the numbers look close.

A clean transfer of power is not a given either, even if the emerging result is a clear win for Biden. In this Sensemaker Special we look at the spike strips that a disgruntled incumbent could throw down in the path of an orderly handover.

“Our Constitution does not secure the peaceful transition of power, but rather presupposes it.”
Lawrence Douglas, Will He Go?, 2020

In June the Transition Integrity Project convened a bipartisan group of government officials and experts to game out different election scenarios. “We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape,” they concluded. “We also assess that the President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power.”

Since then Trump has been asked directly if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost. “Well,” he said last month, “we’ll have to see what happens”.

Countless routes to chaos emerge if you consider all possible worlds from now until 20 January (inauguration day, when the new president is sworn into office). They all start…


In the last two decades the post-election count has grown and become more Democrat. Even in normal election years this “blue shift” has had a significant impact, notably in the 2018 midterm elections, but this year’s will be the biggest yet, thanks largely to Covid: early voting has passed 93 million – more than two-thirds of the total 2016 turnout – because of voters’ concerns about catching the virus in queues, and their determination to be heard despite it.

Postal ballots take longer to count than normal ones. Some states including Pennsylvania and most of Michigan don’t allow them to be processed before election day. Others (again including Pennsylvania, a likely tipping-point state) allow counting of ballots that arrive after election day as long as they’re postmarked by it.

These postal ballots are favouring Covid-fearing Democrats. A CBS poll of national likely voters showed that 66 per cent of those who had already voted had chosen Biden. But nearly 70 per cent of those voting on the day say they are backing Trump.

So it’s possible that Trump will have a lead at least in the first few hours of this evening, helped by in-person Republican votes in states like Pennsylvania, by red states called early, and even perhaps by a lead in quick-counting and fiercely sought-after Florida. He could then be overtaken as all the other votes are counted.

In this scenario Trump could refuse to accept these other votes and declare victory. Not for nothing has he chosen to spend election night at the White House. He knows better than most that optics count.

“Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
President Trump, Twitter30 July 2020

There are then three danger points:

8 December

There are 35 days after election day to count outstanding votes and resolve associated disputes (expect plenty; the campaigns collectively have thousands of lawyers at the ready, and there is nearly always a state or two where there is less than a percentage point between candidates). Then comes 8 December, the “safe harbour” deadline for appointing the 538 people who make up the electoral college and elect the president.

In theory American voters determine these electors – and it is winner takes all. But in the Bush v. Gore 2000 election decision, the Supreme Court wrote that a state has the authority to “take back the power to appoint electors”, so a disputed count might spell trouble, especially given the Supreme Court’s new 6-3 conservative majority if it is forced to adjudicate.

Trump’s team has reportedly discussed appointing loyal electors in battlegrounds where Republicans hold the state legislature (which include competitive states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Arizona). Echoing Trump’s claim of voting irregularities, Republicans could select their own electors. The end result could be that two slates of electors – one Democrat and one Republican – meet separately on 14 December, each slate to cast its own set of votes.

6 January

A few weeks later Congress counts up the electoral college votes. It’s normally a formality, but in a scenario in which Congress receives two sets of votes from the same state, the Twelfth Amendment is ambiguous about who does the counting:

“The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted [our italics].”

One reading of this is that the power lies with the head of the Senate, Republican vice-president Mike Pence, either to unilaterally announce Trump’s re-election or to accept the Democratic votes. Others find a different resolution in the 1887 Electoral Count Act: that neither submission has higher standing and so the conflicting votes are nullified, which might mean that neither presidential candidate can reach 270 votes. The problem is that the Act itself, according to legal scholars, is “a morass of ambiguity”.

20 January

If the electoral college has certified a winner by this stage then at midday on 20 January, inauguration day, Trump’s presidency is either renewed for a second term or comes to an end.

But the count may still be incomplete. The Atlantic conceives of a scenario in which on 6 January Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expels all senators from her chamber, preventing Pence from completing the count “in the presence of” the House, as the Constitution requires. If the count were incomplete by 20 January as a result, Pelosi would become acting president herself.

At that point three people – Trump, Pelosi, and Biden – would have claims on the presidency. All three could turn up at the White House, and there is no precedent in America’s 344-year history for deciding who gets to choose the drapes.

The upshot

Fifty-five per cent of Americans have said today will be the most stressful day of their lives. A well-known pollster told us yesterday that more than 30 per cent of Americans aren’t confident the results of the election will be counted correctly and fairly. Even if electoral resolution is found somewhere along the way – the Supreme Court may yet have a part to play – serious damage to faith in the democratic system may already have been done. 2-0 Putin.

Tipsheet from a pollster

Yesterday we had a chat with a well-known pollster, who had some tips which we thought worth passing on.

Trump may well be winning early on. But don’t celebrate or commiserate too early. In fact, wait till about 5am GMT when California’s results start to come in.

There are three states to stay up late (or get up early) for: Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. All should have most of their count done by 7am GMT, and if Trump loses any of them our source says he loses the election.

There are three states to look at beyond election day. If the race is still competitive at the end of tonight, keep an eye on Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Especially Pennsylvania, which the pollster believes is this year’s bellwether. It will take a few days to finish counting there.

In the app today…. Read Luke Gdebemah’s report on the lack of reliable data about trans people, and how this complicates the debate over trans rights. Sign up for today’s lunchtime open news meeting, at which we’ll talk lockdown and probably – because who can avert their eyes? – America. And don’t miss tomorrow’s specially extended ThinkIn with James Harding and Dave Taylor on the US election results and their implications: What Now? 

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Ma-ster of the universe
Jack Ma has been summoned by China’s central bank for what the FT calls a dressing down (£), three days before his Ant Group goes public. Ma is China’s richest man. Ant is the giant payments and loans wing of his Alibaba group. Its IPO on Thursday – in Hong Kong and Shanghai – is the biggest business flotation ever, anywhere. Everyone wants a piece of Ant’s business as it moves money around for hundreds of billions of people in the world’s fastest-growing big economy.

So why the stern words from the central bank for Ma and his senior team? Because it worries about instability should Ant stumble, and it doesn’t like Ma’s attitude. China can’t “use yesterday’s methods to manage the future,” he said in a recent dig at the Communist Party’s approach to financial regulation, just like it can’t manage an airport the way it manages railway stations. Ouch. Or maybe should that be: look out Jack, this is Xi’s China you’re talking about.

(Note: the IPO is expected to raise $34 billion, and we’ll be looking at it in detail in next week’s file.)

New things technology, science, engineering

TOI 700d
Sometimes news from the cosmos knocks everything else into an old paper bag. For instance: a study of data from Nasa’s TESS mission, using the Kepler space telescope, has found that more than half the sun-like stars in the Milky Way could have a habitable planet orbiting around them. That’s more than half of about 14 billion stars that could be lighting up life on earth-like planets. TESS has been focussing on one called TOI 700d. It’s about 100 light-years away, but still. Let’s watch this (piece of) space.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Leaning on Oz
Britain, France, Chile, Italy and the UN secretary general have written to Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, inviting him to speak at a climate summit next month on condition that he uses the occasion to commit to ambitious new carbon emissions reductions. Morrison is a climate sceptic in charge of a country heavily reliant on its carbon-intensive mining sector. He passed up a chance to address a similar summit in New York last year even though he was in the US at the time. He hasn’t replied to the invitation yet, but the Guardian says he and Boris Johnson talked about it in a recent phone call. Talk is cheap, but better than nothing.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Quite a blow
The diagnosis of legendary footballer Sir Bobby Charlton with dementia has reignited a debate about the safety of the modern sport. The prevalence of dementia amongst his peers was once blamed on heading heavy, old-fashioned balls. Today’s players could be at even greater risk. Balls are lighter but the athletes are bigger, stronger, and kick the ball faster, meaning even more energy thwacks players heads when they receive a strike. In February this year, the FA banned children under 11 from heading the ball in matches. And in 2019, a University of Glasgow study found footballers born between as late as 1976 were three and a half times more likely than non-footballers to die as a result of neurodegenerative disease. Serious question: what would football be like without heading?

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Vienna attack
Gunmen linked to Isis chose Vienna’s last evening before a new Covid lockdown to terrorise the city centre with rifles and handguns, starting outside its main synagogue. They killed four people – two men and two women – and injured at least fifteen more before special forces arrived to seal off the area. One attacker reported to be wearing a fake explosive belt was killed, but the manhunt continues today. Heads of government from across Europe sent expressions of solidarity, including Emmanuel Macron of France, where Islamist terrorists have struck twice in the past month. “This is our Europe,” he said. “Our enemies must know who they are dealing with.”

opinion: alastair campbell

What Johnson and Corbyn have in common

Boris Johnson’s psychology is a mystery to me. How is it possible to spend a whole life fantasising about being prime minister, plotting to fulfil that fantasy, and then be so uninterested in the hard graft and boring detail required to do the job?

As someone who has worked with prime ministers, I find it baffling. It seems to me that both Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (we’ll get to him) prefer the fantasy of being prime minister to the reality.

The problem for Johnson, and more importantly the country, is that in his case the fantasy is real. He is prime minister at a time of a life-destroying, economy-destroying pandemic, and of a Brexit which he won, but which he appears unable to deliver without adding to chaos and economic harm. On both Covid and Brexit, he seems dangerously averse to informing himself and interrogating the options properly, and woefully unwilling to apply the grip required when dealing with such serious issues.

He also shares with Corbyn a reluctance to accept responsibility for things going wrong; a loathing of saying sorry. When Johnson finally turned up for his press conference on Saturday, he apologised for disturbing our weekend but not for being hours late, nor for the leaks and the concern and confusion they caused, nor for yet again having important changes revealed to the media before Parliament. And of course he did not apologise for the many excess deaths, the billions spent on systems that are not working, or for now deciding on a policy he had recently contemptuously dismissed.

Neither Johnson nor Corbyn will thank me for pointing out what they have in common, but it is striking. As Johnson was busying himself with the shambolic lurch into another lockdown, Corbyn was suspended by the Labour Party for his reaction to the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on antisemitism in the party, which had become the defining shambles of his time as leader.

The findings were damning, and Corbyn’s reaction to them was of someone determined to remind people of the quality he most admires in himself, but which is among the least admired by the public – his inability to change his mind, adapt to circumstances, or admit he may have been wrong.

Here is what he could, and should in my view, at the very minimum, have said in response to the report: “It is a painful report to read. It reminds me that on my watch, a problem became a crisis for the party, which damaged us, and led to a lot of hurt. We must all take responsibility for that, and as leader for most of that time, me more than most. I now wish the new Party leadership well in implementing the recommendations.” How easy would that have been? With that formulation, he didn’t even need to say sorry.

Instead, we got all the self-serving, weasel words that had made clear on so many occasions in the past that he couldn’t see what the fuss was about; the irrelevant nonsense about opinion polls showing people had an exaggerated sense of how many anti-semites there really were in the party; the sense that poor Jezza was more of a victim at the hands of a horrid press and horrid opponents, than the people hounded and harassed out of the party by his adoring supporters.

To have used something close to my formulation would have made him a part of the story, but not the main event. Corbyn, however, was determined to be the main event. He had to be relevant, and if the only way was by creating a problem for the new leader, who had had the courtesy to tell him in advance how he intended to handle the report, then so be it. It was time for the telly to show the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” Glastonbury footage once more.

Even now, he could easily undo the damage done on Thursday. A short statement, saying he misjudged how his comments would be seen, that he was not seeking to undermine the report, or excuse the legal and other breaches it had recorded, and he wished the party well in healing the wounds this issue had caused. That is all it needs.

But he won’t do it. Vanity won’t let him. He’s been trending on Twitter again, and he likes it. The media are back outside his house for him to sneer at (I quite enjoyed the doorstep sneering too, in the days before I became a “former”.) His loyalist supporters are rushing to defend him, give him money for a fighting fund to go to court, portraying him as a victim, not as the man who helped to give the country Brexit and Boris Johnson’s majority. He’s back. He’s relevant. It’s great.

A chilling fact: Labour has lost all but three of the last eleven elections. Corbyn was a persistent critic of the leader who won those three. He did not like being criticised and challenged when leader himself and, indeed, some of us were kicked out of the party for insisting that self-righteousness and being right are not always the same thing.

And here is a third characteristic he has in common with Johnson, who likewise seems to believe that what is right is whatever he is saying or doing at the time. Johnson speaks of showing humility before nature, when what he needs to show is humility full stop: “Sorry, we did not handle the first wave well. We over-promised and under delivered. We preferred to see the world as we want it to be, not as it is. That is a mistake I have learned from, and will not be repeating.” It would do him the world of good. But there is as much chance of it happening as there is of Jeremy Corbyn saying it was quite an achievement for New Labour to win those three elections.

On a personal level, I have some sympathy for Corbyn. I wonder if he is struggling with no longer being centre stage. I know I did when I left Downing Street in 2003. From years of full-on activity, clear purpose, status, recognition, being part of a big team, there suddenly emerged a very different and very difficult life which forced me to dial down on all of those things. With the multiple dial-downs came one of the worst depressions of my life, and an episode of violent self-harm which led me, finally, to seek out proper psychiatric help.

It is hard to go from everyone hanging on your every word to wondering whether anyone is even listening. I cannot say for sure that that horribly dark depressive period in my life was a direct consequence of my having left the political stage, but the psychiatrist was in no doubt of the link.

What’s transpired since then doesn’t help. Whatever pride or pleasure I take in New Labour’s accomplishments, I look at the successive defeats for the party since, and ruminate that we cannot have been that good, or we would never have ended up with Corbyn becoming leader, and the party becoming defined as much by anti-semitism as by making change for the people and issues we care about. We would never have had Brexit, for surely part of our purpose had been to secure the UK’s place as a leading player in the EU. I look at Johnson, who as a Telegraph journalist used to stand at the back of my briefings and snort, and I think how the hell did that happen, that he is prime minister, and I am sitting on my sofa writing about him, and tweeting angrily every time he opens his mouth?

Corbyn has had two shots at the top job, and failed. He is still an MP, and by the accounts of many of his constituents a good one. But whether he likes it or not he is very much a member of the “former” club. He has had his day as leader. It is gone. The British people put paid to that, and he helped the process along.

If he wants to see another Labour government in his and my lifetime, he should embrace his inner “former”. Exit stage left and leave the platform to others. He would win respect galore if he could bring himself to do so with a variation of the words I suggest above.

In the meantime, I would like to send him a copy of my book on depression, which also records my recovery from political addiction. We could then meet halfway between Gospel Oak and Islington for the first meeting of the self-help group for expelled or suspended Labour has-beens striving to live without the relevance we once had. And perhaps we could put our heads together to think of ways to help Keir Starmer get rid of Johnson, and get a grown-up back into Number 10.

Living Better, from John Murray Books, is available in hardback, ebook and Audible

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood