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Sensemaker: Neck and neck

Friday 6 November 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Biden pulled ahead in Georgia, thanks largely to the pioneering political groundwork of Stacey Abrams (more below).
  • ABC, NBC and CBS cut away from Trump as he claimed without evidence that the election was rigged against him.
  • Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci was detained in the Hague on war crimes charges dating from his country’s 1990s conflict with Serbia.
  • Rishi Sunak extended the UK’s furlough job support scheme to March, too late for many who have already lost their jobs.

Neck and neck

Joe Biden will be the next US president, but why was it so close? We’ll get to that, but first…

Georgia. It’s been firmly red since 1996, but as we go to press Biden is leading there by a whisker. He’s1096 votes ahead of Donald Trump, put there by votes from the district represented for more than 33 years by the legendary civil rights campaigner John Lewis. The state’s two Senate seats are also in play for the Democrats.

Here’s where we are:

  • A handful of counties have yet to finish counting. Some are Republican, some tilt Democrat. Whatever the result, it will be very, very close.
  • Georgia had two Senate seats up for grabs this year. The state called a special election for one of them when Republican Senator Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons. Neither of the top candidates won decisively, so that contest will go to a runoff in January 2021.
  • The race between Democractic candidate Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue looks like it’s heading the same way. To win under Georgia state law, the leading candidate must hold more than 50 per cent of the vote, and Perdue holds 49.8 per cent.

That Georgia is in contention at all may seem extraordinary given its recent history as a GOP stronghold, but the tide has been turning for a while. Hillary Clinton ate into the Republican majority there in 2016, losing to Trump by 5 per cent.In 2018, the Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams lost the state’s gubernatorial race by only 1.4 per cent after hundreds of thousands of voters were wrongly purged from the state’s rolls. The shift to the Dems is a sign of demographic changes underway in the state. The proportion of Black voters is growing and the state skews younger than the national average. Both groups favour the Democrats.

The Democrats have campaigned so hard in the state thanks largely to Abram’s efforts. She told Politico that last year she met almost every Democratic candidate running for president, passing on two messages: “One, voter suppression is real and it’s one of the reasons that we lost across the country. But two, Georgia is a competitive state and it would be malpractice to not pay attention.” The world is paying attention now.

But why so close? That’s the end-of-week question about a race that left razor-thin margins across the map, and the full answers probably won’t be clear for decades. In the meantime the early ones swimming before our weary eyes aren’t reassuring for democracy or America.

Polling is screwed.

  • With one notable exception – Ann Selzer in Iowa – the people charging big money to anticipate US election results failed again. They claimed to have learned lessons from 2016 but either didn’t or learned the wrong ones.
  • Biden’s eve-of-election lead in the national vote according to RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight and the WSJ/NBC poll was 7.2, 8.4 and 10 points respectively. The real number turned out to be 2.
  • The average polling error across the Upper Midwest was 4.5 per cent, all in Biden’s favour, all missing or misjudging key variables including turnout and honesty, and failing in particular to accurately sample white non-college grads.
  • Selzer’s final Iowa poll for the Des Moines Register, giving Trump a 7-point lead, was an outlier dismissed by the rest of the polling industry but accurate to within a point. How does she do it? By measuring the here and now, over and over again. As she explained: “The makeup of the electorate changes enough that you can be blinded from the freight train that’s coming right toward you if your head is turned around looking back at what happened before.”

Conspiracy thinking has taken hold.

  • Trump’s remarks in the White House briefing room last night were shot through with lies and unfounded claims – faked ballots, doctored ballots, “secret counting rooms”, “I won Pennsylvania by a lot” – but will have been believed by many of the nearly 70 million people who voted for him.
  • His claim of systematic “suppression polling” to limit his fundraising and dampen Republican turnout will resonate in particular, because some polling may have had that effect even though there was nothing systematic about it (see above). It was just bad.
  • QAnon is now official. At least, the theory that says Trump is fighting a secret network of child traffickers and blood-drinking Satanists now has an avowed representative in Congress in Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia.

Trump is a brutal, brilliant campaigner. For four years, he barely stopped. He found a way to persuade a whole new conservative constituency to suspend disbelief and join him in a world of grievance, denialism and crude nationalism. It’s not the real world, which may be why so many people cling to it.

In the app today…. Read Elle Hunt on the future of Fantastic Beasts after the Johnny Depp libel verdict in the final installment of our file on JK Rowling and trans rights. Submit evidence for our inquiry into the UK’s response to Covid. Sign up for today’s inaugural Creative Sensemaker Live with Matt d’Ancona, when he’ll talk about the future of British music with Nitin Sawhney, Stuart Murphy and Emma Banks; and for Monday night’s ThinkIn – a conversation with former FT editor Lionel Barber.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Fox stock drop
What will Trump do next? Well, he’s vexed that Fox News is no longer an unfiltered Trump fanzine and could start a network of his own. And the mere idea of the competition on the lucrative conservative end of the US media spectrum could have been a factor behind a 6.7 per cent fall in Fox’s stock price on Wednesday. “There appears to be something below the surface that is torpedoing the stock,” writes Michael Nathanson, an analyst. “That something might be the potential launch of a new Trump News Network.” We’ll get full subscription details to you as soon as we have them.


New things technology, science, engineering

F1 to Saudi
Formula 1 has added a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to its calendar for 2021. The race will take place in Jeddah and will be the first of its kind in the kingdom. Circuit promoter fees account for a third of F1’s revenues, and this race in the desert certainly stands to line the organiser’s pockets. Will it refocus attention on Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, its systematic oppression of women and its assassination of dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi? Probably not. F1 would rather fans sat back watched, consciences salved by the ‘We Race as One’ initiative it launched in June to promote equality, tolerance and fairness in the sport and beyond.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Paris redux
Joe Biden said that as president he would arrange for the US to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one in the Oval Office. That, he noted in a tweet, should be 77 days from now. It would also be 75 since the US left the agreement on Trump’s orders. The impact would / will be immeasurable. It’s probably not by chance, for instance, that Vladimir Putin has today signed a decree telling his government for the first time to work towards the Paris goals. Russia is now aiming for a 70 per cent cut in carbon emissions compared with 1990 levels by 2030. It’s not binding, but it’s progress.


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

Vaccine latest
The mini headline above is misleading. We have no real update on the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine, and that’s the point. Pascal Soriot, AZ’s CEO, tells Bloomberg that we should know if the vaccine works by the end of the year, but we don’t know yet. Andrew Pollard, chief investigator for the vaccine’s clinical trials, has told parliament the NHS may have to decide whether a vaccine with only 40 per cent efficacy is worth using. For what it’s worth, Tony Blair used the same number in an interview with the BBC earlier this week. Just how optimistic should we be? Are expectations being managed down?


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Ivorian warning
There’s a reminder from Ivory Coast of how easily contested elections can turn from ugliness to violence. President Alassane Ouattara has been in power there for a decade. He claimed a landslide election win and a third term in office on Tuesday, but the Ivorian opposition rejects his claim to have won 94 per cent of the vote. At least 40 people have died so far in election-related violence. Two more were shot dead on Wednesday as a government convoy came under fire. More than 3,000 people died in factional fighting when Ouattara’s predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept defeat in 2010. Clean elections and peaceful handovers win every time.

And one more thing…

As the count in the US enters its fourth day, if you need a break from CNN’s fast-talking map man John King, let the slow-singing John Legend carry you through.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Photographs Getty Images