Where do we go from here?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 17 minutes.
It’s the longest edition of Tangle ever, which I know is daunting. But please stick it out: there is a lot to cover.
The current state of the race, according to The New York Times.
- The coronavirus pandemic is on track to overwhelm U.S. hospitals before Joe Biden takes office, according to Politico. President-elect Joe Biden announced members of a 13-person advisory board to fight COVID-19 as cases surge across the United States. There’s also some good news on COVID-19 (see: “Have a nice day” section).
- Reports are already sussing out the top contenders for Joe Biden’s cabinet, including Susan Rice for Secretary of State, former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones for Attorney General and Pete Buttigieg for Veterans Affairs.
- President Donald Trump’s inner circle is split between knowing the race is over and urging the president to concede, according to a new Axios report. Now, Trump is planning rallies across the country focused on litigating the race in court.
- A little-known Trump appointee named Emily Murphy is in charge of formally starting the presidential transition, and so far she’s resisted even starting the process. Murphy is head of General Services Administration, which has to sign off on millions of dollars of resources and provide office space in agencies to begin a presidential transition.
- On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration is challenging. In order to strike the law down, “Republican challengers would have to run the table on three separate legal arguments.”
What D.C. is talking about.
The election results. On Saturday, at 11:24 a.m. EST, CNN called the presidential race for Joe Biden. The major decision desks across the United States followed suit shortly after: The Associated Press, Fox News, ABC News and NBC News all called it. The floodgates opened after Biden’s lead extended past 30,000 votes in Pennsylvania, putting the state mathematically out of reach for President Donald Trump. The current margin in Pennsylvania is just above 45,000 votes.
In the end, Biden’s victory was tied closely to what Democrats had banked on for the entire race: the “blue firewall” consisting of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. This is where Biden’s campaign focused most of their energy and it’s ultimately where the race was decided. But as the count goes on, Biden looks poised to extend his lead by winning Arizona and Nevada and breaking through in Georgia, a traditionally red state that Democrats have struggled to win for decades.
Biden’s win means he will become the oldest president-elect in U.S. history and will be joined by the first woman to serve as vice president ever. Sen. Kamala Harris will become the highest-ranking woman ever in the presidential line of succession. When picked as vice president, she was the first Black woman or woman of Indian descent nominated on a major party’s ticket. In a Saturday night address to the nation, president-elect Biden said “I pledge to be a president who does not seek to divide, but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, but only sees the United States,” calling for the end of “a grim era of demonization in America.” He declared a mandate to fight coronavirus and to work across the aisle to bring the nation together.
President Trump has yet to concede the race, and said in a statement on Saturday that his campaign will push forward with legal challenges in several states. While some Republican leaders congratulated the president-elect, many are still silent. Congratulations from foreign leaders, notably including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have poured in from many allies overseas to the president-elect.
In Congress, Biden looks poised to face a divided government. Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives has only slimmed, and Republicans are still in control of the Senate with a 50-48 majority. In January, a pair of Georgia runoff elections will determine whether Democrats can bring the Senate to a 50-50 tie, which would hand them the majority but less power than they’d have with a true 51-49 advantage.
What the left is saying.
The left is unanimous in vouching for the integrity of this race, though the outcome itself has already begun to cause fractures in the party. A huge underperformance by House candidates has set off a debate about whether the progressive wing of the party is hurting Democrats amongst the broader electorate, and the competitive nature of the race is setting off a debate about whether Trump was, in fact, repudiated. Some Democrats are also focusing on updating or changing our election laws to address the chaotic counting process that delayed final results for days. Indeed, the counting is still not over.
In The Washington Post, however, Matt Bai argued that Trumpism was, in fact, repudiated in this election. Bai said that as the first results came in, a narrative took hold that Trump had not been repudiated in the way that he deserved to be.
“As the scope of Joe Biden’s win becomes clear, however, that narrative should be revised,” he wrote. “Because if this election wasn’t the categorical repudiation a lot of us expected (and badly wanted), then it was an emphatic rejection nonetheless. When all the votes are finally counted and recounted, when all the president’s craven lawyers have finally sued themselves out, Biden will likely end up with 306 electoral votes — slightly more than Trump won four years ago. He will have close to 51 percent of the popular vote, making him only the fifth Democrat in the past century to break 50 percent.
“That’s not a landslide, but it’s more, in terms of both electoral and popular votes, than Jimmy Carter managed when he ousted Gerald Ford in 1976,” Bai wrote. “And we remember that election as a reckoning for the sins of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. If the exit polls are even in the vicinity of accurate, Biden carried independent voters by double digits. And while Biden’s margins in key states might have been close, he appears to have carried five states that Trump won four years ago, while ceding none. He seems likely to score victories in Arizona and Georgia, two states that hadn’t gone Democratic in more than two decades.”
In The New York Times, Frank Bruni took an opposite tone, writing that “we still don’t really understand America — or Trump.” Bruni reached out to Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic Senator from deep-red North Dakota, to ask what she thought. Heitkamp said “COVID cut both ways” in terms of helping or hurting Trump.
“‘People in this country don’t like being told what to do,’ said Heitkamp, who knows a thing or two about Trump’s popularity between the coasts and beyond densely populated metropolises. ‘People don’t like being judged.’ That’s why some maskless Americans lash out at the masked, she added. They regard face coverings as an ‘implied judgment.’
“As I said, it’s a theory, one of many pinging around right now,” Bruni wrote. “But it’s also more than that: a reminder of how differently a given situation — or a given person, Trump being the perfect example — can play in different parts of America and among different groups of Americans. Those of us surprised by Trump’s and the Republican Party’s showing in this election keep being blinded by our arrogance. We keep extrapolating from our own perceptions… That Democrats didn’t triumph even bigger in 2020 seems impossible — unless and until you do what Heitkamp did and re-examine your assumptions through a lens other than the one you’re partial to.”
Stephen Vladeck wrote about the way election results were counted, shared and reported on by the media, saying “it was all entirely unnecessary.” Vladeck wrote that “The random way in which returns were counted and released by states — Election Day returns versus mail-in ballots, for instance — led to wild fluctuations as results were updated. The consequence, as experts predicted, was a series of shifts in early tabulations, as candidates seemed to outperform or underperform expectations…”
“Worse still, how the results were reported also distorted our understanding of when votes were cast,” he wrote. “In some states, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, rules prohibiting ‘pre-canvassing’ — preparing early and mail-in ballots for counting — before Election Day meant that votes cast first could end up being counted last.”
What the right is saying.
Like the left, the right is also experiencing some fractures — but in different ways. Many of Trump’s most loyal allies in Congress and the media are still insisting that this election needs to be audited and litigated and that the media doesn’t get to declare a winner: the courts do. (Editor’s note:state election boards will ultimately certify the votes.) Until the votes are certified, these allies are rejecting the idea that Biden is the president-elect. Other voices on the right, both in the media and in Congress, are insisting that unless the Trump administration brings forward real evidence of election fraud — the race is over. And that with every day that goes by without him conceding, he does more damage to the country and to his own legacy.
In Fox News, the president’s lawyer Jenna Ellis laid out the case her team plans to make across U.S. in state courts going forward. “Legal challenges by the Trump reelection campaign, where I serve as a legal adviser, are still before the courts and we await judicial rulings on our challenges,” she wrote. “None of the legal fights we are waging are novel arguments or anything more than an effort to ensure a fair and accurate election outcome. Our nation went through a legal challenge to the results in Florida during the 2000 presidential election between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore, for example.”
Ellis laid out four keys to their challenges. First is the argument “every legal ballot should be counted,” which she said is not novel. “In every election, some ballots are challenged and thrown out as illegal. Challenging a ballot is not an attempt to manipulate the results — it’s a call for accuracy in the results,” she wrote. The second is permitting both sides access to observe the count. “Any precincts not properly inspected for the full duration of the tabulating by a Republican observer should be presumptively invalid,” she said. Third is that some states illegally changed their election laws by working around the state legislature. “Pennsylvania’s executive branch attempted to change the deadline for receiving ballots to allow for three extra days, meaning that ballots could be counted if they were received as late as Friday,” Ellis said. “We in the Trump campaign argue that this action was unconstitutional. It doesn’t matter if you think that’s a good idea or not, or whether that benefits Trump or Biden. We believe it’s illegal.”
Fourth, and finally, was a call for recounts where there are razor-thin margins. “In Georgia, for example, the very close tally demands a recount, while several thousand military ballots are still left to be counted,” Ellis wrote. “Ensuring fairness and accuracy requires that the ballots are recounted regardless of whether President Trump or Joe Biden remains slightly ahead at the end of the initial tally in Georgia.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said when it comes to fraud, the Trump campaign will have to “prove it to prevail in court.”
“It won’t be enough to charge that Philadelphia is historically corrupt, though it is, or that state election officials are partisan,” it wrote. “The Georgia secretary of state is a Republican, by the way, contrary to Mr. Trump’s remarks Thursday night. The vote counting in Arizona and Georgia has seemed professional and transparent… But it’s also important to note that Pat Toomey, the GOP Senator from the Keystone State, says he has seen no evidence of fraud in his state’s counting. We’ve also seen no concrete evidence,” the board said.
“The delivery of a batch of votes all for Mr. Biden at one time can be explained by the practice of some jurisdictions to divide and report the votes of each candidate at different times… If Mr. Biden has 270 Electoral College votes at the end of the counting and litigation, President Trump will have a decision to make. We hope in that event he would concede gracefully. He has accomplished a great deal since descending on that Trump Tower escalator in 2015, including his historic first victory and a strong re-election performance when he was supposed to lose in a rout. We’d hate to see that legacy ruined by a refusal to accept the normal transfer of power.”
Never-Trumper and conservative writer David French said the last few days have brought on a “condensed and intensified version of many of the worst maladies of this low era in American politics,” citing the “incredible avalanche of misinformation that’s swamping right-wing media.”
“The president’s press conference yesterday [Tuesday night] was an appalling collection of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods,” he wrote. “Even stalwart Trump defenders like former senator Rick Santorum pushed back immediately, declaring that ‘No Republican elected official will stand behind Trump’s statement…’ There is zero evidence of either fraud or other unlawful irregularity sufficient to cast the emerging result into doubt. That’s not the same thing as saying there has been no fraud. That’s not the same thing as saying there have been no unlawful irregularities. But we still can have confidence in the outcome.”
As the data showed us on Friday, the race is coming to an end exactly as we expected it here at Tangle. Counties left in the count that heavily favor Biden, and where thousands of voters cast votes by mail, are still reporting votes, and those counties are extending Biden’s leads in Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The race in Georgia remains tight, and likely won’t be called for a few days, but Biden remains the heavy favorite.
I have a lot of thoughts about the outcome of this race, and especially about how we may have underestimated or misunderstood Trump (some of this is in “A story that matters” today). But given that the president has yet to concede, and that a substantial chunk of the electorate does not yet believe the results of this race, I think it’s paramount to address those claims first.
All week, and indeed all weekend, I’ve continued to track claims of election fraud. So far, the closest thing to a confirmed case happened in Texas, where a social worker allegedly registered 134 people without their consent. She has been charged and is going to court, but it’s not at all clear who her scheme was intended to benefit. Nor is it clear that she’s guilty. But it is a good reminder that when someone commits election fraud, or attempts to, and there’s actual evidence to support those claims, that person usually ends up in court.
Jenna Ellis’s Fox News op-ed is basically the Trump team’s election fraud Bible — she is one of the lawyers fighting their case and this op-ed is supposed to serve as her case to the public. I’ve already addressed the “every legal ballot should be counted” argument on Friday. Nobody — not a single person I’ve seen — is advocating that any illegal ballots should be tallied. Again, it’s a bizarre straw man argument. Election systems across America have protocols in place to catch illegal ballots — duplicates, dead voters, mismatching signatures, voters casting ballots in counties where they’re no longer eligible, etc.
So far, the Trump campaign has not successfully brought a single case to court with evidence of ineligible voters having their ballots counted. One case in Nevada provided a list of 3,000 voters who voted from out-of-state, and the Secretary of State there is reviewing the list. Local news outlets in Nevada are covering the case and their reports are worth reading. Nevada’s Clark County already threw out a case from the Trump campaign alleging a voter signature match system was not functioning properly. Of course, 3,000 people voting out of state in Nevada would be totally normal — many thousands of eligible voters like students, members of the military, people who fled the state during the pandemic or government workers in D.C. could be legally voting from out-of-state. The local news there says the lawsuit provides “no evidence” of anyone voting illegally in that batch of 3,000 ballots.
The poll watcher argument is similarly fraught with lack of credible evidence. One case in Philadelphia was declared a “win” for Trump but it was hardly an affirmation of fraud or election interference. A court simply ruled that poll watchers could come within 6 feet of ballot counting, not the 15 feet some were previously viewing from. The Philadelphia election board argued that because of how crowded the convention center was where ballots were being counted, and because of COVID-19, they wanted watchers viewing on the perimeter of the count. Republicans fought to bring them closer and succeeded. Other instances in Philly were later clarified by the parties involved, including a Trump-supporting Republican poll-watcher who conceded he had no issues observing any polling stations except one where there was a misunderstanding.
The third argument is that states illegally changed their election laws before the vote. These arguments have, mostly, been litigated by the Supreme Court already. Trump lost nearly every pre-election case he brought, including in Pennsylvania, with a central argument that would have stopped ballots from being counted past election day. By now, I would hope and expect that it’s clear to everyone why we needed to continue counting after election day. The Supreme Court also reiterated that Pennsylvania should be separating ballots arriving after election day, something that was already happening across the state. The best information we have is that the totals we have now do not even include those ballots.
The final argument is a call for recounts in states where it’s close. This, as Ellis accurately notes, is not at all out of the ordinary. It happens in every election. And history should inspire confidence: on average, recounts change votes by about 430 votes, and not always for the folks who want the recount. The largest margin shift ever in a recount was .11% in a statewide race, well below what Trump would need to flip any of the states he needs to win. In Pennsylvania, for example, Trump is losing the race by nearly 50,000 votes, or .67%, and the margin continues to grow.
At the basic “sniff test” level, I’d like to once again reiterate the absurdity of some of these claims. The Trump campaign is alleging massive election fraud in every swing state he is losing (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia) while simultaneously affirming the results in every swing state he is winning (Texas, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina and Maine’s 2nd District). The campaign is arguing the “media” does not declare a winner, when in 2016 Trump accepted the decision desks calling the race despite beating Hillary Clinton by thinner margins than he is losing by now. He has argued both that counts must be stopped in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan (where had early leads) and yet must continue in Arizona and Nevada (where he was losing).
Six days into these claims, there is still not a single court in America that has affirmed any allegations of voter fraud. Nor is there any Secretary of State, Republican or Democrat, who has presented evidence of voter fraud. This is the reality and I will continue to hold the line on it until something is proven otherwise.
I’m also conscious of the fact I was particularly harsh in my assessment of the behavior of the president and his allies on Friday — I heard from a lot of Trump-supporting readers who were disappointed in me. I understand your disappointment, but I also hope you can empathize with my position. I’m watching the president’s baseless claims tear the American public and my readership apart, promoting a sham argument that is legitimately threatening our country’s extraordinary record of peaceful transfers of power. It is exhausting and deflating and disheartening to have to ask time and again for evidence of such grave claims and to be repeatedly provided with none. So yes, I am angry. And I think every American should be.
To be clear, though, I do not blame Americans who want these claims investigated, especially those with right-leaning political views. I don’t blame them for questioning the results of this election either, given the way the zone has been flooded with claims of fraud. It’s my job to track this stuff and even I have been overwhelmed and at times confused. But after spending the last week looking into each and every one of those claims, I am satisfied they are baseless, and as a result have become extremely disheartened by the president’s actions. Up to and until his campaign presents actual evidence of election fraud in court — not just out-of-context videos on social media, but evidence that a judge decides to evaluate and evidence that may change the trajectory of this race — I will continue to speak out against Trump and his allies for disseminating false rumors and innuendo that have sparked conspiracy theories across the country.
Your questions answered.
Q: I’m a little confused about the time frame for calling the election for Biden. Maybe you can help clarify it for me. My brother sent me that Decision Desk HQ declared the victory to Biden on Friday morning and you wrote it up here. But CNN, NYT and other news sites didn’t call it until Saturday and the celebrations started yesterday (not Friday). What is the Decision Desk HQ and what actually happened with this timeline?
— Karen, Brooklyn, New York
Tangle: I’ve gotten a ton of questions about this so I’m glad to address it here.
As historian Ira Chinoy recently explained to Slate, America’s press has been calling elections since 1848, when we first had an actual Election Day. Back then, Morse’s telegraph was carrying results across the country and horseback riders or trains were connecting broken links in the chain of communication. In the 1850s, people would congregate outside newspaper offices waiting for returns to come in that would be posted on office windows — and eventually waiting for the newspaper headlines to declare winners. The press never sought out the role of declaring elections, but the people came to the press for those results because back then, it was the connective tissue for how Americans across the U.S. communicated with each other.
By the 1880s, reporters and data scientists had begun calling races based on bellwether areas and key precincts. When those models continued to pan out, trust in the process grew. With few exceptions — like in 1948 when the Chicago Tribune inaccurately declared that Gov. Thomas Dewey had defeated Harry Truman or in 2000 when some networks called the race for Al Gore only to have to reverse course — the press has been successful at calling races without any major errors or walk backs.
This evolution continues up to the present day, as data analytics, algorithms and modeling have advanced significantly. Even between 2016 and now, things like The New York Times “needle” that predict the outcome of a race, have gotten smarter than they ever were. And part of that evolution was the advent of Decision Desk HQ — an election decision desk that is not tied directly to any news organization or network.
Decision Desk HQ was launched by Brandon Finnigan, a conservative election forecaster who wanted to upend the slow and dragged-out process by which results were reported by news networks. His entrance into this race was big news in media circles, and his debut presidential race appearance — by my estimation — was superb. He did exactly what he set out to do and what he had started doing in 2017: bring actual, tabulated vote counts directly to reporters and to the American public quickly, and make obvious, accurate calls in states across the U.S. without the red tape of television networks or news outlets motivated by ratings and website traffic, virtually all before the final counts were completed.
Decision Desk HQ uses gold standard methods to call races and gets its results directly from the county level. They paid a ton of money to do this, and built an entire application programming interface (API) to update their website directly from state and county tabulations immediately as they came in.
For many Americans, Decision Desk HQ is not a familiar name. But to me, the people behind it and the methods for their process were well known. That’s why Tangle — like Business Insider and Vox, two of the more modern and well-funded media outlets in the U.S. — called the race immediately after Decision Desk HQ did. It was clear to us that it was over.
The decision of networks to hold out has been a topic of much debate. Were they waiting just to keep the ratings going? Were they overly cautious for fear of how Trump and his supporters would criticize them? Are they scarred from past mistakes? I don’t know the answer, but I’m just as confused as the Nate Silvers, Dave Wassermans and the other gold-standard election model experts who all thought the race should have been called Friday (do not confuse election modeling with polling: folks like Silver don’t conduct the polls, which have rightly been criticized, they use polls to predict elections — and then use actual votes to model out results in real time. It was clear to them as it was to Decision Desk HQ and Tangle when this race was over).
In the end, the way it happened may have actually been best. I’ve been critical of the networks for waiting as long as they did, but now that it’s happened I suppose it was good — the fact that they waited until it was beyond a shadow of doubt seemed to make the call even more declarative. The argument remains as to when that doubt was really crushed, and I maintain that the answer is early Friday morning — the moment Biden passed Trump in Pennsylvania with the remaining votes expected from voters who were obviously going to break heavily for Biden. They did, in fact, break that way, and I’m glad Decision Desk HQ called the race when they did. It was exactly the reporting void they set out to fill, and they did it well.
A story that matters.
In the wake of this election, Americans and pundits across the country are grasping for narratives. In this newsletter, I have long sought to highlight the nuance, complexity and grey areas in American politics — doing the best I can to reject so many flawed narratives and “black and white” declarations that take hold. So here are a few data points about this election that I think are worth considering — points that gave me pause. This data is reflected in early exit polls and also AP VoteCast, which surveyed more than 110,000 people across the U.S. in the days leading up to and after election day. It’s also sometimes compared against similar 2016 surveys (AP VoteCast started in 2018).
First: Donald Trump gained on his 2016 margins with every single racial demographic of voters except white people. Much has been made of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” but 35% of Muslims still voted for him, more than one in three. Meanwhile, just 30% of Jews voted for Trump and 68% voted for Biden. Despite #BLEXIT narratives about Black voters leaving the Democratic party for Trump, just 8% of Black voters cast ballots for him (+2% when compared with the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a similar survey of 50,000 voters since AP VoteCast didn’t exist then).
However, 35% of Latinos voted for Trump. Young voters aged 18-29 broke for Biden by a 61-36 margin. Trump pulled in the majority of votes amongst America’s indigenous people, including 52% of the American Indian, Native American or Alaska Native vote and 59% of the Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander vote. Biden’s strongest margins were amongst non-white college-educated women, who voted for him by an 80-19 margin.
7% of voters said the most important issue facing the country was racism, and just 3% said abortion. 34% of Trump voters said racism was a very or somewhat serious problem in the U.S. 41% of all voters voted by mail and only 31% of voters who voted by mail cast a ballot for Donald Trump.
- 10,621. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in Georgia.
- 16,985. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in Arizona.
- 20,539. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in Wisconsin.
- 34,283. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in Nevada.
- 45,657. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in Pennsylvania.
- 4,389,416. Joe Biden’s current lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote.
- 4%. The percentage of Democrats or lean-Democrat who voted for Donald Trump.
- 8%. The percentage of Republicans or lean-Republican who voted for Joe Biden.
- 51%. The percentage of independents who voted for Joe Biden.
- 37%. The percentage of independents who voted for Donald Trump.
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Have a nice day.
Today, Pfizer announced that the early data on its coronavirus vaccine showed it was 90% effective — an efficacy rate far higher than even the most optimistic projections suggested it would be. Pfizer’s vaccine, made in cooperation with German company BioNTech, was not part of the Operation Warp Speed run by the Trump administration, but because it’s an American company, it has manufacturing lines set up and ready to go in the U.S. It will be free to all Americans according to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. “This is about the best the news could possibly be for the world and for the United States and for public health,” Dr. William Gruber, the Senior Vice President of the Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, said. The next key step for the Pfizer vaccine is to receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, which the pharmaceutical company hopes to accomplish by the end of November.