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Today’s read: 14 minutes.
What to make of the COVID-19 vaccine, a question about what’s happening in Georgia, and the latest take on why the polls got it so wrong.
Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue, who is about to become the center of the political world for the next two months.
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- President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday, replacing him with Christopher C. Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Miller will be the fourth person to head the Pentagon under President Trump.
- David Bossie, the campaign advisor in charge of the president’s legal challenges to the election, has tested positive for COVID-19. Bossie’s diagnosis came just hours after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that he had also tested positive for the virus.
- Attorney General William Barr gave federal prosecutors the green light to examine allegations of voter irregularities before the counts were certified. Richard Pilger, the director of the elections crimes branch in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, immediately resigned in protest.
- The Organization of American States, a 28-member delegation the Trump administration invited from overseas to monitor the election, is out with their preliminary report. It says there is “no evidence of systematic fraud,” and assessed that “The OAS observers deployed in the battleground states of Michigan and Georgia did not witness any of the aforementioned irregularities [claimed by the Republican candidate].”
- President-elect Joe Biden is threatening legal action if the General Services Administration, which facilitates presidential transitions, does not make an official determination that Biden won the election.
What D.C. is talking about.
The COVID-19 vaccine. Yesterday, Pfizer announced that its COVID-19 vaccine looked to be 90% effective. The results were based on “early and incomplete” test results from a trial in which participants were given a vaccine or a placebo, depending on which group they were in. The rate of protection may change as results continue to come in. Just 94 infections in the 44,000-person trial were examined. That means nearly all of those infections must have been from people who got the placebo for the 90% rate to be accurate.
Still, the news brought a huge burst of hope for a nation grappling with the virus — the U.S. passed more than 10 million confirmed cases on Monday. Pfizer has been developing the vaccine with BioNTech, a German partner, and is expected to apply for emergency-use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the end of this month.
“Not only do we have the first effective vaccine, but the data also looks robust,” Bloomberg’s Max Nisen wrote. “Instead of evaluating the shot at the first possible moment, Pfizer waited for more data, which gives weight to the impressive results. There are still unknowns about the vaccine, and with limited supplies available until next year and two shots needed to complete treatment, it won't end a rampant pandemic overnight. The news does, however, substantially boost the chances of a quicker and easier resolution.”
Pfizer employees echoed that optimism.
“We’re in a position potentially to be able to offer some hope,” Dr. Bill Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of clinical development, told The Associated Press. “We’re very encouraged.”
If the trial stays on track, there could be a vaccine released by the end of the year, though enough doses to supply the entire country likely wouldn’t be manufactured until the spring of 2021. World Health Organization senior adviser Dr. Bruce Aylward said this vaccine could “fundamentally change the direction of this crisis” as early as March.
While Pfizer decided not to join Operation Warp Speed and funded its own trials and research — nearly $2 billion worth — it did sign a contract in July to supply the U.S. with 100 million doses, assuming that it’s cleared by the FDA. As part of an agreement with Operation Warp Speed, Pfizer is committed to making those doses part of the 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines that the program hopes to have available next year.
Even if the extraordinary results don’t hold, they are especially encouraging because Pfizer is one of four other U.S. companies that are deep into coronavirus trials. Some, like Moderna, are using a similar mRNA technology to develop the vaccine. “This is great news as it shows mRNA can work,” Moderna Chief Executive Stéphane Bancel said. “Great day for the world, as we are all waiting for vaccines.”
Not everyone was thrilled by the news. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, said the preliminary results were based on “bad science” and that everyone’s enthusiasm needed to be “tempered” until those results are released to the public and reviewed by outside groups. “Crucial information absent from the companies’ announcement is any evidence that the vaccine prevents serious COVID-19 cases or reduces hospitalizations and deaths due to the disease,” the organization said.
There is widespread enthusiasm about this news. Very few people, regardless of their political affiliation, are anything but thrilled that a vaccine might soon be available en masse to the public. There is some disagreement about who deserves credit and whether the trials are really as encouraging as they look, but very little argument over whether this is “good” news or not.
What the right is saying.
The right is celebrating, noting that President Donald Trump’s red tape cutting has helped speed up the process for a vaccine in a way all the experts said would be impossible.
“If the interim results hold, this could lead to a mid-2021 pandemic exit—and perhaps spare us from the lockdown instincts of the coronavirus team that Joe Biden announced Monday,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote. “Annual flu vaccines are only 30% to 60% effective, and that’s in a good year. The 90% rate of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would put it nearly on par with the measles vaccine, and it may also work with older people. This is not always the case with vaccines… The apparent breakthrough is a credit to the innovative capacity of the private pharmaceutical industry. Pfizer has developed the vaccine using its own capital. That requires making a return on investment, which the politicians in both parties should keep in mind when they promise price controls on drugs. That would mean fewer resources to tackle the next coronavirus or deadly disease.”
“The vaccine news, assuming it holds, also vindicates President Trump’s oft-expressed optimism,” the board said. “He had hoped this breakthrough would come in October, before Election Day, and he was off by a week. He can still take credit for mobilizing the government to accelerate the approval of vaccines and therapies in what is likely to be record time. He streamlined bureaucratic reporting lines and prodded the FDA to collaborate with vaccine developers to consider results in nearly real time.”
In Commentary Magazine, Noah Rothman criticized many of Trump’s biggest opponents who made claims that he was trying to fast-track a vaccine before Election Day purely for political gain.
“New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose record as the nation’s most incompetent state-level manager of the COVID crisis is unrivaled… spent much of the campaign insisting that Donald Trump was personally interfering in the process of developing a safe vaccine so that it could be brought to market before the election,” Rothman wrote. “Given that the election cycle ended nearly a week ago, he should be able to admit at this point that this fanciful outcome did not materialize. And yet, Cuomo just cannot bring himself to dispense with the hysteria… The governor’s contentions are also untethered to what public health experts have advised the Biden administration to do, which is to lean heavily on and financially support the private sector to facilitate the distribution and refrigeration of a vaccine on an unprecedented scale.”
“The global pharmaceutical industry, so unloved by politicians of all stripes, appears to have triumphed over another enemy of human health,” Freeman wrote. “A lot of media folk lambasted President Trump for predicting [a vaccine this year], but thank goodness he appears to have been right on target… Now that all the votes have been cast Mr. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, will likely be more comfortable acknowledging how similar his Covid plan is to the Trump plan. During the campaign Mr. Biden shamefully claimed that Mr. Trump was responsible for U.S. virus deaths. Now there seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that Team Biden agrees with the White House on key aspects of the federal response and doesn’t want to disrupt them.”
What the left is saying.
There’s a lot of hope. While the left isn’t so quick to heap praise on President Trump, they are optimistic about what this means for the future — and concede this may be a shining achievement for the president.
The Washington Post editorial board said the announcement from Pfizer is a “genuinely promising moment” given that “no one has ever won regulatory approval for an effective vaccine that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to stimulate an immune response.”
“Pfizer and BioNTech managed this feat on their own, without development money from Operation Warp Speed by the U.S. government,” it wrote. “This is further confirmation that the enormous concentration of brainpower and resources brought to bear against covid-19 may eventually pay off. No single vaccine will be the answer; rather, several successful ones will be needed to battle the disease.”
“Mr. Biden has properly addressed the persistent shortages in diagnostic testing, personal protective equipment and other issues, and on Monday he implored Americans to wear a mask, one of the most vital mitigations,” the board said. “But these are not going to be enough. The nation faces a massive, surging wave of infection into a population dangerously fatigued and complacent. Until the vaccine arrives, the pandemic demands a far more vigorous response. We hope Mr. Biden continues to work on it as he waits to take the reins.”
Walter Isaacson, the well-known author and professor at Tulane, said he was a part of the Pfizer trial and “it’s a miracle for genetic medicine.”
“Vaccines work by stimulating a person’s immune system,” Isaacson explained. “One traditional approach is to inject a weakened version of the dangerous virus. That’s the way we now fend off measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox. Another method is to use a version of the virus or a part of the virus that has been totally killed…
“The success of the Pfizer vaccine means that the plague year of 2020 will be remembered as the time when traditional vaccines began to be supplanted by genetic vaccines. Instead of delivering tiny and safe doses of the virus itself, these new vaccines deliver a piece of genetic coding that will instruct human cells to produce, on their own, components of a targeted virus. These safe components can then stimulate the patient’s immune system. It is another wondrous miracle from a biotech revolution in which knowledge of genetic coding will become as important as digital coding and molecules will become the new microchips.”
In Vanity Fair, Bess Levin had a far less positive take on the news around the vaccine.
“As you’ve probably heard by now, over the weekend Donald Trump was projected as having lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, in part due to his disgraceful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein he effectively just let the virus spiral out of control, leading to the deaths of nearly 238,000 in the U.S,” she said. “Because he’s mortifyingly delusional, though, he believes that (1) he still has a chance at being reelected, hence the refusal to concede, and (2) the news that Pfizer’s vaccine is more than 90% effective in early trials and may be available by the end of the year is somehow a credit to him…
“Dr. Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice president and the head of vaccine research and development at the company, said, ‘We were never part of the Warp Speed,’ referring to the government’s effort to rapidly develop a vaccine,” she wrote. “The actual developmental efforts had nothing to do with the Trump administration. Of course, Trump & Co. aren’t ones for details or facts, so they’ll presumably be deploying people to take credit for the breakthrough throughout the week.”
In the middle of the spring, when the pandemic was just beginning and fear over coronavirus was probably peaking, I wrote that I believed in President Trump’s optimism about a vaccine. Historically speaking, my view is that when all the money, resources, intelligence and incentives in the world are aimed at one thing — humans usually prevail. That basic logic has been the driving force of my optimism that the battle against COVID-19 would be months or a year long, not years or decades.
This latest news is reaffirming that optimism.
The truth is, this kind of news is the best of America. First and foremost, the credit should go to the incredible scientists, researchers and the private sector in America who have gotten us to where we are today. Many U.S. citizens take for granted that it was a near guarantee we’d be leading the way — but they shouldn’t. With the bright lights on, facing a global scourge and with all the pressure in the world, the best minds in the U.S. still look like the best players on the field. That Pfizer and its research teams partnered with a German biotech company to produce these results is doubly important — a reminder of our increased strength when we invest in the global community and work alongside our strongest allies to tackle such daunting problems.
It’s also been funny to watch how this has broken every partisan’s brain. Yesterday, many liberal pundits were refusing to accept the role the government may have played — or will play — in facilitating this unbelievable vaccine success. Meanwhile, conservatives were harping not on the private industry’s heavyweight status in solving a global problem but on how the government helped make this happen. It was as if their ideologies had a temporary, overnight swap. President Trump is often successful at bringing these contradictions to the surface amongst our most partisan pundits.
Constant critics of the president who simply cannot see anything he does as a “win” will poke holes in the momentous nature of the news. Yes, these are preliminary results. Yes, Pfizer was not funded by Operation Warp Speed. No, there wasn’t a vaccine available for you at the end of October, as the president often claimed there would be in the waning days of his campaign. Nobody believes the president was donning a lab coat with a microscope overseeing these vaccines, either.
But don’t ignore what he got right. Few villains are as unanimously scorned as “Big Pharma” in America today, and President Trump said repeatedly that the private industry would produce a vaccine at “warp speed” — and promised to cut all the red tape he could to make it happen. When he claimed we’d have a vaccine within a year, faster than anyone could imagine, he was laughed out of the room. Experts across the political spectrum advised caution over Trump’s optimism. Most Americans, by now, are familiar with the statistic that the fastest vaccine ever developed was mumps — which took four years. Others know that typical vaccines take 10-15 years to develop.
Now, it’s November. That puts us four months away from March, which would mark one year since the initial surge of the virus here in the U.S. Then the real government test begins: can they get the vaccine out to the public? It’s suddenly conceivable that 25 or 50 million Americans could be inoculated with the vaccine by then. Surely, if these trials were failing — or people were coming down sick from dangerous doses — the president would be getting hammered for further endangering the country. Instead, there have been very few reports of any serious illnesses, and COVID-19 may have just ushered in a new breed of vaccinations that can be easily updated and altered into the future to protect us from viruses yet to come.
The scientists deserve credit. Our German partners deserve credit. Pfizer deserves credit. The Trump administration also deserves credit. We’re not out of the woods because of this news. On the contrary, we’re witnessing record case spread as we speak, and Americans need to be preparing for a winter where the virus will thrive. Even if the vaccine succeeds, distributing it will require a massive logistical effort, one that the Trump administration is already planning. So it’s also okay to celebrate this moment for what it is — and to give credit where credit is due. There’s the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. We haven’t gotten many of these milestones in the battle against COVID-19, and having a little optimism about the future is allowed. I’m thrilled that the president’s predictions appear prescient, and hope these vaccine trials get across the finish line and out to the public soon. If they do, it’ll be one of the shining achievements of his administration — and one of the biggest wins in the history of international scientific cooperation in research and development.
Your questions, answered.
Q: Do senators that represent their state run for a specific part of their state? I know they represent the entire state in Congress but am confused given that in Georgia, there's a runoff for at least one seat. I'm also wondering in moments like that, if you're not locked into a specific seat, how do you choose which one to run for?
— Joel, Long Island City, New York
Tangle: The situation in Georgia this year truly is remarkable. The fact that we are where we are took an extraordinary set of circumstances and some luck, and now sets us up for one of the most important political battles of the last decade.
First, some baseline stuff to understand how we got here: Like many states, Georgia has two senators representing them in Congress. Every person in Georgia gets a vote for either Senate candidate. Typically, you won’t see a state where both Senate seats are contested in the same year. That’s because the 100-person Senate is divided into three “classes” — and each of those three classes has elections every six years, staggered in a way that gives us Senate races for one-third of the seats every two years. This is a constitutional design that promotes stability and prevents a major, sweeping takeover of the Senate in any single election.
In other words, one Senate group (Class 1) was up for reelection in 2020, another (Class 2) will be up for reelection in 2022, and the third (Class 3) will be up in 2024. Then this year’s group (Class 1) will be back up for reelection in 2026 again after those senators serve their six-year terms. Senators aren’t representing part of their state (they both represent the whole state), and candidates decide when to run simply by which seat in the Senate is open.
In Georgia, Sen. Johnny Isakson was a senator from Class 2 who would have been up for reelection in 2022. But he retired in 2019 when his Parkinson’s disease became debilitating. When that happens, the state’s governor appoints someone to fill the seat. In Georgia, the governor is Republican Brian Kemp. He appointed Kelly Loeffler, another Republican. But because Loeffler was appointed, and not elected, she had to run for reelection in a special election this year because senators can’t just serve out terms after being appointed by a governor.
At the same time, Sen. David Perdue — the other Georgia senator — is one of the Class 1 senators who were up for reelection this year, so he was already poised for the race. He is running against Jon Ossoff, a Democratic challenger (Isakson, Loeffler and Perdue are all Republicans). That means we were already in the unique position of having two senators running in the same state in the same year. But it gets even more strange.
Because states create their own election laws, Georgia has its own unusual runoff system where candidates who do not get to 50% of the vote cannot be elected (worth noting here that there’s a good argument that this system, implemented during the early stages of the Civil and Voting Rights movements in 1963, was put in place to suppress rising African-American political power). When no candidate hits that threshold, the races go to a “runoff” election — a race where there are only two candidates on the ballot to ensure a majority winner. And that’s exactly what has happened in both of the Georgia Senate races.
In Perdue vs. Ossoff, David Perdue won 49.7% of the vote to Ossoff’s 47.9%, all while a libertarian candidate named Shane Hazel got 2.3% of the vote. The special election where Loeffler was defending her appointed seat was even more exciting. She ran against a massive field — including Rep. Doug Collins, another popular Republican. Because of that, this race was always expected to go to a runoff. And it didn’t disappoint. 20 candidates — yes, 20 — got more than 10,000 votes in this race. Raphael Warnock, the most popular Democrat, finished atop the race with 32.9% of the vote. Loeffler got 25.9% and Rep. Collins got 20%. Deborah Jackson, another Democrat, got 6.6%.
To recap: We have an untimely retirement, a special election, a coincidental double Senate race and then two Senate races in the same state that each got to runoff territory. It’s hard to overstate how remarkable that is, but it gets even wilder when you look at the Senate and consider the stakes nationally: Now that the election is basically over, it appears Republicans are clinging to a 50-48 advantage in the Senate. That means that the double Georgia runoff scheduled for January will actually determine whether Democrats can split the Senate 50-50 or whether Republicans will have outright control. And it’s going to happen in a state that is, right now, being decided by fewer than 13,000 votes in the presidential election.
If Democrats can get to a 50-50 split, because they have the White House, they will have the tie breaking vote in the Senate, which comes from the vice president. They won’t have quite as much power as if they had a 51-49 advantage, but it would be a lot better for the Biden agenda than if they were in the minority. So who is the favorite? I’m retired from political prognostication, but it’s very hard to say regardless. Joe Biden is poised to win the state, but Sen. Perdue had a clear advantage over Ossoff, and the Loeffler-Collins combination got about 46% of the vote. Warnock and the next four Democrats accounted for 47% of the vote. I think it’s going to be hard for him to overcome, but it’s certainly not out of reach.
That being said, there were reports on the ground that Democratic volunteers were literally registering voters at celebrations on the streets in Atlanta when Biden was announced as the winner. It’s clear the infrastructure is there for Democrats to compete, and given Biden’s success it’s clear they have a shot at a double flip. What’s certain is that these two races will be the center of the political world for the next two months.
Reminder: You can ask a question, too. I try to answer one in every newsletter. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.
A story that matters.
David Shor, one of my favorite independent political pollsters, is out with a fresh take on why the polls failed again this year — and why we may not be able to trust them going forward. In an interview with Vox, Shor argues that decades ago, someone who trusted a pollster enough to respond to their questions had an equal chance of being a Democrat or Republican. Today, though, someone who distrusts a pollster is far more likely to be a Republican — creating an inherent bias in the sample size that totally corrupts the results. As a result, pollsters giving weight to their responses are not coming close to weighing them accurately. “It used to be that once you control for age and race and gender and education, that people who trusted their neighbors basically voted the same as people who didn’t trust their neighbors,” Shor said. “But then, starting in 2016, suddenly that shifted. If you look at white people without college education, high-trust non-college whites tended toward [Democrats], and low-trust non-college whites heavily turned against us. In 2016, we were polling this high-trust electorate, so we overestimated Clinton. These low-trust people still vote, even if they’re not answering these phone surveys.”
- 70%. The percentage of Republicans who don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair.
- 35%. The percentage of Republicans who didn’t believe the 2020 election would be free and fair before the election.
- 90%. The percentage of Democrats who believe the 2020 election was free and fair.
- 52%. The percentage of Democrats who believed the 2020 election would be free and fair before the election.
- 71. The number of days until the presidential inauguration on January 20th, 2021.
- 28 of 29. The number of competitive House races that Republicans won in the 2020 election.
- 537. The number of votes George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by in Florida after the 2000 recount.
- 45,103. The current margin between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, where the Trump administration is challenging the results.
- These numbers on mail-in voting:
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Yesterday, we got some great news about the COVID-19 vaccine. We also got some good news about COVID-19 treatment. The FDA gave approval to the first monoclonal antibody that helps the immune system fight off COVID-19. The experimental drug from Eli Lilly was part of the treatment that President Trump received, and it’s approved for “people 12 and older with mild or moderate COVID-19 symptoms who do not require hospitalization. It's a one-time treatment given through an IV.” Along with a vaccine, experts have long said treatments like this one will be crucial to reducing the hospitalization and death rates of the virus — and now the treatment will be more widely available across the U.S.