Sep 3, 2020

The coronavirus vaccine is coming.

The coronavirus vaccine is coming.

But who will win the race?

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. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The COVID-19 vaccine debate, some fiery reader feedback, plus a question about whether swing voters really exist.

President Donald Trump is betting big that America wins the vaccine race. Geralt / Pixabay

Tomorrow & Monday.

I’ve been writing this newsletter nonstop for a year, and I need a (brief) break. I’m going to take advantage of the long weekend with Labor Day on Monday and take tomorrow off to try to give my brain a rest and catch up on reader emails. I’m also putting together a special, special edition for next week on the prospect of an election tie, which is looking more possible every day. Readers regularly tell me the Friday editions are some of their favorite Tangle content, so if you want to start receiving those — click the button below! Otherwise, you’ll be hearing from me again Tuesday (and maybe briefly on Monday). Do me a favor: have a great weekend.

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Reader feedback.

Yesterday, I shared feedback from Douglas in Asheville, North Carolina, who argued that much of Joe Biden’s candidacy was built on the "Fine People On Both Sides Hoax." His reader feedback drew in dozens of emails in response — many of which directly refuted his claim that Biden has exaggerated Trump’s comments regarding the 2017 violence in Charlottesville. One reader, named Jon, sent in a very well-written, well-sourced, hyperlink-filled rebuttal that I’ve put into a Google doc and you can read here.

This reader’s contention, and one that is worth acknowledging in the context of yesterday’s newsletter, is that the people who showed up in Charlottesville were exclusively self-identified neo-Nazis, white supremacists or members of militias who came simply to insert themselves into a violent situation. This is explored in a Washington Post fact-check. “By simple transitive property, if a person says that there are some fine people on both sides of an event, and one side of that event is composed entirely of neo-Nazis, then that person is saying that neo-Nazis are very fine people,” Jon said.

Presented with Jon’s response, Doug also wrote me again, saying this: “This reader’s assertion that the Charlottesville protest was explicitly/exclusively a white supremacist rally is not true. I lived three hours from Charlottesville at the time (and went to school there), and know several people who went to the rally. They were there to protest the statue being removed, and were unaware until they got there that white supremacists had hijacked the protest. They were told by police to avoid certain areas and they did. They are fine people and were there to support a principle.”

I’m now closing the loop on this reader feedback circle — but everyone should be equipped with the arguments here to make their own judgments.

Quick hits.

  1. Progress against COVID-19 appears to have stalled out nationally, thanks to rising caseloads in 18 states and seven states that have seen cases spike by more than 50%. In-person classes at universities have helped drive the new spread, according to Axios, including the University of Alabama, where 1,200 students and 150 employees have contracted the virus since classes resumed. Cases are spreading fastest in South Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, West Virginia and Delaware.
  2. Joe Biden is planning to visit Kenosha, Wisconsin, today, 24 hours after announcing he raised a record-shattering $364.5 million in August. Yesterday, Biden said the police officers in Jacob Blake’s shooting and Breonna Taylor’s killing “need to be charged.” He also called for an investigation into the individual who shot and killed a Trump supporter in Portland.
  3. The moderators for the general election debates have been announced. On September 29th, Fox News’ Chris Wallace will moderate a Trump-Biden debate. On October 7th, USA Today’s Susan Page will moderate a Harris-Pence debate. On October 15th, C-SPAN’s Steve Scully will moderate the second presidential debate. On October 22nd, NBC News’s Kristen Walker will moderate the third presidential debate.
  4. President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to vote twice in the general election yesterday, saying they should first cast a ballot by mail and then go vote in person to test the security of the election. “Let them send it in and let them go vote, and if their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote.” Trump first said this in a television interview. Later, speaking to reporters in North Carolina, he repeated it. “So send it in early and then go and vote,” Trump said. “You can’t let them take your vote away; these people are playing dirty politics. So if you have an absentee ballot . . . you send it in, but I’d check it, follow it and go vote.” Voting twice is a felony in several states, including North Carolina.
  5. A new focus group in Wisconsin showed some voters there feel that Joe Biden is overlooking them and their concerns while focusing heavily on people protesting systemic racism. “Racial resentment, feelings of being overlooked by the Democratic Party, distrust of political institutions and low-information decision-making emerged as major themes in our latest virtual Engagious/Schlessinger focus group,” Axios reports. “Eight of the 10 Wisconsin swing voters in the group had supported Trump in 2016 after backing Barack Obama in 2012, while two flipped from Mitt Romney in 2012 to Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

What D.C. is talking about.

The COVID-19 vaccine. This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told state public health officials to prepare for the distribution of a vaccine by late October. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, told MSNBC that the patient enrollment rate in COVID-19 trials is high enough that we could know of a safe vaccine by November or December.

At the same time, the CDC has contacted officials in all 50 states with planning information, and the documents suggest they are preparing for one or possibly two vaccines to be ready for high-risk groups before the new year. According to the documents, the vaccine would first be made available to frontline workers, national security personnel, and nursing home residents and staff.

The news comes almost simultaneously to the Trump administration’s announcement that it will not work with the international group of countries that are trying to develop a vaccine through a collaborative effort. The administration said it did not want to be constrained by multilateral groups like the World Health Organization, which is consistent with the administration's earlier decision to pull out of the WHO altogether in July.

Outside the U.S., more than 150 countries are setting up “COVAX,” the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility. COVAX will combine the “portfolio” of “potential vaccines to ensure their citizens are quickly covered by whichever ones are deemed effective,” allowing countries to have backup options in case the vaccine effort they attempt fails, the Associated Press reports.

What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of President Trump’s approach. Operation Warp Speed (OWS) set out to deliver a vaccine to the American public by January of 2021, and so far the people behind that vaccine effort seem confident we’ll get there. Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, published an op-ed in USA Today yesterday saying “the OWS strategy is working.”

“We originally established our objective — substantial quantities of a safe and effective vaccine no later than January 2021 — as an optimistic target,” he wrote. “While one can never guarantee success in any scientific endeavor, it is now becoming increasingly likely we will deliver this historic victory for the American people and the world.”

Azar explained that the administration has developed a rapid version of FDA standards and safety, applied in an apolitical fashion, that included eight candidates which could be manufactured quickly and were based on existing or cutting-edge vaccine technology.

“Each of the candidates selected has received support for some combination of research and development, clinical trials, and industrial manufacturing,” he said. “These financial investments, thus far totaling more than $10 billion, combined with significant technical and logistical support, allow each company to undertake several steps of the vaccine development process in parallel, mitigating its financial risk without compromising the safety and efficacy of its vaccine.”

In Spectator USA, Matthew Lynn wrote supportively of “vaccine nationalism,” noting that more competition will yield better results. Lynn argued that by going after it “alone,” the pressure and innovation of an American vaccine increases the odds we’ll be one of the first countries to solve the problem.

“The US may not be cooperating with the WHO program but its ‘Operation Warp Speed’ could yet turn into the 21st-century equivalent of the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear power during World War Two,” he said. “Innovation doesn’t usually happen by itself. It takes money, resources, goals, organization, and pressure. When national prestige is at stake all of those are a lot more likely to be forthcoming. And right now, we need some rapid innovation. With the global economy in crisis, we don’t want to wait three or four years for an effective vaccine. If possible, we want one this year.”

In The American Enterprise Institute, James Pethokoukis argued that America’s innovation and the power of its wealth, technology and science is already on display.

“Just the other day, the FDA OKed a simple and accurate coronavirus test that could cost just $5,” he wrote. “Before that was the development of the antiviral drug Remdesivir. And we hope that there will be a vaccine sooner rather than later. As it is, the development process has been greatly accelerated compared to previous efforts. Where would we be if medical and pharmaceutical technology were still at the levels of decades ago?”

What the left is saying.

The left is critical of President Trump’s approach. They have seen both the announcement a vaccine could be ready by October and Trump’s decision not to join the WHO’s effort as blatant politicizing of one of the most important medical events in American history.

“As is the case for so many current presidential decisions, the choice to opt out of the high-profile vaccine search appears to be driven by personal grievance,” Matt Stieb wrote in The Atlantic. “Trump will not allocate U.S. resources toward the effort because of the involvement of the World Health Organization — the flawed United Nations organ he has used as a scapegoat to deflect attention from his own failures to respond to the coronavirus.”

“The downside for the United States is immediately apparent,” Stieb added. “If the international effort proves an early success and the U.S. version does not, the country will face a gap time in which Americans will die as more collaborative parties reap the benefits of cooperation. (One could only imagine how such an outcome would affect the Trump administration or its legacy, depending on how the next 62 days go.)”

The Washington Post editorial board published a strong rebuke of Trump’s approach, saying it’s another example of an America that is “isolated and weak.”

“There are many advantages to such a global effort, especially for smaller nations that are being stricken with the virus but lack resources to develop or purchase vaccine supplies on their own,” it wrote. “If the poorer populations of the globe are left unprotected — and if the virus continues to ravage them — then the richer nations will not be free of the scourge, nor will the global economy rebound to full health… Once upon a time, the United States would gladly embrace such a program as an expression of leadership and lofty ideals — why generations looked to America as a beacon of hope.”

Leana Wen noted that trust in top U.S. scientific institutions is wavering under Trump: the CDC just changed common sense guidelines about testing asymptomatic people exposed to others with COVID-19, causing global backlash. The FDA just embraced convalescent plasma therapy, only to have to walk back its gung-ho endorsement after experts criticized the evidence supporting it. If the FDA succumbs to political pressure to try to produce a vaccine by November, it will not just set us back in the fight against COVID-19 — but will hurt the country for generations.

“Until recently, our federal government’s top scientific institutions were venerated around the world for their expertise and uncompromising integrity,” Wen said. “Now, they are on the verge of losing their credibility in the midst of a pandemic. The window to regain trust is closing. If it does, the harm to Americans’ health will be irreversible.”

My take.

It all makes me nervous. From the American perspective, there’s a reasonable case this is a lot of hoopla about nothing. We’re either going to “win” the race and be one of the first to begin distributing a vaccine, or there will be a brief period of time when we are collecting and reviewing the efficacy of the data from whoever wins the race and then mimicking their vaccine as quickly as we can. Whether we are involved in the COVAX effort or not, the country that produces the first successful, safe vaccine isn’t simply going to keep it in a black box. They’re going to tell the world and revel in the victory.

On the other hand, there’s an obvious and not insignificant issue here: 6,000 people have died of coronavirus in the last seven days in the U.S. At that rate, you could make an argument that if we’re a month behind the COVAX group in discovering and distributing a vaccine, we’ll see 24,000 Americans die who didn’t have to.

Looking at the information coming out about our vaccine efforts and the ones happening around the world, I’m optimistic this won’t be the case. I generally agree with the sentiment that competition breeds results, iron sharpens iron, all that good stuff. Amen. Hell yeah. America. But I’m far more concerned about the complexities and nuance of this decision, which I think is more about Trump’s grievances with the WHO than anything else related to the COVAX plan.

For one, I want to be part of a nation that stymies this globally — not just within our own borders. Call me idealistic, but there was a time not so long ago when Republicans and Democrats shared a vision of ourselves that would make this a no-brainer. In the post-9/11 era, the United States’ foreign policy record has been marred by a disastrous war in Iraq, a never-ending war in Afghanistan, tit for tat cyber attacks with Russia, the growing power of brutal regimes in China and North Korea, the devastating war in Syria, and our neglect — or downright participation in — the worst humanitarian crisis of our time in Yemen.

Can you imagine what a powerful, historic pivot it’d be for our reputation abroad and the history of our country if the commitment was “we are going to save the world from this scourge”? If we immersed ourselves in the collaborative effort, then became the country that produced the vaccine, then helped facilitate the distribution of it to 20% of the population of every participating nation, as the COVAX plan sets out to do?

A moment like that could legitimately make inroads in restoring our standing internationally — a standing that has been damaged by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump each in their own unique ways.

Second, and maybe more importantly, stopping the virus here isn’t the only issue. Millions of people from around the world travel to and traverse the U.S., and unless the plan is to distribute the vaccine and close our borders (which, hey, it could be!) we will need to inoculate the people who are going to come here, too, if we want to beat this thing. Same goes for the millions of Americans who travel and live abroad. We want the rest of the world to also be safe for anyone leaving our country.

Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If we successfully produce and distribute the vaccine first, it’ll be a major political win for Trump (as it should be), and there’s nothing stopping us from making sure the rest of the world has the vaccine, too. We can still lead the way and be the heroes and do something great for humanity. But if our trials stumble and America watches an effective vaccine get distributed across Europe or in Japan or throughout Africa while we sit on our hands, it’ll be a political reckoning unlike any we’ve ever seen.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Is there evidence of voters going back and forth between Biden and Trump, especially in the swing states? It just seems hard to comprehend that the leads would be changing as much as they are without some people suddenly deciding they'll vote for the other candidate. Or is it all based on enthusiasm, i.e. Biden's lead grows when Trump voters are thinking they are less likely to vote?

— Bill from Wayne, New Jersey

Tangle: The debate about whether swing voters actually exist is one that has dominated political science for the last decade. There are academic papers, books, and hundreds of articles covering this topic — many coming to different conclusions. Best that I can tell, the short answer is yes, there are still swing voters whose opinions are changing, but there are far fewer of them than there have ever been, and their relevance is waning.

A recent Wall Street Journal article explored this question and pointed out that between 1948 and 1992, an average of 18% of the population in America “reported casting a ballot for different parties in successive races.” Since then, the average is below 10%. That would indicate increased polarization and far fewer people who are oscillating between parties and candidates, though 10% is — of course — more than enough voters to swing an election. Especially in swing states.

More relevant to your question, WSJ and NBC just did a fascinating poll of registered voters that found “10% saying they currently support the candidate of the party whose presidential nominee they opposed in 2016—a cohort that consists overwhelmingly of Trump voters who say they now back Mr. Biden.” That right there is proof that millions of “persuadable” voters are still out there, and may be changing their minds right now (which is what you could be seeing in the shifting polling data).

In 2019, The New York Times’ Nate Cohn made perhaps the strongest case for the existence of swing voters in recent years. “These ‘mythic,’ ‘quasi-talismanic,’ ‘unicorn’ swing voters are very real, and there are enough of them to decide the next presidential election,” he wrote. The most well-known pollster at the most prestigious paper in the country concluded that about 9% of the electorate in America’s six most important swing states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina) are “truly” persuadable voters.

On the flip side, Rachel Bitecofer, whom I’ve written a good deal about in Tangle and have interviewed for this newsletter, has become well-known for her theory that swing voters no longer exist. She nailed the 2018 House race outcomes based on the concept of “negative partisanship,” or how much one side hates the other, and then predicting turnout based on that negative partisanship.

In Bitecofer’s telling, Cohn’s persuadable swing voters are a mirage, and if they exist they are basically irrelevant when compared to which side is getting its base juiced up the most. Part of this analysis is grounded in the notion that people who say they are swing voters aren’t actually swing voters. The other supposition is that even if they exist, they are such a small part of the electorate they don’t really matter. Politico put it this way: “Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place.”

Others have begun adopting this view as well. David C. Barker and Sam Fulwood III, two well-regarded political scientists, recently began making the case that the only “swing” voters are those voters who are deciding whether to show up for an election at all. And in that regard, they think young Black voters are the “real” swing voters — in 2020, those young Black voters are not sold on Biden, Democrats or Trump. Younger voters, under the age of 35, have traditionally been a lot more likely to change their political preferences between or during elections.

31% of Black Americans under 30 say they probably won’t vote in this election, according to polling Barker and Fulwood have conducted. Given that voters typically overestimate the likelihood of themselves voting (i.e. if 69% are saying they will vote, the real number is almost certainly lower), that’s a pretty important key to any election.

There’s also just the sheer number and force of Americans who don’t pay that much attention. Bitecofer’s theory here is one that I subscribe to, also. She disputes the traditional thinking this way: “the idea that there is this informed, engaged American population that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment… and it is just not true.” And I tend to agree.

Many millions of Americans, including those being polled, are not keeping a close eye on politics. They have other things to do or other interests that dominate their focus. As the election gets closer, a lot of them dial in — which would explain (in part) why we see elections tighten up or polls change in the final month before people actually vote.

In other words: the changes you’re seeing in the polls are an intersection of all these factors. Yes, there are some “persuadable” voters who are changing their minds based on things like the civil unrest or the government’s coronavirus response. But there are far fewer of them than there were 30 years ago. Yes, there are voters who are just now tuning in to the election and just now forming their opinions, and based on how they break, the polling results could change. And then there’s just the general variation — the 3% margin of error most polls have — that’s also changing the results as different segments of the population are being polled. All of this is happening simultaneously and producing different polling results, which is why most experts focus more on polling averages to spot trends than they do on what a single poll result actually means.

Want to ask a question? Just reply to this email and write in. I try to answer a reader question in every newsletter.

A story that matters.

Your taxes might be a mess next year, and it will be wise to prepare accordingly. If you have been working remotely in a state other than the one you typically work in, things might get complicated. If your company takes part in the payroll tax cut that was part of President Trump’s executive order, you could save money this fall but get hit with surprise bills in early 2021. If you use a 529 college savings fund but aren’t going to classes in person, your tax situation might cost you cash unless you take action. For more information about these and a few other potential tax issues stemming from coronavirus, check out this Washington Post story.


  • 38%. The percentage of American adults who believe the pandemic is going to get worse.
  • 54%. The percentage of Democrats who believe the pandemic is going to get worse.
  • 19%. The percentage of Republicans who believe the pandemic is going to get worse.
  • 23%. The percentage of American adults who believe the worst part of the pandemic is behind us.
  • 11%. The percentage of Democrats who believe the worst part of the pandemic is behind us.
  • 39%. The percentage of Republicans who believe the worst part of the pandemic is behind us.
  • 32%. The percentage of American adults who think that once we have a vaccine the government should require Americans to get it.
  • 46%. The percentage of American adults who think that once we have a vaccine the government should not require Americans to get it.
  • 2%. The percentage of American adults who would describe their summer as the “best summer ever.”

Tangle’s future.

Swing voters may be dwindling, but millions of Americans are still interested in a more civil, informated political debate. Tangle is trying to help facilitate those conversations with reliable information and diverse viewpoints. I’ve been blown away by all the love for this kind of news, and there are three primary ways you can support Tangle:

  1. You can become a paying subscriber and get Friday editions by clicking here.
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Have a nice day.

Remember the ice bucket challenge? It was one of the most viral campaigns that ever hit the internet, and it helped raise millions of dollars for research into ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Well, check out this news from NBC: “An experimental medication may slow the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, researchers reported Wednesday. The research was supported in part by donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge, the social media sensation that raised more than $200 million worldwide.” It’s not a cure, but it’s a fantastic piece of news for anyone — like me — whose family has been impacted by this horrible disease. The worst part about ALS for patients is typically the way it hampers the use of their hands and their ability to eat. This treatment could slow those physical symptoms.

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