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Political Wire logo Trump’s Lead with White Voters Has Nearly Vanished
A Brutal Timeline
The Most Logical Picks for Biden’s Running Mate
8 Big Reasons Election Day 2020 Could Be a Disaster
Reopen Schools, But No GOP Convention?
Workers Getting Laid Off as Relief Runs Out

Undecided Voters Are Leaning Toward Biden

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll has Joe Biden ahead of Donald Trump 46% to 38%. This leaves 16% undecided or possibly planning to vote for a third party or stay home so they don't have to vote for the lesser of two evils. In 2016, when pollsters pushed harder on the undecided voters and asked what they would do if the election were today, half leaned toward Hillary Clinton and half leaned toward Donald Trump. This year, 61% of the undecideds are leaning toward Biden and 39% are leaning toward Trump. If all 61% break that way, Biden's margin grows to 10 points. Also noteworthy is that 60% of this group disapprove of Trump's performance in office and 62% think the economy is heading in the wrong direction. In addition, 80% are personally worried about the coronavirus. These are not good numbers for an incumbent. (V)

Trump Raises $20 Million at a Virtual Fundraiser

One of the advantages of a virtual fundraiser over an in-person one is that many more people can attend and contribute. On Tuesday, Donald Trump gave it a shot for the first time and pulled in $20 million from 300,000 donations nationwide. That is an average of $67 per donation, substantially more than what most campaigns get in ordinary online donations.

Joe Biden has held virtual fundraisers before, but this was a first for Trump. In June, Biden outraised Trump $63 million to $55 million. That was the second straight month in which Biden beat Trump financially. Perhaps Trump will be able to overcome that gap with a little help from Zoom. (V)

Three-Quarters of Voters Can Vote by Mail in November

The Washington Post has a new story out summarizing the situation with respect to absentee voting in the general election. Basically, the states fall into four categories as shown below, with the percentage of the electorate in each category:

  • Absentee ballots are mailed to every voter automatically (19%)
  • Absentee ballot applications are mailed to every voter automatically (18%)
  • Voters may request an absentee ballot if they fear voting in person (41%)
  • Only voters that meet strict requirements may vote by mail (23%)

Here is a map showing which states are in which categories.

Map with absentee ballot rules per state

As you can see, almost 180 million voters are allowed to vote by mail if they so desire. In fact, only two large states, Texas, and New York, greatly restrict absentee voting, and there is still time for New York to ease its rules (Texas doesn't want to). Fifteen states and D.C. changed their laws this year to make absentee voting easier.

What is more important than how many states have no-excuse absentee voting or allow fear of dying as a valid excuse, is which states are in which category. Most observers expect six states to determine the outcome of the election, namely three Rust Belt states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania), and three Sun Belt states (Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina). All six states allow anyone who asks for an absentee ballot to get one. In fact, Michigan and Wisconsin are going to mail every voter an application, even without the voter asking for one.

Once this election is over, we expect that the nature of voting will change permanently. When people see how easy voting by mail is compared to standing in line for hours, there will be no going back. It is likely that many states will either go to all mail-in elections (as Oregon did) or at least keep rules in place to make absentee voting available for anyone who wants it.

A big unanswered question is whether voting by mail will affect turnout. The U.S. has one of the worst turnouts of any democratic country. It hasn't reached even 65% of the eligible voters at any point in the past century. Here is a graph of turnout from 1912 onward:

Voter turnout since 1912

Will the ease of voting plus the incredibly polarizing effect of Donald Trump cause turnout to zoom up this year? We don't know. We do know that in the four states that run all elections by mail, turnout is a little higher than the national average, but it is nowhere near even 80%, let alone 100%. This means there are millions of voters who get a ballot in the mail and simply throw it out rather than filling it in and dropping it in a mailbox. Are there tens of millions of eligible voters this year who simply don't care, even though voting is very easy for them? Stay tuned. (V)

Three Coronavirus Scenarios of What Happens Next

Dr. Leana Wen has an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post describing three scenarios of how COVID-19 could play out going forward, as follows:

  • Status quo: In scenario 1, we just muddle through, continuing the current trends. Some businesses will be allowed to open, others will be required to close. Some states will have mask mandates, others will not. Some schools will open, some will stay closed. The virus will thrive. Sooner or later there will be a breaking point, perhaps when heart attack or stroke victims will be refused entry into overwhelmed ERs with no beds left and told to go home and die quietly. The unemployment rates will pass those of the Great Depression.

  • Full shutdown: At some point, it may be clear to everyone that the only way to get the virus under control is total lockdown. No one will be allowed out on the street except for very specific reasons, such as visiting a doctor or shopping for food. And even the latter could be rationed, with each household getting a pass stating, for example, that they may shop only on Thursday morning from 9 to 12. Essential workers (including medical personnel, supermarket employees, delivery truck drivers and funeral home personnel) would get passes stating when they are allowed to be on the street. Everyone else would be required to stay home on penalty of arrest and large fines. It would be immensely disruptive and met with massive resistance but it would work. With almost no one meeting anyone from outside their household with minor exceptions (medical facilities and food stores), the virus would stop spreading and everyone who has it would soon get better or die within 4-6 weeks. Once the disease stopped spreading, the country could gradually and carefully reopen.

  • Whack-a-mole: This is a modified, limited full shutdown. In areas where the virus was spreading, everything would be shut down. In areas where it was eradicated, life could continue normally. This scenario would require extensive testing to see where the virus was, as well as barriers between "clean" and "contaminated" regions. There is limited evidence from other countries, however, that such a fragmented approach would work. There would also be enormous pressure to allow areas where the virus was still present but not rampant to reopen, possibly leading to new outbreaks.

Having a national strategy would be nice, but that would require national leadership. In the absence of one, we get scenario 1, just trying to muddle through. The number of cases of COVID-19 has already surpassed 4 million in some counts, and the number of COVID-19 deaths has passed 140,000 in all counts. With 1,000 deaths a day now happening, just muddling through is likely to bring the total number of COVID-19 deaths to 250,000 by Election Day. A slogan of "I kept the number of COVID-19 deaths to only a quarter million, and besides they were mostly unproductive old people" might work in Idaho, but we doubt it would work so well in Arizona and Florida. (V)

Texas Voters Think That the Coronavirus is Out of Control in Texas

We keep seeing polls showing Texas to be competitive (including a new one below). In fact, since the beginning of April, Joe Biden has led in five polls, Donald Trump has led in five polls, and one was a tie. How can that be? A new Quinnipiac University poll may give an explanation. Seventy-four percent of Texas voters say that the coronavirus is a serious problem in Texas and 65% say that it is running wild in the Lone Star State. Gov. Greg Abbott's (R) approval is 11 points under water and Trump's handling of the virus is 7 points under water. With most of the voters thinking the virus is out of control and a majority saying that Trump is handling it badly, one is beginning to get a glimpse of why Texans have a bee or two in their Stetsons.

The poll also showed that 80% of Texas voters approve of a mask mandate, something Trump opposes. Politicians can get only so far out of step with public opinion before it begins to bite them, and we may be at that point in Texas already. (V)

Democratic and Republican Lawmakers Disagree on the Next Relief Package

Both parties realize that another relief package is needed, but sharply disagree on how big it should be and what should be in it. In May, the House passed a $3.4 trillion bill largely along party lines. Senate Republicans are now starting to work on a bill, but they want it to cost no more than $1 trillion.

The parties also differ on what will be in the bill. Both parties want $100 billion for schools and universities. However, some Republicans want to earmark a large chunk of it for schools that have in-person instruction, one of Donald Trump's top priorities, but other Republicans don't want this. They have to figure this out before talking to the Democrats, who are strongly against it. They tried to figure it out at their usual Tuesday lunch and it ended up being a food fight. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said he didn't see any reason to spend another trillion dollars on aid. A number of senators brought up the point that unless the economy is rebounding before the election, they were going to be in the minority come January. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stormed out and accused the other senators of being "Bernie Bros." In short, nothing was settled (though cooler heads may have begun to prevail later in the day).

One thing both parties (now) agree on is spending money for more testing and medical care for people who get COVID-19, regardless of their insurance status. This is largely a big gift to the insurance companies, which would otherwise be on the hook for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for tens of thousands of patients. The new bill would continue the practice of having the hospitals bill the government for care, rather than the insurance companies or the uninsured patients.

Nevertheless, the parties disagree on a number of key things as well, besides the amount of money to appropriate. Republicans want to shield business from liability associated with COVID-19. For example, if an employer tells his employees to show up for work or be fired and doesn't provide PPE, social distancing, or other tools for staying healthy and an employee gets sick as a result, Democrats want to allow the employee to sue the employer and Republicans want to prohibit that.

Another point of dispute is that Trump wants a payroll tax cut because, well, the Republicans' main reason for existence as a party is to cut taxes. Democrats say that a payroll tax cut does nothing for all the people who lost their jobs or were never formally employed (e.g., Uber drivers, task rabbits, etc.). Democrats also say that when the economy finally recovers, having payroll taxes be reduced will hurt Social Security, Medicare, and the programs supported by those taxes, and they will have to fight the Republicans tooth and nail to restore them. They see this as a very inefficient way to help people and one with bad long-term effects.

Democrats also want to appropriate funds for election safety, the Postal Service, food assistance, public transit, student loans, and many other programs. Republicans oppose all of these. But since any bill has to pass the House, if Senate Republicans insist on not funding any of these Democratic priorities, there will probably be no bill and the Senate Republicans will run the risk of getting the blame.

Also up in the air is aid to the states, which are struggling and may have to lay off police, teachers, and others, which will not be popular. In addition, the Democrats want more direct aid to the unemployed. Republicans don't, but they sort of realize that if there isn't any, it will hit Trump's base much harder than it will hit coastal elites who can work from home easily. Consequently, there will probably be some kind of aid to the unemployed, but the amount and form are up in the air. (V)

Trump Wants to Start a War between the States--and the Cities

In an insightful article, Ronald Brownstein argues that Donald Trump's decision to use federal agents in Portland and his threats to use them in other cities is not an accident or impulsive move. Trump wants to split the country in two, with the states (especially the red states) fighting the (generally Democratic) cities. He hopes that exurban and suburban voters will see him as the last bulwark against chaotic and violent cities. It could easily fail, though, because suburban voters tend to identify with the nearest big city, not with outlying rural areas.

There have been numerous examples in which states have used their powers to prevent cities from carrying out their own policies in their jurisdictions. Right now, a major example is states that have forbidden cities from requiring masks within their city limits. Lockdown orders are another point of contention where states have overruled cities. But there have been many issues before that. For example, states have forbidden cities from raising the minimum wage paid by businesses located there. States have forbidden cities from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials. States have forbidden cities from passing ordinances protecting the rights of transgender people (the famous North Carolina "bathroom bill" that cost then-governor Pat McCrory his job).

Many red-state governors are acting like the largest cities in their states are their enemies and must be subdued at all costs. Trump is strongly encouraging them to do so. The big question is how suburban voters will come down. Many of them moved to the suburbs to flee crime and violence in the cities, but some suburbs have become substantial cities in their own right and the residents may feel that Trump is attacking them. In 2018, the Democrats made huge gains in the suburbs and it is far from clear that attacking the cities will reverse this trend. In particular, many suburbanites' views on race, abortion, gay rights, immigration, diversity, and many other hot-button issues align much more closely with urban politics than with the conservative, white, Christian politics of the rural areas. If Trump succeeds in dividing the country in two by forcing suburbanites to make a choice, they may well choose the side of the cities and cause a permanent political realignment with the cities and suburbs on one side and the rural areas on the other. Given the population imbalance, this would be a disaster for Trump and the Republican Party. Before doing something like this, Karl Rove would have run polls and focus groups out the gazoo to make sure the plan had a good chance of working, but Trump is not Karl Rove. (V)

Four States Have the Ingredients for a Catastrophe

If you are thinking of writing a political thriller, here are a couple of ideas. Pick three or four states that are expected to have very close elections but almost no experience with massive absentee voting in a general election. Then throw in a pandemic in which half the voters or more decide to vote absentee. Next, mix in a president who is against absentee voting and who tells the state legislatures in those states not to appropriate money to print enough ballots or buy postage-paid envelopes. Finally, make sure each party has 1,000 or so lawyers ready to sue at the drop of a ballot. Try to get your book out in October, because in early November it is more likely to be fact than fiction.

The four states to pick are probably Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The percentage of absentee votes in 2018 in these states was: Georgia (6%), North Carolina (3%), Pennsylvania (4%), and Wisconsin (6%), although Wisconsin got more than that in their bungled primary in April. Arizona and Texas might also be close, but Arizona has extensive experience with absentee voting and Texas allows it for only seniors and people with a medical condition that precludes voting in person (and the courts have ruled that fear of dying is not a medical condition).

U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner Donald Palmer told Axios that absentee voting could easily swell to 60-70% if the pandemic is raging in the fall. Going from 6% to 60% is not going to go smoothly because voters don't understand the procedures and counties don't have the resources or staff. The only ones who will be fully prepared are the lawyers. If states change their election laws or procedures in the fall, there will be lawsuits, but the courts are hesitant to interfere with elections just before they happen. The Supreme Court probably doesn't want to determine the outcome of a second election in 20 years, but it may be stuck with the job.

M.I.T. political scientist Charles Stewart III told Axios: "I think that Bush v. Gore is gonna be considered a walk in the park" compared to this election. Matt Strabone, general counsel of RepresentUs, a voting rights group, said that voting problems in key states could hurt the legitimacy of the election. Jason Snead, executive director of the right-leaning Honest Elections Project said election officials' decisions "could seriously change the outcome of the election." He expects both run-of-the-mill lawsuits and also ones to halt counting the votes (as happened in Florida in 2000).

If Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, remains close, that could be ground zero for litigation. It is not for nothing that the election administrators' prayer is: "Lord, let it be a landslide." (V)

Trump Tried to Pressure U.K. into Holding the British Open at His Golf Club in Scotland

Donald Trump promised to break old norms and once again he has apparently done so. And not in a good way. Up until now, most presidents didn't use the power of their office to line their own pockets. Yes, the administration of Warren Harding was corrupt, but Harding himself didn't seek to profit personally in the Teapot Dome scandal. That was Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall's little project. Even Richard Nixon, who was certainly very corrupt in many ways, didn't see the U.S. government as a personal profit center. Trump seems to be breaking new ground here.

First, we had Trump encouraging foreign governments to hold big events at his hotel—and pay the full rate. Then we had Trump visit his golf clubs over 275 times, with each visit requiring many Secret Service personnel to rent rooms and golf carts to the tune of $105 million so far, all of it a direct transfer from the Treasury to Trump's personal bank account.

But now a new scandal has arisen. According to the New York Times, Trump asked his friend and ambassador to the U.K., Woody Johnson, to pressure the U.K. into holding the British Open at his failing golf club, Turnberry, in Scotland. The club has been losing large amounts of money for years, and a major golf tournament there would not only bring in a huge amount of money directly from fees and people staying there, but in addition its prestige would zoom up and possibly save the club from going under.

Johnson has zero diplomatic experience and his only qualification for one of the top diplomatic posts is being a major Trump donor. Naturally, Johnson tried to please his patron, so he talked to his deputy, Lewis Lukens, about the project. Lukens advised him not to do it, saying it would be unethical for a president to use the presidency for private gain. But Johnson didn't listen and brought the idea up with the U.K. government's Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell. Mundell didn't take the bait.

The episode left Lukens deeply unsettled, so he e-mailed other officials at the State Dept. telling them what had happened. A few months later, Johnson forced Lukens out. This is a pattern we have seen before (see: Vindman, Alexander).

Federal law makes it a criminal offense for any government official—except the president and vice president—to use his office to promote private businesses. However, the Constitution forbids the president from receiving emoluments, which in the 18th Century meant "payments," from foreign governments. Getting the British government to hold a big event at Trump's personal property would seem to qualify.

Getting Johnson to ask for a favor is hugely unethical because it compromises him. At some time in the future, the British government could come to him and say: "Remember that time you asked us for a favor? Now we would like to ask you for a favor." No experienced diplomat would even consider making such a request. So indeed, Trump is carrying out his campaign promise and smashing norms. (V)

Senate May Not Pass Appropriations Bills on Time

Congress needs to pass about a dozen bills to fund the federal government before the next fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. It probably won't happen. If it doesn't, one of two things will take place. Either Congress could pass a continuing resolution to keep every department funded at its current level for a few months or the government could shut down.

The House is hard at work on the spending bills and will probably pass all of them with plenty of time to spare. The problem is the Senate. Actually, there are two problems. First, the Senate is tied up with a pandemic relief bill (see above). Second, the FY 2021 appropriations bill is probably going to force Republican members to take tough votes just before an election and they want to avoid that at all costs.

If the appropriations bills go to markup, committee members can offer amendments which then get voted on. Democrats are almost certain to offer amendments for additional pandemic relief, specifically for items that didn't make it into the main pandemic bill. For example, if there is little money to help states provide postpaid envelopes for absentee ballots, Democrats will offer amendments providing that. Voting against them would put Republican senators on the Appropriations Committee, especially Susan Collins (ME), Lindsey Graham (SC), and Steve Daines (MT) in a tough spot. The Republican leadership would order them to vote "no" on all Democratic amendments, but that "no" vote would be turned into a "Sen. X opposes people voting" ad.

Similarly, Democrats are certain to propose amendments dealing with racial justice—for example, funds for retraining police in matters of racial sensitivity and how to restrain arrestees without killing them. Any Republican who votes to kill that amendment can forget about getting any votes from Black voters. Collins and Daines probably don't care, but Graham certainly does.

From the Republicans' point of view, not having to take any votes at all before the election is the best strategy, but if Democrats refuse to go along with a continuing resolution, there is the danger of a government shutdown. Needless to say, Republicans do not want ads in October saying: "The House passed bills to fund the government for next year but Senate Republicans refuse to even consider them." This puts the Republican senators up this year in a bind. It remains to be seen how this plays out; the only thing that is certain is that Collins will be "concerned." (V)

Barr Could Be Disbarred

Four past presidents of the D.C. Bar Association have signed a letter to the Bar Association's Office of Disciplinary Counsel asking for AG William Barr to be investigated and potentially disbarred. The letter points to four specific actions that the authors allege violate the D.C. Bar's ethical rules, to wit:

  • His deceitful behavior in absolving the President of the obstruction of justice that Robert Mueller found
  • Attacking an inspector general's report using half-truths, mischaracterizations, and concealment of facts
  • Maligning FBI officials who have not been indicted for a crime, making a future fair trial impossible
  • Ordering an unconstitutional attack on peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square

The summary ends with: "We don't have an attorney general now. We have an additional lawyer for the President."

The letter is 40 pages long and gives a detailed brief for each of the counts of Barr's violating bar association rules. There are 23 signatories in addition to the four past presidents.

Bar associations can take years to process complaints and they do it in secret. This isn't even the first time bar association leaders have said Barr is unsuited for the job. Last month, the president of the New York City Bar Association sent Congress a letter calling him "unfit" for the job of attorney general. Note that admission to the bar—or, for that matter, a law degree—is not a prerequisite for the Attorney Generalship, and so disbarment would not automatically lead to the Trump administration being dis-Barred. (V)

Today's Presidential Polls

Biden continues to lead in Arizona with the amount of the lead just going up and down on account of statistical fluctuations. Texas continues to be close. We're still not convinced that Biden can actually win Texas, but if it remains this close, Trump may have to start spending real money in this very expensive state. Also, if the final margin is 1-2%, there will be lawsuits galore, as discussed above. (V)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Arizona 49% 45% Jul 17 Jul 18 PPP
Texas 45% 44% Jul 16 Jul 20 Quinnipiac U.

Today's Senate Polls

Generally these days, everyone votes a straight ticket, but sometimes a senator or governor is popular enough to buck the trend. We are seeing that here and also in Montana. Trump may get the blame for COVID-19 in Texas, but Cornyn seems to be immune. He's not even in the Senate leadership anymore, so voters aren't blaming him. Also, Mary (MJ) Hegar is not well known in Texas (yet). (V)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Texas Mary Hegar 38% John Cornyn* 47% Jul 16 Jul 20 Quinnipiac U.

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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