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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Mask Wars
      •  Trump Gone Wild, Part I: Hitting Below the Belt
      •  Trump Gone Wild, Part II: Inaccurate Tweets
      •  Trump Gone Wild, Part III: The North Carolina Plot Thickens
      •  What Is the Bee in Trump's Bonnet?
      •  COVID-19 Diaries, Wednesday Edition
      •  Today's Presidential Polls
      •  Today's Senate Polls

Mask Wars

To mask or not to mask, that is the question. It had already taken on a significant culture wars cast, with Donald Trump and much of his base rejecting the wearing of masks as weak, unnecessary, anti-American, oppressive, etc., and most other Americans (including the vast majority of Democrats) seeing them as a necessary precaution undertaken in pursuit of the collective good. With Donald and Melania Trump venturing out unmasked over the holiday weekend while Joe and Jill Biden made sure to cover up, the spat was elevated to a new level on Tuesday.

The right-wing media knows very well which side its bread is buttered on, and so Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh and Fox News talking head Brit Hume got the ball rolling, mocking Joe Biden for masking up. Limbaugh who sees left-wing conspiracies everywhere he looks, declared that the masks are a "required symbol on the left to promote fear, to promote indecision, to promote the notion that we're nowhere near out of this." Newly installed White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who also knows which side her bread is buttered on, got into the conspiratorial thinking as well, and wondered why Biden felt the need to wear a mask in public (when social distancing is possible), but does not feel the need to wear one when he's in private (since those are much closer quarters). McEnany described this as a "discrepancy." It is very hard to believe that a Harvard Law graduate is legitimately confused here, and that she really believes that Biden is being inconsistent, dishonest, or hypocritical.

Nonetheless, McEnany is performing for an audience of one, and that individual was very pleased by what he was hearing. Trump echoed Limbaugh, describing mask-wearing as a case of being "politically correct" and essentially repeating verbatim what the Press Secretary said: "Joe Biden can wear a mask, but he was standing outside with his wife, perfect conditions, perfect weather ... And so I thought it was very unusual that he had one on." In Trump's case, we're willing to believe that he really might not understand why masks are more likely to be apropos outside the home.

Biden, for his part, is not willing to take these potshots sitting down. And so, he fired back. "[Trump's] a fool, an absolute fool to talk that way," the former Veep said in a CNN interview. "Presidents are supposed to lead, not engage in folly and be falsely masculine." In case anyone missed it that Biden is not backing down, he changed his Twitter profile picture to one of him wearing a mask:

Biden wearing a black mask and aviator glasses

In short, if the Lone Ranger and Maverick from Top Gun had a child (somehow overcoming the fact that they're both men and both fictional), then that child would be Joe Biden.

This spat is playing out against a backdrop that certainly appears to favor Biden's side of the argument. To start, the U.S. either surpassed 100,000 deaths on Monday (if you prefer or will do so sometime in the next 24 hours (if you prefer Johns Hopkins). Here's an updated version of our chart:

Event, Date, U.S. Fatalities,
Notes; Las Vegas shooting, 2017, 58, Worst mass shooting in U.S. history; Oklahoma City bombing, 1995, 168, Deadliest
domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history; Sinking of the Titanic, 1912, 238, Overall death toll (including
non-Americans) estimated at 1, 635; Hurricane Katrina, 2005, 1, 836, Estimated; Johnstown Flood, 1889, 2, 209, Worst
man-made disaster of the 19th century; estimated; Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, 2, 467, Deadliest military strike on
U.S. soil; Hurricane Maria, 2017, 2, 982, Estimated; 9/11 attacks, 2001, 2, 997, Deadliest terrorist attack in world
history; San Francisco earthquake, 1906, 3,000, Estimated; Battle of Antietam, 1862, 3, 675, Deadliest single day in
U.S. history; Galveston hurricane, 1900, 6,000-12,000, Worst natural disaster in U.S. history; estimated; Battle of
Gettysburg, 1863, 7, 058, Deadliest battle in U.S. history; H1N1, 2009, 12, 469, Swine flu; COVID-19, Trump projection,
2020, Less than 20,000, Feb. 28; Revolutionary War, 1776-83, 25,000, Estimated; Normandy campaign, 1944, 29, 204,
Deadliest military campaign in U.S. history; Korean War, 1951-53, 36, 516, Military deaths only; COVID-19, Trump
projection, 2020, 50,000-60,000, Apr. 21; Vietnam War, 1964-71, 58, 209, Military deaths only; COVID-19, Trump
projection, 2020, 60,000-70,000, Apr. 28; COVID-19, actual, 2020, 98, 929, As of May 26, JHU figure; COVID-19, Trump
projection, 2020, 100,000, May 4; COVID-19, CDC projection, 2020, 100,000, May 17; projected only through June 1;
COVID-19, actual, 2020, 100, 572, As of May 26, Worldmeter figure; World War I, 1917-18, 116, 516, Military deaths only;
COVID-19, IHME projection, 2020, 134, 475, May 4; World War II, 1941-45, 405, 399, Military deaths only; Spanish Flu,
1918-19, 675,000, Estimated; Civil War, 1861-65, 800,000, Military deaths only; estimated

In addition to crossing the 100,000-death threshold, the number of COVID-19 cases is trending upward in 17 states right now, including some of the biggies (California, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, etc.). Further, with large numbers of people throwing caution to the wind this weekend, and partying like it's 1999 (when masks were not needed), there figures to be a big spike in, oh, about 10 days.

In any event, the mask fight is just a preview of the upcoming ugly, ugly, ugly campaign we will all be subjected to. That said, it's going to be interesting to see the dynamics when it's man vs. man. Way back in the 1950s, when John R. P. French and Bertram Raven were doing pioneering research on the use of power, they noticed that women are compelled to be more constrained at risk of triggering a misogynistic reaction. Hillary Clinton was well aware of this in 2016, and chose her battles carefully, only counter-punching Donald Trump on occasion, and often in a fairly subtle fashion (and notice what happened when her words grew a bit sharper, and she presumed to label the white supremacist/neo-Nazi elements of Trump's base as "deplorables"—right-wingers nearly had a group coronary).

It's not fair, but by virtue of having a Y chromosome, Biden is considerably less constrained, and so figures to throw more punches, and with more force. Meanwhile, Trump is a classic bully, and tends to reserve his worst attacks for those he feels he can push around (which includes virtually all women). If Biden keeps (rhetorically) popping the President in the nose, one wonders if Trump might start to wilt a little bit, or even a lot. (Z)

Trump Gone Wild, Part I: Hitting Below the Belt

Speaking of bullying behavior, Donald Trump has been on quite a tear on Twitter recently. We don't generally like to spend too much time on his tweeting behavior, since "Trump sends nasty tweet" is pretty well into "sun to rise in the east" territory these days. However, it turns out there are some pretty important dimensions to the President's recent Twitter behavior.

One of those dimensions is that Trump continues to be more than willing to punch below the belt and, while it might be our imagination, it seems like he's indulging that predilection more and more frequently these days. For example, the President really hates MSNBC's Joe Scarborough. Back in 2001, when Scarborough was a member of Congress, a female staffer named Lori Klausutis was working late in the Congressman's Florida office. She passed out from an undiagnosed heart condition, hit her head on her desk, and was found dead the next morning. The police ruled the death accidental, and said there was no evidence of foul play. Even if there was evidence of foul play, it would not implicate Scarborough, as he wasn't even in Florida at the time. Nonetheless, the circumstances gave rise to a conspiracy theory that Scarborough murdered Klausutis, because...reasons.

Trump has rarely met a right-wing conspiracy theory he doesn't like, particularly when it implicates someone he views as an enemy, so he's been more than happy to invoke it, over and over. He did so again yesterday:

This is absolutely reprehensible, and is made more so by the fact that Klausutis left behind a husband who has begged Twitter, without success, to remove the offending (and offensive) tweets.

And let's talk about another example from the last couple of days. Most would agree that Memorial Day should be a day free of politicking and mudslinging. And nearly everyone would agree that if mudslinging simply must be done, then that mud should not be aimed in the direction of anyone who served in the military. Naturally, Trump is in the minority that does not feel that way. And so, he tore into Marine Corps veteran and Democratic Representative Conor Lamb (PA), misspelling his name as "Lamm," declaring him to be an "American fraud," and falsely claiming that the Representative backtracked on his promise not to vote for Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as Speaker (in fact, Lamb adhered to his promise, and voted for Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-MA). It would appear that someone persuaded the President that attacking a combat veteran on Memorial Day might not be the best choice, because the tweet was eventually deleted.

In short, Trump is brawling with just about everyone these days, with zero regard for good taste or decorum. It must be exhausting; can he keep it up? And is there any point at which (at least some of) the base has had enough? These are good questions. (Z)

Trump Gone Wild, Part II: Inaccurate Tweets

A great many of Donald Trump's tweets, particularly the personal attacks, the conspiracy theories, the occasional dabbling in casual racism, and the false information about COVID-19 clearly run afoul of Twitter's terms of service. Nearly any other person, if they had a feed like the President's, would have been banned long ago (see Chuck Johnson, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ricky Vaughn, John Rivers, Tila Tequila, and Roger Stone, among others, all of whom were banned for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others").

With Trump, though, there are additional considerations that range from unusual to downright unique. First, as a major public figure, he is accorded a wider latitude than a private citizen is. Further, he is in a position to do a fair bit of harm to Twitter, either by rallying his followers against them, or by pullling strings to use the power of the government against them. He also drives a lot of traffic to the site, and traffic means money.

On the other hand, there are some significant risks to Twitter if they allow Trump to do whatever he wants. From a PR perspective, looking the other way when the President misbehaves alienates users, and drives some of them off the platform. From a legal perspective, they could be taking a risk by looking the other way. The main question that has been explored in this area is whether or not Twitter can be held responsible for libel that takes place on their site (answer: no, they can't, at least not in the U.S.). But there are other areas of the law that remain hazy. What if Twitter repeatedly looks the other way, and knowingly allows Trump to propagate dangerous COVID-19 information? And what if someone takes that information to heart, acts on it, and dies? Could Twitter be in trouble? Maybe, since it could be argued that their failure to act constitutes negligence. And even if American courts give the platform a free pass in this area, British courts, or Japanese courts, or Australian courts might not see it the same way.

Anyhow, in an obvious attempt to balance these competing imperatives, and to cover their rear ends, Twitter has declared that they will label tweets that contain false information and that are brought to their attention. And on Tuesday, for the very first time, they applied the new policy to a Trump tweet (two of them, in fact). Here is what it looks like:

The tweets, which claim that
mail-in ballots will lead to widespread fraud, have a link at the bottom that says 'get the facts about mail-in ballots'

Usually when we do a screen capture, it's because the original tweets have been deleted. In this case, it's because embedding the tweets causes the link to disappear; it's only visible on Twitter itself.

Presumably you don't need us to tell you how the President responded when his tweets were labeled, in so many words, as lies. But in case you do need us, the answer is: white-hot rage. Here is his immediate response (followed later by several additional tweets):

Is Trump's knowledge of civics really so poor that he thinks this is a First Amendment issue? Our guess is that if we showed up at Trump Tower with a can of spray paint, and declared that we are entitled to use the walls of his privately held asset to express whatever views we wish, he would achieve clarity on the First Amendment in a hurry. In any event, whether he truly understands or not, he knows that much of his base (entirely incorrectly) sees this as an abridgment of his (and their) constitutional rights.

Exactly how this will affect the efficacy of the President's tweets is hard to guess, especially since we don't yet know how often Twitter will get involved with his tweets. On one hand, it gives him yet another enemy to rage against. On the other hand, if his Twitter feed is littered with "this is not true" warnings, it's going to be hard for any but the most faithful to completely ignore that. (Z)

Trump Gone Wild, Part III: The North Carolina Plot Thickens

We don't particularly enjoy writing items on politicians' Twitter behavior, since that gives the platform (and the squabbles that take place thereon) more attention than is generally warranted. Even worse is writing three items in a row about politicians' Twitter behavior. However, that is where the news is right now.

Our final Twitter item (for now) is a follow-up to a Twitter item from yesterday, namely the story about Donald Trump's lashing out at North Carolina, and demanding that they commit to hosting the Republican National Convention on the President's terms right now. It turns out there's a fair bit more to the story, and the additional information certainly doesn't make the President look any better.

As it turns out, Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) and the RNC were working together in good faith in order to address each other's concerns, and to stage the convention as smoothly as possible. Those discussions were going well until Trump crashed the party with his tweets, catching both Cooper and RNC officials completely unaware. Keep in mind, as we noted yesterday, that the Red Team is holding very few cards here. If the convention is not held in Charlotte, it really isn't much skin off the back of Cooper and Mayor Vi Lyles (D). And so, Cooper and Lyles have now dumped the whole thing back in the RNC's lap, telling them it's now their job to come up with an acceptable plan.

Trump, for his part, might have backed off a bit, since he's the one who threw a giant wrench into the works. But, of course, that is not the Donald's style. And so, on Tuesday, he doubled down, and said that North Carolina has a week to make a decision. That isn't likely to do anything but cause Cooper to dig his heels in. Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), who seems to have already forgotten that Trump threw him under the bus just two weeks ago, are both pushing hard for the convention to be moved to their states. Maybe even The Villages 2020; that would make sure that Republican delegates are greeted by an enthusiastic crowd.

Will Trump actually be able to move a 50,000-person, multimillion dollar event whose contracts were signed a year ago? And do it in 3 months? And have it come off smoothly, with no hitches? No matter where it is held, the media will be looking for actual news, not just politicians addressing the faithful. Does Trump want the reporting to be mostly about logistical screw-ups because there wasn't enough time to plan everything carefully? Does he want news stories about Charlotte hotels suing the RNC because they bought 500 rooms and have now broken the contract? Does he want Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) saying that she doesn't really want the convention for health reasons unless it is reduced from 50,000 to 5,000? Trump can yell all he wants to, but RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel surely understands the risk of trying to move such a big event so quickly and may try to calm him down. (Z)

What Is the Bee in Trump's Bonnet?

We make the case, across the last four items (as well as several items from yesterday) that Donald Trump is unusually unhinged right now. Even by his standards, his tweets and public statements have been pretty far out there. Why might that be? Here are some theories:

  • COVID-19, Politics: We would guess that this is the big one. As we noted above, the U.S. death toll will soon pass 100,000, if it hasn't already. Trump isn't having a lot of luck spinning that into a "success" story. In addition, the economy remains in the tank, and unemployment keeps climbing. The Republicans have a tough Senate map this year, and—as it turns out—are stuck with some unusually poor candidates. Add it up, and things currently look grim when it comes to November. The President has a pretty powerful reality distortion field, but even he has his limits. His top advisers—the ones he trusts—have impressed upon him that the Senate is in real danger, and that he is in serious trouble, too. That surely has Trump very upset, either because he hates to lose, or because he fears what will happen when the presidency no longer protects him from prosecution. On top of that, he prefers action, and his favorite means of trying to rally the troops (namely, rallies) is not available right now.

  • COVID-19, Business: Because the Trump Organization is privately held, the exact amount of havoc being wrought on the President's properties is not known. At very least, however, it is clear that the business is hurting. Hotels and clubs are half full (if that), and over 2,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed. This is not sustainable long term; the lease on a place like Trump International Washington D.C. cannot be paid with 40% or 50% occupancy.

    And if we may get speculative for a moment, we would guess that things are even worse than publicly available information indicates. There are lots of otherwise solid businesses that are having trouble right now because they are not especially liquid, and do not have the cash on hand to cover three or six or nine months' worth of expenses. Trump has always pushed the envelope when it comes to juggling the books, and getting by with limited liquidity (and, sometimes, limited equity). It's certainly possible that the whole house of cards is nearing collapse, and that only people with the last name Trump (or Kushner, or Weisselberg) know it.

  • Joe Biden: Joe Biden, as a fellow who has devoted his life to public service and used to take public transit to work, is not Donald Trump's kind of guy. Undoubtedly, it's galling to the President to have to look upward to see Biden in the polls. Further, Trump figured out his lines of attack against Hillary Clinton early on (Lock her up, e-mail server, Clinton Foundation), and hit on them for months and months and months. None of the lines of attack Trump has tried against Biden seem to be working very well, and the President doesn't have his rallies available to workshop new ones.

  • Golf: This one could easily fly under the radar, but we actually think it's pretty important. To start, Trump clearly relies on golf as a stress release, source of relaxation, and so forth. In fact, besides making phone calls to fawning admirers, and working crowds into a lather at rallies, it may be the only activity he truly enjoys. Obviously, golf has largely been unavailable to him for three months, at least until this weekend.

    That brings us to the second golf-related point. Trump believes he's had a rough time in the last few months. He believes he's entitled to a little rest and relaxation. He believes he's been quite disciplined in not golfing for three months. He's right about all of these things. However, most adults know that there are times when you are 100% justified in doing something, and yet you just can't do it anyhow, for whatever reason. The Donald, by contrast, is not most adults, and he's rarely (if ever) had to defer his own pleasures because of the needs of others. It does not really compute with him that the bad optics of golfing in the midst of a crisis outweigh his own personal needs and justifications. And so, he is clearly outraged that people are daring to criticize his golfing behavior (even if he did the same to Barack Obama).

  • Cognitive Dysfunction: Let's get speculative again. Neither of us is a psychologist or a neurologist, nor have we examined the President. However, there has long been evidence that he's got some sort of cognitive issues. These things tend to get worse in stressful situations. And when that happens, violent emotional responses are commonly in the offing. Maybe that is an aspect of the current dynamic.

We'll see if Trump calms down anytime in the near future. If he doesn't, it could mean an even uglier election, or maybe a nervous breakdown. (Z)

COVID-19 Diaries, Wednesday Edition

What will happen as we reopen?

Now is the time to talk about "R0" (pronounced "R"- naught). R0 measures how infectious a disease is. On average, if a person who is infected infects 2 others, then the R0 is 2 (R0 definitions are a bit vague on the time frame). R0 for the flu is about 1.2, for measles it is about 15. COVID-19 estimates for R0 are 2-5. In our U.S. experience, COVID experienced an exponential growth rate for several months, until we stopped the exponential growth in April.

COVID-19 did not magically become less infectious during that time. As a baseline measure, R0 assumes a level of social interaction. If you change the level of interaction (social distancing) you change the R0.

Exponential growth is very scary stuff. Here is some US data for total COVID-19 cases:

  • March 1, 2020: 100 cases
  • March 10, 2020: 1000 cases
  • March 20, 2020: 10,000 cases (actually March 18, but I like round numbers)
  • March 30, 2020: 100,000 cases

If we had not stopped the exponential growth, everyone in the US not living in a cave would have been exposed by May 1, 2020. If the 1% mortality estimate that you see from time to time holds, that gives us the dire projection of 2-3 million people dead.

Biological systems tend to be "exponential" (X^n) and they all hinge on the base number used in our calculations. 10^n (as used in the above calculation) takes over the world very quickly (10^10 = 10 billion). However, if X<1 (even a little bit), the numbers rapidly die away to nothing (.9^10 = .35). Using a 10-day interval, in March, X was "10" (every 10 days we went up by a factor of 10). For all of April, "X" was about 1 (the number of new cases stayed constant), meaning no exponential growth at all. Then, as people became accustomed to social distancing and "X" (and R0) became less than one, we steadily went down from 30,000 new cases every day to 20,000 new cases every day. The hospital data is even more dramatic. Here are the recent COVID-19 hospitalization data from New Jersey:

After peaking at 8,000 cases a day in mid-April, 
there was a steady decline to 3,000 cases a day right now

I love using a train analogy. It is less important about where the train is right now (total number of deaths), than what is the speed of the train (the number of deaths/day). But what is really important, is whether we have our hand on the throttle or the brake. If the train is accelerating (even a little bit), then the number of cases will grow very rapidly; if the train is decelerating, things get better very quickly. We really did succeed at social distancing. We put our foot firmly on the brake and slowed the train dramatically. The incomplete travel ban on China was irrelevant (even a complete China travel ban would have probably been irrelevant). Social distancing and lockdowns were the heroes of the day.

What will happen as we re-open? It is certain that R0 will go up. What is not certain is how much R0 will go up. That is why the projections are all over the map. Every projection is trying to guess what R0 is going to be. With an R0 of .99 or less, the virus will die out (like the end of flu season every year) and the prospects are all rainbows and unicorns. If R0 is 1.01 or more, it is only a matter of time until we will all get it. There is no halfway point. Anyone thinking R0 will stay less than 1 is hoping to be right. Anyone thinking it will go back to 2 or more is praying that they are wrong.

We will not know for a few more weeks what is really happening. Not every area will behave in the same way. Lots of people will ignore the less rigid rules and maintain social distancing. Consider the fact that air travel in the US was never prohibited, but travel still dropped by 95%.

Do not be alarmed by early reports that the number of cases doubled in some particular area. Look for the larger trends (i.e., statewide or at least a region of the State will be the more reliable unit of analysis). If the number of new cases starts going up rapidly and consistently in broader sections of the country, then there is cause for worry. Even if we stay under an R0 of 1.0 for the summer, when the kids all go back to school in the Fall, R0 will get another boost. (PD)

Today's Presidential Polls

Barring unexpected developments, North Carolina is going to be close, and so the polls will ping pong around, with Biden up sometimes and Trump up sometimes. That said, Biden tends to be up more often than Trump, so he's probably a slight favorite.

On the other hand, there have been nine polls of Arizona since the beginning of March, from seven different pollsters. Biden has led in every one of them, with leads ranging from 1 point to 8 points. Trump may think this is all fake news, but campaign manager Brad Parscale knows he's got a problem in the Grand Canyon state. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Arizona 47% 45% May 18 May 22 High Ground Inc.
North Carolina 47% 47% May 09 May 13 Meeting Street Insights

Today's Senate Polls

As with the presidential race, the Republican looks to be an underdog here, but only a slight one. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
North Carolina Cal Cunningham 46% Thom Tillis* 44% May 09 May 13 Meeting Street Insights

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May26 A Tale of Two Memorial Days
May26 Trump Threatens to Yank RNC from Charlotte
May26 Trump Ready to Go Nuclear?
May26 Beware the Bots
May26 This Is Joe Biden's Kind of Campaign
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May25 Trump Spends the Weekend Golfing
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May25 Federal Judge Says Florida Felons Can Vote
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May25 Dr. Joanne Jorgensen Is the Libertarian Party Nominee for President
May25 Third-Party Vote is Likely to Be Smaller This Time
May25 Biden Wins the Hawaii Primary
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May25 Today's Presidential Polls
May24 COVID-19 Diaries, Sunday Edition
May24 Sunday Mailbag
May24 Today's Presidential Polls
May23 Saturday Q&amp;A
May22 Ratcliffe Confirmed as DNI
May22 U.S. To Pull Out of Another Treaty
May22 A COVID-19 Train Wreck Is Looming
May22 There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part I: Trump vs. Obama
May22 There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part II: Voting by Mail
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May22 Today's Presidential Polls
May21 Quinnipiac Poll: Biden Has 11-Point Lead Nationally
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May20 The COVID Diaries