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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
      •  Biden Manages the Best Transition He Can
      •  The "Deep State" Strikes Back
      •  Trump Plotting a Senate Run
      •  Senate Republicans Also Overperformed the Polls
      •  COVID-19 Diaries: Dark Days
      •  The Biden Cabinet: Secretary of the Interior

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

Another day, another set of setbacks for Donald Trump, as he and his team try to overturn the results of the presidential election. With courts and state governments alike resisting the role of co-conspirator, one gets the sense that Trump's Waterloo will soon be upon us. Of course, that's not an entirely apt comparison. After all, Napoleon had much larger hands than Trump does.

Here's a rundown of the latest:

  • The Night The Lights Went out in Georgia: Thursday evening, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) announced that the state has finished its recount of the ballots, and while Trump made up a little ground, Joe Biden still won by 12,284 votes. Georgia law requires Raffensperger to formally certify the results today. It also allows for a post-certification recount, but even if Trump asks for one, it's not going to change the result.

  • Hail to the Victors (or Not): The situation in Michigan has turned, appropriately enough, into a reality show. On Tuesday, the two Republicans on the Wayne County board of canvassers decided to withhold certification of the results in the county (which includes Detroit). Then, the duo was subjected to two hours of pressure, including arm-twisting from their colleagues, threats against their persons, and doxxing of their personal information (and that of their children). Some portion of this caused the two board members to change their minds, and they quickly changed course and voted to certify the results. Then, at least one of them spoke to Donald Trump on the phone. Thereafter, they both announced they want to change their votes again, and to re-refuse to certify the results. That's not allowed under Michigan law, but when has something as trivial as what the law says stopped the Trump campaign from filing suit anyhow?

    Meanwhile, the certification process is currently in the hands of the four-member Michigan Board of State Canvassers, and one of the Republicans on the board said Thursday he is inclined to withhold his vote for approval until a full audit of ballots is conducted. In related news, Michigan state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) and Michigan state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) have been invited to the White House today for a meeting with the President. It's a safe bet he's not flying them into Washington to show them the White House china collection. Shirkey and Chatfield should be very careful, because any deals they make are not likely to pass legal muster, and yet are very likely to get them prosecuted for breaking Michigan law. Trump, of course, cannot pardon state-level crimes.

  • Spider-Men?: The 1899 Cleveland Spiders are the worst team in baseball history to play a full season, finishing with a record of 20-134 (other teams that bad had the good sense to disband midseason). If the Trump legal team keeps at it, they may give the Spiders' record a run for the money, as they chalked up three more losses on Thursday.

    Specifically, an Arizona judge tossed a request for a statewide audit of the balloting there, a state judge in Pennsylvania rejected a bid to throw out 2,000 absentee ballots, and a federal judge (and Trump appointee) in Georgia soundly rebuffed an attempt to have that state's returns thrown out. At the moment, Team Trump is something like 1-40 in their post-election lawsuits. They're going to run it to, they are going to try again in Pennsylvania today, asking a lower-level state court to consider claims that have already been rejected by the state supreme court.

  • The Grand Finale: As they say, "If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither the law nor the facts are on your side, pound the table." After yet another bad day for Team Trump, Rudy Giuliani decided to give a performance-art-level demonstration of table pounding on Thursday. It was nearly two hours of pure madness, as Giuliani alternated between assertions utterly unsupported by evidence and wild conspiracy theories. And, as he spoke, black ink began to run down Giuliani's face:

    Streaks of black run down Giuliani's
face at the temples

    It's not clear if his hair dye was running, or if perhaps it was some mascara he used to touch up his sideburns, or if it was something else. Anyhow, in an improvement over last week's notorious "Four Seasons" press conference, there was no porn store in the TV cameras' field of view. That's about the only positive thing to be said, though, as "America's Mayor" ranted and raved about Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Hugo Chávez, Vinny Gambini, and Mickey Mouse, among many others. Two of those are fictional, and a third is dead. Perhaps the easiest way to communicate how bad it was: Even Tucker Carlson was reluctant to parrot what he heard.

The Thanksgiving holiday will presumably give a week's respite from all of this, and then we'll see where it goes from there. Reportedly, Trump has told friends that he knows he lost the election, and that he's only dragging this out to punish the Democrats for questioning his victory in 2016 with the Russia investigation. Obviously, having borne this grudge for four years, he can easily keep it going for another two months. The real question, then, is: How long will other Republicans be willing to play along? (Z)

Biden Manages the Best Transition He Can

Given Donald Trump's behavior, Joe Biden finds himself in a very...strange set of circumstances. And there may be nothing more emblematic of that than the current situation with classified national security information. By the terms of an executive order issued by Harry S. Truman, presidential candidates are given daily intelligence briefings. And so, from the time he was nominated by the DNC until Nov. 3, Biden was in the loop. However, he's not technically a candidate anymore, he's the president-elect. And it never occurred to Harry S. that it would be necessary to spell out that presidents-elect should be briefed, too. So, with Trump refusing to cooperate with the incoming administration, Biden's intelligence spigot has been turned off. Making things even more surreal is that Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, who remains a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, does get regular briefings. Briefings she cannot discuss with Biden because, at the moment, he has no security clearance. If she slips up in a meeting with the President-elect, she could theoretically be prosecuted under the terms of the Espionage Act.

Despite Trump's intransigence, though, Biden is moving forward as best he can with the transition. The President-elect does not want to poke the hornet's nest too much, for fear of treading on the nation's already frayed nerves, but he does have both a need and a duty to start prepping for the awesome responsibilities that await him in just two months. So, as Trump's Hail Mary passes continue to land uncaught (see above), Biden is slowly but surely asserting himself. He can't do much about the intelligence, but he can start building his staff and announcing it to the public. Several White House appointees were named this week, more will be announced today, and next week Biden will start announcing cabinet appointments. He went so far on Thursday as to say he's already decided on his Treasury Secretary, so that person will presumably be among next week's unveilings.

Team Biden is also raising money to cover the costs of the transition, and has already collected $7 million so far. Under the terms of the Presidential Transition Act of 1953, the General Services Administration (GSA) is supposed to release $10 million in funds as soon as it "ascertains" that a candidate has won. As with Truman's executive order, it did not occur to Congress to spell out what "ascertains" actually means. Normally (with the 2000 election being the exception) the GSA ascertains that a candidate has won a day or two after the election. This year, they—and by "they," we really mean GSA administrator Emily Murphy—are refusing to do so. Whether Murphy's motivation is her die-hard support for the President or her fear that she will be fired if she accepts Biden as president-elect is unknown. Probably both. In any case, it's not clear how much longer she will try to hold out. Until the states certify their results (on or before Dec. 8)? Until the electors meet and cast their ballots (Dec. 14)? Until the inauguration? And if Murphy ignores one or more of these deadlines, will the Biden campaign file suit in federal court? There are many known unknowns here.

Finally, Biden knows that trying to negotiate with Trump or put pressure on him is like beating your head against a wall. A real wall, we mean, not something like Trump's border wall. However, the President-elect also realizes that the Republican members of Congress may be more public-spirited, or more nervous about being punished by voters, or more willing to scratch the back of a former colleague/friend. And so, Team Biden has launched a substantial behind-the-scenes lobbying push, trying to persuade GOP officeholders to come out in support of a proper transition. The focus is particularly on two subjects: (1) the danger to national security, and (2) COVID-19.

We shall see what happens, but inasmuch as several GOP senators have already threatened to begin giving Biden intelligence briefings on their own (thus defying the Espionage Act), and given that the pressure on Murphy is getting more and more intense, and given that the Trump strategy for "winning" the election is crumbling into dust, this little bit of needless drama may soon reach its conclusion. (Z)

The "Deep State" Strikes Back

If we imagine "deep state" to mean "large cabal of federal employees that is conspiring against Donald Trump, and whose strings are being pulled by Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Satan-worshiping pedophiles," then no such thing exists. On the other hand, if we imagine it to mean "a federal bureaucracy that sometimes does not carry out the president's priorities exactly as he would like," then it most certainly exists, and has for centuries. Each of the 44 men to serve as president has learned, one way or another, that managing the bureaucracy is often like herding cats. That is why the federal careerists are sometimes known as the "fourth branch of government."

Anyhow, Trump has very publicly attempted to turn the 2020 census into a rush job, such that it will be concluded in time for him to be the one to give final approval and send final numbers to the House. As it turns out, that is probably not going to happen. There have been some issues with the number crunching, and census bureau officials say they cannot complete their work until Jan. 26 at the earliest. The careful reader will notice that Jan. 26 is after Jan. 20.

The President's plan was to send population figures to the House that excluded undocumented immigrants (assuming that the Supreme Court did not rule against him in the pending case he's already lost at two other levels of the federal court system). Had he remained president for a second term, then the House would largely have been stuck with those figures, or would have been compelled to assume the political fallout from refusing to reapportion (as happened in 1920). Absent a second term, then Trump's gambit would, at very least, have forced the House and the President-elect into some uncomfortable gymnastics in order to include undocumented immigrants. Fox News, OAN, Newsmax, etc. would have had a field day lamenting the "priorities" of the Democratic Party. Now, however, it will be Joe Biden who transmits the final numbers to the House, and he's certainly not going to monkey around with them.

Trump may still try to squeeze partial numbers out of the Census Bureau, and to send those to the House. However, it's not likely that Bureau staffers will play along, particularly with just weeks left in Trump's term. Further, the House would have considerably more cover to reject numbers known to be incomplete. And there's also the pending court case, which Trump is more likely to lose than to win. Add it up, and this particular scheme looks to be dead in the water. (Z)

Trump Plotting a Senate Run

No, not that one. Or that one. Or that one. Or that one. When it comes to the future political ambitions of the Trump family, people generally think of Donald Sr. pulling a Grover Cleveland and running again in 2024. Failing that, it's Donald Jr. (the loudest child), or Ivanka (probably the most electable child), or Eric (the remaining adult child who isn't Tiffany) running for one office or another. However, it could be that Eric's wife Lara Trump beats them all to the punch, as she is reportedly exploring a run for the seat that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) will vacate in two years.

Lara Trump is a North Carolina native, so even though she lives in New York right now, this won't be a true carpetbagger situation. If she does throw her (expensive designer) hat into the ring, she could face competition from plenty of other folks who might also be in the Trump lane, among them current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. On the other hand, the (ex-)president may be able to clear out all the challengers with a single tweet. It will be an interesting test of the Donald's power when the candidate is not him, and he is no longer president. There is likely to be a moderate Republican or two in the mix as well, so the GOP side of the contest could get bloody. Meanwhile, the Democrats will be looking for a candidate who can keep his pants zipped while the campaign is underway. If they can find a good one (AG Josh Stein?), they have to like their chances. (Z)

Senate Republicans Also Overperformed the Polls

On Monday, we published our analysis of what happened with the presidential polls. Briefly summarizing it, Joe Biden did very slightly (0.5%) worse than the polls predicted but Donald Trump did 4.7% better than the polls predicted. We have exactly the same data for the Senate races, so why not run the same analysis? Here are the data:

State D polls R polls   D election R election   D over R over
Nebraska 18.0% 47.0%   25.0% 64.7%   7.0% 17.7%
West Virginia 33.0% 53.0%   27.0% 70.3%   -6.0% 17.3%
Wyoming 26.0% 56.0%   26.9% 73.1%   0.9% 17.1%
Delaware 57.0% 27.0%   59.4% 37.9%   2.4% 10.9%
Alaska 41.0% 44.0%   41.3% 54.1%   0.3% 10.1%
New Jersey 55.0% 32.0%   57.0% 41.2%   2.0% 9.2%
Illinois 52.0% 30.0%   54.7% 39.1%   2.7% 9.1%
Kansas 42.5% 44.5%   41.6% 53.5%   -0.9% 9.0%
Montana 48.0% 47.0%   45.0% 55.0%   -3.0% 8.0%
Kentucky 40.0% 50.5%   38.2% 57.8%   -1.8% 7.3%
South Carolina 45.5% 47.5%   44.2% 54.5%   -1.3% 7.0%
Oklahoma 37.0% 56.0%   32.8% 62.9%   -4.2% 6.9%
Alabama 41.0% 53.3%   39.7% 60.1%   -1.3% 6.8%
Michigan 50.9% 42.1%   49.8% 48.3%   -1.1% 6.2%
Tennessee 36.0% 56.0%   35.2% 62.1%   -0.8% 6.1%
Virginia 56.0% 38.0%   56.0% 44.0%   0.0% 6.0%
Iowa 47.8% 47.0%   45.2% 51.8%   -2.6% 4.8%
Texas 44.0% 48.7%   43.8% 53.5%   -0.2% 4.8%
Massachusetts 60.0% 29.0%   65.8% 33.4%   5.8% 4.4%
Oregon 55.0% 35.0%   57.0% 39.3%   2.0% 4.3%
North Carolina 47.9% 44.4%   46.9% 48.7%   -1.0% 4.3%
Arizona 50.5% 44.6%   51.2% 48.8%   0.7% 4.2%
Georgia 48.6% 46.0%   48.0% 49.7%   -0.6% 3.7%
Maine 49.5% 47.5%   42.7% 50.6%   -6.8% 3.1%
Mississippi 44.0% 52.0%   43.0% 55.1%   -1.0% 3.1%
Minnesota 48.7% 41.0%   48.8% 43.5%   0.1% 2.5%
New Mexico 52.0% 44.0%   51.7% 45.6%   -0.3% 1.6%
Colorado 52.5% 43.0%   53.5% 44.2%   1.0% 1.2%
New Hampshire 55.5% 40.0%   56.7% 41.0%   1.2% 1.0%
Average 46.0% 44.3%   45.8% 51.2%   -0.2% 6.8%

What do we see? The same thing! Well, almost. The polls for the Democratic Senate candidates were spot on. The sixth column above shows how much better the Democrat did than the polls predicted. To pick an interesting race, Cal Cunningham (NC) was predicted to get 47.9% and he got 46.9%, so his "D over" score is -1.0%. In other words, he underperformed the polls by 1 point. That is well within the margin of error. Of the 29 two-person Senate races that got polled, the Democrats overperformed the polls in 13 states and underperformed in 16 states—a pretty good balance. On the average, the 29 Senate Democratic candidates underperformed the polls by -0.2%. In other words, the polls very accurately predicted the vote share Democratic Senate candidates would get.

What about the polling numbers for Republicans? In all 29 races that were polled (excluding the Georgia special election, which is weird), the Republicans outperformed the polls. In all of them! The average overperformance was 6.8%. That is why we said "almost" in the previous paragraph, because Trump's average overperformance was 4.7%, or almost two points less.

In any event, this helps us to start understanding what went wrong with the polling this cycle. It is a very unusual pattern that we're seeing in both sets of data. Initially, it seemed that Democrats had been oversampled and Republicans had been undersampled. However, if it were that simple, it should have been fixable by properly weighting the Republican responses. And even if weighting did not get the job done, then what should have happened if there were too many Democrats and too few Republicans is that the Democrats' numbers should have been too high and Republican numbers should have been too low. Only the second part of that proved to be the case.

What actually happened, if you look at the numbers, is this: A bunch of (eventual) Republican voters, instead of incorrectly being counted in the Democratic column, were counted in the undecided/third party column. Let's look at the Senate races that everyone was watching, with several columns from above excised and one added:

State Dem polls Rep polls Undecided/3dP Dem Loss/Gain GOP Loss/Gain
South Carolina 45.5% 47.5% 7.0% -1.3% 7.0%
Michigan 50.9% 42.1% 7.0% -1.1% 6.2%
Iowa 47.8% 47.0% 5.2% -2.6% 4.8%
Texas 44.0% 48.7% 7.3% -0.2% 4.8%
North Carolina 47.9% 44.4% 7.7% -1.0% 4.3%
Arizona 50.5% 44.6% 4.9% 0.7% 4.2%
Georgia 48.6% 46.0% 5.4% -0.6% 3.7%
Maine 49.5% 47.5% 3.0% -6.8% 3.1%
Colorado 52.5% 43.0% 4.5% 1.0% 1.2%

The new column, "Undecided/3dP" is the average number of poll respondents who did not favor either the Democratic or the Republican candidate when queried. That necessarily means they were either "undecided" or said they were planning to vote third party.

As you can see, with the exceptions of Maine and Colorado, the Republican candidate's gains apparently did not come out of the Democratic candidate's hide. Instead, they mostly came out of the undecided/third party voters, who broke significantly for the GOP in most places. In Texas, for example, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) appears to have collected 63% of the undecided/third party types. In Michigan, John James seems to have claimed 75%; in South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham apparently got 81%; and in Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) appears to have taken nearly 100%. And in most of the states that were not closely contested, the trend is similarly clear. Just to pick three examples, in Virginia an average of 6.0% of poll respondents were third party/undecided, and Daniel Gade gained 6.0% relative to the polls; in Delaware it was 16% third party/undecided and Lauren Witzke gained 10.9%; in Kentucky it was 9.5% third party/undecided and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) gained 7.3%.

So, why did a disproportionate percentage of eventual Republican voters show up as undecideds in the polls? Here are some theories:

  • Semi-shy Trump Voters: The idea behind "shy" Trump voters is that poll respondents lied to the pollsters and said they were going to vote for Joe Biden but actually voted for Donald Trump. This clearly was not a significant phenomenon, because if it was, Biden would have underperformed his poll numbers, and he largely did not. Further, there's no particular reason the effect should spill over into the Senate races. Why would someone be embarrassed to admit a vote for Gade or James or McSally?

    It is possible, however, that there was a semi-shy Trump effect, wherein people did not falsely represent themselves as Biden voters, but they did falsely represent themselves as undecideds. That would explain Republican gains without concurrent Democratic losses. However, we still doubt this possibility, because we cannot explain why it would spill over to the Senate races, nor why computer and telephone polls this cycle produced near-identical results (in 2016, Trump/Republicans did noticeably better in computer polls, since people are less likely to lie to a computer than to a human being).

  • October Surprise: Usually, when undecideds do break heavily in one direction on Election Day, it is attributed to some late event—like the Comey e-mails in 2016—that helped the undecided voters to make up their minds. Maybe that happened in 2020. There was nothing quite so obvious as what happened with Comey, but maybe Trump's rallies, and his kvetching about masks and socialism and Antifa won over many undecideds at the last minute. Another factor could be "defund the police." Republicans up and down the line ran ads in late October saying that if Democrats get control, they will defund the police, which many voters may have interpreted as "abolish the police." That subject showed up repeatedly in exit polls, focus groups, etc. toward the end. Some protesters did say that, so it has some plausibility and it could have scared some moderates at the last minute.

    That said, we doubt this one, too. Generally speaking, an October surprise should not affect the Senate races, and especially doesn't explain why the senators would gain more ground than the President if the President is the one creating an October surprise out of thin air. We do believe there was something of an October surprise in the Maine Senate race, with a late break caused by Sen. Susan Collins' (R-ME) "nay" vote on Amy Coney Barrett, which affirmed her credentials as a moderate and put some Republican voters' minds at ease. Similarly, Cal Cunningham managed to arouse much anger among North Carolina voters due to his poor self-control. However, we can't see any October surprise explanation for what happened in, say, South Carolina or Michigan or Georgia.

  • Third-Party Dynamics: As a general rule, some percentage of poll respondents say they are going to vote Green Party on Election Day, and then about half of them actually end up voting Democratic. And a similar percentage says they are going to vote Libertarian on Election Day, and then about half of those actually end up voting Republican.

    This cycle, however, the Libertarian candidate (Jo Jorgensen) was considerably stronger, and got considerably more traction, than the Green Candidate (Howie Hawkins). In fact, the Green Party wasn't even on the ballot in about half of the states and was only available as a write-in option in another 17. Further, a lot of folks who might entertain a Green Party vote appear to have firmly committed to Biden, either because they viewed Donald Trump as an existential threat or because they were haunted by Jill Stein and 2016. Add it up, and there were surely fewer Greens than Libertarians in the third party group in polls, and so fewer third party votes to be transformed into Democratic votes at the last minute on Election Day (and, by extension, considerably more third party votes to be transformed into Republican votes).

    Not to keep shooting our own theories down, but we're a little skeptical here, as well. This might have been a minor dynamic, but Jo Jorgenson's percentage of the vote nationwide was about 1%, and so even if she was at 2% in the polls (sometimes the pollsters ask, sometimes they don't), the Libertarian-poll-respondent-to-Republican-voter effect should not have been that large.

  • Decided Undecideds: Many political scientists, such as Rachel Bitecofer, believe that there really isn't such a thing as an "undecided" voter, and that most folks who claim to be in that group have actually chosen their candidates, and are just having trouble committing wholeheartedly because they are making what they see as the least odious choice, and are hoping that somehow they get rescued from that choice. It is well within the realm of possibility that some meaningful number of longtime Republican voters were just not sure they could cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Or, they were sure they would be voting for Joe Biden, but they hadn't quite sorted out their feelings about ticket-splitting/punishing the GOP senators who seemed to enable Trump.

    This is the first theory that we actually kinda like. It would explain why the senators appeared to pick up more undecideds than Trump did, since "I'm punishing you for supporting Trump" or "I just don't like ticket-splitting" is less likely to carry the day than "I'm punishing you for being Trump." It would also explain why both Trump and GOP Senate candidates appeared to pick up the most ground in very red states (lots of fundamentally Republican voters) and/or in blue states where the election was not close (less guilt casting a ballot for a "bad" candidate who is not going to win anyhow).

  • Oversampling of the Decided Undecideds: There is a suspicion, which we share, that the problem with pollsters' sampling was not so much that they got too few Republicans, it's that they didn't get enough of the right kind of Republicans. In other words, they got plenty of moderate/traditional Republicans, many who might have been waffling about casting a ballot for Trump (per the previous theory), but not enough of the Trump-fanatic Republicans (who apparently tend to hang up on pollsters). The Trump-fanatic Republicans, who are motivated substantially by hatred for "the libs," were surely as confident in their votes for GOP Senate candidates as they were for Trump himself. If they had been sampled properly, then it presumably would have subtracted 2-3 points from the undecided/third party category, and added them to the Republican candidate's total.

    We also like this theory; it's consistent with the facts as currently known. Oh, and if you add 3 points to each Republican candidate's polling numbers, then all of a sudden the polls get much, much closer to the bullseye for most of them.

They say that the news is a rough draft of history, and that certainly applies here. There will be much more parsing of the numbers, by us and by others; this is just a first, very broad attempt at understanding. That said, if one (or more) of these theories is on target, it suggests that pollsters don't have quite the problem that it seems. First of all, it should be plausible to refine things to tease out real undecideds from the not-so-undecideds. For example, pollsters could ask: "Who did you vote for in 2012 and 2016?" If the answers are "Mitt Romney" and "Donald Trump," respectively, they are dealing with a fundamentally Republican voter and should count that as such. Second, most of these problems were a product of Donald Trump being on the ballot, or the pandemic, or both. There won't be a pandemic in 2024 (we would hope!), and we remain skeptical that Trump will actually run again.

That said, pollsters aren't likely to be able to repair things in a month. Going forward with the two Georgia runoffs, we will report the polling numbers, but you might have to add a few points to the Republican to get a better idea of how it will end. In particular, we would suggest that, until presented with evidence to the contrary, you should assume that about two-thirds of "undecideds" (there will be no third party candidate for the runoffs) are really Republican voters. So, Jon Ossoff 49.5%, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) 47% is probably a pretty good poll for the Democrats, whereas Jon Ossoff 46%, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) 44% should make the blue team nervous. (V & Z)

COVID-19 Diaries: Dark Days

It would have been fun to start this post with: "The greatest plague that America has ever faced is nearly at an end. COVID-19, on the other hand is still raging out of control." However, there is just nothing to joke about on the COVID front.

We are not just losing the war, we have already lost it. The last glimmer of hope was snuffed out two months ago when Vermont (which, for 6 months, was looking distinctly Australia-like with no new infections) started on a very aggressive exponential growth curve. Vermont's 7-day moving average for COVID-19 new cases quadrupled in the last three weeks.

The entire country is now on a rapid (in many places exponential) growth curve. The U.S. went through the following stages:

  1. Feb. 15-Mar. 15: Total denial. Nothing to see here. Until early March, there were not many COVID-19 cases and they were all on the East coast and we could happily imagine that this was not a big deal. Only the experts knew that the train was already coming down the tracks.

  2. Mar. 16-Apr. 1: We let the wolf in the door and let it do anything it wanted. At this point, it was clear to anyone who looked at the data that we were on a very bad path. This was when the dire predictions of two million dead were looking very possible. This was when we could have acted and tried to stop the spread. We were on an aggressive growth curve, with new case numbers doubling every three days. New Jersey hospital mortality rate was 40%. But there was still no national response.

  3. Apr. 2-Jun. 13: The early states (New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts) panicked and took strong measures to slow the spread of the pandemic. Most of the rest of the country danced in a circle, singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" This was when the infection spread from state to state, sowing the seeds that would eventually grow into a nationwide epidemic.

  4. Jun. 14-Jul. 14: The second wave. The next round of states, many in the Southeast, got hit and drove the national numbers up again.

  5. Jul. 15-Oct. 1: The second-wave states took note and did some shutdowns and social distancing. The virus was not beaten, but it was contained. This was probably our last chance to take control of the spread. We could have acted aggressively and at least prevented uncontrolled spread. Instead, we argued about personal liberty and the importance of in-person education.

  6. Oct. 2-Present: Half the country is still not convinced that COVID-19 is a big deal and the U.S. is again on a rapid growth curve. The virus is everywhere, and every state is contributing to the total number of cases.

The administration's downplaying of COVID-19 has certainly not helped the situation. Indeed, the White House now seems to be actively fighting against any measures to stop the spread of the virus. I find myself resorting to bizarre conspiracy theories to make sense of their behavior.

Prior to the election, I could attribute the administration's behavior to trying to hold onto the economy so voters would be happy. Now the behavior reminds me of Saddam Hussein's setting fire to the Kuwaiti oil wells. Is the motivation to leave behind as much of a mess as possible after Trump departs?

However, there is some good news. When the first COVID-19 cases showed up in the hospitals, we had difficulty treating them. Now, the treatment protocol has vastly improved. At the local hospital in New Jersey, mortality was 40% through June. Once a patient was put on a ventilator, the mortality was 80%. Now patients are having much better outcomes. One study suggests that hospital mortality has dropped below 10% nationwide. Part of the reason is that patients are, on average, younger but some of the result is due to the fact that treatment has improved.

As to the vaccine, I was incorrect in my prediction that one would be announced prior to the election. But now, in the U.S., we have both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines that may start to be administered in the next few months. The Pfizer vaccine needs a -70 degrees Celsius refrigerator. Hospitals tend to have such appliances, but your local doctor's office or pharmacy does not. This will make distribution challenging.

Under the heading of "mine's bigger than yours," Pfizer originally announced that the vaccine was 90% effective. Then Moderna announced that theirs was 94.5% effective. At that point, Pfizer announced that theirs was 95% effective with no safety concerns. I expect that when the vaccine Johnson & Johnson is working on is released, it will be 96% effective and also have a fresh, long-lasting fragrance.

Many are justifiably nervous about receiving a vaccine that has gone through abbreviated (arguably rushed) testing, but the logistics of producing and administering hundreds of millions of dosages will take long enough that, with the exception of hard core anti-vaxxers, we will have no trouble finding people willing to take the vaccine as it becomes available. So, we will know quite quickly if there are major side effects.

To turn the corner on COVID-19, we may not need everyone vaccinated. One simulation suggested that a vaccine with an efficacy of 80% taken by 60% of the population would be enough to stop COVID. As the efficacies all seem to be well above that 80%, we can be cautiously optimistic.

Where does this leave us? Looking at the data, we will surely reach 250,000 new cases per day, and I would not be shocked if that number were 300,000 to 500,000 per day by the end of the year. Hospitalizations will similarly double. Daily deaths will continue to increase. The magic number for me is 2,000 deaths a day. That is where COVID-19 becomes the leading cause of death (on a daily basis) in the U.S. (we reached that threshold for much of April). At our current rate of growth, we will achieve that grim milestone any day now. Wednesday, U.S. deaths spiked to 1,964.

Getting to a better place without a vaccine depends upon when people start taking the virus seriously. As long as half of the country believes that personal liberty is more important than public health, there is nothing that will stop the progression of the disease. We may just have to hope that the vaccine arrives before we completely overwhelm the health care system. (PD)

Dr. Paul Dorsey, Ph.D., works in medical software, providing software to support medical practices and hospitals nationwide.

The Biden Cabinet: Secretary of the Interior

Another day, another cabinet post. We continue to cover them in the order the departments were created. The positions we've already written up:

And now: Secretary of the Interior.

  • The Job: The Secretary of the Interior oversees the vast natural resources that are owned or controlled by the federal government, along with any improvements that have been built upon those resources. The numbers are truly staggering; in addition to managing 507 million acres of land (about 20% of the whole country), and another 1.7 billion acres offshore, Interior is also responsible for 476 dams and 348 reservoirs, 410 national parks, 544 national wildlife refuges, and 129 national monuments. The Secretary is also the point person for the federal government's relationship with indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

  • Considerations: Since the vast majority of the resources that Interior oversees are located west of the Mississippi River, the secretary almost always comes from a Western state. There is also vast potential for corruption, as Ryan Zinke and Albert Fall both demonstrated, so Joe Biden will want the straightest shooter he can find. Furthermore, the progressive wing of the party will be watching his pick carefully, as it says a great deal about the administration's priorities on the environment. And finally, a department that interacts regularly with indigenous peoples has never actually been led by someone of indigenous descent (or a person of color of any sort, for that matter); that is an oversight the President-elect may want to correct.

  • Candidate 1, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM): Haaland, who is a Laguna Pueblo, would break the glass ceiling we just alluded to if confirmed as Secretary. In fact, she would become the first indigenous person to serve in any cabinet post. It is no surprise, then, that Native American leaders are lobbying very hard for her appointment. So too are environmental activists, who appreciate her support for the Green New Deal and other progressive policies, and who realize Haaland is unlikely to support things like giant oil pipelines built on Native lands. She has a J.D. in Indian law, and serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, while chairing the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, so she's eminently qualified.

    Haaland is thought to be the favorite for the job, but there are two potential obstacles. The first is that she's only been in politics for a couple of years, and she's only served in the House, which means she's never had a harsh spotlight shone upon her and her background. Team Biden is vetting her right now, and it's possible something comes up. The second is that she's so lefty that Senate Republicans may balk at her candidacy. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) might balk as well; he does come from a state whose economy relies rather heavily on, well, plundering natural resources.

  • Candidate 2, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM): She's regarded as a rising star in the Democratic Party, and a possible future presidential candidate. Although not of indigenous descent, she is Latina, so she would be a trailblazer in that way. And some executive branch service would round out her résumé, which also includes service in the House of Representatives and in several local offices in New Mexico, in addition to her term as governor. She has consistently been an outspoken advocate for environmental causes.

    As with Haaland, Grisham is lefty enough that Senate Republicans (and Manchin) might hesitate to confirm her. Also, she's given no particular indication that she's interested in a cabinet post.

  • Candidate 3, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM): Udall is wrapping up his Senate career right now; he'll be replaced by Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) on Jan. 3. In his long career in public service, he has been a consistent advocate for limits on drilling, preservation of natural lands, and progressive environmental policies. And because he has worked with the other members of the Senate for 12 years, and—frankly—because he's an old white guy, Udall may have an easier time securing approval than Grisham or Haaland. His father Stewart, incidentally, served as Secretary of the Interior for 8 years, under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, the departmental headquarters are located in the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building.

    Despite his retirement from the Senate and his age (he's 72), Udall says he's interested in the job. Like most cabinet candidates, however, his candidacy will be affected by the folks selected for other seats. It will be hard for Biden to resist the pressure to pick Haaland, particularly if the cabinet ends up well stocked with old white guys in other positions.

  • Candidate 4, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM): Are you getting the sense that this job is New Mexico's to lose? It is a Western state, and one whose Democratic voters are likely to fill a vacated political office with another Democrat. Anyhow, Heinrich has spent much of his time in the Senate on public lands issues, and was instrumental in the passage of both the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act and the Great American Outdoors Act. He's well connected with many of the key players in the private sector that Interior deals with. And before he came to Washington in 2008, Heinrich served as the state natural resources trustee in New Mexico, and he was also executive director of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, which educates children about environmental issues.

    Heinrich, like all of these candidates, is clearly well qualified to take over at Interior. That said, picking him would put a U.S. Senate seat at risk. Only a little risk, but that's still far more than the zero risk that the retiring Udall would entail. Plus, Heinrich is only 49, and will have additional opportunities in the future. For Udall, we're getting close to his last rodeo as a public figure. Add it up, and our guess is that if it comes down to Udall vs. Heinrich, Udall gets the nod.

  • Candidate 5, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT): Finally! A Westerner who is not from New Mexico. Like all these folks, Bullock has been consistently pro-environment, winning "keep public lands undeveloped" cases when he was Montana AG, and protecting habitats for various endangered species while serving as governor. He was a good soldier who allowed himself to be talked into a U.S. Senate run; Biden might want to reward that and to keep Bullock in the game in hopes he might mount a second, successful Senate campaign in 6 years (the seat up in 4 years is already held by Democrat Jon Tester). Also, Bullock is the most centrist of the five people on this list, so if Senate confirmation seems to be a major issue, he's probably the safest pick.

    That said, picking Bullock would upset the Native leaders (and others who would like "not a white guy"), and he would also upset the progressives, since he's far less assertive about his environmentalism than the other four candidates.

There aren't too many other names floating around. It's almost certainly going to be one of these five. Up next, unless we get scooped by Biden, is Secretary of Agriculture. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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