Sunday, October 2, 2022

BTRTN: Sobering Events Overshadow Biden and the Midterms

Tom with the BTRTN September 2022 Month in Review.

THE MONTH

We’ll never know if the Biden Administration finally might have cracked the code on messaging in the post-Labor Day campaign push.  Instead, the month’s news cycle was dominated by a whirlwind of events that upended Biden’s efforts to build on August's enormous accomplishments.  Finally, Biden, his surrogates and Democratic candidates across the land had a strong story to tell, if only they could have grabbed a teeny segment of the front page, the nightly news and above the fold.  But it was not to be.

The dominating events of the month were, instead, the deaths of Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II; the remarkably successful Ukraine pushback of Russian troops, and the dangerous aftermath of that thrust; the ongoing legal troubles of Donald Trump, which hit the judicial version of DEFCON 2; and Hurricane Ian, which laid waste to much of the south Florida Gulf Coast and parts of coastal South Carolina.  Elizabeth was laid to rest; Trump and Putin, in pursuit of their quests to destroy world order as we know it, dug what might be their own political graves; and Ian is the latest reminder of our collective failure to avoid the worst of climate change, which may prove to be the death knell of our planet.  A sobering month, indeed.

All of these events are linked by history in more ways than can be enumerated in one writing, yet we can touch on just a few of the most important ones.  Queen Elizabeth II was, of course, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, surpassing the run of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.  It was under Victoria that England gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, which fueled Britain’s 18th century transformation into an imperial power through its dominance of global shipping and thus the world economy.  “Fueled” is the correct term, because the large scale burning of fossil fuels, including coal and oil, that enabled the Industrial Revolution and all that followed globally, resulted in massive increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.  The intensity of today’s storms, including Ian, and countless other “natural” global disasters, owe their roots to the Industrial Revolution.  History, if we survive to see it written, will ultimately view Elizabeth’s reign as, in essence, the teardown of much of what was built under Victoria, the dismantling of the British Empire and the long overdue, desperate efforts now underway to lessen Britain’s energy dependence on fossil fuels.

As an aside, it is no stretch to ponder how and whether the British monarchy will survive her loss, as the crown’s power, and thus relevance, has been slipping for centuries now.  Elizabeth’s power derived from her graceful adherence to apolitical elements of the throne that she not only advanced but embodied:  her unquestioned dedication to the British people, her personal mystique, the stability, comfort and security that her long reign provided.  These cannot be easily replicated by Charles, however noble his intentions.

If anything good is to come from Putin’s Ukraine Folly, it may come in the form of accelerating the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy.  Putin’s economic model is almost entirely built on Russian oil, and the war has thrown the energy markets into chaos.  The short-term Western efforts to secure badly needed oil and lower gas prices represent the natural instincts of politicians in the midst of a crisis, but the longer term effect – not too long, we hope -- will surely be to get off the drug as quickly as possible, and end the long and deadly era of fossil fuel dominance that the Brits began under Victoria.

Not much else is good about any of the Ukraine business, which traces another arc of history.  The British monarchy survives to this day, but Putin descends from the other outcome, the abrupt dismantling of Tsarist Russia in 1917.  Putin is attempting, essentially, to de-modernize Russia and return to the superpower days of the Soviet Union, a rather pathetic and ill-advised vision, to say the least.  The long sad saga of Soviet oppression (and far worse) under Stalin and his thuggish successors was finally broken by the enlightened Gorbachev, who understood that Communism was a failure, democracy was a goal, and the Cold War had to end.  Gorbachev survived an attempted coup by the hardliners and lived on to effect massive change, dismantling the Soviet Union and freeing Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries, but he could not prevent another hardliner from ultimately rising to power in the face of the fits and starts of the epic transformation he began.  That was the KGB bureaucrat, Vladimir Putin

Putin’s war on Ukraine is hardly the move of a chess player; it does not even rise to the level of checkers.  Chalk it up to insanely bad intelligence, referring not only to Russia’s incredibly poor assessment of Ukraine’s fighting capability and reunified Western resolve, but also to the grey matter floating around in Putin’s head.  Ukraine not only successfully defended Kyiv and repelled the re-grouped Russian advances in the east, but has now taken back territory that Russia had seized, and are pushing the demoralized Russian troops back to the border.  Putin has been forced to do the unthinkable – initiate a nationwide draft and talk openly about using nuclear weapons to defend the Mother Country.  This has sharply raised the temperature of the Russian citizenry, causing widespread protests and a quick exit by thousands who want to avoid the call-up.  Putin has simply never looked weaker, or more desperate, and now his every move risks his undoing, via either a coup (by the military) or a revolt (by the citizenry).

The latest was to force a phony referendum on four Ukraine provinces, as a pretext for annexation, an old play in the well-worn land grab textbook.  This qualifies as yet another uninspired, desperate move.  Putin deserves some chutzpah points for declaring sovereignty in a territory from which his army is beating a hasty retreat; Ukraine has just taken the key city of Lyman in the Donetsk Province, one of the four.  The exclamation point was that the first move by the Russian Army after the annexations was to bomb a convoy of Ukrainians who were fleeing Russian rule.  Having been denied the right to vote on their fate, they instead were voting with their feet, and were bombed by their supposed leader en route, an act that qualifies as yet another war crime.

Where does Trump and his legal turmoil fit into this broad sweep of history?  Trump never said much about the Queen, although if he has any grasp of U.S. history (a tenuous proposition, to be sure), he would probably view her simply as a descendent of the King that lost America.  (He might have envied the pageantry though.)  Putting all that aside, Trump’s preference for world leaders has always been for the strongmen, the despots, the dictators, and he reveres none more so than Putin, the embodiment of Trump’s simplistic notions of a manly, powerful leader.  Who can forget Trump in Helsinki, side-by-side with Putin (and clearly the junior member of the twosome), fawning over him and, more importantly, siding with him over Trump’s own intelligence agencies on whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election.  Recall he did not just defend Putin, but was enraptured in full bromance mode by the force of Putin’s words:  I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today."  Who says stuff like that?

Helsinki was one of many disastrous moments in the four years of Trump’s presidency, but his mark in the arc of history will be that of the first U.S. president to attempt to subvert democracy by attempting, absent a shred of credible evidence, to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost handily to Joe Biden.  He may be taken down legally for this alone – the state of Georgia is hot on his trail, the House January 6 committee has uncovered troves of evidence, and the Justice Department investigation continues to ramp up (they recently issued 40 subpoenas in connection with the investigation).  Or, a la Al Capone, he might be taken down via other legal entanglements, notably the Mar-a-Lago document scandal and/or New York State’s investigation into his sordid business practices.

Trump’s luck may indeed be running out.  He won an unexpected victory in getting one of his recently appointed federal judges to side with him on the appointment of the Special Master to review all the documents that the FBI discovered were in Trump’s possession; this appeared to be a classic delay tactic.  But this ruling was (in part) quickly countermanded by a three-person appeals court panel (including two judges appointed by Trump) that allowed the most sensitive documents to be excluded from the review, giving the green light to the DOJ investigation to proceed apace.  Not only that, but the Special Master, Judge Raymond Dearie, who was recommended by Trump’s own lawyers, has turned the tables on Trump in demanding proof of Trump’s allegations that the FBI planted documents at Mar-a-Lago, and in general has been hostile to Trump’s legal claims. 

As for Biden, perhaps the most important news of the month was economic, and, as usual, it was contradictory.  The month started with a rather excellent jobs report, with the creation of yet another 350,000 jobs.  But this positive news was negated a week later by an adverse inflation report which seemed to fly in the face of rapidly falling gas prices.  The 8.3% inflation rate instead reflected a lack of downward progress on the prices of other goods and services.  Shortly thereafter, Biden’s favorite daily sound-bite, that “gas prices had fallen for 98 consecutive days” had to be retired, for on the 99th day, they rose again.

Biden’s role in history will forever be linked with his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama, for whom he served eight years as Vice President, and Donald Trump.  He has worked diligently for his place in this historical chain, fighting to preserve the democracy that was established when the United States was founded by defeating the England of Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-great-grandfather, King George III; uniting the allies against the despotism of Vladimir Putin; and signing, in August, the most expansive legislation ever to fight climate change. 

These “overshadowing” issues of the month may have swamped Biden’s messaging, but they have all worked in his favor.  His comments and demeanor regarding the deaths of the Queen and Gorbachev were pitch perfect, and gave him an opportunity to display the dignity and gravitas he brings to the role.  Putin’s and Trump’s failures only serve to highlight Biden’s strength of character, his championing of democracy, and his savvy as a world leader.  Ian cannot help but underline the timeliness of his efforts to fight climate change.

He also authorized disaster relief for Florida to help heal the ravages of Ian.  Florida is of course the home of both Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis; one or the other is likely to be Biden’s opponent in 2024.  That is, if he runs.  Also lost in the whirl of events of last month was Biden’s announcement that he will decide his own future after the midterms.

 

KEY METRICS

The data show incremental improvement for Biden and the Democrats in September.  Biden’s approval rating is now at 42%, and was at 43% for the second half of September.  His approval rating on how he is handling key issues is also up marginally across the board.  The generic ballot now favors the Democrats by one point.  And the “Bidenometer,” our aggregate record of economic performance, inched upwards from 18 to 24 (more on the Bidenometer below).

All of this is progress, if at an agonizing pace.  For both 2022 and 2024, these numbers need to be higher and, for 2022, time is winding down.














BIDENOMETER

The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +18 for August, 2022 means that, on average, the five measures are 18% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +24, the economy is performing slightly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, and GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices have soared (as has overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component) and the Dow is down.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move slightly upward to +24 under Biden.

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.

Friday, September 30, 2022

BTRTN Midterms Snapshot: The Democrats’ Momentum Stalls, Still Lead in Senate But Trail in House

Tom with BTRTN’s latest on the race for control of Congress.

We’ll be providing more frequent and briefer midterm updates as we head down the homestretch to Election Day, November 8.

Here are the highlights of this update:

·       The electoral environment, which took a favorable (though not terribly dramatic) turn for the better for the Democrats in August, has settled there, with the Dems making no further significant progress in September.  The September inflation report, which was surprisingly adverse, and the subsequent stock market slide, were the likely catalysts that stopped Blue momentum, at least for now.  Joe Biden was robbed of his best soundbite, the pithy mantra of “XXX straight days of lower gas prices,” when the streak stopped at 98 days with a slight uptick on September 21. 

·       The Senate races have shown some modest slippage for the Democrats, enough to slightly reduce the BTRTN odds of maintaining control of that body.  This is attributable mostly to better campaign performances by several notoriously weak GOP candidates, the oddball characters foisted upon the GOP by Donald Trump.  We have changed the rating of one race, moving Wisconsin back from a Democratic toss-up to a Republican toss-up.  This leaves the Democrats with one potential net pickup as of now, in Pennsylvania, and still a solid chance of holding the upper chamber.  (There are other possible flips by both parties, with nine races in play, including five we consider toss-ups.)

·       In the House, the Democrats have modestly improved their prospects as the full benefit of the August blizzard of accomplishment has been absorbed into September generic ballot polls.  But again, as with the August movement, the operative word is “modestly” – the Democrats remain rather severe underdogs in their quest to keep control of the House, though the likelihood of a complete blowout continues to lessen. 

Here are the latest BTRTN odds of the Democrats maintaining each of the two chambers, the expected number of seats that will change parties, and some key metrics, all compared to prior updates.











There is still plenty of time – five-and-a-half weeks -- for this picture to change.  Remember, these assessments are “snapshots,” not “predictions,” based on today’s conditions and data.  (We’ll get into the prediction business on November 7, the day before Election Day.) 


THE SENATE

We have noted before that Senate elections are far more driven (than the House) by the quality of the candidates themselves than the macro election environment (though they are not quite immune to the external fortunes that influence all politicians).  The Democrats continue to benefit from the weak array of candidates the GOP has put forward, especially Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania and J.D. Vance in Ohio (both attempting to replace respected mainstream GOP incumbents who are retiring), and Hershel Walker in Georgia and Blake Masters in Arizona (GOP recruits challenging seats that Democrats flipped in recent elections).  These candidates, all Trump-backed and all political neophytes, are improving their performance (how could they not?), but not by enough to change the dynamics of their races.

Republicans have improved their prospects in Wisconsin, though, as incumbent Ron Johnson has found his footing in fending off challenger Mandela Barnes, reversing polling trends in August that had Barnes modestly ahead.  Wisconsin is the only race in which we have made a rating change from our last update.


 



On average, Democratic candidates' collective lead in the polls, across our nine swing states, was +2.4 points in September (based on a total of 49 polls), a drop from +3.4 points in August (34 polls), which explains the modest drop in our BTRTN odds of the Democrats holding the Senate, from 74% to 71%, which is still quite strong. 

There are nine “battleground” Senate elections (races in which both parties have a legitimate shot of winning) and the Democrats are ahead in five of them.  They appear to be successfully defending four of those seats, and have a good chance, at this juncture, of flipping Pennsylvania.  The GOP is ahead in the four seats that it is defending.  But most of these races are extremely close, with five of them designated as toss-ups.











The chart below lists all the Senate races, with a focus on the nine battleground races between the two purple lines.




 













Perhaps the most important value of these snapshots a is to help volunteers and donors decide where to focus their efforts.  For Democratic volunteers, our guidance would be to prioritize the races as follows.

·        Top tier would be George and Nevada, two tightly-contested toss-up seats the Democrats must defend, and Pennsylvania, a flip well within grasp.

·        The next tier would be to bolster New Hampshire and Arizona, to prevent those race dynamics from slipping (the GOP candidates have made slight inroads in both thus far)

·        Then Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio, all within reach as flips

·        And, finally, Florida, where we remain highly skeptical that Marco Rubio can be beaten


THE HOUSE

Unlike the Senate, House election outcomes are far more driven by the macro election environment than by individual candidates.  The most important number to watch in terms of predicting how many seats the Democrats will lose is the generic ballot.  This polling question has, over the years, been very highly correlated with gain/loss outcomes, especially in the midterms (which do not have a presidential race to affect turnout and down ballot preferences). 

The Democrats have made progress in the generic ballot over the past four months, flipping a Republican lead of +3 to a Democratic lead of +1.  The problem is, given the disproportionate GOP representation in the House (due to overrepresentation of small states and effective gerrymandering), the Dems need to do much better than D+1 to have the upper hand in controlling the House.  For this race to become truly competitive, the Dems need to build their generic ballot advantage to D+3 or even D+5. 

Which leads is to the second problem:  Democratic momentum appears to have stalled, at this point.  In the month of September, generic ballot polls in the second half of the month actually showed slight slippage, from D+1.1 to D+0.5.  Not much, of course, but certainly a sign of stalled momentum, if nothing else.

But the progress for the month of September versus August – doubtless reflecting the “fully baked in” effect of the August accomplishments into September public opinion – have lifted the Democrats’ prospects for holding the House from 14% to 23%, according to our models, and the mode number of seats lost has dropped from -19 to -16. 

Here is how the races line up.  As you can see, even to achieve this rather modest level of loss, the Democrats have to win the vast majority of toss-up races.










Here is a list of those 31 toss-up districts and our ratings for each.




 







































We’ll be back in two weeks with another update.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

BTRTN: The Week Reality Smacked Down Putin and Trump

Steve is back after a short hiatus in which he completed his first effort at fiction. He returns to non-fiction just as reality emerges from its own hiatus.

 

It was perfect that it happened the same week.

As of the 2010 census, there are 1,117 towns and cities in Russia. So when Vladimir Putin decided on a new conscription policy calling up 300,000 new recruits to his humiliated army, his message of urgently needed reinforcements must have jolted pretty much every nook and cranny of Russia.

Putin could well now be feeling strangely like Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. It’s one thing when infantry regulars struggle in combat, but when you start drafting ordinary people to fight and die in a far-off war with neither rational nor urgent purpose, their families, friends, co-workers, and local leaders start to ask questions. Start to get angry. Start to act.

Just as Lyndon Johnson watched young Americans race across the border to Canada, Putin watches Russians in caravans that stretch for miles, as citizens choose to leave rather than fight his war. In the streets, brave protesters emerge and are pummeled by cops. So far twenty-one deaths have been reported.

Immensely popular Russian singer Alla Pugacheva – who has 3.5 million Instagram followers -- spoke out openly against Putin’s war, posting a call for “the end of the deaths of our boys for illusory goals that make our country a pariah and weigh heavily on the lives of its citizens.” In Pugacheva’s cry, we hear the echo of Neil Young’s epic response to Kent State: four dead in Ohio.

Protesters gain strength as numbers swell. Once they reach a critical mass where there are so many that the police can no longer lock them up fast enough, the party’s over. The Communist Party.

Watch out, Vlad. It’s called groundhog déjà vu. Ukraine is your very own Vietnam. Spoiler alert: Vietnam did not end well for LBJ.

Like waves endlessly pounding on the shore, reality is a relentless, tireless, unyielding foe. For a while, you can put a blanket over it, try to stuff it into a ball gown, or issue orders to people to not see what they can see with their own eyes. You can focus on small portions of it and present them as the whole. Sure, perception can vary from reality… but you can’t make reality vary according to perception.

There have been times in the Trump era when it appeared that reality had folded its tent and came dangerously close to abdicating to Trump’s universe of “alternative facts,” an alternative election, an alternative form of government, and an alternative television network committed to communicating the façade as real.

But sooner or later, reality asserts its, ah, trump card.  The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but reality has no arc, no bend, no maybe. It’s not that reality wins. It’s that reality just is.

Yes, last week – the same week Putin bowed to reality and called up 300,000 troops -- the ongoing legal case of Donald Trump v. Reality suddenly took several wicked turns in favor of reality.

For a while there, it had seemed that Darth Evader would continue to dodge legal consequence for his actions, as a Federal Judge in Florida, Aileen Cannon, had approved Trump’s utterly baseless request for a “Special Master,” offering as rationale that “the investigation and treatment of a former president is of unique interest to the general public, and the country is served best by an orderly process that promotes the interest and perception of fairness.” (Italics all mine.)

Funny, one would have thought that the best way to promote the “interest and perception of fairness” would be to follow all rules and requirements of investigation and prosecution to a tee – not to suddenly invent new and different rules that apply only to one person. One wonders how George Floyd’s family looked upon Judge Cannon’s powderpuff treatment of Donald Trump and her alleged concern for the “perception of fairness” in our criminal justice system.

But then last week a blizzard of legal decisions came down on Donald Trump, once again raising the possibility that Orange Jesus is in super-serious legal hot water. Could it possibly be, lefties muttered through clenched teeth, that the bloviating blowhard is finally going down?

For most Democrats, this feeling is not a euphoric hope. It is more akin to PTSD. It is a queasy inkling akin to watching the New York Jets take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter: sure, it looks good now, but I have a bad feeling about how this ends.

But reality reappeared in the form of a legal rulings that were grounded in the idea that no person is above the law. No one. Not even former presidents.

The more sensational legal action was New York Attorney General Letitia James’ comprehensive smackdown of Trump’s real estate company, which put Trump’s lifetime of business deceit under an electron microscope. James was able to identify a relentless pattern of real estate deceptions that could only be measured on a Richter scale… properties valued at ten times their appraised worth, all enabling Trump to enjoy lower cost loans and huge tax breaks.

What may be the more consequential ruling was that of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which essentially disemboweled Judge Cannon’s universally derided decision to prevent the DoJ from proceeding with its investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents until a Special Master had reviewed the material. The effect of this ruling was to thwart Trump’s age-old tactic of delaying investigations by appealing rulings up through a court system populated with Trump appointees.

Virtually simultaneously, Judge Raymond Dearie, the Special Master in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, emphatically ruled that the emperor had no close: you can’t rest your case on the contention that the documents in question have been declassified, and then present absolutely no evidence of such declassification.  Further, he contended, Trump’s lawyers were creating a “red herring:” the issue of whether the documents have or have not been declassified is of no relevance. They belong to the people of the United States of America, not to Donald Trump. Over and out.

All in all, a bad couple of days for the former President and Putin, peas in a pod, pathological propagandists.

And, finally, a good couple of days for reality.

Perhaps a couple of days, too, that helped us see just how similar Putin and Trump really are. They both follow a propagandist’s playbook worthy of Goebbels. 

Both are attempting to systematically destroy a vibrant democracy… Putin in Ukraine, and Trump right here in the United States. The apparent reason? Those vibrant democracies rejected them. Vibrant democracies threaten them. Vibrant democracies do not repress, hide, or distort reality. They openly and vigorously debate what to do about it.

Both Trump and Putin center their political brands on myths of victimization. For Putin, it is a claim that his war in Ukraine is to fend off the aggression of western powers. For Trump, it is by selling the delusion that the America of white, entitled males is being overrun by minorities and immigrants.

Both project their own worst behaviors onto their opponent. Putin attempted to paint the Ukrainians as the aggressors as a justification for his own invasion. Trump attempts to say the election of 2020 was stolen from him, when he led an insurrection in an attempt to steal the election from Joe Biden.

Both demonize their opponents. Putin calls the leaders of Ukraine “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” labels the United States the “main threat to Russia,” and claims the United States that is contemplating using chemical weapons in Ukraine. Trump called Joe Biden “an enemy of the state,” and said Democrats who did not applaud during one of his State of the Union addresses “were un-American” and “treasonous.” He labeled the press as “the enemy of the people.”

Neither Putin nor Trump have much use for facts. It is so much easier to make stuff up. For quite some time Putin would claim that the war in Ukraine was going “according to plan.” Trump is such a pathological liar that he would make news if he actually ever told the truth. His lies manage to keep getting more and more spectacular. However, it will be hard for him to top his claim that he is innocent of wrongdoing in Mar-A-Lago-Gate because he is he able to declassify documents by mental telepathy.

Both know that a critical element to retaining power is to control the media. Russia television is the propaganda arm of the Kremlin. Criticism of Russian policy in Ukraine was punishable by ten years in prison. Fox Television is the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. Tucker Carlson openly posed the question of whether that the United States should have taken the side of Russia and not Ukraine.

Both Putin and Trump are self-styled “branding experts” who think problems can be solved with a label. That’s why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is still just a “special military operation,” and why Trump calls every legal action against him a “witch-hunt.”

Both men are shockingly insecure. Putin repeatedly has himself photographed shirtless, indicating a strange need to project an aura of manliness. Trump refers to himself as “a very stable genius,” and exhausts a thesaurus worth of superlatives to describe himself. He has the biggest crowds, all the best real estate, and even all the best words to describe his own greatness.  His insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement suggests a bottomless well of doubt and self-loathing.   

Both are in it for the money.

Putin has raped his country to become one of the richest men in the world. And can we all finally get serious and talk about why Trump stole all those top-secret documents and squirreled them away at Mar-a-Lago?

It is crazy that no one is speculating about why he took them and why he refused to give them back. When in doubt, bet on the most obvious answer: Trump was intending to monetize them. Trump looked at those “Top Secret” labels and saw gold. Perhaps he thought he could blackmail heads of state with embarrassing personal information gleaned by U.S. spies. Perhaps he thought that he could sell the nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. No President has ever attempted to profit from the Presidency like Donald Trump. Given Trump’s brazen disregard for the emoluments clause, it is fair to speculate that Trump, staring at the potential financial catastrophe in the investigation of his company, realized that trafficking in top secret documents could pay handsomely. Is there a better explanation?

Both Putin and Trump offload blame on everyone but themselves. Putin thinks his generals have failed in Ukraine. Trump tells his supporters that the reason he is no longer in the White House is because Mike Pence is a weakling.

And, finally, it gets ugly.

When feeling cornered, both men openly threaten mass violence. Putin makes thinly-veiled allusions to the possibility of using nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine, brazenly risking global thermonuclear war rather than the humiliation of defeat. Trump proclaims that if he were to be indicted, “I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.” Read between the lines: hey Proud Boys, get ready for Insurrection, The Sequel: This Time it’s Not Just Washington, D.C.  

Both live in bubbles that allow them to spin an alternative reality in which they command worship and are treated as omniscient. Give these demented men their due: both have managed to fight reality to a stalemate for a long time.

And yet last week, perhaps both discovered that you cannot bend, break, or bully reality in perpetuity. 

Reality cornered Putin: he could either continue to pretend that the war in Ukraine was going well, or he could suck it in, implicitly admit that things in Ukraine were a catastrophe, and call up 300,000 conscripts to try to reverse the Russian Army’s retreat in Ukraine.

Reality is closing in on Trump in the form of a half-dozen investigations that all seem to have taken too long, but suddenly make it plausible that indictments are going to start hitting Donald Trump’s mailbox with the frequency of 20% discount coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond.

Last week was a good week for reality.  Reality won some key battles, but – ever the realist -- reality knows that it remains in an epic war with the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and their vast infrastructures of sycophants, enablers, and soulless suck-ups whose power and wealth depend on permanent deceit. It is a war that will rage through the 2024 election, a war that will continue to devastate the proud people of Ukraine, a war that threatens our survival as a species.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have changed the nature of political debate. It is no longer communist vs. capitalist, Democrat vs. Republican, or conservative vs. liberal. It is about reality vs. deceit.

Welcome back, reality. In the coming months and years, we are going to need you more than ever.

 

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Tuesday, September 6, 2022

BTRTN House and Senate Midterms Snapshot: How Far Have the Democrats Really Come in the Last Month?

Tom with BTRTN’s latest on the race for control of Congress in the November 2022 midterm elections.

The headlines these days are breathless, indeed.  “Dems Flip 2022 On Its Head”…"Election Forecasters Rethink Their Ratings”…”House Up For Grabs.”  Between the SCOTUS Dobbs decision overturning Roe, Biden’s incredible, no-one-saw-it-coming hot streak, tumbling gas prices and Trump’s DocuGate fiasco, suddenly Democrats are downright jolly about November.  Why, look at the turnout for the Kansas abortion referendum, and Pat Ryan’s stunning win in the bellweather New York 19th district special election! With all that, surely, the electoral landscape has been upended, and the Democrats are rocking toward keeping their White House, Senate and House trifecta in 2022.  Right?

Well, not really.  Certainly not yet.  The real headline is this:  despite all of that Blue good news of late, the Senate and House race dynamics have only modestly changed in the last month.  

·        The Democrats are still the odds-on favorites to maintain the Senate, largely due to the ineptness of the GOP’s swing state candidates.  And those odds have indeed improved, and in this snapshot we have flipped another GOP seat to Blue.

·        But the Dems are long shots to hold onto the House, despite all that good news.  That, actually, does represent progress, because a month ago they had virtually no chance at all -- not enough to even qualify as a long shot.  But there remains much to be done -- many numbers to improve -- for the Dems to truly have a chance to hold onto the House.

Our proprietary BTRTN models, which calculate the odds of the Democrats maintaining control of the Senate and the House, show some positive movement on both, but hardly a sea change.









These odds could still change, of course.  Remember, these assessments are “snapshots,” not “predictions,” based on today’s conditions and data. We’ll get into the prediction business on November 7, the day before Election Day.  From here on in, for the next nine weeks, the Democrats have to translate all that good news into a coherent message and then sell the heck out of that message this fall. 

The best way to think about the recent set of positive events is, perhaps, as the beginning of a Biden/Dem comeback.  Only time will tell if they can complete the job.  But the numbers, those in the chart above and those you will read about below, have to take a sharp -- and far sharper than to date --upward trajectory, fast, for the Democrats to contemplate a double win in Congress come November.


WHY LISTEN TO US?

For those of you unfamiliar with BTRTN, here is our track record on the House midterms and all Senate races over the past decade-plus.  We think (rather immodestly) that our record holds up well against all other forecasters.












THE OVERALL ENVIRONMENT

To illustrate how little has changed, let us bring back a chart we published last week, which uses a variety of political and economic measures to quantify the electoral environment.  The data establishes that on measure after measure, Biden and the Democrats did make progress in August, but that progress, however welcome, has been modest, more in terms of stopping the bleeding than a sharp rebound.  For instance, Biden’s approval rating at 41% (net -14) is back to only that of June, short of January 2022 (44%, -7), and well below the 55% (+21) he enjoyed at the outset of his presidency.  The ratings of how Biden is handling key issues, and various economic measures, show varying degrees of “recovery.”  But there is only one really good number in this chart, and that is the unemployment rate.  Every other measure – from the approval rating to the price of gas – may be moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.













So, with that stage set, let’s take a deeper look at where the House and Senate midterms stand – right now.


THE HOUSE

The most important number on the chart above, in terms of the House, is the generic ballot.  As we have said many times, it has been a remarkably accurate predictor of midterm outcomes.

You can see that (again, following other measures), the Democrats have made progress in the generic ballot in the last few months, pulling even with the GOP at 44% to 44%, meaningfully better than the 45% to 42% advantage the GOP held in June.  The Democrats are back, roughly, to where they were in January.

But getting back to January levels, back to being “even”, does not mean the Democrats suddenly have a 50/50 chance of keeping the House.  Due to small state population bias and aggressive gerrymandering, the House is disproportionately represented by Republicans, so a tie in the generic ballot is simply not good enough.  To get within a truly competitive range of holding on to their House majority, the Democrats need to have at least a five-point advantage in the generic ballot.  Biden and the Dems have to get back to September, 2021 levels, when they led the GOP by four points in the generic ballot – or better.  That is not impossible – they were there just a year ago -- but given the size of the gap and the timeline to the election, it is a tall order. 

The reason our track record in past midterms is quite good is because of the strength of our BTRTN model.  The model takes into account the very powerful generic ballot, as well as which presidential term it is (it matters, first-termers always do worse), and how many seats the president’s party holds, which matters as well.  There are “only” 222 Democratic seats right now (221 actual members and one vacancy, Florida’s 20th, which Democrat Charlie Crist held before he resigned a few days ago).   That low number actually serves to limit the number of seats the Democrats can lose; when Barack Obama took a beating in 2010, the Democrats held 256 seats.  Ditto Bill Clinton in 1994, when the Democrats held 258 and lost 54.  As bad as it looked for Biden in early 2022, with such weak approval rating and gas prices soaring, there was simply no way the Dems was ever going to lose the 70 seats that some giddy Republicans once thought they might.

All the rating services (538, Cook, Politico, Sabato, BTRTN, etc.) agree that only a fraction of the 435 House races actually stand a chance of being competitive.  Most of these races are over once the primary is finished, as they are so heavily weighted, whether naturally or via gerrymander, to one party or another.  At most, about 100 districts are actually “in play,” that is they could be won by either party, but even that number includes about 40 that are very likely to go one way or the other, leaving only about 60 that are truly competitive.  Those 60 will decide the fate of the House.  To keep the House, the Democrats will have to win three-quarters of them, in a year of strong political headwinds and the precedent of midterm nightmares for first-term presidents.

Our view back in June was that the Democrats had virtually no chance – 1% -- of retaining the House.  The year seemed to be lining up as yet another solid repudiation of a first-term president in his first midterms.  Our current view, based on the modest improvement in the generic ballot, is that the odds are now roughly one in seven, or 14%, that the Democrats retain the House -- a long shot, for sure, but something to build on down the home stretch.  The races array as follows.













THE SENATE

The Senate, as we and others have been saying all along, is a very different story.  Senate elections are far more driven by the quality of the candidates themselves (though they are not quite immune to the external fortunes that influence all politicians).  The Democrats’ odds of holding the Senate has grown from about 50/50 in our first in-depth look in June, to nearly 6o/40 in July, to just about 75/25 now.  The cause is clear and, at this point, well-established:  the GOP may blow what should have been an excellent chance of taking control of the Senate for the simple reason that they have nominated, largely at the behest of Donald Trump, a slew of simply awful candidates in the key races, many of whom are trying to replace respected GOP incumbents who have retired.

The GOP candidates in the nine battleground states are a motley crew indeed, consisting of the wildly underperforming TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania; the downright disturbing former Heisman Trophy winner Hershel Walker in Georgia; the Trump-savaging-turned-Trump-groveling (and thus Trump-backed) bestselling author J.D. Vance in Ohio; the surprisingly Trumpian (and thus unpopular) incumbent Senator in purple Wisconsin, Ron Johnson; a trio of uninspiring and occasionally gaffe-prone Trump-backed newcomers, Blake Masters of Arizona, Adam Laxalt of Nevada, and Ted Budd of North Carolina; the winner of a way-too-late, yet-to-happen primary (slated for September 13) in New Hampshire; and the incumbent Marco Rubio of Florida, the only one of the nine in a reasonably commanding position. 

The Democrats have countered with an impressive array of candidates, mostly centrists with deep political experience, who are pulling in money at astonishing rates.  Their solid personal record and campaign performance has doubtless received at least some presumed modest positive impact from the Biden surge, Biden’s suddenly tough-talking anti-MAGA posture, the post-Dobbs ire, Document-Gate and falling gas prices.   As we see it, the Democrats have improved their chances of holding the Senate from 58% in July to 74% today.  That is, if the elections were held today, the Democrats would likely keep the Senate. 

We have made the following five rating changes since July, all but one Senate race moving in a positive direction for the Democrats.









That leaves the overall scorecard showing the Democrats, if the election was held today, coming away with a 52/48 hold on the Senate.  You might think this may not mean much if the Democrats lose the House, but it will mean a ton in terms of federal judgeships, including SCOTUS nominees, which require only 50 votes in the Senate (plus VP Kamala Harris if needed).  And it will prevent Mitch McConnell from launching insane investigations into who knows what (the House, under GOP control, will do their share of that).

The overall scorecard now looks like this.  There are  nine “battleground” states and the Democrats are ahead in six of them, including two that are currently held by Republican incumbents (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).


 









And the chart below lists all the races, with a focus on the nine battleground between the two purple lines.


 














THE NINE RACES THAT WILL DECIDE CONTROL OF THE SENATE

Some readers look to articles like this to decide where to focus their personal energy in the election, including donations and/or volunteering (making phone calls, writing postcards, canvassing, etc.).  To assist in those “resource allocation” decisions, we have listed them in order of our sense of priority to help make those choices.  Remember, the Democrats have to win four of these nine races to hold the Senate.

Georgia.  This is a very close race, and a “must hold” seat for the Democrats.  Raphael Warnock is facing former Georgia Bulldog football star Herschel Walker.  One of these people is a serious politician.  Walker, like Oz, is a Trump-backed celebrity with no political experience.  He also has a history of mental illness, claiming multiple personalities, one of which happened to abuse his wife.  And yet, this being America, this is a close election.  The polling has been very even, first favoring Warnock by a nose, and now Walker by the same slim margin.  Thus we lean to the incumbent and maintain our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Democratic.

Pennsylvania.  This is the Democrats’ best chance of flipping a state, and nothing should be spared in that effort.  Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is a good fit with mainstream Pennsylvanians, won the Democratic nomination just days after suffering a stroke.  But he is back on the campaign trail and giving the inept and underfunded Dr. Oz quite a thrashing thus far.  We have changed our BTRTN Rating from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic, and this would be a flip for the Democrats. 

Nevada.  Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto is locked in a tight race with former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, an erstwhile mainstream Republican (he’s the grandson of former Governor, and Reagan pal, Paul Laxalt who is now a full-on Trumpster, having led Trump’s Nevada efforts to overturn the 2020 election outcome}.  This is a close race with Cortez-Matso slightly ahead in the  polling.  We continue to maintain our BTRTN rating as Toss Up Democratic.

Wisconsin.  This has emerged as another flip opportunity for the Dems.  GOP incumbent Ron Johnson is an outright Trumpster, a trafficker in conspiracy theories, a vaccine skeptic, and is notoriously dismissive of January 6 critiques (“largely a peaceful protest”).  These are unusually hard line positions to take in a purple state that went for Biden. His approval rating has suffered accordingly, down to 36% (as of April).  Lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes will face him, and while we are not indifferent to the difficulties in unseating an incumbent, it is hard to ignore the fact that Barnes has been ahead of Johnson in every public poll since her primary win.  Thus we are changing our BTRTN Rating from Toss Up Republican to Toss Up Democratic and a second Democratic flip.

Arizona.  Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, has turned from Space Shuttle astronaut to fundraising juggernaut, and has been leading GOP nominee Blake Masters, a Trump-backed tech entrepreneur , by near double-digit leads in the polls.  Masters fell in line with the GOP gaffe-brigade with this doozy:   when asked about gun violence, his tone-deaf assessment was as follows: “It’s gangs.  It’s people in Chicago, St. Louis, shooting each other very often, you know, Black people frankly.”   We have changed our BTRTN Rating from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic.

New Hampshire.  The New Hampshire primary is the last in the nation, not until September 13, and that will not give the GOP much time to consolidate around their nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan.  The likely winner, former Army Special Forces outsider Don Bolduc, has trailed Hassen in the polls by mid-single digits in this purple state.  Hassan maintains a gigantic funding advantage.  We maintain our BTRTN Rating at Lean Democratic.

North Carolina.  The GOP primary to determine the successor to the retiring Richard Burr was won by U.S. Representative Ted Budd, with Trump’s endorsement.  Former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley is atop the Democratic ticket, and so far the polling has been extremely close, with Budd slightly ahead in the early going, but Beasley inching ahead of late.  That is not enough, as yet, for us to change our rating, even with Beasley out-fundraising Budd by a 3:1 margin.  So we are maintaining our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Republican. 

Ohio.  Hillbilly Elegy author and Trumpster J.D. Vance seems to be finding his footing in this tight race, drawing even in the polls of late in his bid to replace retiring GOP Senator, Rob Portman.  The Democrats have another strong candidate, U.S. Representative and former presidential candidate Tim Ryan.  Ryan has been running an excellent race, but Ohio has quickly evolved from a purple to red state.  Ryan is crushing Vance in fundraising, though, and running a center-right campaign, so this will be one to watch.  For now, we maintain our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Republican.

Florida.  The Democrats are running a terrific candidate in U.S. Representative Val Demings, the one-time police chief of Orlando and more recently a House impeachment manager in the first Senate trial of Donald Trump.  But Florida has been a disappointment for the Democrats in many a high profile race in recent years.  There has been surprisingly little polling, and it is mixed.  But unlike in other battleground states, Rubio and Demings are about even in fundraising.  We are maintaining our BTRTN Rating at Likely Republican.

Missouri.  The Democrats’ hopes for stealing a clear red state seat lay in the comeback attempt of the disgraced former Governor Eric Greitens.  Mainstream GOP attorney John Wood had entered the race as an independent to give Missouri Republicans a respectable choice, despite the clear potential to split the GOP ticket and give the Democrats and opening.  But Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt won the GOP primary, Wood dropped out, and Schmitt has a safe, double digit lead over the Democratic nominee, Trudy Busch Valentine (an heiress of the Busch family).  We have thus changed our BTRTN Rating from Likely Republican to Solid Republican, dropping Missouri from battleground state status.

Stay tuned.