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Matt's Five Points, November 2: Elecshun Dae 2020

November 2 · Issue #12 · View online
Matt's Five Points
Welcome! I’m Matt Glassman, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown.  
Tuesday is the 2020 federal election. So this issue is devoted to my biennial guide to getting your political nerd on. Enjoy.
Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. And you can always catch up with me on Twitter.

In the Morning (7 action items)
1. Do not—under any circumstances—turn on a TV prior to 6pm EST.
This isn’t specific to the morning, but it has to be first, because it’s absolutely crucial. The only thing worse than the election night coverage on the cable news networks is the election day coverage on the cable news networks. And trailing right behind those two things is the douchebag in your office who watched the Today show on election morning and is now repeating the same drivel to you over Zoom. Don’t be that guy.
In case you are tempted at any point in the day, I’ll save you the time by summing up the coverage for you here:
  • worthless anecdotes about turnout; anecdotal profiles about who the independents are voting for; analysis of rainy weather forecasts that supposedly affect turnout but actually do not; interviews with senior citizens who voted at 11am in the Midwest; explanations of the “science” of exit-polling and election prediction; questions about why aren’t there more moderates;
  • Meta-narratives about the parties probable reactions to a 5-seat swing in the House vs. a 15-seat swing; debates over whether this is 1980 or 204 or neither; editorials on what the election “means,” whether this is a “change” election, a “wave” election, or a “turnout” election;
  • exposés on campaign financing, voter turnout, and enthusiasm; debates over divided government and gridlock; evidence-free polemics on Trump’s mental state and post-election plans; 
  • stories about the parties angling with teams of lawyers to oversee recounts; worries on the right and left about voter fraud and voter suppression; some Blair-witch style Youtube videos showing something allegedly wrong.
Add to this 35 other things that could be studied with a rigorous methodology but instead will be delivered in the absence (or face) of data, and an equal number of things that should never be studied, period.
Did I mention this will all be delivered to you at a 4th grade comprehension level?
Don’t fall for it. Trust me.
2. Learn the Electoral College landscape cold.
You need 270 electoral votes to win the Presidency on Election Day. Here’s the map of states that aren’t competitive. If we assign these as already locked-in, then there are now 212 electoral votes for Biden and 125 for Trump:
That leaves 201 electoral votes up for grabs, and only 13 states you really need to watch (TX, AZ, NV, MN, IA, WI, MI, OH, PA, NH, NC, GA, FL, plus the split-state districts in ME-2 and NE-2.) Get yourself knowledgeable about when the polls close in those states, review some recent polling averages, and check out some of the online forecasts to think about different situations. (Here’s 538’s forecast, here’s the economist’s forecast.) Over at, you can fiddle with a map yourself to see how different scenarios play out.
Is it possible Biden wins South Carolina or Trump wins Virginia? Sure. But if either of those things happen, the Presidency will have long been decided; they simply can’t be the states that make the difference. If you use this interactive 538 tool, you can lock in particular swing states and see how that affects the overall forecast.
3. Learn a bit about the Senate landscape.
Right now, there are 53 Republican and 47 Democratic (or Democratic-aligned) Senators. Of the 35 races for Senate seats this year, there are 14 races that are remotely close enough to be at all in doubt. Two seats currently held by Democrats:
(States link to news articles about the races, candidates to wikis)
and fourteen seats currently held by Republicans:
Look over the candidates and the stakes in each of these. Forget all the rest of the races. Review some recent polls, and check out some of the online forecasts to think about different situations. (Here’s 538’s forecasts).
RealClearPolitics' current Senate map
RealClearPolitics' current Senate map
4. Figure out some House bellwethers.
Unless you spend your days dealing with the House of Representatives (ahem), it’s hard to be up on all the competitive house races. But it’s a lot more fun to watch returns if you can assess the importance of a given House race result without having to trust Chuck Todd. Throughout the night, there will be a flood of House returns, and if you know that Texas’s 23rd District and California’s 25th district are a lot more important in judging the national result than New York’s 15th and Virginia’s 11th, you’ll be ahead of the game.
In the past, this has been a doable-but-arduous task. These days, there are now a lot of interactives and breakdowns that make your job easier:
Cook Political Report's list of competitive House races
Cook Political Report's list of competitive House races
5. Make a prediction of some sort — and maybe a bet — but don’t be the “prediction-guy.”
Make your prediction public by emailing it to someone (Or heck, tweet it to me @MattGlassman312). Here’s mine: Biden wins the presidency with 322 electoral votes. Ossoff beats Perdue in Georgia and Cunningham beats Tillis in North Carolina, but there are not other surprise Senate results, giving the Democrats 51 seats. I also guarantee that either David Gergen or some pundit governor-type (Ed Rendell? Haley Barbour?) will get on my nerves at some point. And yeah, I’ll bet you a drink that I’m closer than you on that House total (I say 244 Dem seats).
The trap to avoid here is turning the whole night into a test of your prediction ability. Don’t be that guy who’s only interested in the NCAA tournament because he’s got seven brackets going and $1000 on the line, but doesn’t really give a shit about college basketball. So keep the predictions light and modest. Guess some House and Senate totals, and call half a dozen races. But don’t go crazy. Face it: you didn’t build (you didn’t build!) your predictions from some proprietary model and a whole bunch of insider information, so your success or failure basically reflects zero on your ability as a forecaster. But your behavior tonight can reflect grandly on your status as a douchebag. So let Nate Silver and the British gambling houses sweat it out; your job isn’t on the line here.
On the other hand, if you would like to try some forecasting, here’s my old  blog post that includes an excel sheet that lets you run 50,000 election simulations to your basic specifications for the House and Senate (it’s setup for 2018, but you can easily transform it into 2020).
The current 538 simulation gives Democrats an average of 51.6 Senate seats
The current 538 simulation gives Democrats an average of 51.6 Senate seats
6. “Watercooler” the election.
In the last 10 years, I spent a lot of time trying to avoid political discussions—and that was when I worked on the Hill! So I understand your general impulse to avoid your wackier colleagues and Crazy Neighbors on Election Day. And the pandemic gives you the perfect excuse to monitor everything from your hermetically-sealed home bunker.
But it might be the one day of the year when talking politics at the office or with your neighbors can generate some positive returns. Especially if you go beyond contemporary politics and talk to people about democracy.
Obviously, you have to weed out the cynics who want to lecture you on why they didn’t vote and the angry partisans who can’t imagine who would vote for that idiot for Senate and the monologuers who won’t shut up about why Denmark is such a better democracy than ours, but if you can weather those storms, you might strike gold.
You’re not looking for anybody specific here, but I recommend finding two people in particular if you can. First: a veteran. Ask him if he ever voted from a combat zone. Then listen. Second, someone who’s run for local office in the past. Ask them what it was like on election day when they ran and how it changed their view of democracy. Then listen. And, of course, if you work with any African-Americans over the age of 70 or so, by all means talk to them about voting and elections. You’re almost guaranteed to get a story worth hearing.
7. Vote if you haven’t yet done so. Volunteer if you are so inclined.
Or don’t vote. It’s utterly not consequential to the election. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you do. If you need some inspiration, read my voting story from a few years back.
Or go past just voting and get involved! As political scientist Eitan Hersh says, “politics is for power.” Too many people know all about the election and watch endless news coverage, but don’t have the foggiest idea as to how you actually influence politics, and little inclination to start trying. They are essentially hobbyists, rather than participants.
But it’s really easy to participate! Even as late as today, you can volunteer to phone bank for candidates. You can always walk your neighborhood and offer to take people to the polls. Or just go to the polls alone and stand at one of the party tables and talk to voters.
In the afternoon (6 action items).
8. Again, resist any and all temptation to turn the television on.
For full explanation, see #1. But remember, they’ll be doing things like using a panel of “experts” to interview David Axelrod for three minutes about who he thinks is going to win the swing states. You’ve been warned.
9. Figure out who you are going to watch the returns with.
In a typical year, people go all sorts of ways with this. I totally respect the people who have to watch alone, in the dark, just them and the TV, like they’re die-hard baseball fans watching game 7 of the world series. Others prefer the election-night-headquarters style parties with you and 200 of your closest friends at a barroom. Other people (like me) prefer a small home get together with a few friends.
This is obviously not a typical year.
My plan is to project the election results on a giant outdoor screen, build a good backyard fire, and have 3 or 4 friends over. Social-distanced, of course, but with an emphasis on social.
And I think that’s important. American politics is ferociously partisan right now, and very stressful to a great many people. Consuming this sort of information can be a lot less stressful if you are with some friends.
Brining a lot of huge partisans into the mix is a double-edged sword; I’m not a huge partisan myself, and I try to avoid both the echo-chamber style get-together as well as the Hatfield/McCoy scenario. But I do like having some strong ideologues around—from diverse viewpoints— who aren’t too attached to party labels.
One key: avoid cynics and Euro-philes at all costs. Face it, democracy is the least-worst alternative, and politics in the parliamentary systems on the continent is just as much of a mess as it is here. Yeah, the Senate is anti-democratic, but so is the veto. Get over it. I don’t want to hear it tonight. And neither do your guests.
10. Get your snack setup straight.
This is tricky. It’s not a college football tailgate. It’s sure as hell not a dinner party. It’s not a BBQ. It’s not having people over for The Game. My suggestion is to go simple and traditional. That means, of course, pizza and beer. Fill in with pretzels or chips. The thing to stay away from is really messy food, since you’re going to want access to your laptop or Ipad (see below) regularly. So probably stay away from salsa, or guacamole. And as much as it pains my upstate heart, wings are a big no-no.
You also want a wonkcave configuration that’s amenable to eating and using a computer. You don’t have to go full-blown dork with TV trays and all that jazz, but figure something out ahead of time, so you aren’t sitting on a really deep couch, balancing a plate of pizza on your knees while you smear blue cheese all over your Ipad screen.
11. Learn about a few ballot initiatives.
Here’s a comprehensive cheat sheet that includes statewide questions voters will face Tuesday. Personally, I’m focused on the following: the Puerto Rico statehood referendum; the proposals in four states to legalize marijuana; the redistricting reform proposal in Virginia; and the proposal in San Francisco to lower the voting age to 16.
12. Forget the governors’ races.
Once you’ve studied the Senate races and found your House bellwethers, you might be tempted to start looking into some governor’s races.
Unless your state happens to have a competitive race, such as Montana or Missouri, it’s not worth it. Maybe pick one that’s really interesting, but don’t bother trying to master them.
Invariably, they won’t affect your life and you won’t think about them again until they start announcing for President in a few years. Put your energy into learning more about the Senate races. It makes for much better viewing.
13. Ponder our democratic republic.
The last four years of the Trump presidency featured a tremendous amount of vitriol, norm-breaking, and outright hostility between parties, candidates, elected officials, and citizens. While we have one of the strongest and longest-standing republics in the world, it is not immune to decay, rot, or even collapse.
Many political scientists, journalists, and other observes have serious concerns that these developments are not just an extreme version of ordinary election name-calling, but canaries in the coal mine for serious cracks in our democracy.
This book is excellent (here’s my review) and I highly recommend it:
Four Threats | Suzanne Mettler | Macmillan
That’s the big picture. As for tomorrow, the 2020 election is happening under circumstances with no real corollary in our lifetime. Not only is there a global pandemic, but the President of the United States is actively and openly trying to undermine the counting of votes in an attempt to create chaos and influence the outcome when the election is close. Here’s a list of things Trump and his campaign did on Sunday alone:
Jonathan Bernstein's assessment of an unusual Sunday in American politics
Jonathan Bernstein's assessment of an unusual Sunday in American politics
There’s an absolutely foreboding atmosphere among many people I talk to and among many people all over the country.
On the other hand, there’s no real proof this is “the most important election of your lifetime,” especially since people declare that before every election. I still love this David Mayhew editorial from 2012 on what makes an election important (at least in retrospect).
Which was the most important U.S. election ever? - The Washington Post
14. Vote if you haven’t yet done so.
Or don’t. It’s utterly not consequential to the election. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you do. If you need some further patriotic inspiration, go read my old State of the Union post. Or check out these excellent Jennifer Victor and Jonathan Bernstein articles on why voting and elections are important, even if the fairy-tale vision of democracy was never true.
Why vote? What good are elections? - Vox
Yes, Elections Are Important, Just Not Why You Think - Bloomberg
Early eve, before polls close (6pm EST) (5 action items)
15. Again, resist any and all temptation to turn the television on.
For full explanation, see #1. But remember, they’ll be doing things like making predictions about national turnout levels based on anecdotal interviews at 2 precincts in the Midwest. You’ve been warned.
16. Get your laptop setup with the proper tabs open.
My setup is going to look like this: a few live-blogs sitting open on the desktop (such as Five Thirty Eight), an ideological spectrum of other blogs available for quick consult ( TalkingPointsMemo, National Review), the tally-maps from a major network or paper (probably New York Times Upshot), and the Virginia official returns site. Anything more than that, and it becomes unwieldy.
You also will probably want one of the great hour-by-hour guides to what is important available. This one from Nate Cohn at the NYT is very good.
17. Arm yourself with the proper printouts.
Some things are just better to have in hard copy. A copy of Cook’s House Race Ratings is the classic thing to just have sitting on the table. I also usually recommend getting some scrap paper ready to use as your own tally-sheet for House and Senate pickups.
But there’s a new sheriff in town: get a load of this freaking thing that Daniel Nichanian put together, it might be the perfect hand-tally election tracker. Just get it, print it out, and it and have it sitting by your side:
@taniel's incredible hand-tracking sheets
@taniel's incredible hand-tracking sheets
@taniel's incredible hand-tracking sheets
@taniel's incredible hand-tracking sheets
18. Get yourself setup on Twitter.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Nothing has made following political events more fun in the last 15 years than Twitter. It brings just the right mix of seriousness and humor that democratic electoral politics deserves. Get yourself setup on it and get tweeting. Or just reading tweets. You won’t regret it.
Follow some straightforward news sites (@AP, @CNN, etc.), and the big name forecast-types (@redistrict, @natesilver, @nathangonzalez, @kkondik, @nate_cohn, @ForecasterEnten, @GElliottmorris). But here are a bunch of non-obvious tweeps I recommend following (for all-around reasons of smarts, humor, and likely volume of tweets tomorrow):
And, of course, @MattGlassman312. There are hundreds of other good ones too, so find your own!
After the polls begin to close (5 action items).
19. Ease into things
If you plant yourself on the couch at 6pm, you will be brain-dead by 10:30. This is not college football; it is best enjoyed with an active mind. So turn on the TV, get your prep-work out, but don’t sit down. If you absolutely must be plugged in from the get-go, I recommend cleaning or exercising in the TV room. And for goodness sakes don’t eat a full sit-down dinner in front of the television. You’ll regret it. Have a light snack and order the pizza for 7:30. Make the returns background noise and a passive activity early on; by 7:30 or 8, you’ll be ready to hunker-down.
20. Pick a cable news network and stick with it.
And I recommend making your choice based solely on comedy. Who has the stupidest display board, with the most useless bells and whistles? Who has the most commentators lined up in a bleacher-like tier? Which network is doing live-remotes from the most ridiculous places? Who has the funniest name for their “war room”? The bottom line is that the cable networks have ceased to be journalistic endeavors, and are now only good for getting raw data or being entertained. Everything else — from play by play to commentary to meta-analysis — is better on the Internets. Like fifty times better.
21. Don’t be afraid to get emotional.
For whatever reason, America spent the 20th century trying to remove political intensity from the practice of actually casting and counting the votes. As recently as 100 years ago, polling places were raucous scenes, complete with bands, rallies, and liquor. Now they are like graveyards. And that carries over a lot of the time to how people adsorb returns. Don’t let it get to you. You’re emotionally invested in either politics or policy; you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise. Don’t pretend we’re counting the votes in a vacuum. Go ahead and cheer.
At the polls, circa 1880.
At the polls, circa 1880.
22. Around 9:00pm EST, call someone who’s only mildly into politics, and talk to them about the elections.
Or more precisely, listen to them. Ask them who they voted for and why, and what they think of the emerging results. Don’t offer any opinions, analysis, or commentary. Too many junkies live exclusively in the world of the strategic meta-narrative; it’s both insightful and refreshing to hear people on election night who approach things at face-value.
23. Find out who won local office in your town.
Contrary to the indications derived from media coverage, your town and school board elections routinely have a bigger effect on you and your family than anything going on in Washington. It’s bad enough that you don’t know who your state rep is, but it’s unconscionable that you don’t know who’s setting the policies for your kids’ school. Take the time and find out who won these races, and promise yourself that you’ll have a better knowledge of them next time around. That way, you’ll at least feel guilty two years from now when you say, “Is he the Democrat or Republican?”
Late Night (3 action items)
24. Mentally prepare yourself to not know the results of the presidential election, and be ok with that.
Lots of states will take longer-than-usual to tabulate their results this year, because of the large number of mail-in ballots and state laws in some swing states that prevent counting of those ballots from starting prior to election day, notably Pennsylvania. If Biden wins in a landslide (perhaps by winning in Florida and/or North Carolina and/or Georgia), we may know the results by 10:30 or 11pm tomorrow night.
Any other plausible outcome (Biden solid victory, Biden narrow victory, Trump narrow victory, Trump solid victory) probably won’t be known until at least Wednesday, if not later in the week or even deep into November if the election is hanging on truly close result in one state (like Florida in 2000).
All of that is ok. No state ever certifies its results on election night, and many routinely take up to a week to tabulate final results. Once it becomes clear that we probably won’t know the outcome Tuesday night (say, if Trump wins Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina), you are probably best off just going to bed by about 1am eastern time. The marginal value of staying up past that probably isn’t worth it.
25. Watch an unexpected victory speech, and an unexpected concession.
Obviously, if there’s a pretty big surprise upset (like McConnell losing in Kentucky), find those speeches and watch them live. Otherwise, look for the mild-upsets in Senate races in NC, GA, etc. If Lindsey Graham loses, watch him. And if you can find an internet feed of a political amateur winning a House seat, those are solid gold moments.
26. Light up a joint if pot wins in Arizona.
Just kidding! Federal law will still make marijuana possession, sale, and cultivation illegal in the United States, and Gonzalez v. Raich will continue to guarantee for the time being that those federal laws are constitutional, regardless of how much money we throw away in the War On Drugs and how many non-violent drug offenders we put in federal prison in the coming years. Think that’s dumb? Me too. But I tend to support candidates who are ready to end the drug war. Next time, will you?
Enjoy the elections, everyone!
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