John Ellis
9 min readOct 25, 2020

1. Mickey Kaus, I think, was the first to describe a certain kind of political reportage as “overism.” As in: even though it’s not over, it’s over, so let’s cover what happens next.

“Overism” is in overdrive these days. Here’s a story about who will be President Biden’s chief of staff. Here’s one about the food Mr. Biden will be eating after he moves into the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Here are a few others: what role Vice President Harris will play in the Biden Administration, the campaign to make Bernie Sanders the next Secretary of Labor, the short list of candidates who are under consideration to serve as Mr. Biden’s Secretary of State.

Hand-in-glove with overism goes another feature of modern political journalism: the “pre-bit.” A “pre-bit” is an obituary for someone or something that hasn’t died yet but, rest assured, soon will. Over the course of the next nine days, you will read many pre-bits, most of them devoted to the reason(s) President Trump lost the election and what that means for populism and the Republican Party “going forward.”

One problem: it isn’t over. Yes, a Biden victory is the most likely outcome, and a Biden landslide (turning the Senate “blue”) is possible. And yes, President Trump finds himself campaigning in states like Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Florida, which at this point should be at least semi-comfortably “red.” And yes, the president will have to more-or-less run the periodic table of battleground states to win re-election.

But it isn’t over. The Real Clear Politics poll averages for the “big six” battleground states point to a close election. Florida, North Carolina and Arizona are statistically “tied” (Biden’s “lead” is imagined if not imaginary). Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are also close; too close for comfort for the Biden campaign. Michigan is the only battleground state that appears lost to President Trump. And he can afford to lose Michigan.

The E-Z Electoral College math of the 2020 election is as follows: Trump won the 2016 presidential election with 306 Electoral College votes. If he loses Michigan (16), he’s at 290 Electoral College votes. If he loses Michigan and Wisconsin (10), he’s at 280 Electoral College votes. If he loses Michigan and Pennsylvania, he’s at 270 Electoral College votes. If he loses all three, he’s on the phone to United Van Lines to arrange the move to Palm Beach, Florida.

A year ago, if you asked the 5 best political reporters in the country what state would be crucial to success in the 2020 presidential election, the answer would have been Wisconsin. Today, the answer is Pennsylvania. If Trump doesn’t win Pennsylvania, he’s doomed.

James Carville, who helped manage then-Governor Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992, famously said of Pennsylvania: “it’s Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east and Alabama in between.” Trump will get clobbered in the Philadelphia media market. He will lose in the Pittsburgh media market, but not as badly as he will lose in Philly. To overcome those numbers, Trump needs to turn out every last rural and ex-urban voter in the state. That may be the one thing his otherwise inept and spendthrift re-election campaign operation is good at.

All of which is to say: Disregard the pre-bits.

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2. To improve his chances of winning re-election, President Trump needs to better “frame” the choice for the remaining “persuadable” voters in the “battleground” states (and those that should not be battleground states, but are).

To date, Trump hasn’t really framed the choice; he’s used his rallies to free associate every reason on earth why he should win and why Biden (and Democrats and the media and the “Deep State” and various others) should be defeated. The endless riffing on his greatest hits is sort of fun, but it’s also incoherent. And it often leads him astray (no persuadable voter thinks that Joe Biden should go to jail).

There is a frame that would clarify the choice. It’s the famous Osama bin Laden maxim: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.”

An effective Trump narrative would go something like this: The president is strong on immigration, Biden is not. The president is strong on China, Biden is not. The president is strong on keeping taxes low and cutting regulations, Biden is not. The president is strong on law and order, Democrats are not.

You get the idea. An additional feature of this “frame” is that it would enable the president and his handlers to move key issues up and down the ladder of strong/weak. Strong on immigration would lead in Texas. Strong on law and order would lead in Wisconsin. Etc.

And the fact is: Joe Biden is frail. He’s older, less lucid, less sure of himself and much less energetic than the Joe Biden we knew from the campaign trail of his previous runs for the presidency. Andrew Sullivan captured this perfectly in a lengthy essay following the first presidential debate (scroll down the link to read the whole thing). Here’s an excerpt:

The age issue — however unfair — remains. Biden looked older than I’ve ever seen him, and with less of a grizzled-elder-vibe than a nursing-home-visit one. In the primary debates, he managed at times to look vigorous, even sharp, to the relief of many of us. Last Tuesday, he looked … well, the word that comes to mind is simply frail. His voice was relatively quiet, higher-pitched than usual and often hushed, his whispery white hair and pale color accentuating the sense of a beloved great-uncle who gets confused at times, but whose heart is nonetheless in the right place. When Biden looked directly at Trump, and we saw his profile, he looked even frailer: less like an authoritative statesman ready to take back the helm with vigor than a reluctant draftee, called out of retirement, like Bob Mueller, doing his duty, barely able to comprehend, let alone counter, the walking, talking shit-show to his right.

President Trump, whatever else he might be, is energetic. And he comes across, to most voters, as forceful. That’s his real edge. If he exploits it, his fortunes will improve. But of course he won’t, so there’s no point in discussing it any further.

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3. Trump supporters, when pressed about the president’s anemic standing in national and too many state polls, respond as follows: (1) state and national polls undercount Trump’s support; (2) national polls are irrelevant, the election is decided in the Electoral College; and (3) Trump’s support is much more “intense” than Biden’s, according to virtually every public and private poll.

I believe Trump’s support is undercounted by 1 or 2 percent. I know a lot of “shy” Trump voters. I suspect that they are everywhere and most “undercover” in the suburbs. Adding to the problem of tabulating “shy” Trump voters, polls (generally speaking) undercount “very conservative” voters; not on purpose, but because “very conservative” voters are wary of pollsters generally and pollsters from the “mainstream media” specifically.

Yes, polls are “weighted” to accurately reflect the expected electorate. But polling in America has never been precise and it is now more difficult to conduct. Mobile phones and text messaging and WhatsApp and Google Chat have changed how we communicate and made it harder for survey researchers to reach us. All of which is to say: There’s no such thing as a 2-point lead, endless media reports to the contrary. The standard margin of error for a national survey (3%) means that 46–44, can be 49–41 or 43–47. There’s a lot of slack in polling.

Trump supporters are correct that surveys of the national electorate are irrelevant as a predictor the final result. They are, however, helpful in divining what used to be called “the mood of the nation” and revealing where each candidate stands with key constituencies. The fact that Trump, who carried senior citizens in the 2016 election (nationally) is now behind Biden amongst older voters (nationally) is informative and to some degree predictive. It tell us, for instance, that Florida will be close.

The “intensity of support” measurement (high for Trump, less so for Biden) is misleading. The question is not how many voters are pumped about Mr. Biden’s candidacy. The question is how many voters are pumped about voting against President Trump. The enthusiasm for doing just that more than makes up for the lack of “intense”support for Biden.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell takes a dim view of President Trump’s prospects for re-election (and has for a long time). His pitch to donors goes something like this: Trump is going to lose, Pelosi will still be Speaker, I’m your only hope, give me all your money. Until about a month (or so) ago, McConnell’s pitch wasn’t alarmist. It was matter of fact. It is now matter of fact and alarmist (We’re in danger of losing the Senate! All hands on deck!)

Among the reasons cited by McConnell and other Republicans on Capitol Hill for this perilous state of affairs is Trump; he’s going down and he’s taking the GOP majority in the Senate with him. McConnell never puts it that way, exactly. But everyone knows what he means.

You can imagine how well this has gone over with The Big Guy. He finally responded last week, via a well-placed leak to The Washington Post. Which dutifully reported the following:

President Trump privately told donors this past week that it will be “very tough” for Republicans to keep control of the Senate in the upcoming election because some of the party’s senators are candidates he cannot support.

“I think the Senate is tough actually. The Senate is very tough,” Trump said at a fundraiser Thursday at the Nashville Marriott, according to an attendee. “There are a couple senators I can’t really get involved in. I just can’t do it. You lose your soul if you do. I can’t help some of them. I don’t want to help some of them.”

Over to you Mitch.

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I’ve written about this before, so I’m sort of repeating myself here, but judging by the surge in early voting and the intense interest in the campaign, it seems likely that the total turnout will be at least 150 million. Let’s say it is exactly that.

It also seems likely that Biden will defeat President Trump by 6 percentage points in the final tally of the national popular vote. But let’s say he wins by 5% (51%-to-46%), just for the sake of argument. That’s roughly half of Biden’s current lead in the various poll averages compiled by political websites like Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight.com.

Multiply 51 x 150 million and you get 76.5 million votes for Biden.

Multiply 46 x 150 million and you get 69 million votes for Trump.

Now let’s say that Trump hits all of his marks and narrowly wins re-election in the Electoral College. Using a conservative estimate of both turnout and the margin of the incumbent’s defeat, you arrive at 7.5 million vote win for Biden in the national popular vote.

Do you think that such a result would be “acceptable” to Trump’s opponents; that their “consent” to the results would be granted. I don’t. And you can see their point. At what point does the Electoral College defy the will of the people?

Democrats conceded the results in 2000 (having won the popular vote by roughly 1 million votes) and again in 2016 (having won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes). If they win the popular vote by 7.5 million votes this time, they’re not going to concede. Their base won’t let them concede. Any Democratic elected official who supports such a concession will be cast out and branded as an infidel.

Well, you say, these activists don’t really have any juice. There’s not much they can do about it if Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress decide not to “contest” the outcome.


This from Politico (the number in bold is not a typo):

Democratic candidates and left-leaning groups raised $1.5 billion through ActBlue over the last three months — a record-smashing total that reveals the overwhelming financial power small-dollar donors have unleashed up and down the ballot ahead of the 2020 election.

From July through September, 6.8 million donors made 31.4 million contributions through ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s favored online donation platform, averaging $47 per donation. More than 14,223 campaigns and organizations benefited from the surge in donations, the largest single quarter in the platform’s 15-year history, according to figures shared first with POLITICO. Just in September, ActBlue processed $758 million.

A billion and a half dollars can crush a lot of infidels. And every elected official in the Democratic Party knows it.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.