The Murder Weapon.

John Ellis
11 min readApr 30, 2020

Start with some givens.

Given #1 is that, assuming he’s the nominee, former Vice President Biden will win the popular vote by a wide margin. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by ~2.86 million votes. Biden’s margin may be double that, if not more.

Given #2 is that Biden can win the popular vote by as much as 6 percent (which, if one had to guess, would be roughly 10 million votes) and still lose the election in the Electoral College.

Given #3 is that the election will be decided in 6–10 “battleground” states, the exact number of which depends on how you define “battleground.” Everyone describes Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin as battleground states.

For what it’s worth, I would add Ohio to the list. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a “traditional” liberal Democrat, was re-elected there in 2018, winning 53% of the vote. His margin of victory was roughly 300,000 votes. Mike DeWine, a “traditional” conservative Republican, was elected governor of Ohio in 2018, garnering a bit more than 50% of the vote. His margin of victory was roughly 166,000 votes. Ohio is a state that can go either way. In 2018, it went both ways.

Mr. Trump’s margin of victory in Ohio in 2016 was ~450,000 votes. In the other six everyone-agrees-that-they’re-battleground-states, Mr. Trump’s margins were as follows: Arizona (~90,000), Florida(~110,000), Michigan (~10,000), North Carolina (~175,000), Pennsylvania (~45,000) and Wisconsin (~23,000).

Add up all those margins of victory and you get ~900,000 votes. For the sake of argument, multiply that number by three. You get 2.7 million votes. Round up for higher turnout and close races in, say, New Hampshire and Minnesota and call it 3 million votes.

The math is crude, I know, but the general idea is right: How the votes of roughly 3 million people are distributed in seven states will decide the 2020 presidential election. No one else (that matters, in terms of the Electoral College) is undecided. The only variable amongst the “decided” voters is relative turnout.

So when we talk about the 2020 election, what we’re really talking about is 3 million voters. Keep this in mind when you read that President Trump’s “digital operation” is “light years” ahead of Mr. Biden’s team or when you’re told that President Trump’s and the national Republican Party’s fund-raising advantage is “potentially decisive.” Keep this in mind when you calculate all the third party efforts and (Bloomberg) PAC money that will pour into these seven states to try to sway the outcome. At some point, the law of diminishing returns takes over. The difference between spending $425 million and $500 million to persuade 3 million voters this way or that is the difference between Lyft and Uber.

— — — —

The Republican National Committee and the leaders of the GOP at the national and state level have all come to the conclusion that the Democrats will retain their majority in the House of Representatives this November. Denials to the contrary, regaining control of the House has been written off as a hopeless undertaking by the GOP elite.

This is not a secret. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has for the last year or so spoken to dozens of “interest groups” at various breakfasts and lunches and “casual dinners” and told them (over-simply paraphrased): “We are going to lose in the House and we may lose the presidential race as well, so the only hope of forestalling socialist Armageddon is holding the Senate. Ergo: give me all your money.” No one disagrees with his election forecast.

2020 will be two elections: the presidential battle to win over a “decisive” majority of 3 million votes distributed across 7 states and hard-fought campaigns in 8–10 states that will determine who controls the US Senate on January 1st, 2021.

If you add it all up, maybe (maybe) 5 million voters will determine the direction of U.S. politics for (at least) the next four years. I would be willing to bet that more than $1 billion will be spent on an endless stream of “messaging” aimed squarely at those (maybe) 5 million people. And that the vast majority of that money will be spent on television and digital advertising. That’s what American politics has become.

— — — —

Who will decide the 2020 presidential election? The best analysis that I’ve read about the “persuadables” whose votes will decide the outcome in November comes from Nate Cohn of The New York Times. Here’s what he wrote late last year, based on a close reading of national and state polling:

The size of that persuadable pool depends on how they are defined. Although there is reason to think some voters have more of a partisan lean than they realize, let’s call the 15 percent who are still thinking of voting for Mr. Trump or a Democrat the potentially persuadable.

As a group they are 57 percent male and 72 percent white, and 35 percent have college degrees. Most, 69 percent, say they usually vote for a mix of both Democratic and Republican candidates. Among those who voted in 2016, 48 percent say they voted for Mr. Trump, 33 percent for Hillary Clinton, and 19 percent for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or no one. Those who voted in the midterm election voted for the Republican congressional candidate by one point.

These potentially persuadable voters are divided on major issues like single-payer health care, immigration and taxes. But they are fairly clear about what they would like from a Democrat. They prefer, by 82 percent to 11 percent, one who promises to find common ground over one who promises to fight for a progressive agenda; and they prefer a moderate over a liberal, 75 percent to 19 percent.

Over all, 40 percent describe themselves as conservative, compared with 16 percent who say they’re liberal. Forty percent are moderate…..

Looking at the full pool of potential persuadables, it can be hard to glean any clear insights. But individual demographic groups present a clearer picture of voters pulled in different directions by their ideology, identity, self-interest or attitudes about the president.

The white college-educated persuadable voters, in either the broad or narrow definition, have something in common: They may not love the president, but they are not sold on progressives.

They oppose single-payer health care, 60 percent to 37 percent, and oppose free college, 55 to 41.

They disapprove of the president, but only 32 percent disapprove of both his performance and his policies….

The relatively small number of persuadable women runs against the assumptions of most electoral analysts, who have long assumed that women are likelier to be up for grabs than men. Now, men are likelier to be undecided than women across all major age, race and educational groups. Like the white working-class voters who remain solid for the president, it seems many women, particularly nonwhite and college-educated women, remain anchored to the swing they already made in 2016.

Persuadable men and women generally hold similar views on the issues, including on the president. But they are deeply split over an assault weapons ban, with persuadable women supporting an assault weapons ban by a 26-point margin and persuadable men opposed by 18 points — including 42 percent of undecided men who say they are strongly opposed.

The undecided white working-class voters often seem as if they would be quite receptive to Democrats based on their views on the issues. They support single-payer health care, for instance.

But they approve of the president’s performance by a comfortable 63–32 margin, and they are as about as conservative as Republicans on the cultural issues that divide today’s politics.By a margin of 84 percent to 9 percent, they say political correctness has gone too far. They say academics and journalists look down on people like them, and agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

— — — —

Threading the needle of the “persuadables” is the task of both campaigns. At the start of the new year, the president’s strategy was straightforward and featured three issues: “the economy, immigration and socialism,” in the words of the president’s third chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Since then, the economy has collapsed, the president’s watered-down immigration initiatives have angered some among his “base,” and Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders and not Elizabeth Warren, “won” the Democratic presidential nomination (Biden hasn’t officially won it, one presumes he will).

So a reboot of the Trump campaign’s “message” has become necessary. Walter Mead, writing in The Wall Street Journal, argues that the president’s best bet is to run against China.

The U.S. failure to recognize and respond to the danger posed by rising Chinese power was, Mr. Trump can plausibly say, one of the greatest strategic blunders in world history. The president’s supporters can concede he sometimes get the details wrong, while arguing that on China he — and not the establishment — got the big picture right.

Mr. Trump’s penchant for out-of-the-box thinking and unconventional policy moves could mesh well with an election on China policy. Mr. Trump will be able to control the campaign narrative through dramatic actions like setting draconian tariffs, imposing sanctions on high-profile Chinese figures involved in questionable activities, proposing measures to force U.S. companies to return production from China, and providing additional support to Taiwan.

Finally, a China campaign would create real problems for the Democrats. Some of this would be personal for Joe Biden — the Trump campaign is already doing everything it can to highlight Hunter Biden’s business ties to China. But plenty of other senior Democrats have made money there, supported trade policies that gave away too much without holding Beijing accountable, or praised China’s government in ways that would make painful viewing in a campaign ad today.


Running against China certainly beats running on a collapsed economy. And it does enable the president, as Mr. Mead notes, to stay on offense, which is where Mr. Trump is most effective. Former Fox News CEO and GOP media consultant Roger Ailes used to say that playing defense in politics was essentially conceding defeat. “Nothing good comes of it,” he said back in the fall of 2012, watching Mitt Romney get slapped around by the Obama campaign. “And nothing ever will.”

That said, Mr. Trump’s hasty withdrawal from the Tran-Pacific Partnership treaty and his persistent slathering of praise on China’s president, Xi Jinping, will make for acidic 30-second TV commercials questioning his “toughness” when dealing with “the China threat.” Mr. Mead’s assertion that Democrats will “likely come off sounding soft or naive” with regard to China’s rise cuts both ways. Mr. Trump has at times sounded (at best) ill-informed on the subject of TPP and “soft and naive” on the subject of President Xi. Democrats will surely point that out, often.

The better strategy may be continued homicide. Charles Murray, the sociologist, author and empathetic analyst of “white America” once explained Mr. Trump’s election in 2016 with three words: “the murder weapon.” Mr. Murray’s exact words were: “One of the things that struck me most were people who say, “You don’t understand. We don’t particularly like Donald Trump. We are not defending his character, or anything like that. He’s our murder weapon.” And I think that is a pretty short and accurate way of saying what function Trump served.”

Me too.

The 2016 presidential election was about a decisive segment of the electorate in “battleground states” that had abandoned all hope of anything good coming from K Street politics or Beltway governance. In the view of “the deplorables,” the “elites” had betrayed the country they loved; enlisting them to fight hopeless wars in faraway lands, while enriching the rich, strip-mining their livelihoods, coddling illegal aliens and embracing ludicrous political correctness. Mr. Trump’s many flaws paled in comparison to the damage done by “Washington” and its “political class.”

Mr. Trump was their “murder weapon.” His job was to lay waste to the place; not just “drain the swamp” but blow it up. And, judging by the reaction of the media and the “elites,” he has to date proven himself a worthy warrior.

The “deplorables’” view of “Washington” remains unchanged. Asking for four more years to “finish the job” ensures, I would think, something close to the 46% of the vote (nationally) that he attracted in 2016. Moving that needle up by even 2 percentage points puts re-election well within the president’s grasp.

Given the plague, I suspect that this is “the platform” the Trump campaign will run on come the fall. It may not work but it is at least a coherent narrative, casting the president as a flawed but heroic figure, “The Boxer,” a fighter by his trade.

It also gives his team clarity for the campaign’s execution. “Finish The Job” is the message and everything revolves around it. Stay on the attack and never let up. Make sure that every last Facebook contact understands the message so that they can repeat it, all-but word-for-word, at work, at social gatherings, after church. Reinforce the messaging with relentless TV and digital advertising. Make sure that by election day, Joe Biden rhymes with Swamp.

One thing that might derail a campaign of this kind is candidate Donald Trump, whose ability to “stay on message” is one inch away from non-existent. The rallies are great fun for the faithful and often score political points. But they are also self-indulgent and all-too-often disturbing, reinforcing the president’s greatest weakness, which is that he makes people anxious.

A majority of Americans have been anxious for much of Mr. Trump’s tenure. The anxiety was manageable all the way up to the plague. It is not so manageable now. For too many (from the Trump campaign’s point of view), the president’s “performances,” at press conferences and rallies, are unnerving, if not disturbing.

— — — —

Which brings us to the Biden campaign. If you asked me who is going to win the 2020 presidential election, I (along with most of the people I know) would say, annoyingly: “It’s Biden’s to lose. He’s doing his best to do exactly that.”

The ineptitude of the Biden campaign is almost scary. This past week there were two major policy stories widely reported in the press. The first was the unsettling news that the Medicare Trust Fund would run out of money in six (6) years and given the economic “downturn,” probably sooner than that. The second was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assertion that he would oppose a “blue state bailout” (of their unfunded liabilities, meaning pensions and other post employment benefits) and that a better solution would be for those “blue states” to declare bankruptcy.

Both stories were fat targets for a competent Democratic presidential campaign. The Medicare story handed Democrats the opportunity to cast themselves as valiant defenders of one of the government’s two most popular programs (the other being Social Security), holding back the never-ending efforts of the GOP to privatize the system. And “defending Medicare” falls squarely into an “issue box” (healthcare) where swing voters trust Democrats far more than they trust Republicans to look after their interests.

As for the “blue state bailout,” the case for the states needing Federal support was more than compelling; it was all but existential. Ongoing funding of essential services plus pension and retiree health obligations minus expected tax revenue was quickly adding up to fiscal disaster. States must balance their budgets every year. There is no legal mechanism for states to declare bankruptcy. Throttling support for state and local governments in the midst of a national public health crisis could hardly be a more destabilizing initiative.

To make matters worse, the Majority Leader was all but inviting chaos into the municipal bond markets. The size of the those markets in the United States is ~$3.8 trillion. No one in their right mind plays Russian roulette with markets of that size.

Here’s what the Biden campaign had to say about these two stories.


Well, not nothing at all. There was this (via Politico):

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday predicted President Donald Trump will try to delay the 2020 presidential election in a ploy to snag a reelection victory.

“Mark my words, I think he is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” Biden said, according to a pool report of an online campaign event. “That’s the only way he thinks he can possibly win.”

Inept doesn’t really capture it. It’s more like campaign malpractice.

More on Biden in a subsequent note.



John Ellis

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