November 2020 Preview!

With the entire world hip deep in covid-19, everyone’s Netflix queue entirely exhausted by now, and family members fighting over who gets to the walk the dog, Herman’s Toteboard offers a modest attempt to regenerate some dormant braincells with a first preview of the 2020 presidential election. What lies ahead, and is there any hope? Read on.

But first, we need to review exactly how we got into this mess.

Hillary Clinton entered the 2016 election with a pretty straightforward playbook. She had the Blue Base of 21 states (plus DC), all of which had voted democratic in the previous six elections, for a total of 257 electoral votes. She was also on track to scoop up the Indigo Three (Virginia, Colorado, Nevada), for another 28, which would bring her to a comfortable 285. From there, she could take a victory lap and try to knock off some of the remaining purples where Obama had been successful (Florida, Ohio, North Carolina), and with a big enough landslide maybe even dig into the crumbling Red Base and grab Arizona, Georgia, Texas, or Missouri.

Of course, that’s not what happened. In a bit of obscene karmic irony, Clinton held the Indigo Three, but the Blue Base turned out to be a lot wobblier than anticipated, as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa, all chipped off and floated away like chunks of a melting glacier or a cascade of posterior vitreous detachments. On 11/8/16, the Toteboard had noted that “if Trump somehow wangles Michigan or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, then she'll need to compensate with one of the big toss-ups, like North Carolina or Florida.” We now know that the wangling was even worse than anticipated, and that the necessary compensation never came.

So where are we now? Caught between two competing narratives, it seems. On the one hand, Trump has demonstrated that there are no depths to which he won’t sink in his abuses of power and attempts to purge political enemies, and his base is almost certainly more fervent, more angry, and more psychopathic than it was four years ago. On the other hand, his approval rating, while exposing a frightening extent of unreason run amok, has not improved during his time in office, the 2018 mid-terms seemed to reveal a wave a buyer’s remorse, and state polls are looking OK for Biden.

Because of these two competing narratives, and frankly because we are still so far away from the election, the uncertainty level is pretty high and there is a wide range of possible outcomes. But however it all plays out, there is at least one element of certainty. You know how you should never take it seriously when a TV network tells you that a show’s upcoming season will be the best one yet, or an advertisement touts an improved product as better than ever? Well, you really CAN believe it this time. The republicans really do get uglier and more despicable with each subsequent election cycle, and the upcoming season promises to be scarier than anything Dorian Gray has hidden in the attic.

In any event, here is the current alignment, which may realign over the coming months:

The New Blue Base: Given the shock of 2016, the Toteboard is reluctantly forced to start Biden with a leaner base of reliably blue states. No longer a cozy 257 electoral votes, we’re now down to 17 states (CA, CT, DE, HI, IL, MA, MD, ME, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA) and DC, for a working base of 205 EV’s. On the one hand, it should be acknowledged that even these aren’t completely safe (Clinton just barely eked out New Hampshire), but on the other hand, this is a conservative starting place and Biden has a lot of opportunities to grow.

The Wobbly Base: These are the four states (IA, MI, PA, WI) that republicans had been aggressively (but unsuccessfully) targeting since 1992, that they finally turned red four years ago. It’s not clear yet if that was a one-time anomaly (like Obama picking off Indiana in 2008), or the start of a new trend (like the newly indigo Virginia). At the moment, there are signs that Michigan may be the former, and that Iowa may be the latter, and that the other two fall somewhere in between, but of course it’s still too early to tell. These make up an important 52 electoral votes.

The Indigo Three: These three purple states (CO, NE, VA) have been blue-ing for the last decade or two, and the Toteboard may eventually see them absorbed into the Blue Base, but we’re not quite there yet. Given the tenuousness of some of the wobblers, these are a crucial 28 EV’s.

The Burgundy Three: The former Big Cahunas (FL, OH) have joined one other (NC) as red-leaning purples. It’s hard to say which of these are better targets than those in the Wobbly Base. At the moment, Biden may have a better shot at North Carolina, or even Florida, than he does in Iowa, and maybe even Wisconsin. There are 62 EV’s here, and the election may be decided in some combination of these last three categories.

The Aspirational Purples: Just as the democrats may be losing their hold on some of the midwestern states, they may soon be putting some southern states in play. Arizona went blue in the mid-term by putting Kyrsten Sinema in the senate, and ex-astronaut (and spouse of Gabrielle Giffords) is running a formidable campaign and leading early polls over appointed incumbent Martha McSalley, which may also bode well for the presidential race, as ballot splitting is becoming increasingly uncommon. The democrats have their eyes on Georgia and Texas as well, and only time will tell which states become officially burgundy, and which ones remain aspirational. There are 65 EV’s here, but the Toteboard isn’t holding its breath on the 38 from Texas coming through any time soon.

And so, after all the math, Biden really could finish would anywhere between 200 and 400 electoral votes, though the range of possibilities map like a regular bell curve. Which states become the true battlegrounds and ultimate tipping point states will eventually become clear. Larry Sabato currently thinks the election will be decided in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Arizona; Inside Elections think it’s Florida instead of Pennsylvania (taking the latter as blue-ish); the Cook Political adds Michigan to those five. In other words, the states folks are talking about are 2 from the Wobbly Base, the entire Burgundy Three, and 1 Aspirational Purple, and so those alignments really may change.

On a side note, if the covid-19 crisis has thrown much of our daily life into disarray and doubt, it has certainly made one thing crystal clear, i.e., that whenever Trump has an opportunity, however thin and unlikely, to enflame demographic tensions, to scapegoat convenient targets, or to manufacture new enemies, he seizes that opportunity as though following some primordial urge, as though the instinct were hardwired into his DNA. Trump’s “leadership” on the crisis began in the sewer with his references to the “Chinese Virus,” and has only sunk deeper into the muck and filth with each passing day. At this point, the Toteboard would like to make a gentle suggestion that the theists among us start praying for a karmic irony of a different kind.

Next: The 2020 Senate Preview

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