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Three Weeks to Midnight ("Oh, What a State . . . ")

Sixty-odd years ago, an old-time radio “singing comic” and former vaudevillian named Orville “Andy” Andrews reinvented himself as the avuncular host of a long-running Hartford-based children’s TV show. Every day after school, Ranger Andy held court at his “ranger station,” where he interacted with a live audience of a few dozen kids (often including entire boy scout and brownie troops), engaging them in various educational or artistic activities and (of course) showing cartoons. Ranger Andy also played banjo and sang original songs, mostly about animals and nature – his park ranger persona reflected genuine interests and expertise – but also about such things as Aesop’s fables and Biblical lessons (on Fridays, of course). One of the Ranger’s more memorable songs was cleverly titled “Oh What a State I’m In,” where the “state” referred not to the singer’s emotional frame of mind or any of his spine-tingling adventures, but to the actual fifty states of our country. Thanks to Ranger Andy, thousands of Connecticut seven-year-olds would one day learn that Maine was known as the “Pine Tree State” and similar interesting tidbits.

The Toteboard is sharing this obscure little memory to remind everyone that while one can have a discussion about the general “state” of the presidential race, that ultimately necessitates a series of separate discussions about the races in fifty – or ten, or maybe five, or three – different states. As if things aren’t crazy-making enough these days, the “election” is actually a shorthand for fifty synchronous elections, each with its own rules, its own procedures for counting and reporting, and (get ready for it) its own potential for controversy and litigation. And so with the election just three weeks away, today’s installment offers two distinct, but related, segments: The State of the Race, and the Race in the States.

The State of the Race:

In some ways, the Toteboard couldn’t have written a more fitting recent script for Trump. He made an ass of himself in the first debate, caught covid after publicly flouting health protocols, and has watched Biden’s national lead poke up into the double digits. Probably didn’t hurt either to have a fly land on Pence’s head – we do know what flies are attracted to, don’t we? By welcome contrast, though he is hardly what one might call a champion orator or debater, and clearly lacks, say, Obama’s eloquence and charisma, or even Bill Clinton’s literacy in wonky arcana, Biden has actually managed to project and reinforce an image of a potential leader who is stable, competent, empathetic, morally sound, and (most importantly) unlikely to embarrass the country or exacerbate social divisions every time he opens his mouth. The dark side of this latest turn of events is that Trump has been coming off as increasingly unhinged, at times almost conjuring up images of Hitler in his bunker: deranged, paranoid, barking orders, and resorting to desperation measures to hold on to power. Things could get very, very ugly if and when he loses . . . but not as ugly as they’ll be if he somehow wins, or manages to finagle a victory through a corrupt republican House or a stacked Supreme Court.

The Race in the States:

On the state-by-state level, things look good, maybe even real good, but still not good to the point that we can get overly confident about the imminent end of our national nightmare. Over the last several weeks, most of the A-List analysts have started shading a number of the key tossups light blue, and promoting some of the historically red states into the tossup column. At the moment, it looks like Biden might be able simply to reassemble the blue firewall that Clinton failed to hold, and that would be the cleanest and easiest path forward. But he has other options as well, and the map has expanded in some interesting ways. By way of reminder, Biden is pretty much starting with a base (including what we once called the Indigo Three) of 233 votes, and the battle to get over 270 is being waged in three distinct parts of the country. Here is an update on each.

The Rust Belt / Upper Midwest: This includes the four states that Trump snatched from Clinton’s supposed firewall (IA, MI, PA, WI), plus the perennial purple OH. The most heartening news for Biden is that the polls consistently show him with comfortable mid-to-upper single-digit leads (or occasionally better) in the coveted prizes of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with most of those polls putting Biden at or above 50%, which is obviously an important threshold. The combined bounty of 46 EV’s would put him over, with enough room to spare in case Trump somehow manages to poach Nevada (probably the one state in the base he may be targeting). And to boot, things are neck and neck in Iowa and Ohio, and as Harry Caray used to say, “a little insurance wouldn’t hurt.”

The Peripheral South: This includes two historically swingy states (FL, NC), and the rapidly purpling GA. According to the fivethirtyeight number-crunching, Florida is actually the most likely to go Biden’s way after the Rust Belt tipping points, though it’s always best not to pin too many hopes on even a 3-1 favorite in a state known for being notoriously inept at conducting elections. Biden is slightly ahead in North Carolina as well, in a race that will probably be keyed closely to its tight Senate contest. Georgia is in a statistical dead heat, though the Toteboard can’t quite bring itself to thinking the boiled peanut capital of the world will actually come through for the good guys. Still, it might be useful to recall how in 2008, Larry Sabato couldn’t really believe that the “Old Dominion” would actually turn blue for Obama, and lo and behold, it did, and Virginia has been blue ever since. A blue Georgia would help a lot of people feel less blue.

The Southwestern Cactus League: This includes the two red states that are purpling at different rates (AZ, TX), though one could technically include two blue states that Trump is eyeing (NM, NV). The demographically shifting Arizona has proven to be one of the sweetest surprises of the last few years, and Nate has Biden as a 2-1 favorite there, which would be great compensation in case there’s an unexpected upset somewhere else. It’s probably still a little too early in the evolutionary timeline to start thinking seriously about Texas, but if that one really does become a battleground, it will cause no shortage of headaches for the republicans.

So on balance, Biden has a lot of ways to 270, while Trump has a narrow needle to thread. That said, the Toteboard can’t quite let go of two gnawing concerns:

The Domino Theory: The above discussion considers the possibility that if one of Biden’s wells happens to go dry, he still has several other places where he might be able to refill his camelback. In other words, if Biden loses, say, Wisconsin, he can still clear 270 if he wins Arizona. If he happens to drop Pennsylvania, he might be able to make that up in North Carolina. And if he loses both of them, he still has a shot if he manages to snag Florida. But, this presumes that swing state races really are completely separate from one another, that it really is just a matter of swapping out one state for another. But there’s some evidence that this might be an oversimplified way of looking at things. At this stage of the game, if Biden’s support drops precipitously in one state, that may indeed be connected to some important local issue, but it may also be a reflective of erosion of support in a particular demographic that cuts across several states. For example, if blue-collar workers without a college degree in Wisconsin start drifting back to Trump for reasons of perceived economic interest or cultural affiliation, those same voters in Ohio, and Iowa, and even Arizona may begin do so as well. This is actually the kind of thinking behind a pundit suggesting that if a candidate’s national support goes up or down a few points, that will correspond with the addition or subtraction of a few very close states. Of course, that’s a very crude mathematical indicator, but it is somewhat reliable in the way states do start to fall one way or the other in a particular order, correlated to how much bluer or redder they are than the national average. And so, as Nate illustrates on his “snake chart,” if Biden does comfortably put away Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the next to go would probably be Arizona and Florida, and then maybe North Carolina and Ohio. And if he gets those, only then might he have a chance of turning Georgia and/or Iowa, and then Texas and Alaska, and so on. But the reverse thinking suggests that if Biden loses Pennsylvania, he may have already lost Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, and then doesn’t have any other real places to go prospecting. Again, this is all speculative, because states can perform against type in any given cycle, e.g., it’s not all that unusual to imagine that Pennsylvania could vote redder than expected and Florida could vote bluer. But it does make the Toteboard wish that Biden would just carry the big three Rust Belt states handily and be done with it . . . . an outcome that unfortunately we probably won’t know on election night in at least two of those states because of ridiculous laws governing the counting of absentee and mail-in ballots.

The Normalization of the Despicable: A theme that the Toteboard has already discussed a great deal in previous posts. As any big-time wrestling fan can tell you, it’s very difficult for the good guy to win a match when his (or her) opponent flagrantly violates the rules and the referee turns the other way. Trump and company are all in on voter suppression and intimidation, discrediting or interfering with the election process, litigating for the hell of it, i.e., doing anything possible to make sure the outcome doesn’t really reflect the will of the voters. And however sophisticated the folks are who are analyzing polls, they just can’t really develop an algorithm that takes all this into account. Yes, they can adjust the model so it responds to things like incumbency, party registration, economic conditions, historic voting patterns in a state, and so on, but thus far Nate doesn’t seem to know how to measure the statistical significance of unscrupulous pigs trying to sabotage the election. Actually, the thought of developing quantifiers for different tiers of republican sleaziness sort of appeals to the Toteboard and its desire to sort out things mathematically.

One of Ranger Andy's signature ditties was "The Song That Never Ends," an infectious singalong where over the years he kept adding clever new verses about different animals. In 1956, Nebraska's Lincoln Star reported that he had compiled more than 250 verses so far, with no sign of slowing down, but hey, you know how hyperbolic those Mid-westerners can get. In any event, let's all hope that this particular song ends sometime soon. The Toteboard isn't sure how much more of this the country can stand.

And so, here we are, three weeks away from the election. Stay tuned, and we’ll see you next week.


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