Nail-biter Senate races — and an attempted coup — in Georgia 📊 January 3, 2021

While the candidates campaign, the president and his allies again seek to overturn his defeat

Thanks as ever for reading my weekly data-driven newsletter on politics, polling, and the news. As always, I invite you to drop me a line (or just respond to this email). Please click/tap the ❤️ under the headline if you like what you’re reading; it’s our little trick to sway Substack’s curation algorithm in our favor. If you want more content, I publish subscribers-only posts once or twice a week. 

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Dear reader,

Haven’t you heard? There are two Senate races in Georgia on Tuesday. The polls indicate a close race, and that’s really all we can say. Personally, I’m more focused on the fundamental dual dangers of continued attempts by the president and his allies to overturn the certified, verified results of the election, and the support they are getting from Republican voters. I’ll talk about both in this week’s newsletter.

In other news, happy New Year. I don’t really do “resolutions,” but I find that proceeding aimlessly in life without goals sets me up for a year of meandering. So my overarching themes for 2021 are to be more mindful (mainly, this means putting away my phone) and to get out in nature more often. I have recently fallen in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains and will try to visit them at least once each season.

My best to you all in the new year.

—Elliott


Nail-biter Senate races — and an attempted coup — in Georgia

While the candidates campaign, the president and his allies again seek to overturn his defeat

First, let’s talk polls.

On average, surveys indicate that Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are about two percentage points ahead of their opponents, incumbent senators David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler. But the margin of error for these averages is rather large — maybe higher than ten points, depending on who you ask. Already this amounts to little more than a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in terms of electoral forecasts.

Of course, after the industry’s overall overestimation of Democratic support in last November’s elections, there is good reason to be skeptical of the polls in Georgia. Yes, the pollsters that released estimates in the state did pretty well — but that could have been due to a variety of factors that aren’t present now. Anything from the composition of polling firms to the mode and timing of their surveys could affect reliability. Don’t read too much into this.

Voter roll data also suggest that the Democrats are doing better at turning out early than they were in November’s contests, but of course, this does not rule out an unprecedented surge in election-day or late Republican voting.

My advice is to go into Tuesday thinking that the Democrats are very slightly favored to probably win, but don’t be surprised if either party sweeps the races — even by pretty large margins. All these data are little more than tea leaves in this environment.

The elections in Georgia are being underscored (perhaps overshadowed, even) but recent nefariousness on the part of President Trump and his allies in Congress. On Sunday, the Washington Post released tapes (obligatory “Oh lordy, there are tapes!”) of Trump on a telephone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that occurred on Saturday. The Post reports:

President Trump urged fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat in an extraordinary one-hour phone call Saturday that election experts said raised legal questions.” In the call, Trump asked Raffensperger to change the certified vote that was subject to multiple recounts: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.

Trump’s refusal to accept the results are frightening (from an institutional standpoint), but not new. What is novel are his apparent threats to Raffesnperger and his lawyer, Ryan Germany, if they did not do what he asks. According to the Post: “Trump said that if they don’t find that thousands of ballots in Fulton County have been illegally destroyed to block investigators — an allegation for which there is no evidence — they would be subject to criminal liability.” They quote the president as saying “That’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.”

The president also tried to pressure Raffesnperger to overturn the votes by arguing that letting the November results stand was decreasing Republican turnout. As the turnout data show, that very well may be true — but of course, it is no reason to unlawfully make up fake ballot tallies to keep the president in power (which the secretary is surely not going to do).

The president’s attempts to win the election are not limited to the Peach State. He has also egged on his allies in the Senate to vote against the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the electoral college on Sunday. Again according to the Post, “A group of 11 Republican senators and senators-elect, led by Ted Cruz of Texas, vowed to join Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in challenging votes from some contested states, calling for an ‘emergency 10-day audit’ to investigate Trump’s unfounded claims. Hours later, Trump wrote on Twitter that there would be ‘plenty more to come.’”

Again, this is not so concerning because it is surprising (it is not) but because it is an unprecedented test of the ability of our political institutions to uphold our electoral laws. The unceasing challenges to Trump’s transparent loss — on social media, in the courts, and now in Congress — are a first for our country and a reminder of how fragile our system of government is.

Scholars have been quick to remind all who will listen that democracies die not just by the violent usurpation of rightfully-elected rulers (often from formal military coups), but by political exercises that undermine the structure and processes of our government. In the 1920s and 30s, fascists in America were prevented from winning power by political parties that saw them as too risky. The parties, along with the electoral college, also prevented raging segregationist and populist George Wallace from having a real shot at winning power in 1968 and 1972. But the Republican Party has abdicated their democratic responsibilities with Trump. One question I have for readers: can we call this a coup? In the general sense of the word as an abuse of power to overturn an election, I think we can.

But the final point is to imagine how the last 2 months — and the next 18 days — would be different if public servants such as Raffesnperger were replaced by partisan devotees — perhaps a Lindsey Graham or Ted Cruz — instead. Would our system look as “safe” as it does today?

Back to Georgia one final time, for a three-parter.

First, there is indeed some academic evidence to support the idea that decreasing trust in the political process is correlated with lower voter turnout. However, much of this evidence comes from other countries. It also suffers from the weakness that traditional frequentist statistical tests reveal effects if “all else remains equal” — which, of course, it is not. Republican trust in the runoff is perhaps lower than it was in the first round of the Senate elections in November. But they might also be angrier about Biden’s victory and want to #StopTheSteal. And when past studies have also found that anger can motivate voter turnout, it’s hard to know which (and even whether) one of these forces will win out.

Second, I should add that the runoffs are important as they will decide whether Joe Biden will merely have a hard time or an impossible time passing many of the reforms he had championed in his bid for the presidency. Convincing Joe Manchin, for example, to work with him on curbing coal mining will be hard regardless, but getting a vote in his favor from Purdue or Loeffler will be near impossible. You can imagine similar scenarios with other combinations of policies and partisans.

Finally, this brings me to Mitch McConnell. As the major force standing in the way of $2,000 relief checks for the American people, McConnell has earned a lot of (deserved) negative press over the last two weeks. This speaks largely to the oversized power of the Senate’s majority leader, who can stop virtually any bill from coming up for a vote. If Democrats can manage to win both seats, Biden’s policy agenda will be infinitely accelerated.


Posts for subscribers

  • There were no posts last week, other than one about my favorite books from last year. Back again with two posts next week.


What I'm Reading and Working On

I took the week off from reading anything unrelated to book writing last week. (This will probably become more frequent as the deadline for my manuscript approaches at the end of this month.)

This coming week, I’m going to make a start at a history of two paths to slavery: violence and politics — as told in a new book by historian H.W. Brands (who professed to me about American history and the presidents while I was at UT Austin).


Other links and recommendations:

  • Like I mentioned in last week’s letter, I was trying to stay away from the news, etc last week so I don’t have any recommendations of the usual sort for you today. However, I enjoyed this Atlantic column from Aurthur Brooks about how to think about happiness during the pandemic. As a social scientist (-ish), I am intrigued by the formulaic analysis of what might brings people joy; As a human, I realize it is much more complicated.


Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back in your inbox next Sunday. In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email if you’d like to engage. I’d love to hear from you. If you want more content, I publish subscribers-only posts once or twice each week.


Pet photo contest

This is actually a kitty I found on Reddit. I find this section of the newsletter quite silly but if it makes even one of you smile, I think it’s worth it. But it’s only really possible if you readers email me some cute photos of your pets! Ping me at elliott[AT]gelliottmorris[DOT]com!