As the two sides in US politics begin jockeying for position following the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the similarities to the 2016 presidential election are striking.
That year, the fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was made all the more contentious because the Republican-controlled Senate refused to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who had died in February.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged instead to “let the American people decide” the fate of the Supreme Court vacancy. His gambit worked. Trump won the election and successfully appointed a conservative justice to the court, some 14 months after Scalia’s death.
In recent days, however, McConnell is saying something altogether different. He’s made clear the Trump administration will decide who Ginsburg’s replacement will be — not the American people on election day.
And Trump has also already announced he will nominate a woman to the court — signalling his intention to move quickly to replace Ginsburg, with just over 40 days left before the vote.
The impending fight guarantees an already rancorous race will become even more acrimonious, with long-lasting implications.
As the third branch of government in the US, the Supreme Court not only keeps the powers of the other two branches (the legislative and executive) in check, it makes landmark decisions that can fundamentally transform the country, such as its 1954 ruling that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
With the Supreme Court now featuring three judges appointed by Democratic presidents and five appointments by Republicans, the potential replacement of the progressive Ginsburg by a conservative judge could have generational implications for issues like affordable health care and access to abortion.
Unlike American politicians, who are subject to the ballot box and term limits, federal judges — including Supreme Court justices — serve lifetime appointments.
The importance of such judicial appointments to Republicans cannot be understated. Few, if any, issues are more sacrosanct to them.
A key reason for this is that demographics are not on the side of the Republicans. The US is gradually becoming more urban and non-white — two trends that favour the Democratic Party more than Republicans.
This could explain why McConnell, whose memoir is called The Long Game, has prioritised the appointments of conservative judges to federal benches. These judges would certainly outlast the seemingly inevitable decline of conservative political power.
Before Trump was elected in 2016, many Republicans questioned just how conservative he would be. In response, the Trump campaign made the unusual move of releasing a list of its intended candidates for the Supreme Court.
The list of established conservatives effectively quelled conservative concerns about the Trump candidacy. Indeed, exit polling in 2016 indicated 26% of Trump voters said Supreme Court nominees were the single most important factor in their decision to vote for him — compared to 18% of Clinton voters.
With Trump’s victory reliant on a combined margin of just under 80,000 votes across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even the smallest of advantages — in this case, those deciding who to vote for based on the Supreme Court — could have had outsized importance.
Some have posited a Supreme Court vacancy may help Trump’s chances in this year’s election because it shifts the focus of the race away from the president’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis and the poor economy.
But this ignores how much the issue could also energise the left. Indeed, in the hour after the announcement of Ginsburg’s passing, Democrats raised US$6.2 million on the Democratic digital fundraising platform ActBlue — more money in a single hour than the website had ever seen. This record was broken the next hour when donors gave over $100,000 a minute on average to total $6.3 million.
Altogether, some $42 million was raised in less than a day by Democratic online donors.
In 2016, many Republicans said they held their noses and voted for Trump because they were worried about the Supreme Court. Four years later, unenthusiastic Democrats may do the same with Joe Biden.
Constitutionally, McConnell and Trump face few barriers in their mission to confirm a conservative justice to take Ginsburg’s place. Even a “blue wave” on election day — in which Democrats take control of the Senate and the White House — couldn’t stop them because the winners are not sworn into office until January. This would ostensibly provide enough time for the Republican-led Senate to confirm a Trump nominee.
There is no doubt what McConnell and Trump are planning to do. The more pertinent question is whether 49 Republicans in the Senate will go along with them.
Even the most anti-Trump Republicans — like Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year — have supported the president’s previous picks for the Supreme Court. (Only one Republican chose not to support Brett Kavanaugh following his contentious confirmation hearing.)
But amid deep political polarisation, the likes of which America has not seen for generations, some Republicans are asking themselves about the long-term impact of rushing through a Supreme Court justice — most notably, what doors this opens for Democrats if they gain power.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said “nothing is off the table” if Republicans try to fill Ginsburg’s seat before the outcome of the election.
Some Democrats, already frustrated by Republicans having nominated 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices despite Republicans having lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, have already pledged to make fundamental shifts to the country if they win the power to do so.
This could include giving statehood to Democratic-leaning Puerto Rico and Washington, DC — thereby almost assuredly giving the Democrats four more senators.
Regardless of the electoral outcome, the death of Ginsburg only further raises the stakes and the likelihood of unrest in an already contentious election. There is no winner in such an outcome.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted September 16-19 from a sample of 2,068, gave the Coalition a 51-49 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since the previous Newspoll, three weeks ago.
Primary votes were 43% Coalition (up two), 34% Labor (down two), 12% Greens (up one) and 3% One Nation (steady) – all figures from The Poll Bludger.
65% were satisfied with Scott Morrison’s performance (up one), and 31% were dissatisfied (down one), for a net approval of +34. Anthony Albanese’s ratings fell into negative territory: his net approval was -1, down three points. Morrison led Albanese as better PM by 59-27 (58-29 last time).
The last Newspoll had the Coalition’s lead dropping from 52-48 to a 50-50 tie, while Morrison’s net approval was down seven points. This Newspoll implies movements in the previous Newspoll may have been exaggerated.
It is also possible the federal Coalition is benefiting from restrictions to fight coronavirus becoming less popular in Victoria. A Morgan Victorian state poll (see below) gave Labor a narrow lead, but that lead was well down on the November 2018 election result. In other state polls, there was a clear surge to the incumbent government.
A Victorian SMS Morgan poll, conducted September 15-17 from a sample of 1,150, gave Labor a 51.5-48.5 lead over the Coalition, a six-point gain for the Coalition since the November 2018 state election. Primary votes were 38.5% Coalition, 37% Labor and 12% Greens. Morgan’s SMS polls have been unreliable in the past.
A South Australian YouGov poll, conducted September 10-16 from a sample of 810, gave the Liberals a 53-47 lead over Labor, a six-point gain for the Liberals since March, likely due to the state’s handling of coronavirus. Primary votes were 46% Liberals (up seven), 35% Labor (down three) and 10% Greens (down one).
Liberal Premier Steven Marshall had a massive surge in net approval, to +52 from -4 in March. Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas had a +22 net approval.
A Tasmanian EMRS poll, conducted August 18-24 from a sample of 1,000, gave the Liberals 54% (up 11 since the last publicly released EMRS poll in March), Labor 24% (down ten) and the Greens 12% (steady). Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein led Opposition Leader Rebecca White by 70-23 as better premier (41-39 to White in March).
This section is an updated version of an article I had published for The Poll Bludger last Thursday.
Six weeks before the November 3 election, FiveThirtyEight’s national aggregate gives Joe Biden a 6.8% lead over Donald Trump (50.3% to 43.5%). This is an improvement for Trump from three weeks ago, when he trailed by 8.2%. In the key states, Biden leads by 7.6% in Michigan, 6.6% in Wisconsin, 4.6% in Pennsylvania, 4.5% in Arizona and 2.0% in Florida.
In my article three weeks ago, the difference in Trump’s favour between the Electoral College tipping-point state and the national vote had widened to three points, but this difference has fallen back to about two points, with Arizona and Pennsylvania currently two points more favourable to Trump than national polls.
If Biden wins all the states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, plus Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, he gets exactly 269 Electoral Votes, one short of the 270 required for a majority. Maine and Nebraska award one EV to the winner of each of their Congressional Districts, and two to the statewide winner. All other states award their EVs winner-takes-all.
Under this scenario, Biden would need one of either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second CDs for the 270 EVs required to win the Electoral College. Nebraska’s second is a more likely win for Biden as it is an urban district.
The US economy has rebounded strongly from the coronavirus nadir in April. Owing to this, the FiveThirtyEight forecast expects some narrowing as the election approaches. Every day that passes without evidence of narrowing in the tipping-point states is bad news for Trump. Biden’s chances of winning in the forecast have increased from a low of 67% on August 31 to 77% now.
While Trump has improved slightly in national polls, some state polls have been very good for Biden. Recently, Biden has had leads of 16 points in Minnesota, 21 points in Maine, 10 in Wisconsin and 10 in Arizona.
Trump’s ratings with all polls in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate are currently 43.2% approve, 52.7% disapprove (net -9.5%). With polls of likely or registered voters, his ratings are 44.0% approve, 52.8% disapprove (net -8.8%). In the last three weeks, Trump has gained about two points on net approval, continuing a recovery from July lows.
The RealClearPolitics Senate map has 47 expected Republican seats, 46 Democratic seats and seven toss-ups. If toss-ups are assigned to the current leader, Democrats lead by 51-49, unchanged from three weeks ago.
The US has just passed the grim milestone of over 200,000 deaths attributable to coronavirus. However, daily new cases have dropped into the 30,000 to 50,000 range from a peak of over 70,000 in July. Less media attention on the coronavirus crisis assists Trump.
The headline jobs gained or lost are from the establishment survey, while the household survey is used for the unemployment rate. In August, the household survey numbers were much better than the establishment survey, with almost 3.8 million jobs added.
It is probably fortunate for Biden that the September jobs report, to be released in early October, will be the last voters see before the election. The October report will be released November 6, three days after the election.
I believe Trump should focus on the surging economy in the lead-up to the election, and ignore other issues like the Kenosha violence and culture war issues. Particularly given the Supreme Court vacancy, Biden should focus on Trump and Republicans’ plans to gut Obamacare.
On Friday, left-wing US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. While Democrats control the House of Representatives, only the Senate gets a vote on judicial appointments, and Republicans control that chamber by 53-47.
Even if Democrats were to win control of both the Senate and presidency at the November 3 election, the Senate transition is not until January 3, with the presidential transition on January 20.
There is plenty of time for Trump to nominate a right-wing replacement for Ginsburg, and for the Senate to approve that choice. That will give conservative appointees a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
In an unprecedented step, prestigious science publication Scientific American has launched a scathing attack on President Donald Trump and endorsed his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, in the upcoming US election. It’s the first presidential endorsement in the magazine’s 175-year history.
To this, we say: about bloody time! As we’ve noted before:
Science is political. The science we do is inherently shaped by the funding landscape of government and the problems and issues of society. This means that to have any influence on how science is organised and funded in Australia (or the US or any other country), we as scientists and science communicators must act in ways that matter in the arena of politics.
It’s now more critical than ever, as the editors at Scientific American clearly lay out, that the people who are actually knowledgeable about the world’s crises speak out and represent that knowledge (or “collective wisdom”) in public, out loud and with their names attached.
Under Trump, science isn’t just ignored. It is lampooned and directly attacked, especially on issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. This actively threatens the lives (and livelihoods) of not just millions of Americans, but countless others around the world.
In the past, it has been suggested scientists who comment beyond their specific, narrow sphere of reach by delving into politics are tainting their credibility – perhaps even behaving unethically.
But as we now stare down the barrel of an ongoing global pandemic (and relentless climate change continuing in the background), to remain quiet on the politics is not just unethical, but actively dangerous.
The argument that science is somehow tainted by offering policy or political opinions is an idea whose time has long gone.
Who is better placed to add valuable weight to public debates about the key problems we’re facing, than those who represent the voice of evidence, reason and debate (such as Scientific American)?
As one of us has previously argued, in Australia we should encourage scientists and science communicators to:
Become more active in challenging the status quo, or to help support those who wish to by engendering a professional environment that encourages risk-taking and speaking out in public about critical social issues.
Scientific American is not entirely alone in pushing for the involvement of scientists in public policy and action. Other reputable publications have taken similar stances in the past.
In 2017, Nature argued “debates over climate change and genome editing present the need for researchers to venture beyond their comfort zones to engage with citizens”. Earlier in 2012, Nature explicitly endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
In Australia, our news publications have a tradition of endorsing political parties at federal elections, but our science publishing landscape has typically remained agnostic.
Peak bodies such as the Australian Academy of Science, and Science and Technology Australia, have commented on the political decision-making process, but have rarely been so forthright as the Scientific American’s recent editorial.
Not only should scientists take a stand, they should also be encouraged and professionally acknowledged for it.
Scientists as citizens have the right to advocate for political positions and figures that support the best possible evidence. In fact, when it comes to matters as serious as COVID-19 and climate change, we believe they have an obligation to.
Scientific American’s intervention may not impact votes, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s crucial for people who believe in knowledge and expertise to stand up and call out misinformation for what it is. To do less is to accept the current state.
Nonetheless, many scientists in Australia rely on government funding. This can make it difficult to speak up when legitimate evidence clashes with the orientation of the government of the day. Confronted with the possible loss of funding, what can a scientist do?
There’s no perfect solution. Many may feel the risks of speaking are too great. For many, they will be.
In such cases, scientists could perhaps look for intermediaries to make their case on their behalf – whether these are trustworthy journalists, or publicly visible academics like us.
In the long term, defending those who have gone out of their way to act responsibly will help. The more this becomes normal, the more likely it will become the norm. But it’s also an unfortunate reality that change rarely occurs without discomfort.
When it comes to truly world-shaking crises like COVID-19 and climate change, scientists are political citizens like everyone else. And just like everyone else, they need to weigh the price of action against the price of inaction.
Speaking out can’t always be someone else’s job.
Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University
US President Donald Trump heralded nothing short of “the dawn of a new Middle East” as the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements normalising ties with Israel during a ceremony at the White House this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that sentiment, saying “this day is a pivot of history”.
The diplomatic detente is significant — the UAE and Bahrain will join Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to officially recognise the Jewish state. This will strengthen economic and security ties that have existed tacitly for years and establish diplomatic missions in the respective capitals.
But despite Trump’s grandiose statements, these agreements are little more than a footnote in the wider chaos of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs.
The broader Arab-Israeli conflict has been dormant for decades, as the main players have been preoccupied by the threats of internal dissent and civil strife, rather than one another.
Beyond this, the UAE and Bahrain were never central to Arab hostilities with Israel. Historically, they acted as cheerleaders and financiers for the front-line states during the Cold War, such as Syria and Egypt.
In geopolitical terms, Bahrain is far less notable — it’s effectively a vassal of Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the immediate changes brought by these diplomatic moves, the bigger question is how Saudi Arabia will respond in the coming months.
It is rare in foreign relations to see “beta testing” of bold ideas, but the UAE and Bahrain have provided just such a test case for Riyadh in its own fraught push to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
This led to an informal arrangement between the Saudis and Israelis, along with the United States and a number of smaller Gulf states, aimed at confronting the Iranian challenge together.
An outright solidification of an alliance between the Saudis and Israelis would allow for greater cooperation and coordination in regional security, diplomacy and trade — and build a more unified and effective front against the threat posed by Iran’s growing influence in the region.
But previous attempts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to warm relations have proved challenging, to say the least.
In 2018, bin Salman made the unprecedented move of declaring Israel’s right to exist, extending a clear olive branch meant to open the door to further opportunities to strengthen ties between the two countries.
However, the prince may have jumped the gun with the statement, which was met with ambivalence by the Saudi public and other Arab states.
Many felt the move too sudden and incongruous with the kindgom’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Saudis have long demanded the creation of a state for the Palestinians before any sort of formal sovereign recognition could be offered to Israel.
Ultimately, this led to an embarrassing intervention by the prince’s father, King Salman, who publicly walked back his son’s statements, in part due to fears of eroding the monarchy’s domestic legitimacy.
Following his chastisement, the prince went silent on the issue for over a year. He also took a less prominent position in the public eye, a significant departure from his normal flamboyant style.
This year, things have changed. With King Salman ailing, the prince consolidating his position within the country further and the ever-present threat of Iran across the gulf, there are new opportunities for Saudi Arabia to potentially re-engage with Israel.
New challenges have also presented themselves. The ravages of COVID-19 and a vulnerable oil market have left the kingdom in a far more precarious position than just two years ago. In such an environment, the risk of losing legitimacy from such a deal could prove far more catastrophic to the authoritarian regime.
Bin Salman may be up to the task, though. The prince has demonstrated a growing aptitude to navigate complex political situations.
Over the past year, for instance, he has curtailed his characteristic brashness, avoiding the blunders seen early on in his reign that damaged Saudi prestige on the international stage and drew ire from his father.
Since his 2018 Israeli misfire, the prince has displayed a more reserved and circumspect demeanour in his public activities and foreign engagements — sending a message he intends to serve out a long and productive term.
Having learned from past mistakes, a more prudent bin Salman is likely to approach a rapprochement with Israel with greater caution than before.
If people in the UAE and Bahrain prove amenable or indifferent to the warming relations between their countries and Israel — and all signs thus far suggest they do — it may encourage the prince to try his plan again.
While many on the Saudi street still oppose Israel in theory, the issue lacks the salience it once did. There is an exhausting array of crises in the region — from Yemen to Syria, Libya to COVID-19 — that have become far more immediate priorities.
Thanks in part to to a concerted propaganda effort by bin Salman, the Saudi public is also increasingly in tune with the ruling elite when it comes to the desire to counter Iran as a national security concern.
As a small country on the Mediterranean sharing no borders with the Saudis, Israel simply doesn’t pose the same kind of threat in the popular imagination as the looming expansionist giant just across the gulf.
With these political dominoes in line, the coming months may prove a far more fortuitous time for bin Salman to pursue a Saudi detente with Israel.
Such a development would not only be historically significant, but would pave the way for an Arab-Israeli alliance — the likes of which has never been seen before.
With less than two months until the US presidential election, Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads incumbent Donald Trump in the bulk of opinion polls.
But poll-based election forecasts have proved problematic before. The polls were widely maligned after the 2016 election because Trump won the election when the majority of the polling said he would not.
What went wrong with the polls in 2016? And is polling to be believed this time around, or like in 2016, are the polls substantially underestimating Trump’s support?
US presidential elections are two-stage, state-by-state contests.
States are allocated delegates roughly proportional to their populations, with 538 delegates in total. The votes of Americans then decide who wins the delegates in the Electoral College.
In almost all states, the candidate who has the highest vote total takes all the delegates for that state. The candidate who wins a majority (270 or more) of the Electoral College wins the election.
For the fifth time in American history, the 2016 election produced a mismatch between the national popular vote and the Electoral College outcome. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump, yet still lost the election.
Trump won states efficiently, by razor-thin margins in some cases, converting 46% of all votes cast into 56.5% of the Electoral College. Conversely, Clinton’s huge popular vote tally was concentrated in big states such as California and New York.
For this reason, election analysts focus less on national polls and more on polls from “swing states”.
These are states that have swung between the parties in recent presidential elections (for example, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina), or could be on the verge of swinging (Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Minnesota).
These states — even as few as two or three of them — will decide the 2020 election.
As part of a large research project at the United States Studies Centre, we have compiled data from polling averages in all the swing states going back to 120 days before the election and compared them to the same time periods in 2016. Our goal was to provide a key point of reference to more correctly read the polls in 2020.
The charts for all swing states can be found here.
Our research shows Biden currently has poll leads in several states that went for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 and then swung to Trump in 2016, such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These five states are worth 90 Electoral College votes.
Biden also leads the polls in consistently Republican-voting Arizona (11 electoral votes).
So, if we take recent polls in these states at face value, then Trump would lose 101 of the Electoral College votes he won in 2016 and be soundly defeated.
But state polls were heavily criticised in 2016 for underestimating Trump’s support, as these charts in our research highlight.
The final poll averages in 2016 underestimated Trump’s margin over Clinton by more than five points in several swing states: North Carolina (5.3), Iowa (5.7), Minnesota (5.7), Ohio (6.9) and Wisconsin (7.2). This is calculated by taking the difference between the official election result and the average of the polls on election eve.
A review of 2016 polling by the American Association of Public Opinion Research examined a number of hypotheses about the bias of state-level polls in 2016.
Two predominant factors made the difference:
1. An unusually large number of late-deciders strongly favoured Trump
The number of “undecideds” in 2016 was more than double that in prior elections. Of these, a disproportionate number voted for Trump.
But 2020 polling to date reveals far fewer undecided voters, suggesting this source of poll error will not be as large in this year’s election.
2. Changes in voter turnout
In 2016, Trump successfully mobilised white voters who are becoming a smaller portion of the American electorate and ordinarily have low rates of voter turnout. These were largely non-urban voters and those with lower levels of education.
This year will likely see high levels of engagement from both sides — and potentially a surge in turnout unseen in decades — which could further undermine the accuracy of election polls.
The latest state poll averages imply Biden will handily win the election with an Electoral College victory of 334 to 204.
But if the 2020 polls are as wrong as they were in 2016, then Biden’s current poll leads in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin are misleading. If Biden loses these three states, the Electoral College result will be 305-233, still a comfortable Biden win.
In recent weeks, however, we have seen Biden’s poll leads in Pennsylvania and Florida be smaller than the corresponding poll error in those states from 2016.
If Trump wins these two large states (in addition to New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin), and the other 2016 results are replicated elsewhere, then he will narrowly win the election with 282 Electoral College votes.
Given the statistical range of poll errors seen in 2016 — and assuming they reoccur in 2020 — current polling implies Trump has roughly a one in three chance of winning re-election.
The COVID-19 pandemic and controversies around the administration of the election could further jeopardise the validity of 2020 polling. Official statistics already show many voters are attempting to make use of voting by mail or in-person, early voting.
Access to these alternative forms of voting varies tremendously across the United States, so the political consequences are difficult to anticipate.
Trump and his Republican supporters have raised doubts about the validity and security of vote by mail. A recent opinion poll showed Democrats are much more likely to rely on vote by mail compared to Republicans (72% to 22%).
Unsurprisingly, Democrats and other groups are bringing numerous lawsuits to help ensure vote by mail remains a widely available method of voting.
It is quite likely the courts will be asked to rule on the validity of the results after the election, on the basis mail ballots have been either improperly included or excluded in official tallies.
On the one hand, this year’s election seems to have historically low levels of undecided voters, a factor that should make polls more accurate. But offsetting this is tremendous uncertainty about turnout and whose votes will be cast and counted.
All this suggests considerable caution be exercised in relying on the polls to forecast the election. These forecasts are almost surely overconfident.
The other main takeaway: Trump’s chances of re-election are likely higher than suggested by the polling we have seen to date.
The charts in this piece were initially created by Zoe Meers, formerly a data visualisation analyst at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.