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June 14th, 2020:

The Economist’s 2020 Presidential election model

Here it is, the first official model of the year.

Four months ago, Donald Trump’s odds of winning a second term had never looked better. After an easy acquittal in his impeachment trial, his approval rating had reached its highest level in three years, and was approaching the upper-40s range that delivered re-election to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Unemployment was at a 50-year low, setting him up to take credit for a strong economy. And Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, had won the popular vote in each of the first three Democratic primary contests.

But even by Mr Trump’s frenetic standards, the tumble in his political stock since then has been remarkably abrupt. First, Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s moderate and well-liked vice-president, pulled off a comeback for the ages, surging from the verge of dropping out to presumptive nominee. Then covid-19 battered America, claiming at least 110,000 lives and 30m jobs. And just when deaths from the virus began to taper off, protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd convulsed cities across America. Mr Trump’s callous response has widened the empathy gap separating him from Mr Biden into a chasm.

Even at the president’s high-water mark in February, he trailed Mr Biden by five percentage points in national polling averages. That deficit has now swelled to eight. Polls of swing states tell a similar tale. Mr Biden is not only ahead in the midwestern battlegrounds that elected Mr Trump the first time, but also in Florida and Arizona. Even states that Mr Trump won easily in 2016, such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio, look competitive. There is little question that if the election were held today, Mr Biden would win in a near-landslide.

The election, of course, will not be held today. In fact, more time remains between now and November 3rd than has passed since Mr Trump’s impeachment trial. And given the devotion of the president’s base, Mr Biden is probably approaching his electoral ceiling, whereas Mr Trump has plenty of room to win back soft supporters.

Indeed, there are good reasons to expect he will. First, the latest jobs report suggests that the economy may have bottomed out. In 1984 Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale by declaring “Morning in America”, though unemployment remained high by historical standards. Mr Trump plans to make the same argument. The Black Lives Matter protests could also backfire on Democrats if they rally white voters behind the “law and order” candidate, as they are thought to have done in 1968.

Given all this uncertainty, it is tempting to conclude that it is too early for predictions, and call the election a virtual toss-up. That is the view of bettors, who currently make Mr Biden a bare 55-45 favourite. Yet a hard look at the data and at history suggests that this is too generous to Mr Trump. The Economist’s first-ever statistical forecast of an American presidential race, which we launch this week and will update every day until the election, gives Mr Biden an 82% chance of victory.

G. Elliott Morris, one of the architects of the model, adds some detail in this Twitter thread. Remember that models are not really about prediction, but about possible outcomes given certain starting conditions. Models necessarily give different answers when the basic data informing the questions change. The best thing you can do is try to understand what those questions are, and avoid putting too much faith in any headline interpretation of them.

All that said, you know my interest is always in what the outlook is for Texas, and you can see what the model is saying about our state here. As of this writing, Biden has about a 20% chance of carrying Texas, which frankly sounds pretty robust to me. It projects a five-point win for Trump, which suggests to me that Dems will do quite well downballot, as we saw in 2018. All this can and will change as we get more polling data, and as overall conditions such as the economy change. We’ll check back on this later to see how and in what direction things are changing. For now, take a look and see what you think.

Let’s fix the Sandra Bland Act

Let’s make it what it was supposed to have been in the first place.

Sandra Bland

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

[…]

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

See here for some background. The Chron adds some details.

Lawmakers in 2019 tried to revive the limitation on arrests but faced steep opposition from police unions and lost support from some Democrats who disagreed with parts of its language that they felt gave police too much discretion.

This time around, however, Gov. Greg Abbott is already speaking publicly in support of legislation that would prevent a death like Floyd’s from happening in Texas, which he called a “horrific act of police brutality” in a news conference Tuesday.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who authored the Sandra Bland Act, was listening.

“When Sandra Bland happened, we didn’t have Gov. Abbott coming out and saying that this was appalling,” said Coleman, a member of the newly formed bipartisan House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “We do on this case. Across the country, people who ordinarily would not side with the protesters in terms of what happened, they are. We have peace officers kneeling with protesters saying enough is enough. … That’s the great thing about life. Things can evolve.”

[…]

The Sandra Bland Act has already seen some early success: According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the number of annual suicides declined by 50 percent from 35 in 2015 to 17 in 2018 after the implementation of new standards for mentally ill inmates and independent investigations of jail deaths

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he also hopes to bring back discussion of the misdemeanor arrest restrictions missing from the Bland Act, as well as reforms of grand juries and the death penalty.

“It’s just a nightmare scenario with not only Mr. Floyd’s death but all of the stories — they’ve got to compel us not just to say the right things but to do the right things,” Leach said. “So, yes, my hope is that we will come together quickly and act, and I think you’re going to see the House and Senate do that next session.”

Other reforms lawmakers’ said they’d like to revisit in 2021 include deeper training on racial bias, stronger laws to prevent racial profiling in arrests and, like the Blands, ending “pretext stops.”

[…]

The fiercest political opposition has tended to come from police unions, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT.

Last session, the group fought the measure blocking arrests for class C, low-level misdemeanors because of a concern about taking away officer discretion.

It also opposed a bill written by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have made more records regarding in-custody death public. The police union said it was concerned that alleged misconduct would become public before the completion of an investigation.

After a bitter fight, the group declined to meet with Moody and certain other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody said. “Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this. … So while some cop lobbyist in Austin says we’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s not his decision to make. It’s our decision to make, and we have to get to work on this in a real way.”

There’s lots of things the Lege could do, and this all sounds like a good start. Overcoming opposition from law enforcement will be the main challenge. The head guy at CLEAT says they’re willing to talk to anyone speaking “in good faith”, and you can take that as you see fit. As I see it, they’re welcome to sit at our table if they have something constructive to offer, but no one has to go sit at theirs if they don’t want to. This session looks like the best opportunity to take positive action. Let’s keep that momentum going.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know?

In the first statewide policy change since George Floyd’s death shook the nation, the Texas agency that regulates police has agreed to add implicit bias training to a course required for every officer, upon the request of Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

The requirement was one that had been included in an early iteration, but not the final version, of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which requires all officers to take de-escalation training.

This time, Coleman went a different route and simply asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if it would make the change administratively as opposed to waiting for new legislation. To his delight, the commission responded a day later that it would adopt the policy.

Coleman said he will work with the agency on crafting and finalizing curriculum, but the purpose will be to train officers about the possibility that they may be unconsciously carrying preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect their actions on the job.

“It does what the public is asking for,” Coleman said. “When a police officer doesn’t understand that they have this bias, the only way to change it is for them to recognize that they have a bias that may be a racial bias.

“When people say, ‘How do you change how people think?’ This is how you change how people think.”

Who knew it could be that easy? May the rest of it be the same.

We’re about to find out what school might look like this fall

Brace yourselves.

Education leaders across Houston say they are working to welcome students like Alexis and Jayden back in the fall, but if guidelines released by the Texas Education Agency for in-person summer school are any indication of what’s to come, little will feel familiar.

Strict limits on class sizes and the number of students on school buses could mean children come to campus in shifts, with some days dedicated to online-only learning from home. Students may start their days in school with temperature checks and handwashing. Lunch may have to be eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias to maintain physical distancing.

The full contours of safety mandates could become clearer Tuesday, when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is expected to unveil state guidance to superintendents for the 2020-21 school year.

The new rules likely will look different than those issued for hosting in-person summer school, which initially included a mandate of no more than 11 students in a typical classroom and a recommendation that districts consider the use of face masks for students and staff. TEA officials relaxed the classroom size limit this week to allow 22 people in a classroom, provided each person has 45 square feet of space and desks remain 6 feet apart.

Still, many questions remain unanswered: What will daily and weekly schedules look like? What happens if a teacher or a student tests positive? What will it take for restrictions to ease? How will districts afford some potentially costly changes to meet the new safety rules.

In Spring ISD, Superintendent Rodney Watson is planning four scenarios for the upcoming school year: campuses reopening with minimal social distancing; in-person classes resuming with stringent social distancing; returning to school with rolling closures in the event of an outbreak; and hosting all learning remotely.

[…]

If classrooms reopen in August, school schedules also could look much different.

Amid the push for social distancing, many districts are considering a “hybrid model,” in which some students attend in-person classes for part of the week while remaining home for the rest.

In Spring Branch ISD, district officials are considering three hybrid scenarios: bringing in the youngest students in each school daily while limiting face-to-face instruction to one or two days for other students; hosting in-person classes for half of the students two days per week, with the other half attending two different days; and bringing half the students into school for four consecutive days, with the other half rotating in for four days the following week.

Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre also is examining how to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to students transitioning to new campuses, who he said need a solid foundation before they move on to higher grades. Under one scenario, those students would be on campus every day, while older students would go to campuses only two or three times a week.

My workplace is moving towards a hybrid-style return to the office, with some people remaining at home, and others alternating days or weeks in order to limit the number of people present. A longer school year with more breaks built in, to allow for some schedule flexibility in the event school has to be closed for a period of time due to an outbreak is possible. I suspect something like a model where only about half of the students are present any given day, and which ones they are depends on the day or the week, is likely, but this is a situation where one side won’t fit all. We’re going to have to live with a higher level of uncertainty than we like, and as one person quoted at the end notes, we will probably be doing something similar in the 2021-22 school year as well. Hang in there, y’all.

A twist in the sign stealing story

We’ll see how twisted it gets.

A federal judge ordered the unsealing of a 2017 letter from Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to the New York Yankees that, according to court documents, detailed a “more serious, sign-stealing scheme” than the league initially revealed that September.

The Yankees and Major League Baseball have until Monday at noon to submit “a minimally redacted version” of the letter, according to the 12-page memorandum order filed in the Southern District of New York.

The letter itself may not be unsealed until June 19 in order for the Yankees to file an emergency appeal.

[…]

The letter in question was obtained during the discovery phase of a $5 million class-action lawsuit brought by DraftKings players against the league, the Astros and Boston Red Sox in the wake of the sign-stealing revelations earlier this winter.

A group of more than 100 plaintiffs, led by daily fantasy player Kristopher Olson, claimed the league and two teams were liable for any money lost during games where either the Red Sox or Astros cheated.

Judge Jed S. Rakoff dismissed the suit in April, but the plaintiffs are appealing the decision to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Rakoff wrote Friday’s memorandum order that called for the letter’s unsealing, finding in favor of the DraftKings players who remain as plaintiffs. In their argument to keep the letter’s contents sealed, the Yankees said releasing the letter would inflict “significant reputational injury.”

“Much of the letter’s contents have already been revealed in the 2017 press release,” Rakoff wrote in his decision. “Furthermore, embarrassment on the part of MLB or the Yankees about the precise contents of the letter is not particularly weighty, and the privacy interests of any individuals mentioned in the letter may be remedied by minimal redaction.”

See here for more on the DraftKings lawsuit, to which the Yankees were not a party. My guess is that the single most likely outcome of this is that the letter tells us very little we didn’t already know, based on what Judge Rakoff says in his ruling, but the possibility certainly exists for something juicy to be in there. It’s not going to change anything the Astros did, but it might contribute to their “everyone else was doing it too” defense. It’s also possible that this will make MLB look bad – again – for the way they handled the investigation and the punishments that were handed out. We’ll find out soon enough. At this point, all I can say is that I’m glad for some baseball news that isn’t about the owners’ latest ridiculous season-starting proposal to the players. Views from 314 and Pinstripe Alley, both Yankees blogs, have more.