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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Is Trump a Lock to Win Reelection?

Recently, political commentator Harry Enten ("How Trump has broken the polls") noted that although Joe Biden currently leads Donald Trump, on average, by about 6 points in the polls, a majority of voters still think Trump will win the election in November. However, if Biden holds his lead and wins the popular vote by 6 points, that will be more than enough to wipe out any advantage Trump may enjoy in the electoral college. Interestingly, Enten points out that a similar disconnect occurred in 2018:
Gallup asked Americans just before that election whether they thought Democrats or Republicans would control the US House after the election. By a 50% to 44% margin, they said Republicans. This came even as Democrats were clear favorites in pretty much every forecast and when that same Gallup poll showed Democrats with an 11-point lead on the generic congressional ballot. This... marked the first time that Americans incorrectly forecasted who would win the House.
This leads Enten to wonder whether voters are overreacting to the 2016 election. Hillary held a small lead in the polls (which she maintained in the election contrary to much conventional wisdom), and most Americans thought she would win. She didn't, of course, and now many voters seem to believe that there's something magical about Trump, that the polls underestimate Trump's appeal. Enten disagrees:
My advice would be that in gauging the electorate, you shouldn't be of the mindset that Trump is going to pull it out if the polls continue to suggest he won't. Even Trump's own polling reportedly has him behind. Trump's a politician, not a magician.
Something similar appears to be occurring with prediction markets. When asked to choose between a generic Democratic or Republican candidate, the markets currently favor the former over the latter by about 4 points (53-49). Moreover, when betting on which candidate will win individual states, the markets predict that the Democratic candidate will walk away with 290 electoral votes, while the Republican candidate will walk away with only 248. In other words, both predict a win for the Democrats. However, when asked to specifically bet on Biden or Trump, the markets choose Trump over Biden by about 6 points (50-44). Although part of this can be explained away because neither candidate has officially been chosen as their party's nominee, that's clearly not the whole story. Some of it has to reflect the sentiment that Trump's unbeatable.

I don't think he is. After 2016 the markets have become gun shy. After incorrectly predicting a Clinton win in 2016, they're overcompensating and overestimating Trump's chances of winning in 2020. Trump may win in November, but in order to do so, a higher percentage of Americans will have to vote for him then than many will now.

Note: This morning FiveThirtyEight published a "chat" ("If Trump Is Down In The Polls, Why Do So Many Americans Think He’ll Win?") that discusses this same phenomenon.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Things Are Looking Up for Biden and the Democrats

At first glance, it appears that Bernie Sanders did far worse in the 2020 Michigan primary than in the 2016 Michigan primary. After all, in 2016 he beat Hillary Clinton 49.68% to 48.26%, while in 2020 he lost to Joe Biden 36.4% to 52.9%. But here's the kicker. In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders attracted roughly the same number of votes: 598,943 in 2016 and 576,754 in 2020. In other words, it wasn't that Sanders faired far worse in 2020 than he did in 2016; rather, it was the Biden did a whole lot better in 2020 than Hillary did in 2016: In 2020 Biden garnered 838,555 votes, while in 2016 Hillary got 581,775. That's more than 250,000 votes, a 44% increase from Clinton to Biden.

Undoubtedly, numerous factors lie behind Biden's surge. Almost certainly, one is that Democrats are far more motivated to beat Donald Trump this time around than they were in 2016. It's not that most didn't oppose him in 2016; it's just that most didn't think he would win. Another is that Democrats underestimated how much of the electorate (including Democrats) disliked Hillary Clinton. As I pointed out almost four years ago, regardless of who we elected, they were going to be one of the most unpopular President in U.S. history ("Our Next President Will Be Really Unpopular"). Thus, one can't help but wonder what would've happened if Joe Biden had run for President in 2016 and won the Democratic nomination.

He is, of course, running in 2020 and probably will be the Democratic nominee. A few months ago, I wouldn't have given him much of a chance ("Democrats Could Be In Trouble"). As I've noted on several occasions, it's difficult to unseat a sitting President when the economy is doing well. And, up until a month ago, it was. But, with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, things have changed. We're almost certainly in a recession, and it's likely to last through the end of 2020 and into 2021. And this has thrown the upcoming election's outcome into doubt. Trump is not an idiot (although his opponents like to paint him that way). He knows this is true, which is why he's chomping at the bit to "reopen" the economy. It could backfire, but he intuitively senses that if the economy doesn't reopen soon, his reelection chances are doomed.

To be clear, the state of the economy generally doesn't affect most peoples' votes, but historically it's had a substantial impact on swing voters. Some observers of the political scene believe that given our currently polarized political climate ("Uncivil Agreement: Social Identity and Political Polarization"), the state of the economy will have a smaller impact than it has in the past. Why? Primarily because political polarization has shrunk the number of swing voters in the U.S. 

While that's entirely possible and strikes me as actually likely, Biden doesn't have to convince that many swing voters to switch back from Trump to him in order to win the general election. Trump only won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by a combined 78,000 votes. I'm sorry, but that isn't a lot of votes, so it isn't unreasonable to argue that the current downturn in the economy will substantially hurt Trump's prospects in the Fall. Add to this the fact that Biden is far more popular among rank-and-file Democrats than Hillary ever was back in 2016, and it's hard to deny that things are looking up for Joe (and the Democrats) unless one's burying one's head in the sand. Of course, it's a long time between now and November, and a lot can (and will) happen. But, all things considered, Joe (and the Democrats) should be feeling hopeful.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Social Distancing Isn't Just About You

Yesterday, we were out for a bike ride and rode past a house where a handful of neighbors were holding a party. Kids were playing basketball in a nearby court, and (we assume) their parents and friends were hanging out in one of the yards. Much to their (we assume) disappointment, two members of the San Jose Police Department had just "joined" the party, informing the partiers that currently such gatherings were verboten. By the time we returned from our bike ride, the party was no longer (or maybe they moved it to someone's back yard).

I'm sure most of those gathered for the party showed up because they weren't worried about becoming infected or too sick if they did. But social distancing isn't just about them. It's also whether they catch it and pass it on to someone who can't fight off the infection. There are numerous stories about people who didn't know they were infected, went to some gathering, and passed it on to someone who then later died.

Don't be one of those persons. This isn't just about you.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

People Seem Nicer

With the "shelter in place" in effect, I've been biking a lot on local trails and streets. And people seem nicer. Cars stop to let bikes cross (what were once) busy streets, and people seem more willing to make room for people to pass. Of course, the latter could simply be people seeking to maintain a safe social distance, but people also greeting random others with a smile and well wishes. To be sure, there've been a few "Lord of the Flies" moments, such as people fighting over household goods at Costco, and then there were those folks waiting in long lines to stock up on guns and ammo. Not sure I want to know what they think they're preparing for. Still, although my bike-riding experiences don't constitute a random sample, I'd like to think (hope?) that they reflect the fact that people are acting nicer.

This has made me wonder if one long-term benefit of the coronavirus pandemic may be that it helps bring us together after years of political polarization. It won't happen overnight. Although Trump cleverly exploited it to win the 2016 election, the divide that separates us has been with us for some time. The political scientist, Liliana Mason, traces it back to at least 1972 (Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity"). And there's plenty of blame to go around. Some point to the racially-tinged southern strategy of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater's as a cause, but as the political scientist, Mark Lilla, points out, liberals have also been complicit ("The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics"). Regardless of the causes, we have sorted ourselves into competing tribes or teams that often appear more interested in winning than in doing what's good for the nation as a whole.

Nevertheless, people who study our tribal tendencies also point out that when divided groups are presented with a superordinate task, they often put their differences aside and band together. And I wonder if, perhaps, coming together to tackle the coronavirus might just be the superordinate task that does it for us. There are some, however, who argue that it will have just the opposite effect, exacerbating other divides, in particular those defined by race, class, and age: "Slurs against Asian Americans. Jokes about baby boomers dying. And blue-collar workers’ plight is nothing like the 'work from home' lifestyle" (see "Covid-19 Is Becoming the Disease That Divides Us"). I'm hoping I'm right and they're wrong. People really do seem nicer.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Church and the Coronavirus

In the 1990s the sociologist, Rodney Stark, sought to answer the question: "Why did an obscure religious sect (Christianity) evolve into a dominant religious institution in just a few centuries?" The result was his book, "The Rise of Christianity," which over the course of several chapters, he speculates on a number of possible factors.

One of the more intriguing chapters concerns the effect that the epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries of the Common Era had on Christianity and its religious competitors. Briefly, Stark, who at the time considered himself an agnostic, argues that Christian doctrine enhanced the ability of the early Church to better survive the epidemics, and consequently, its social networks emerged from the plagues relatively intact, while those of its competitors did not. This, in turn, increased the likelihood that the early Church would attract new converts (because of an increase in the ratio of personal ties to non-Christians), which helps explain part of its success. It also raises issues to how today's Christians will respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Explanations and Effectiveness

Why reasons does Stark offer to back up his argument? First, he argues that the church offered better explanations for and appeared more effective in combatting the epidemics. Stark notes that social scientists have long believed that natural and social disasters often produce crises of faith because they can challenge the legitimacy of dominant religious traditions. This can happen in at least two ways: First, when a dominant religion is incapable of offering adequate explanations of a disaster, and second, when it may be, or at least appears to be, ineffective in the face of the disaster. When crises of faith do occur, societies often turn to “new” religions that provide better explanations and appear more effective. Moreover, people almost always prefer explanations that help make life, even in the face of a disaster, coherent and understandable.

Stark believes that a crisis of faith (or faiths) occurred when the epidemics hit the Roman Empire. He argues that neither the pagan priests nor the philosophers offered adequate explanations as to why the plagues occurred, why some people died, and so on, but the early Christian church did. It offered “a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:80–81).

As we will see in the next section, however, not only did Christianity offer its adherents better explanations, but Stark also believes that it appeared to be, and probably was, more effective in combatting the epidemics. Because of doctrines that insisted that Christians minister to the sick and dying, it is likely that Christians enjoyed higher survival rates, and this would have been seen by many non-Christians as nothing short of miraculous. Moreover, the higher survival rates would have produced a larger proportion of Christians who were immune to the disease because those who contracted it and recovered were protected from further infection. Thus, they could “pass among the afflicted with seeming invulnerability” (Stark 1996:90), and this was almost certainly seen by some non-Christians as evidence of the superiority of God, or at least the Christian God.

Christian Charity and Differential Survival

Second, Stark argues that the Church's doctrines concerning love, charity, and social service led to higher survival rates among Christians than among its competitors. He notes that although at the time science offered no cure for the epidemics, “elementary nursing” would have greatly reduced the mortality rate. “[The s]imple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably” (McNeill 1976:108, quoted in Stark 1996:88).

Unfortunately, according to Stark, between “a quarter and a third” of all Roman citizens perished because they did not receive such nursing (Stark 1996:76), and a primary reason was because when the plagues struck, most people, or at least those with the resources to do so, fled. Why? Because, Stark believes, the dominant religions of the time possessed no doctrines that claimed that people were obligated to minister to the sick and dying. Christianity, however, did. And, according to Stark, these ideas translated into action. In particular, they led Christians to nurse those who became infected, which in turn, led to higher survival rates among those they nursed, both Christians and non-Christians. But, since Christians were more likely to stay behind (and receive nursing), they probably had higher survival rights.

Differential Survival and Network Ties

Finally, Stark argues that the Church's higher survival rate left its social networks (not to be confused with Facebook) undamaged for the most part, while leaving those of its competitors in disarray. This probably would have enhanced its ability to recruit new followers. Why? A wealth of research has found that people are far more likely to join a new religious movement, especially when it involves a tremendous amount of personal risk, if they already know (have a tie) to someone who is a member.

A colleague of mine (Robert Schroeder) and I used computer simulations to test Stark's argument and found that, given his assumption, it has merit ("Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity"). In particular, we found that Christian social networks survived the epidemics more intact than did the social networks of its religious competitors. The differences between the two were not as dramatic as Stark originally hypothesized, but they are not substantial nonetheless. Christians lost fewer ties and gained almost as many converts as they would have done if the epidemics had never occurred. By contrast, their competitors lost more ties, most of which were to non-Christians, which increased the probability they would've converted to Christianity.

The Church and the Coronavirus

A number of scholars have challenged Stark's assumptions, from whether the differences between Christianity and its competitors were as substantial as Stark believes to whether the nursing of those infected had as much of an effect as he claims. Nevertheless, Stark's analysis raises the issue of how today's Church responds to the Coronavirus pandemic that's sweeping through today's world. Will we, as Stark believes that members of the early Church did, consider the welfare of others above our own? Will we, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr,
Have the courage to change the things we can,
The composure to accept what we can't,
And the wisdom to know the difference?
I pray that we will because we could be facing another crisis of faith. Let's hope the Church responds as it once did.

References

Sean F. Everton and Robert Schroeder. 2019. "Plagues, Pagans, and Christians: Differential Survival, Social Networks, and the Rise of Christianity." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 58(4):775-89. doi: 10.1111/jssr.12631

William H. McNeill. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Reinhold Niebuhr. [1944] 2015. "Serenity Prayer." Page 705 in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, ed. by Elisabeth Sifton. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rodney Stark. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Two Good Reasons to Practice Social Distancing

There's two good reasons to practice "social distancing," that is, the conscious effort to reduce close contact between ourselves and others in order to prevent the transmission of a virus to others. One is to lower the probability that we will contract the disease. Most everybody gets this. And, as everyone knows, some of us are more likely to become infected than others. Unfortunately, it appears a lot of folks don't get the second reason: to not pass the virus on to someone else. This attitude seems to prevail among those who think they're unlikely to become infected. The problem is, it is quite possible that they could become infected, but the symptoms are so mild, that they don't know they have it. And then they head out into public places and unwittingly pass it on to others who may not be so lucky.

So, let's all do our best to keep our distance from others. We can still visit with friends, pick up a Peet's or Philz, and maybe even dine out. But we can do so without getting into other peoples' space. We're all in this together: Republicans and Democrats, believers and atheists, the Left Coast and the South, the Northeast and the Midwest. Let's start acting like it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

How Will The Giants Do This Season? (If There is One)

How will the Giants do this season? I asked the same question last year ("How Will the Giants do in 2019?"), and my answer was that they would probably do better than many expected. I anticipated Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Panik, and Posey all to have decent years, and except for Longoria, none of the them really did. And by late May, I was calling for a rebuild ("Should the Giants Pull the Plug?" "Retool or Rebuild: A Choice, Not a Question").

Then, the performance of a few new players, such as Kevin Pillar, Mike Yastrzemski, Donovan Solano, and Alex Dickerson, plus the revival of Pablo Sandoval, altered the landscape. The Giants started winning, and rather than dealing Madison Bumgarner at the trade deadline, they held on to him, hoping they could make a run at the playoffs. They didn't, but at 77-85, they finished better than preseason projections (73-89 per PECOTA, and 71-91 per 538). So, I guess I was right after all (albeit for all the wrong reasons).

I'm pretty much taking the same position this season. Currently PECOTA projects the Giants to win 68 games (538 has yet to release theirs), but I believe they will win more than that. I do think Posey will have a better year than last; he seems to be healthy, and he's been hitting with more authority this Spring training. Additionally, it looks like Crawford and Belt will be platooned this year, splitting their time with the likes of Marcio Dubon, Wilmer Flores, Donovan Solano, and Yolmer Sánchez, which should improve their numbers relative to plate appearances, as well as the Giants overall numbers at short and first. In the outfield we have Yaz and Dickerson coming back, and Hunter Pence (yea!) will probably platoon with the latter. That's a pretty good combination. Austin Slater showed promise last year, as did Jaylin Davis, so our outfield may be okay. Rumor has it that Marcio Dubon will be spending time in the outfield too.

Pitching could be a major problem. No MadBum, and Tyler Beede, probably our best pitching prospect, has arm problems, and it's unclear when he'll be back. It'll be up to Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to have better than expected seasons if the Giants hope to be competitive. Who knows how the rest of the rotation will fare. That, I think, is the Giants' biggest uncertainty. And then there's the bullpen. More uncertainty. Tyler Rogers could turn out to be a good closer, and we do have Tony Watson returning. The bullpen may turn out better than it appears at first blush. Only time will tell.

I do anticipate the Giants acquiring players that turn out to be pleasant surprises. Farhan Zaidi is doing with the Giants what he did with the Dodgers. Picking players off a waivers, signing unheralded free agents, and trading for players other teams want to unload, and then giving them a shot. And while most don't pan out, some do. Think Justin Turner or Chris Taylor. We need to find players like them (Darin Ruf?).

And then there's Joey Bart. The Giants number one prospect. He'll almost certainly be pulled up to the majors this year, which means that Buster will see more time at 1st base. The Giants have a few more prospects that may not be too far from making their major league debuts either: Sean Hjell, the 6'11" pitcher who had a pretty good Spring training, and Heliot Ramos, who hit a massive home run in Spring training and is only 20 years old.

So, how will we do? I say we will win about as many games as last year. However, if Beede gets healthy, and Joey Bart makes even more of splash than anticipated, we might surprise a few people. I doubt that we'll reach the playoffs, but the second half of the season may prove entertaining and we could be pretty well set up for 2021 (perhaps, we'll start talking about the magic of "odd years" in the future).