I mentioned yesterday that I remain pretty relaxed about the latest presidential polls. To explain this, I'd like to nominate two phrases of the year: response rates and reversion to the mean.

Response rates

I haven't written about this before, but it's been a hot topic of conversation in polling circles this year. In a nutshell, lots of pollsters have come to believe that voters are less likely to respond to polls when their candidate does badly. YouGov, which uses a panel-based polling system that allows them to re-interview people, says this:

After the first presidential debate in September, we reinterviewed 2,132 people who had told us their vote intentions a month before. 95 percent of the September Clinton supporters said they intended to vote for her....Of the Trump supporters, only 91 percent said they were still planning on voting for Trump....The net effect was to increase Clinton’s lead by almost four points. That was real change, though significantly less that the ten point change to Clinton’s lead seen in some polls....Other events, however, have not had any detectable impact on voting intentions. We did not see any shifts after the release of the Access Hollywood video, the second or third presidential debates, or the reopening of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails.

....Although we didn’t find much vote switching, we did notice a different type of change: the willingness of Clinton and Trump supporters to participate in our polls varied by a significant amount depending upon what was happening at the time of the poll: when things are going badly for a candidate, their supporters tend to stop participating in polls. For example, after the release of the Access Hollywood video, Trump supporters were four percent less likely than Clinton supporters to participate in our poll. The same phenomenon occurred this weekend for Clinton supporters after the announcement of the FBI investigation.

The chart on the right shows what happened to YouGov's response rates after the second debate: people who had voted for Obama in 2012 answered the phone more, while people who had voted for Romney answered the phone less. This produces a swing in the final poll results, but it's meaningless. The same people are still out there, and they're mostly still planning to vote for the same person.

The whole YouGov piece is worth a read, because it does a good job of explaining what this phenomenon is all about, as well as offering possible solutions. But the bottom line is simple: A lot of the poll swings we see in presidential campaigns are probably illusions, demonstrating only changes in the willingness to be polled, not changes in voting intention. If this gets confirmed, it represents a genuine sea change in how we interpret polls.

Reversion to the mean

This theory about response rates might explain another phenomenon that's been much in evidence this year: reversion to the mean. You can see it pretty clearly in Sam Wang's meta-margin:

Up through July, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Trump by a steady 3.5 points. Then she got a big spike after the Democratic convention, but it quickly reverted to around 3.5. Then she dropped a bunch after some email news and her fainting spell on 9/11—but again, the trendline quickly reverted to 3.5. Then she spiked again after the second debate and the Access Hollywood video, but reverted to 3.5 yet again.

Clinton could easily lose another point before Election Day, or she could revert back to 3.5 and stay there. I'd bet on reversion to the mean. This election features two candidates who have been around a long time and are both very well known. Almost everybody made up their minds pretty early, and nothing much has changed for the past 12 months. Hillary Clinton will most likely win by 3-4 percentage points, plus maybe a little extra because she has a way better ground game.

Someone at the Washington Post thinks they're being awfully cute today:

They just don't get it. Any congressional session held under a Trump presidency is special. Very, very special. In fact, the most special session we've ever held. What's so hard to understand about that?

The latest hotness on the right is to promise not just to hold up Senate hearings on Merrick Garland until we get a new president, but to hold up all hearings for all Supreme Court nominees forever if Hillary Clinton wins:

That prospect — which could impact every aspect of American life including climate regulations, abortion and gun rights — was first raised by Senator John McCain of Arizona, then Ted Cruz of Texas and now Richard Burr of North Carolina, who CNN reported Monday talked up the idea at a private event over the weekend.

“If Hillary Clinton becomes president, I am going to do everything I can do to make sure four years from now, we still got an opening on the Supreme Court,” Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told a group of Republican volunteers, according to CNN.

Marco Rubio, taking his usual craven approach to political landmines, says it would be wrong to blockade everyone, but it would be OK to blockade anyone who's not a conservative:

“If it’s someone good who understands that their job is to apply the constitution, according to its original intent, then that will be a welcome surprise,” he said. “But barring whether it’s Republican or a Democrat, if they appoint someone who I believe doesn’t meet that standard I’ll oppose that nominee.”

Ross Douthat explains the principled thinking behind this strategy:

There you have it. Liberal views of the law are inherently illegitimate, so Democrats don't get to pick any more Supreme Court justices. There's a name for this kind of republic. Starts with a B. Not quite coming to me, though.

A few weeks ago the New York Times got hold of the first page of Donald Trump's 1995 tax return. It showed a net operating loss of $916 million, which Trump was able to use to offset his income over the next 20 years, thus avoiding millions of dollars in income taxes. But while solving one mystery, it opened another: Just exactly how did Trump manage to declare such a big loss? Several theories made the rounds, but the Times now thinks it has the answer, thanks to a cache of "newly obtained documents." Here's the nutshell version of the Times' explanation:

  • Trump was a terrible businessman and lost a huge amount of money on his casino operations in the early 90s.
  • As part of his bankruptcy negotiations in 1991, he persuaded banks to forgive hundred of millions of dollars in loans.
  • Forgiven loans count as "Cancellation of Debt" income, which should have offset his huge operating losses. But somehow they didn't. Why?
  • The Times says it was because Trump used a legally dubious "equity-for-debt" swap. Basically, he swapped the bonds he couldn't pay for new bonds that he classified as equity shares in the casino partnership.

The Times makes a good case that Trump's own tax lawyers told him this plan was extremely risky (see the excerpt from the official tax opinion on the right) and would most likely be disallowed by the IRS. But we don't know if it was. The trail stops cold in 1995.

If I'm reading this right, the basic story is that Trump gave his banks "New Bonds" in place of their old bonds and classified the new bonds as equity shares in the casino partnership. Trump then valued the equity as equal to the old debt, thus showing no net loan forgiveness and therefore no COD income. This despite the fact that, in reality, the equity was close to worthless.

So Trump then had $916 million in operating losses, but no debt forgiveness to offset it. "Even in the opaque, rarefied world of gaming impenetrable tax regulations," says the Times, "this particular maneuver was about as close as a company could get to waving a magic wand and making taxes disappear."

At this point, the question of how Trump gamed the tax system is mostly a matter of academic interest. Still, I've written about this before, and figured I should follow up with the latest theory. And this is it.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Donald Trump is doing especially well in places where white majorities are dwindling:

Small towns in the Midwest have diversified more quickly than almost any part of the U.S. since the start of an immigration wave at the beginning of this century. The resulting cultural changes appear to be moving the political needle.

That shift helps explain the emergence of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump as a political force, and signals that tensions over immigration will likely outlive his candidacy....Mr. Trump won about 71% of sizable counties nationwide during the Republican presidential primaries. He took 73% of those where diversity at least doubled since 2000, and 80% of those where the diversity index rose at least 150%, the Journal’s analysis found.

Hmmm. I'm no political scientist, but I play one on the internet—and 71 percent vs. 73 percent sure doesn't sound like a very substantial effect to me. Trump's 80 percent win rate in counties where diversity rose by 150 percent is slightly more impressive, but the sample size is pretty low. Here's the diversity map:

The Journal identifies a "distinct cluster of Midwestern states—Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota" that saw the fastest influx of nonwhite residents. So let's take a look at who those states supported in the Republican primaries:

That sure doesn't look like a region where Trump kicked any special ass. In fact, aside from his home territory in the mid-Atlantic states, he did best in the South, which has seen virtually no change in diversity according to the Journal's map. White folks there have been living among nonwhites for a long time, and they were completely in love with Trump.

I wonder what accounts for that? Economic anxiety, perhaps?

Unemployment is actually lower in rapidly diversifying counties than in the country on the whole, a sign that concerns over lost jobs are weighing less on voters in these areas....Craig Williams, chairman of the Carroll County Republican Party, said it is the lawlessness of illegal immigration that bothers residents. “People talk about immigration as if we’re a bunch of racists,” he said. “Do we have laws, or do we not have laws? If we’re just going to ignore them, then what’s the point?”

It's a chin scratcher, all right. I guess we'll never know.

Orange County, California. Conservative suburbia. Reagan country. Ground zero for decades of cold warrior political domination. And above all, a reliable generator of Republican votes and Republican fundraising. But just as the demographics of America have been changing, so have the demographics of this famous conservative bastion:

In 1990, whites made up nearly two-thirds of the county's population. Now, they are a minority. The county's Latino and Asian populations have grown enormously—some in low-income neighborhoods, particularly in Santa Ana, but many in newly diverse, affluent communities.

As the region has grown more diverse, GOP margins have narrowed…Trump's disparaging rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims, his breaks with past Republican stands on trade and the overall tone of his campaign seem likely to create the final tipping point this month.

There are only seven days to go before we find out if Trump manages this historic task. It would be fitting if he's the one to put the final nail in the coffin of 80 years of GOP domination of my hometown. Only seven days!

Harry Reid may be a loose cannon, but never say he can't spur people to action. In 2012 he blandly declared that a friend of his told him that Mitt Romney had paid no income tax for ten years. Reid's friend may or may not have been imaginary, but a few weeks later Romney released his 2011 tax return along with topline information for the previous two decades.

Yesterday Reid followed up this triumph by writing a letter to FBI director James Comey accusing him of withholding "explosive" information about close ties between Donald Trump and the Russian government. Is this true? Who knows? But Reid sure has sparked a firestorm of activity:

  • CNBC reports that Comey opposed having the FBI's name on a report accusing Russia of interfering with US elections. "He believed it to be true, but was against putting it out before the election," said CNBC's source. That's odd in light of the fact that Comey released much more damaging information about Hillary Clinton a mere 11 days before the election.
     
  • Our own David Corn reports that a "former senior intelligence officer for a Western country" says that he informed the FBI in July that the Russian regime has been cultivating Donald Trump for five years. "Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance," the former spy said in a memo. He claimed that Russian intelligence had "compromised" Trump during his visits to Moscow and could "blackmail him":
     
    The former intelligence officer says the response from the FBI was "shock and horror." The FBI, after receiving the first memo, did not immediately request additional material, according to the former intelligence officer and his American associates. Yet in August, they say, the FBI asked him for all information in his possession and for him to explain how the material had been gathered and to identify his sources. The former spy forwarded to the bureau several memos—some of which referred to members of Trump's inner circle. After that point, he continued to share information with the FBI. "It's quite clear there was or is a pretty substantial inquiry going on," he says.
  • NBC News reports that the FBI is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the "foreign business connections" of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager.
     
  • Frank Foer reports on the very peculiar transmissions between a Trump computer and a computer owned by Alfa Bank—a Russian bank run by oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. The transmissions began early this year, peaked in early August, and then abruptly ceased a few weeks ago when a New York Times reporter began inquiring about them.

So that's the Russia news of the day. Is it newsworthy, or just a bunch of ungrounded speculation? Nobody knows! And we probably won't find out before Election Day. It's all going to hang like a dark cloud over the final week of the campaign, ominous but ultimately unknowable. Exciting, isn't it?

Donna Brazile has been let go as a CNN analyst because she leaked a debate question in advance to Hillary Clinton. Earlier this year, before a town hall debate in Flint, Brazile tipped the Clinton campaign that she would be asked about...wait for it...lead poisoning. Needless to say, the whole point of holding the debate in Flint was because of it lead poisoning problem.

At least we've learned one thing this election cycle: Donna Brazile is the worst mole in history.

With 8 days left until we elect a new president, Morning Consult decided to poll the American public about the Comeygate emails that nobody has seen and which may or may not even be anything be new. The results are kind of perfect. They asked which is worse: Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, or Donald Trump's comments on women, Muslims, Mexicans, and other minority groups? The answer:

  • Democrats: Trump's comments, 85-12, percent.
  • Independents: A tie, 44-44 percent.
  • Republicans: Clinton's email server, 82-10 percent.

Elsewhere, they asked about Trump's comment that Clinton's use of a private server was worse than Watergate. Among Republicans, 82 percent said it was. I wonder if they would have agreed if Trump said it was worse than the Holocaust?

I do wonder sometimes what these folks think is in these emails. I mean, suppose the worst: Hillary Clinton set up the private server in a deliberate attempt to evade FOIA and allow her staff to delete embarrassing emails. What do they think she would have inexplicably fessed up to on her BlackBerry? The mythical stand down order on Benghazi? That she really did order a hit on Vince Foster? Her plan to take away everybody's guns once she becomes president? It's a mystery.

Even those of us who have read a fair amount of history have plenty of lacunae. After all, a lot of stuff has happened since the glaciers receded and someone accidentally discovered that if you picked the little seedy bits off of some plants and tossed them away, they'd grow into new plants.

Anyway. A couple of weeks ago I needed something new to read, and the choice came down to a gauzy bit of fiction or a history of Reconstruction. I chose the history. What a mistake. In the middle of a depressing election that's turning largely on the politics of racial resentment and the loss of white supremacy, I'm taking the occasional breather by reading about possibly the most depressing era in American history—which, of course, turns pretty much entirely on the politics of racial resentment and the loss of white supremacy. And it's not like this will have a happy ending or some kind of surprise twist. I know how it's all going to turn out, after all. I think maybe I should have waited.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it's the ideal read during Trumpmania. And with 150 mg of venlafaxine coursing through my body each day, I'm able to remain in a pretty chipper mood regardless. Better living through chemistry, my friends.