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Published with permission from AlterNet

The twilight zone nature of the presidential campaign continued Tuesday, with the fallout from the first debate hounding Donald Trump, bouying Hillary Clinton and leaving millions of voters wondering if the race’s dynamics have shifted from the near-tie in recent polls.

With the exception of the Trump campaign bubble and its knee-jerk right-wing media defenders, the universal judgment was Trump badly blew it on Monday night. Even the most ardent Hillary bashers at the right-wing National Review said so, summing it up this way:

“In the first 30 minutes of last night’s debate, Trump succeeded—if that is the word—largely by being so pugnacious that he made it difficult for Hillary Clinton to get a word in edgewise. But that strategy was not built to last, and it didn’t. After the forum’s first half hour, Trump was at his near-worst: thoughtless, rambling, self-contradictory, and hostile—not only to his opponent but to moderator Lester Holt, President Obama, and any number of other enemies real and imagined, up to and including Rosie O’Donnell and a former Miss Universe contestant.”

The debate sparked an avalanche of commentary and reactions, from each candidate saying they were pleased with their performance, to Trump saying he was done with playing nice (by not attacking Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities), to political and media insiders pinpointing why he did so poorly and she did so much better, to the financial markets reacting positively to what they perceive as a more likely Hillary Clinton victory.

Reputable pollsters will be reporting the debate’s impact in a few days after conducting surveys in swing states with large samples. Meanwhile, here are excerpts from a half-dozen of the most intriguing and illuminating reactions, observations and commentaries that surfaced Tuesday.

1. The financial markets don’t trust the Donald. Soon after the financial markets opened on Tuesday, stocks rose in response to Clinton’s performance. Considering she told the nation she would be raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans including Wall Street, that is remarkable. As Marketwatch.com reported, the Dow Jones rose “more than 100 points following Clinton-Trump debate.” They quoted portfolio managers like Diane Jaffee at TCW, who said, “Investors have a better idea about policies of Hillary Clinton, so any sign she is closer to the presidency is a boost.” But it wasn’t just American capitalists. The Mexican peso jumped more than 2 percent against the dollar. “The peso has been acting as a gauge of the presidential election sentiment on the theory that a victory for Trump will at the very least result in less trade between the two countries, if not the building of a barrier on the U.S. southern border,” wrote Marketwatch. People who know business know they don’t want Trump.

2. Trump’s “biggest choke of his political life.” The New York Post has been very pro-Trump. But on Tuesday, columnist John Podhoretz wrote one of the clearest analyses of what went down, including a list of Trump outbursts that he predicted Clinton will use against him. “By the end of the 95 minutes, Trump was reduced to a sputtering mess blathering about Rosie O’Donnell and about how he hasn’t yet said the mean things about Hillary that he is thinking,” Podhoretz wrote. “Most important, he set ticking time bombs for himself over the next six weeks… As she hammered him on his tax returns, he handed her an inestimable gift by basically saying he pays no federal taxes despite his billions… Clinton quoted him saying in 2006 that he hoped for a housing meltdown because it would provide buying opportunities and thereby goaded him into saying ‘that’s called business, by the way.’”

Podhoretz continued, “His reply to Hillary’s recitation of the fact he’d begun his career settling a Justice Department lawsuit about racial discrimination in Trump housing was that there was ‘no admission of guilt,’ which is the sort of thing the villain said at the end of ‘LA Law’ and sounded no better in real life.” He didn’t stop there, but said Trump betrayed his base and accused him of doing the very thing that Trump slams his opponents for—caving under pressure. “Even when he could have taken her down, he was so incompetent he didn’t go for it. A question about cybersecurity was the perfect opportunity to hammer Clinton on her outrageous mishandling of classified information. Instead, he went into a bizarre digression in which he alternately wondered whether his son Barron might grow up to become a hacker and defended Vladimir Putin from the accusation Russia had tapped into the Democratic National Committee’s emails (which the FBI says almost certainly happened). That has to count as the biggest choke of his political life.”

3. The reality TV star didn’t play to the camera. Former CBS-TV anchorman Dan Rather no longer has to play the straight newsman and his observations on Facebook can be riveting. The candidates brought their personas to the debate, which he contrasted by first describing their stage mannerisms. “From the very beginning, the body language tonight was striking,” he wrote. “Hillary Clinton, the first woman ever to be on this stage was calm and substantive. Donald Trump interrupted often and slouched and sneered as he turned to address her. This is what Trump’s fans like about him, playing the alpha male at all costs. Clinton seemed completely unflustered, which is what her fans love about her. How this all plays to the majority of viewers and voters at home will be in the eyes of the beholder.”

But then the longtime TV pro observed that Trump didn’t play to the camera, which, remarkably gave the nation an unfiltered glimpse of what a President Trump could be like. “I was surprised by how much this man who has made so much of the means of television spent not looking into the camera, but preoccupied with his adversary,” Rather wrote. “Trump came across as amped, a pacing tiger ready to pounce on every answer. His interruptions suggests little regard to the rules. He’s itching for a fight. Wants to swing wildly.” America’s founders hated “demagogues who would appeal to mankind’s basest instincts,” Rather concluded. “Donald Trump relishes in all of these impulses. For him they are instinctual and a prescription for success… The voters have all the information they need.”

4. Trump launches new sexist tirade against women. Trump seemed even more out-of-control on Tuesday morning. First he complained that he had a defective microphone, which magnified his sniffling (which prompted a social media storm pondering if he had used cocaine before the debate). As Clinton told reporters Tuesday, if you’re blaming the microphone, you’re in trouble. But more importantly, Trump ignited a new misogynist line of attack by going on national TV and attacking a former Miss Universe for gaining weight—after Clinton brought her up during the debate as an example of another woman who had poorly treated, in this case, a member of a key demographic that may help Clinton win Florida and Nevada: Latinas. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent tweeted, “Clinton camp just lured Trump into ridiculing a woman’s weight. Amazingly, he took the bait on national TV.”

Sargent’s WaPo column elaborated, “On Fox and Friends today, having slept on the exchange in question, Trump defended himself this way: “I know that person. That person was a Miss Universe person. And she was the worst we ever had, the worst, the absolute worst, she was impossible… She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem. We had a real problem. Not only that, her attitude… Hillary went back into the years and found the girl and talked about her like she was Mother Teresa, and it wasn’t quite that way. But that’s okay.”

By midday Tuesday, Alicia Machado was on her way to being a media star—much like the Khan family, who lost a soldier son in Iraq and told the Democratic Convention that Trump had no respect for Muslims nor the U.S. Constitution. Trump subsequently attacked them, violating an unspoken rule in politics that one never degrades a deceased veteran. Machado had a national press call orchestrated by the Clinton campaign, and was featured in a Cosmopolitan magazine photo shoot. Once again, Clinton showed that she was the better strategist and combatant than Trump, provoking and entrapping the supposedly great dealmaker.
5. Trump and allies claims instant poll victory, but real conservatives say not so fast. As expected, Fox News found a tenuous and twisted way to declare Trump the debate victor on Tuesday. Fox News Politics had this headline, “Online votes declare Trump debate winner, despite media consensus for Clinton.” Trying to sound authoritative, their piece cited the most pro-Trump sources imaginable, including the media group run by Trump’s campaign chair. “The Drudge Report online vote had 80 percent of respondents giving the victory to Trump, and a Time.com survey had the Republican nominee leading Clinton by 4 percentage points—52 percent to 48 percent—after more than 1,300,000 votes were cast. CNBC and Breitbart votes also had Trump winning the event, at New York’s Hofstra University. A Fox News online vote had Trump winning with 50 percent of respondents, Clinton at 35 percent and the other 15 percent declaring no one won.”

That last “statistic” is pretty amazing. A third of Fox viewers, who live in that right-wing gated community, agreed she won. Fox then inserted this disclaimer in its report. “The online surveys are not scientific and, in many cases, supporters of either candidate can cast multiple ballots.” Trump is the candidate warning about voter fraud, after all. But even this propagandizing was too much for the conservative Weekly Standard, which posted a piece telling its audience not to trust Drudge and Fox on this one: The Standard’s Jay Cost wrote, “After the debate, Donald Trump and his campaign have claimed that the Republican nominee won—according to all the polls. One new press release from Trump’s campaign says he ‘leads post-debate surveys.’ It’s not true. CNN and YouGov gave the win to Hillary Clinton, while the Drudge Report poll, among several others, had Trump winning handily. Which of these to trust? The Drudge Report poll is not a scientific poll, and therefore its results do not tell us anything about what America as a whole thought. The same is true of other polls like those conducted by Time, CNBC, and the Washington Times. These polls are of no value for gauging public opinion.”

6. The real evidence suggests Clinton will get a bounce. In contrast to the Trump bubble, the early evidence suggests that Clinton will benefit from the debate. The infinitely more reputable pollster, Nate Silver, at fivethirtyeight.com said that Clinton got the third biggest post-debate bounce on record, according to a reputable CNN poll. “Start with a CNN poll of debate-watchers, which showed that 62 percent of voters thought Clinton won the debate compared to 27 percent for Trump—a 35-point margin. That’s the third-widest margin ever in a CNN or Gallup post-debate poll, which date back to 1984,” Silver said. This trend was likely to be seen in more follow-up polls in coming days, he added. “This time, pundits and pollsters seem to agree on the Clinton win… the correlation between the instant-reaction polls and the eventual effect on horse-race polls has actually grown stronger in recent election cycles, perhaps because the conventional wisdom formulates itself more quickly.”

Silver also tweeted that Google searches about donating to Clinton’s campaign picked up during the debate and outpaced Trump. “Search terms for donating to Clinton spiked somewhat higher than those for Trump during the debate,” he tweeted. “About 2x as many searches for ‘donate hillary clinton’ than ‘donate donald trump’ over past 24 hours, for instance,” he tweeted later in the day.

What’s Next?
As the Washington Post reported late Tuesday, echoing Dan Rather’s observation, the debate probably satisfied and energized core constituencies of both candidates. “Less certain was how the debate might shape the perceptions of the slivers of the electorate still up for grabs, especially college-educated white women,” WaPo noted.

While Trump’s newfound attack on the former Ms. Universe is likely to tilt more women against him, there are other key demographic groups whose support Clinton needs to win in November. Millennials, or those under age 35, overwhelmingly don’t like Trump. But it is an open question whether Clinton’s calls for addressing college tuition (including loan refinancing) and institutional racism will prompt them to turn out and vote for her. The same holds true for first time voters in communities of color, who clearly find Trump offensive but have yet to vote. By this weekend, reliable pollsters will have reports on what these key voting blocks are thinking.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton looks on during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

Screenshot from azaudit.org

As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template


In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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Michael Carvajal

Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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