This memo from Mike Podhorzer was written over the March 21 weekend for an audience of progressive electoral strategists.  It is shared here in modified form for The Forge.
 

Just since Wednesday about a dozen of you have let me know that you have the virus.   If you haven’t spoken to anyone with the virus yet, then I can assure you that what the media is reporting as “mild” is actually quite serious.  

The America that cannot shelter in place.  As a group, we are among the most fortunate in America right now.  Our inconvenience is working from home, but with full confidence in our economic security.  This is not the case for most Americans. In this moment, we automatically think of medical professionals as the risk taking heroes.  And they are. But so are the many millions going to work to keep the lights on for us, stock our grocery shelves and deliver our Amazon packages.  There are many millions more with no financial cushion who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. And then there are the tens of millions of children and parents who depend on those who have nothing.  In that America, desperation, despair, addiction, domestic violence and child abuse steadily increases.  

A new world order begins.  Every major economic crisis produces an extraordinary governmental response that fundamentally alters the course of the nation.  The Great Depression gave us the New Deal (as well as European fascism and World War II), the stagflation of the 1970’s became the pretext for the nearly worldwide triumph of neoliberalism, and while we haven’t settled on what to call it, the Great Recession has fueled hyper-ethnonationalism and the ascendance of authoritarian regimes.  

As we understandably focus on immediate health risks, we pay insufficient attention to the ways in which Congress and the Administration will reshape the post-COVID world.   As Naomi Klein, who popularized the notion of “disaster capitalism” in the Shock Doctrine, explained this week, in moments of crisis, elites exploit the public’s attention to daily emergencies to enrich themselves in ways that would be impossible in normal times.  

The Trump administration and other governments around the world are busily exploiting the crisis to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is moving to repeal financial regulations that were introduced after the last major financial meltdown, as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. China, for its part, is indicating that it will relax environmental standards to stimulate its economy, which would wipe out the one major benefit the crisis has produced so far: a marked drop in that country’s lethal air pollution.

I asked Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO’s Policy Director and Special Counsel to provide needed context for understanding the nature of the rapidly growing economic crisis and what we can do about it.  (Memo)

  • The scope of the crisis.   The decline in economic activity is steeper and broader than the Great Depression or 2008.  In one week 18% of the US workforce was either unemployed or lost hours.   (And that’s “old” data now.)  

  • The immediate outlook. Analysts are forecasting a massive contraction in the country’s economic output, and early signs point to an impending deluge of unemployment claims. Entire industries could be devastated.   Leading forecasts for the next three months project economic decline on a par with the Depression (25% unemployment, 20% plus GDP shrinkage) generally and worse in regions especially hard hit. 

  • Why this is happening.  Three factors stand out: 

    • Closure of regional economies and industries either in direct response to outbreaks or lack of demand or financing, the collapse of equity markets and the instability of debt markets or the interruption of supply chains.

    • Collapse of equity markets and radical instability of debt markets.

    • Pressure on the health and public safety sectors.

  • Irreversible consequences.  The economic and social threat is not just Depression levels of unemployment, but the collapse of the organizational fabric of the economy and the society, particularly in the small business and the not-for-profit sector, including the labor movement.

  • What must be done.  Damon argues that four steps are crucial: 

    • Payroll supports.  While immediate direct cash infusions are necessary, that will be insufficient.  Even Boris Johnson is proposing 80 percent supports.

    • Unemployment insurance. Huge gaps in the current system must be filled.

    • Support for employers (bailouts).  The “how” is crucial. 

    • Production of needed medial assets.  In World War II we retooled so that auto plants were quickly manufacturing tanks and bombers. 

America won’t be the same.  Many speculate about whether this crisis will bring us together and remind us of why we need government (the end of the Reagan era, Mason) or whether it will drive us further apart when respirators and other essentials must be rationed (troubling report on spike in gun sales).  While we can’t know how that’s going to work out, this is a time for us to better understand the idea of social capital.   Both Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone are essential to the discussion.  

The public health crisis.  COVID spread faster in the United States in the first fifteen days after 100 cases had been confirmed than in any other country in the world.  For months, US intelligence agencies repeatedly warned Trump about the coronavirus pandemic but Trump downplayed the threat and blocked the preparation & response. (Washington Post, Politico).  The Administration also resisted congressional inquiries (Daily Beast).  

 

I’m sure you’ve all found ways to keep up with news of the potential spread of the virus.  This New York Times interactive is among the most thorough.  However, as this FiveThirtyEight survey of experts illustrates, there’s considerable uncertainty.   Among the better takes on the stresses to the health care system are these: 

Ezra Klein’s podcast with Ron Klain is worth listening to.  Among the important points: 

  • The virus is more patient than people are.”  We can expect to repeat the cycle of outbreak-shut down-slowed spread-return to normal several times before a vaccine is developed.  

  • Collateral damage in the health care system.  Many people will die or become sicker because of resources diverted to COVID response and a medical health workforce reduced by its own exposure to COVID.  

Will the economy sink Trump?   Conventional political science unambiguously says, “yes.”  For example, this by Alan Abramowitz.  (Formally, “retrospective voting.”) And yet ….  So far, at least, while Democrats, Republicans and Independents’ economic optimism is plunging, their approval of Trump has not. 

 

Trump’s approval rating had dipped initially, but has rebounded since.  Interestingly, the Democratic advantage in the generic House trial heat has increased. 

 

Protecting the elections - policy.  In Wednesday Reading, I provided an overview of efforts to expand vote by mail (VBM).   This excellent Fair Fight two-pager explains why a comprehensive response is necessary – vote by mail is not nearly enough, or by itself necessarily better.  Specifically: 

  • Voter registration.  States must expand the ways in which voters can register to vote and update their registration, including online registration and same-day registration.

  • Vote by mail.  These safeguards are absolutely necessary.  

    • Ballots mailed to every eligible voter, including “inactive” registered voters. 

    • Postage must be prepaid or free.

    • Ballots postmarked by Election Day must be counted.

    • Implementation of signature matching laws must include timely notification and cure process.

    • Provision for voter assistance including dropboxes and allowing community organizations to collect sealed ballots.

    • Systems for voters to track applications and ballots throughout the process.

  • Election Day.  States must ensure there is an equitable distribution of polling locations and election equipment, particularly in precincts that serve low income, Black and Brown voters and in Native American communities, and that these polling locations meet the needs of voters with disabilities.

  • Ballot counting. Provisional ballots cast by voters who submitted their registration on time but whose registration was not yet processed should count as should those cast by any voter who casts a ballot at any precinct in their county. 

  • Voter education.  States must invest in a multi-platform campaign to promote new opportunities to vote and ensure that voters have the information they need especially for traditionally marginalized communities as well as having a plan to combat disinformation that is likely to surround these new opportunities and elections overall.

Protecting the elections – funding.  Without federal resources states and localities will have to implement changes as their revenues shrink.  Specifically, the Brennan Center estimates that it will cost up to $2B to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and secure our elections1. Expanding access to vote by mail alone could cost $982 million–$1.4 billion, with another $271.4 million to maintain in-person voting, $85.9 million to expand access to online registration, and $252.1 million towards voter education.  In addition, Congress should enact a law to reimburse states for many of the costs associated with complying with these new regulations.

Some valuable reading for context.  Camus’ The Plague and Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor provide important insights for this moment.  In that vein, check out the New York Review of Books’ “Pandemic Journal.”  Here is an interesting set of tweets about coping when your job is facing catastrophe.  Three very good books about pandemics: American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (Bristow), The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Barry) and Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (Kolata). 

Analyst Institute: tactics for the moment. While everyone is doing their best to #flattenthecurve, tactics that help us stay in close contact with volunteers, neighbors, members, and supporters remotely may be more important than ever. AI shares some ideas about how relational voter organizing, layering modes, phone calls and texting, and handwritten letters and postcards can be useful for maintaining connection and engagement. They’ve also compiled some additional resources from partners and allies. Read this and other AG Digests here, and sign up to be a member of the Analyst Group here, if you aren't already.  

 

WILL THE ECONOMY SINK TRUMP?

In Chapter Four of their Democracy for Realists, Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen provide an excellent explanation of retrospective voting – the theory that in presidential voters are rewarding or punishing presidents for economic performance in the year before the election, regardless of that president’s responsibility for it or the effectiveness of his response.  As laid out in a number of Weekend Readings, economic performance is the most important variable in nearly every academic forecasting model.  

In this Crystal Ball, Alan Abramowitz takes this on.  He observes that while by historic standards a serious second quarter recession would nearly doom Trump’s reelection prospects, “we are in truly uncharted territory, and it’s unclear how the public will respond electorally to an economic downturn forced by a pandemic.”  Abramowitz presents what he calls a “time for change” model by focusing on second quarter economic performance for presidents seeking re-election (Eleven cases). The model is powerful with an R-squared of .92 and correctly picks the winner in each case. The average prediction error is 27 Electoral Votes.  According to the model a one-point increase in net approval adds 2.5 Electoral Votes, while a one-point increase in second quarter GDP adds 20 Electoral Votes. Thus, according to his model: 

In this Monkey Cage blog, John Sides and Rob Griffins find that, “Americans have increasingly dismal views of the economy, but they don’t blame Trump.”  As the chart shows, although Democrats, Republicans and Independents’ economic optimism plunged, their approval of Trump has not. One part of the explanation may be that Trump’s approval was already significantly lower than would be expected based on previous presidents.  



 

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