On the menu today: a surprisingly strong opening night for the Republican National Convention, a reminder that the final polls in 2016 of the swing states weren’t that far off from the final results, and the latest scandal involving Jerry Falwell Jr. feels like a trip down memory lane to the rise and fall of the televangelists of the late 1980s.
Hey, the GOP Still Has Some Fight Left in It!
Most Democrats probably didn’t watch the Republican National Convention last night. Those that did probably thought it was schlocky, jingoistic, dishonest, and ridiculous nonsense.
But any Democrat who understood that the convention wasn’t aimed at convincing them — a fact that vast swaths of Washington political journalists are just incapable of grasping — should watch the programming and feel just a little less confident about November. Not panicking, just a recognition that the Trump campaign and GOP still have some fight left in them, and a message that could easily resonate with large-enough pluralities in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes.
I still would have cut Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle from the lineup, who inexplicably shouted most of her speech to an empty chamber. The best case for the president comes from non-famous or lesser-known citizens such as nurse Amy Johnson Ford, Natalie Harp discussing right-to-try, Democratic state representative Vernon Jones of Georgia, Andrew Pollack, the father of a Parkland school-shooting victim talking about the “scumbag gunman” who killed his daughter Meadow, and Maximo Alvarez, speaking bluntly about the realty of life under a socialist regime.
Joe Biden still enjoys a lot of advantages. This is a country still grappling with a serious pandemic that restricts and impedes normal American life including schooling for children, the national unemployment rate is 10.2 percent, and too many cities are still beset by urban violence and riots. This is a tough environment for any incumbent, and every day, Donald Trump finds new ways to keep the Democratic Party’s base highly motivated.
But you can start to see how Biden could blow this. No American will be enthusiastic for the prospect of a President Biden ordering another national shutdown to mitigate the spread of the virus. Teachers’ unions are infuriating usually friendly parents who want their kids to back into classrooms in some fashion. (Jim Jordan: “They won’t let you go to school, but they’ll let you go loot.“) A full-throated denunciation of the riots as undermining the cause of racial and social justice wouldn’t cost Biden a single vote he needs, but he just won’t do it. Trump and the Republicans are embracing patriotism almost to the point of self-parody; Democrats are arguing that the country has taken a terrible wrong turn and is constantly falling short of its values. The country is sick of political correctness and cancel culture and a discourse of constant rage and grievances. Last night, Tim Scott painted America as a land of unlimited opportunity: “Our family went from cotton to Congress.” Even friendly voices are recognizing that Biden’s message is lightest on “a concrete economic plan for average families.” And we haven’t even gotten to guns, illegal immigration, or judges.
Right now, you would rather be Biden with a big lead than be Trump and behind. But Democrats felt really good about their chances after a widely praised convention in late summer four years ago, and we all remember how that turned out.
Those State Polls in 2016 Weren’t That Far Off from the Final Results
Every time I mention a poll, someone responds, “But the polls were wrong in 2016!” Yes and no. The national polls averaged out to a 3.3 percentage point lead for Hillary Clinton, and she won the national popular vote by two points. And when you look back at the state polling of 2016, the first thing that jumps out is how few there were in the final days, particularly in those big upper Midwest swing states that determined the election.
Take Wisconsin, for example. Election Day was November 8. The final poll of voters in Wisconsin, conducted by a Republican firm, concluded is survey on November 1. The Marquette poll stopped asking questions on Halloween. The Emerson poll stopped asking questions October 27. Poll respondents who gave their answers twelve days before Election Day were included in the mix of the final RealClearPolitics average; the most recent responses in the mix were given one week earlier. Polls can’t reveal any late break towards one candidate if no one is calling voters up and asking them in that final week.
Pollsters conducted surveys closer to Election Day in Pennsylvania — and most of them pointed to a close race, with a small Clinton lead. Trafalgar Group had Trump ahead by one, Harper polling had the race tied, the Morning Call poll and Monmouth had Hillary Clinton ahead by four points, Gravis and Susquehanna had Clinton ahead by two points. Note, though, that Susquehanna and Monmouth stopped asking questions November 1. The final RCP average was Clinton ahead by 1.9 percentage points, and Trump won by seven-tenths of a percentage point. Sure, most of the surveys had Clinton ahead, but those results weren’t wildly off. Also notice that the average for Clinton in those final six polls was 46.2 percent . . . and when all the votes were counted, Clinton won 47.5 percent. “The polls were wrong!” Eh, not that wrong.
In Michigan, more polls were conducted in November, but only one pollster was asking questions later than November 4. Another aspect worth noting is that five of the last six surveys in Michigan had Clinton at 46 or 47 percent. When all the votes were counted, Clinton finished with . . . 47 percent. The share of the vote for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein was a bit lower than the final surveys, and obviously, no one casts a ballot for “undecided.” (Some might wonder if this is evidence for the “shy Trump voter” theory — that a small but statistically significant group of Americans intend to vote for Trump but don’t want anyone else to know.)
In Florida, the final batch of surveys all indicated a pretty close race, with three pollsters asking questions up until November 6. A pair of Republican pollsters put Trump ahead by three points and four points, the CBS/YouGov survey showed a tie, Quinnipiac and Gracis put Clinton ahead by one point, and CNN and Opinion Savvy put Clinton ahead by two points. This all added up to an RCP average of Trump being ahead by two-tenths of a percentage point. Trump won by 1.2 points.
If you’re a Democrat, maybe you don’t want to be counting on three-point leads in key states a week away from Election Day.
‘Falwell’ Is an Old English Word Meaning to Decline Effectively
Of course. Of course, Jerry Falwell Jr., his wife, and the pool boy had some sort of sordid consensual arrangement. It’s practically a cliché at this point. Details here, if you want them. On Monday, Falwell — “the embattled president of Liberty University and one of President Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters” — resigned, reportedly rescinded his resignation, and then resigned again. It’s okay, upon hearing about the whole sleazy mess, to recoil and declare that you can’t bear to watch.*
In a perfect irony, Falwell lamented to the Wall Street Journal that he had been pushed out by “self-righteous people.” Oh, “self-righteous people,” huh? Boy, those people are just the worst, aren’t they?
Some of you are old enough to remember the late 1980s and the rise and fall of the “televangelists.” Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, and a little later, Ted Haggard. Jerry Falwell Sr. got sucked into an ugly fight over the PTL television ministry and millions in assets.
I know that this is going to shock you kids, but it turns out that when you are surrounded by people who think you are literally a gift from God, and when you climb up on a metaphorical pedestal or a literal pulpit, and when you keep accumulating power and money, temptation does not get any easier to resist. Imagine that! It turns out that difficulty resisting temptation — sexual, material greed, or otherwise — is a human condition, not one that goes away once you rise to a position of spiritual authority.
I’m a little surprised that anyone would be surprised anymore. The idea of somebody in a pulpit on our television screens, yelling at us to donate money or risk God’s wrath — or in the case of Oral Roberts, declaring that if viewers didn’t donate $8 million, God would “call him home” — turned into a stock villain in our pop culture. If a preacher appeared on television in the first half-hour of a crime drama, there was a good chance he would be revealed as the murderer in the second half-hour — or, at minimum, the plot would eventually include revelations of the preacher skimming donations and/or sleeping with his secretary. The hypocritical, scandal-ridden Bible-thumping evangelist became a stock character in everything from Genesis’ Jesus He Knows Me video to Gravity Falls. (“Little Gideon” is clearly inspired by the ’80s televangelists, although creator Alex Hirsch wisely avoided any mockery of Christianity and made the character a backwoods television psychic.) These characters made easy villains because secularists and atheists loathed them, but also because a lot of Christians found them to be insufferably self-righteous and cheapening God’s wisdom and guidance to us, turning it into a gimmicky Billy Mays–style sales pitch.
*Don’t worry, Jerry Falwell Jr. will watch for you.
ADDENDUM: After not being invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention, and not being featured in any of the video segments, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was briefly shown in a video last night at the Republican one. If you show up more in the opposing party’s video footage than at your own party’s convention . . . you’re probably doing a terrible, terrible job.