Abroad in America: What Is True? What Is Noise? What the (Insert Extreme Word of Choice) Is Going to Happen?

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CreditCreditDominic Kesterton
Oct. 23, 2018

Welcome to The New York Times international election newsletter, where Sarah Lyall attempts to explain the U.S. midterms to readers outside the United States. (and perhaps to herself). Fifteen days to go.

It feels as if time has slowed down to the point where each day now feels as if it is taking much longer than it should. This is in part because so much serious stuff keeps happening — Kavanaugh, Khashoggi, a bunch of things that do not begin with K! — and because, if you are not careful, predicting who is up and who is down can fill all your free hours, and even some of the non-free ones.

It is particularly hard to figure out to what extent national events are affecting individual campaigns, especially since so many polls are coming out, and so many of them seem contradictory.

So what is true? What is noise? And, what is going to happen?

I put some of the questions spinning in my own overheated head to Amanda Cox, editor of The Times’s Upshot desk. She’s overseeing The Times’s experiment this election with a new way of real-time polling, updating predictions for competitive races as we hear what voters on the ground are telling us.

Sarah: Let’s start with the House of Representatives. Some news media outlets say that a “blue wave” of Democratic candidates is coming to wash out the Republican majority in November. Others say the opposite. What is going on?

Amanda: A couple of things here. First, the battleground is ginormous, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty with close races. House polls are typically not amazing — they are the best thing we have, other than gut feelings — but if you shift three points in one direction, the Democrats pick up 50 seats, and if you shift three points in the other direction, they don’t take the House.

S: In the polls we’re looking at, how important is the “generic question,” in which voters are asked which party they would support in the election? Most of those polls have the Democrats ahead by a number of percentage points.

A: Some people are voting for a generic outcome, and others are voting for candidates. But the House is won on a seat-by-seat basis. Though we don’t know what the exact winning number (to flip the House) is in the generic question, the Democrats need to win it by about seven points.

S: How did this play out in 2016, when most of the polls predicted, incorrectly, that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald J. Trump?

A: In 2016 it didn’t matter if you won the national polls. They were very accurate in predicting that Hillary would win the popular vote. But they didn’t reflect how we actually elect people, which is state by state.

S: The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed Mr. Trump with a (for him) record-high approval rating of 47 percent among registered voters, and 87 percent among Republicans. What does this mean?

A: There are many national polls that look at approval ratings, so it’s best to look at them as a whole. I wouldn’t read too much into a single poll. As for presidential approval ratings, they are often conditional on current economic growth. Usually when the unemployment rate is at historic lows, as it is now, the presidential approval rating is higher than what we’re seeing with Trump.

S: Most people seem to be predicting that the Democrats will take the House and the Republicans will hold on to the Senate. Is that what’s going to happen?

A: If you had to pick the single likeliest outcome, that’s the outcome you’d pick. Republicans hold the House, barely, and pick up gains in the Senate — that’s also plausible, and also that the Democrats pick up 55 seats in the House.

S: What’s more important for the parties at this point: making sure that their supporters turn out to vote, or persuading undecided voters to vote for them?

A: Both. There are a lot questions about turnout among young people and nonwhite voters. And although people have debates about what “undecided” means, in House polls, especially, it’s totally normal for 10 percent of likely voters to say they’re undecided at this point.

Which means (I think) that your guess is as good as mine.

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Forget About ’18. Who’s Running in ’20?

“Who are the Democrats going to put forward for the next election? They need to be doing this now, and they need a VERY strong contender. I live in Spain and the feeling here is that as much as Trump is disliked, he will be re elected! —Norah Ohrt, Spain

Oh, no, I hear you say, this election is disturbing enough! And yes, it is perverse and annoying to be speaking about a presidential race that is still, mercifully, two long years away.

Yet here we are. This is the way the American electoral system works. It is the closest thing we have to perpetual motion machines, and there is already a deep anxiety developing, and not just in Spain, over the 2020 election. (I personally plan to be out of town during that election, after having destroyed all my electronic devices by throwing them into the Hudson River.)

So what do we know about 2020? We know that President Trump intends to run for re-election and has already raised a paint-peeling $106 million to do so. We know there’s a chance that Nikki Haley, who just resigned as our ambassador to the United Nations, might want to challenge him in the Republican primaries. (She has said she doesn’t, but potential candidates often say that.)

We know that at least three women — Senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kristen Hillenbrand of New York — are considering running for the Democratic nomination.

We know that former Vice President Joe Biden has re-entered the political arena by stumping for Democratic candidates — in Nevada over the weekend, he said that the president had “shredded” American values — and that President Trump must regard him as at least some sort of threat, because he said this weekend, also in Nevada, that President Obama took Mr. Biden “off of the trash heap and made him vice president.”

In a recent CNN poll, Mr. Biden led the field of potential candidates that Democrats would like to see challenge Mr. Trump.

But there are two years to go before the election! It doesn’t matter what the polls say today.

Please keep the questions and comments coming in to [email protected]

Meanwhile, Down at the Southern Border

As I write this, a group of several thousand Honduran migrants is wending its way north, bound for the United States. Needless to say, President Trump, who has made curbing immigration (and building “the wall”) one of the cornerstones of his political agenda, is not at all pleased.

“You have some very, very bad people within the caravan,” including “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners,” Mr. Trump said, without providing any evidence. Laying the blame for their presence on the Democrats, he vowed to “bring out our military” and “seal off the border” in order to prevent them from crossing into United States territory.

On Monday, Pete Hegseth, co-host of one of President Trump’s favorite programs, “Fox and Friends,” agreed. “It is time to deploy the military,”

. “The laws are, as the president calls them, dumb.”

So are these migrants vicious criminals, as the president thinks, or are they refugees fleeing a terrible situation? In The New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer examines the dire political and economic situation in and around Honduras and quotes a Honduran named José Luis Hernández, who first tried to flee the country at age 16 when, he said, gangsters threatened to kill him. (He had several unsuccessful attempts and at one point fell off a moving freight train, losing an arm, half of one leg and part of a hand; he finally made it and now lives in Los Angeles.)

“This is how it works,” Mr. Hernández is quoting as saying. “People making the trip see others, they see the bigger group, and they join it. These are people fleeing for their lives. It’s not some coordinated, political thing.”

Next Tuesday, Sarah will talk politics in a group call with Associate Managing Editor Jodi Rudoren and Politics Editor Patrick Healy, taking questions from subscribers to help them develop a richer understanding of the midterm elections.

Free for Times subscribers, the conversation begins Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 10:30 E.T. Join by reserving your spot now.

In Abroad in America, Sarah Lyall attempts to help our international readers (and maybe some American ones, and maybe herself) understand what is going on as the United States approaches the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Subscribe here.

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