More than 20 million Americans have already cast a ballot ahead of Election Day.
A midterm election year that has voters already fired up might be getting turbocharged from early voting: In 18 states, according to the New York Times, voters have hit the polls early at higher rates than they did in 2014. In some states, the number of ballots already cast is nearing the total number of ballots cast in 2014, including on Election Day.
As of Wednesday morning, at least 20 million people had already voted. Some of them might have voted more than a month ago: Early voting in Wisconsin began on September 20.
It’s tricky to predict what this might mean for the final outcome. If there’s one thing to learn from the 2016 presidential election it’s that early turnout can be misleading (and polls can be wrong).
But the figures we have so far suggest that interest in voting early in states with competitive Senate races has surged when compared to 2014, including Tennessee, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, according to reporting from the New York Times and CNN.
The surge in early voting this year reflects the growth of early voting nationwide. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia currently offer early voting without requiring an absentee excuse or justification. That, along with the process becoming easier in some states, has encouraged a lot more Americans to drive up to their local county commissioner’s office and cast a ballot. It’s also created a huge media storm around the surge in participation, and a thirst to draw early conclusions about the results of the races.
Drawing conclusions, though, is tough. “I’m more skeptical than some of my colleagues that we can conclude that much from early voting totals,” said Paul Gronke, an early voting expert and professor of political science at Reed College. “The reason is sort of central to political science. We study these darn human beings that don’t respond the same way to changes in the rules of the game.”
Early voters are voters who already made up their minds
Put simply, early voters are decided voters, Gronke said, “individuals who cast an early ballot make up their minds early.”
Especially for a midterm election, voters tend to be more politically engaged and more ideological, Gronke added. Given the lack of presidential campaigning, Americans focus more on the issues at hand, follow the coverage of their state races and study the ballot initiatives more carefully.
All of these factors correlate strongly with early voting, which is why we tend to see a higher number of voters hitting the polls weeks, or even months, before a national election.
The demographics have changed, too, over the years, as Tara Golshan pointed out in 2016. Before 2008, early voters tended to be “older, educated, wealthier, ideological and highly partisan,” and early voters who cast ballots by mail were especially likely to lean Republican.
But after 2008, when Obama’s campaign harnessed early voting to gain an insurmountable lead in some states before Election Day, early voting also began to attract African-American voters:
Black churches used Sunday services to push people to the polls in what they called ”souls to the polls” initiatives, Barry Burden, a political scientist with the University of Wisconsin Madison, recalls.
Early voters might also show up for candidates who share their backgrounds, said Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at George Mason University — which could prove important in a year of many potential historical firsts for women candidates and candidates of color.
Early voting is on the rise, and getting easier in some states
Early voting in general has been on a rapid rise for the last 25 years. Burden predicts this year’s elections are likely to see less early voting than in 2016, but will set a new midterm early voting record.
Some of the states where voters are enthusiastically casting ballots early recently changed their rules to make early voting easier. Minnesota and Wisconsin both made it easier to vote early and are reporting a drastic increase in early voting this year. In Minnesota, more voters have voted early in 2018 than in 2016, even though midterm years traditionally have lower turnout overall.
Voter mobilization has also been crucial in expanding early voting efforts, like Obama’s 2008 campaign first showed. “Once you allow early voting, you encourage the parties to go after their core base and try to get them mobilized early and focus on ensuring turnout on them,” said Kontorovich. In-person early voting campaigns often target groups that vote together — churches, unions, informal political groups.
Finally, while Burden says that a larger share of people vote early when the presidency is on the ballot, this year’s highly contested and competitive races are prompting eligible voters to hit the polls early. In Texas, where the Senate race has caught national attention, all counties saw a much larger first-day turnout than they did in the previous midterm elections in 2014, the Texas Tribune reports.
In Georgia, where the number of ballots cast early this year is close to doubling the number in 2014, Stacey Abrams has engaged in a systematic “get out the early vote” effort in the governor race.
Backers of both parties are showing signs of enthusiasm about voting this year, which has been evident in the higher turnout rates in primaries and special elections earlier this election season.
“One concrete way for a voter to show their enthusiasm is to cast an early ballot,” Burden said.
Differences between early and Election Day voting
Early voting doesn’t necessarily predict election outcomes. Early voters aren’t necessarily identical to Election Day voters. Republicans are historically more inclined to vote absentee, while Democrats show up in bigger numbers during early voting. Moderates tend to wait until Election Day to make up their minds, Kontorovich says.
“The big question of early voting is, ‘does it increase a phenomenon or does it redistribute it in time,’” Kontorovich told me.
While some states report the partisan affiliation of the voters who have cast ballots so far, that doesn’t always easily translate into results. As FiveThirtyEight elections expert Nathaniel Rakich pointed out in a Twitter thread last week:
1. We don’t actually know how early voters voted; we just know what party they’re registered with, and there’s no guarantee that they voted for that party’s candidate, especially in states where voter reg is weird like Ohio.
In 2016, early voting suggested Democratic strength and enthusiasm in Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada — but in the end, Hillary Clinton only carried Nevada.
You can still vote early in many states
While early voting periods have ended in some states, and others never had them at all, many states keep the polls open this weekend and even Monday. Otherwise, here’s when the polls are open Tuesday for Election Day.If you missed your state’s early voting deadline and are worried you can’t make it to the polls Tuesday, find out if you can get time off to vote.
Alabama does not have early voting, and voters need a state-approved excuse to vote absentee.
Early and in-person absentee voting began October 22.
Voters can cast an absentee ballot in person starting when ballots are made available, 30 to 45 days ahead of the election, at the office of an election official until Thursday, November 1. You can find information about where and when to vote here.
Varies by municipality.(Historically, the law has been that it starts on the third Monday prior to the election, but because of an ongoing court case, municipalities can decide when early and absentee voting begins.)
Voters can vote via in-person absentee ballot in the county clerk’s office beginning 40 days before an election, or, this year, as of September 21.
The far right’s xenophobic fantasies now involve the actual US military.
Take a step back and appreciate the vertiginous absurdity of the fact that our military is now being mobilized to defend our border from a walking caravan of refugees from Central America.
There are, the Mexican government estimates, around 4,000 people in this group. They are poor men, women, and children, fleeing horrendous conditions, primarily in Honduras, and intend to seek asylum either in Mexico or the US. They are on foot in southern Mexico, weeks from the border, and their number is shrinking as they go.
Poor people, seeking asylum, walking toward the border: How in the world can that constitute a national security threat?
First, let’s acknowledge that a separate group of refugees (calling itself the “second caravan”) attempted to cross the border into Guatemala a few days ago, leading to skirmishes, rubber bullets from police, and at least one dead refugee. So the fear of a clash at the border is not totally unfounded, though the original caravan has shown no signs of violence. Still, though, we’re talking about unarmed families, on foot, weeks away.
Where is the emergency?
Well, first off, the caravan is much bigger than the fake news media is telling you. “I’m pretty good at estimating crowd size,” Trump told ABC’s Jonathan Karl (hilariously), “and I’ll tell you they look a lot bigger than people would think.”
Trump has also said — in one of his most nakedly racist statements to date, though there was no time to dwell on it — that “unknown Middle Easterners” are hiding in the caravan.
Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!
Presumably, “Middle Easterners” — a class that includes more than 400 million people — is meant to imply “terrorists.”
Trump has not clarified what he meant by this comment. And there is no evidence whatsoever that any “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” are lurking in the caravan. But that has not stopped him from repeating the claims, media from passing them along, or the conservative movement from adopting them as gospel.
Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border. Many more troops coming. We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!
Across the right-wing media ecosystem, several notable commentators, including Laura Ingraham, speculated that people in the caravan may be carrying diseases. On Fox, they have repeatedly speculated about the diseases heading toward innocent (cough white cough) Americans.
That’s twice this week that a Fox host has gone to the “foreigners bring disease” trope, a staple of racist and antisemitic incitement for hundreds of years. https://t.co/7CRh034IRB
There is, suffice to say, no evidence that the refugees are carrying disease (though once they settle in as Americans, they can look forward to heart disease and diabetes).
All of this — inflating a bedraggled group of peripatetic refugees weeks from our border into a disease-ridden terrorist “invasion,” an urgent, imminent “national emergency” — amounts to a kind of willed delusion. It represents a collective agreement on the right to believe a narrative spun almost entirely out of whole cloth, draped over a reality to which it bears little resemblance.
It is also powerful evidence that America’s epistemic crisis is spinning up into a full-blown political crisis.
The “scary caravan” story shows conservative conspiracy theories spilling into the real world
But a couple of things seem different — ominously so — about this episode.
First, even more than usual, there’s a performative aspect to it. It is advantageous for the right to believe that this caravan is an urgent threat. It makes for clickable memes and video clips, gets partisans in a lather, and helps pols running in close midterm races. It is a perfect parable, emphasizing group identity and clearly identifying the corrupting, diseased, dangerous other. It is too good not to believe.
So they have simply willed themselves to believe it, or at least perform believing it, which eventually becomes the same thing.
Not despite but because of its absurdity, believing it together is a strong signal of tribal solidarity on the right.
Second, the paranoid fantasies are no longer confined to right-wing media, as they largely were under Obama (with the occasional individual taking it too seriously, as when a gunman showed up at a pizza joint to rescue imaginary child sex slaves).
Now the right wing has control of the US government, and it can act out its fantasies with a military with real guns. The chances, in the hothouse environment Trump has created, that something will go wrong — that signals will get crossed and someone will get killed at the border — are also very real.
This is the white nationalist right emerging from its media cocoon and striding onto the world stage, running the most powerful country in the world. It is now capable of acting on all the bizarre things it persuades itself to believe.
It will not end well.
To recall how we got here, let’s quickly review what I mean by an epistemic crisis (a subject I have written on at length before).
America’s epistemic crisis
Epistemology, for those who didn’t waste a large portion of their youth in academic philosophy programs (hi), is the branch of philosophy concerned with justified belief — with how we come to know things and what it means to know something.
The crisis, in brief, is that the US conservative movement has almost entirely divorced itself from mainstream institutions, norms, and standards, developing its own media, think tanks, legal scholars, and historians — a hermetically sealed ecosystem of knowledge, news, and information in which nonsense and conspiracy theories flourish.
Conservatives have descended almost entirely into what I call “tribal epistemology,” wherein the distinction between what is good for the tribe and what is true collapses entirely — in which “true” simply comes to mean “our narrative.” They do not defer to any transpartisan standards of evidence or reasoning; they do not believe any such standards exist. Attempts to invoke such standards are, in their view, just one side’s way of trying to outmaneuver the other. So they use the language of transpartisan standards as a weapon, but the standards themselves are not a restraint.
The result is that, as a nation, we no longer share the same facts, the same understanding of events. We no longer live in the same world. As Rush Limbaugh, father of today’s right-wing media, said way back in 2010:
We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.
The two sides share almost no factual premises, so they are no longer able to coherently argue with each other. Their enmity is total, and the country is becoming ungovernable. Politics is becoming a pure contest of wills, of power.
That’s the crisis. I first wrote about it in reference to Robert Mueller’s investigation, raising the question: What if Mueller uncovers rock-solid evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians or committed financial crimes, and … it just doesn’t matter? What if he finds something, but the Americans who get their news from conservative media simply never find out about it? What then?
Some of us have been warning for years that the (paranoid, white nationalist) right-wing fringe was, via the amplification of Fox News and its brethren, taking over the GOP. Yet many, many journalists and other members of the US political elite ignored it or dismissed fringe right lunacy as a kind of quirk, just one of those things “extremists on both sides” do. After all, Farrakhan something something.
The lunacy was somewhat suppressed under George W. Bush, or at least (fitfully) kept separate from the administration itself. And under Obama, Republicans had no power beyond opposition. They could rant on about their conspiracies and hold endless Benghazi hearings, but it never seemed to amount to much.
When Trump and the Republicans took over the federal government in 2016, the remaining firewalls crumbled. The conservative base, the conservative media, the conservative government — it’s all the same thing now, all with the same perspective, all inhabiting the same epistemic universe, all pursuing the same war against the same perceived enemies. Fox News, Daily Caller, and Breitbart have more or less given themselves over entirely to serving as state media.
With the president himself coordinating the message, the process whereby the right-wing base brings itself to believe whatever it needs to believe has accelerated.
The MAGA bombs were fake (they weren’t). There’s going to be a middle-class tax cut by the end of the year (there isn’t). US steel has opened seven new plants in the US (it hasn’t). The trade tariffs are working (they aren’t). The US is the only country with birthright citizenship (it isn’t).
It’s getting easier and easier. Frictionless. There’s barely a pretense at going through the motions of inquiry and evidence anymore. We’ve reached the point where the movement, including its elected members of Congress, follow Trump’s twists and turns like a school of fish.
That’s how we get the caravan “threat” and our current military mobilization.
The dungeon masterhas a real military
In a sense, the caravan standoff is all conservative role-playing, a set of tribal bonding rituals and shared narratives built around group identity and hostility toward outsiders. It’s a way for the chicken hawks of the right to do war poses, the media to get great visuals, and Trump and his base to get frothed up together about the libs and the illegals.
Like I said, though, the guy who’s leading this round of role-playing, the dungeon master describing the heroes and villains to his enthralled initiates, is the president of the United States. And the president of the United States controls a real government and a real military.
These troops will be armed, but they are prohibited by US law from detaining or deporting anyone, so they’ll mostly be doing support work. “Many have been pressed into service providing administrative support and doing upkeep,” reports Christopher Woody for Business Insider, “including feeding horses and shoveling manure out of stables, office work, and basic repairs and maintenance work on border patrol facilities and vehicles.”
Assuming the caravan does eventually reach the border in anything like its current form, US troops will also help Border Patrol agents spot immigrants attempting to enter the country illegally, at unapproved crossings. But remember — as Vox’s Dara Lind writes in her story on Trump’s “ongoing war on asylum” — applying for asylum, as the immigrants say they plan, is perfectly legal. So the military will only be there to help watch for immigrants who peel off and attempt to enter unlawfully.
Up to 15,000 members of the world’s greatest fighting force, sitting in the desert, watching for poor refugees approaching on foot.
They’re now in Juchitan de Zaragoza (some 12 days on foot from the nearest American city), exhausted and asking for buses. So this is what Trump feels he needs 15,000 troops to protect against? (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images) pic.twitter.com/YBbi14ylRT
Using the military for a domestic stunt has real consequences. “Committing troops to one operation means fewer forces for another,” write Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in the New York Times. “Compared with how many troops the United States has stationed in Syria (2,000), in Afghanistan (14,000) and in Iraq (5,000), the number of soldiers sent to Texas, Arizona and California will be a significant slice of all troops deployed worldwide.”
And that’s to say nothing of the more intangible consequences of this stunt, which is yet another blow to the norms of conduct that hold our political life together.
And of course there’s the small but not inconsequential risk, if things go badly wrong, that we could see footage of US troops firing on unarmed refugees before the year is out.
With Trump, the base and the government have merged. The paranoia, hostility, and tribalism that have characterized right-wing media for so long now extend all the way up to the top; they now command troops.
Believing crazy things on purpose is always a step on the road to tyranny
As Voltaire famously put it: “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”
If Trump can take a bedraggled group of asylum seekers and transmute it into a national emergency just by tweeting about it, what would it take for him to do the same to his domestic political foes? How hard would it be for him to use antifa, “ecoterrorists,” or inner-city gangs as a pretext to expand police powers or justify political violence?
After all, he has already encouraged violence numerous times and told his followers that Democrats are a crazed mob.
The right, in all its organs, from social media to television to the president, is telling a well-worn, consistent story: Opposition from the left and Democrats is fraudulent, illegitimate, a foreign-funded conspiracy against the traditional white American way of life.
Having two versions of reality constantly clashing in public is cognitively and emotionally exhausting. To an average person following the news, the haze of charge and countercharge is overwhelming. And that is precisely what every autocrat wants.
That is why every aspiring tyrant in modern history has made the independent media his first target. (Read Ezra Klein’s excellent essay on Trump’s war with the media.) There can be no epistemic authority, no one to trust, other than the autocrat and his mouthpieces. That is step one.
Then they go after the courts, the security services, and the military. Once they have a large base of support that will believe whatever they proclaim, follow them anywhere, support them in anything — it doesn’t have to be a majority, just an intense, activated minority — they can, practically speaking, get away with anything.
But believing absurdities comes first. If they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit injustices.
That’s why this caravan story is notable. The intensity of belief on the right has begun to vary inversely with plausibility. Precisely because the “threat” posed by the caravan is facially absurd, believing in it — performing belief in it — is a powerful act of shared identity reinforcement, of tribal solidarity.
Perhaps that last one still sounds implausible to you, much as asylum-seeking children in detention camps once sounded implausible to me. But do you think, in any of those cases, that any significant element of the conservative apparatus would oppose him? Is there any remaining resistance to delusion and violence at all within the right’s coalition, other than from Sen. Jeff Flake’s tweets?
Trump does not view himself as president of the whole country. He views himself as president of his white nationalist party — their leader in a war on liberals. He has all the tools of a head of state with which to prosecute that war. Currently, he is restrained only by the lingering professionalism of public servants and a few thin threads of institutional inertia.
The caravan story, a lurid xenophobic fantasia that has now resulted in thousands of troops deployed on US soil, shows that those threads are snapping. The epistemic crisis Trump has accelerated is now morphing into a full-fledged crisis of democracy.
Casper, Glossier, Harry’s, and Away love to send you mail.
The idea of having a mailbox full of actual mail seems outdated.
Print magazines are fading, more and more bills are paid online, and many brands have scaled back on printed catalogues, preferring to funnel resources into website upkeep and social media instead.
Yet over the last few years, brands — including hot, digitally savvy, direct-to-consumer ones like Casper, Harry’s, Wayfair, Rover, Quip, Away, Handy, and Modcloth — have taken to targeting customers in the mail.
If you’re in your 20s or 30s and live in an urban city, you probably have gotten, for example, a glossy, blue booklet from mattress brand Casper inviting you to check out its latest products. If you’re a woman in the same age range, you’ve probably been mailed a millennial pink pamphlet from no-makeup makeup brand Glossier.
Perhaps you’ve tossed these mailers into the trash and moved on to your meal delivery kit. But maybe you’ve done exactly what these companies want you to do, which is to go to their site. Extra points if you buy something using the accompanying discount code found on all their mailings ($50 off of a mattress with the code MATTRESS50; $5 off at Glossier with the code Stamp!).
Why do these disruptive, online-first companies want to be our old school pen pals?
The rise of young, digital brands spending money to mail us stuff speaks to the cyclical progress of shopping trends. A decade ago, companies looking to reach customers would often buy email addresses from third parties. They’d do giveaways and, if existing customers handed over their family and friends’ email addresses, they’d offer discounts too.
Fast forward 10 years and the virtual mailbox today looks a whole lot like our parents’ IRL mailboxes back then: A total shit show. Our inboxes are overflowing with newsletters, real letters, ride-sharing receipts, lunch-sharing receipts, bills, fake bills, breaking news notifications, not-so-breaking news notifications, brand promotions, sales promotions, social media alerts, spam, and porn. How do we all stay on top of this?
The answer, as you probably know, is that we can’t and we don’t. Emails often get deleted without so much as being opened, regardless of how cheeky the subject line is.
“People our age get hundreds of emails a day, but they only get ten pieces of a mail a day, if that many,” says Pete Christman, the head of acquisition marketing at the shaving company Harry’s, which counts on mailers as part of its marketing. “From a numbers perspective, email is a much noisier environment.”
Advertising on social media has become increasingly difficult too. In case you haven’t noticed, which surely you have, brands are targeting you on social. And in aiming for the ideal consumer for sexy, digital brands, many companies are finding themselves in the same spot: targeting the exact same age group (millennials), living in the exact same areas (heavily populated cities), with the exact same income (middle-class).
This pond brands have to fish in is small and only getting more crowded, which explains why so many digitally-native brands turn to old-school retail methods like opening stores or buying billboards. It’s for this reason that mail is often a better way to catch the attention of new and existing customers than a Facebook or Instagram ad.
“The advertising world gets excited about things like digital and pours money into complicated ads when there’s limited opportunity because everyone is trying to get in front of the same people and there are limited users,” says Christman.
Facebook often raises its ad prices as they become more effective, and so the cost of customer acquisition — the term marketers use to determine how much it costs to make you buy something — keeps climbing. The cost of a stamp, on the other hand, is not up to Mark Zuckerberg.
“Direct mail went away for a while, but more digital brands are seeing how well it works as strong marketing,” says Cheryl Kaplan, the president of DTC footwear company M.Gemi, which sends attractive, thick-papered pamphlets to new and existing customers. “It’s a different way to speak with customers who are sick of the ads they see on Instagram.”
But while customers might be sick of ads on Instagram, they’re not sick of ads that look like Instagram. Today’s mailers have a distinctly modern feel.
“It used to be that the way to stand out was to look like you were screaming,” says Kaplan. “It’s very different now. You want to get your point across quickly, otherwise you go in the garbage, but you don’t want to just be sending old post cards that are shouting.”
Instead of pages crammed with products, pricing, and discounts, there are some key characteristics in common. Mailer ads pretty much adhere to the same style rules, a look many startups already share. Products are drenched in high-flash photography, bold type, matching color pallets, and cheeky — but not too cheeky — catch phrases. While older mailers were about sending the most amount of messages possible, Kaplan says the goal is to “storytell, in a bold, interesting voice” with specific fonts and colors. And even if it ends up in the trash, the quality and weight of the paper matter too.
While brands like Glossier and M.Gemi choose to mail pamphlets out on their own, more companies are opting for a way in which they can share the costs: group mailers.
At some point in time, you probably have been mailed a thick, colorful envelope filled with promotional advertisements from many brands, all packaged and delivered neatly together.
On the front of the envelope, you’ll see an invitation to open it up for access to exclusive offers from “premium brands,” while the back is usually lined with the logos of the companies inside the envelope. Inside, if you get there, you’ll find glossy promotional materials for the brands, complete with bright colors and kitschy catchphrases.
One company that has mastered this type of mailing is Share Local Media, a mailer advertising company that’s been around for about two years, and specializes in working with digitally-native brands. Teju Prabhakar, the company’s CEO and co-founder, has a background in the world of digital. He previously worked at Quidsi, the fast-growing e-commerce company behind Diapers.com, which was acquired (and later killed) by Amazon. After moving to on-demand cleaning startup Handy, Prabhakar decided to start a mailer marketing firm in 2016 because he didn’t think digital businesses took the mail seriously enough.
“Everyone lumps direct mail with TV and radio together, and they are actually pretty different,” says Prabhakar. “I felt like direct mail could work really well if you get the right targeting format and you are creative.”
Share Local Media now has Instagram-friendly clients like Casper, Joybird, Lyft, Oars and Alp, ModCloth, Away, Jet.com, Rover, Hims.
People who’ve received these mailers have noticed how striking it is to get mail from startups, of all places, and have even joked about comparing Share Local Media’s envelopes to podcasts, IRL.
when I was a kid my parents would get envelopes of bundled ads and coupons in the mail for, like, grown shit like custom blinds and landscaping and local car dealerships. If you live in Brooklyn in 2018 you just get them for millennial lifestyle startups pic.twitter.com/XtYsObzRDr
Share Local Media charges them a minimum of $15,000 for 30,000 envelopes, a cost that’s split between the companies in the mailer. Prabhakar’s team buys customer addresses and demographic information from the United States Postal Service and third party providers like your credit card company. It currently sends mail to customers in cities and the surrounding metro areas including New York, Boston, Nashville, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Omaha, Denver, St. Louis, and Silicon Valley, because of course.
Share Local Media works as a kind of gatekeeper, able to place like-minded brands together. After nabbing the few big fish (like Casper or Away), it attracts companies that want to be placed by their side. It can give veneer of startup cred to brands like Jet.com and Modcloth (both of which have been acquired by Walmart), while boosting the profile of smaller companies like TreeHut.co or Winc, which benefit from the legitimized glow of a big name like Overstock. Prabhakar adds that Share Local Media is also careful about which digital brands it picks up advertising mailers from, which is hardly a claim Facebook can make.
But not unlike Facebook, the company is able to provide targeted mailing thanks to a proprietary system that organizes addresses into categories, such as moms, people who’ve just moved, or residents of high income areas. Shared Local Media also does “look-alike” marketing, determining who the brand’s existing customer is and finding similar customers to mail envelopes too. This is exactly the way Facebook helps brands target audiences online, except as Christina Carbonell, the co-founder of kids clothing company Primary, notes, “you give an offer that the person can hold onto. It’s hard to do that in a banner ad.”
As anyone who’s actually bothered to open one of these envelope knows, discount offers are what really matter to customers. Prabhakar advises that every brand puts in “value prop that compels a customer to take action” — a.k.a a coupon code. This, of course, is one of the oldest retail tricks in the book, dating back to when Coca Cola introduced the concept of a coupon in 1887 by offering a free glass of Coke as a way to introduce the drink to shoppers.
Science has studied how coupons can cause a rise in oxytocin levels. Psychology Today has reported on how shoppers prefer to buy products they have coupons for, even if it means spending more money on a product because it provides “smart shopper feelings.” More analysis of the coupon industry has found that 57 percent of shoppers will buy from a company for the first time if they are presented with a coupon.
Coupons don’t automatically mean a purchase, but Kaplan, of M.Gemi, believes offering a discount code is essential to this type of marketing because “you have to give customers some sort of experience, whether it’s free shipping or a discount.” Plus, in typical tech startup fashion, coupons are a great way to track customers. Prabhakar says his clients can “easily run a match between the addresses a mailing was sent to and the addresses of purchasers.”
Are mailers more effective than online advertising? That’s certainly up for debate. No company Vox spoke with for this story would share numbers that compared the response rate of mailers to digital advertising.
Shane Pittson, the head of electric toothbrush startup Quip says “direct mail piece URLs are more likely to be used than URLs from other offline marketing channels” and Christman, from Harry’s, advocates for the practice, noting that sending something to someone’s home can feel more intimate, which is true. But being targeted, unsolicited, at home could be at least as off-putting as being served an ad for a brand you Googled or talked about.
Glossy photography definitely looks better IRL, but it also essentially just ends up in the trash, just like everything else.
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how much you enjoy being entreated to spend money — brands see mail as complementary to the rest of their advertising budget. It’s not an “if/or,” says Kaplan, of M.Gemi, but “is something that adds to the ways we can share our story.”
One poll shows the Democrat a point behind in the most conservative district in the state.
Longtime Republican Rep. Steve King, who recently retweeted a Nazi and routinely makes white supremacist comments with aplomb, is suddenly looking like his reelection bid could be in trouble.
Just a week from Election Day, three big corporations, Intel, pet food company Purina and dairy company Land O’Lakes, announced they are pulling financial support from the Iowa Republican’s campaign, which is already low on cash. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official campaign arm for House Republicans, condemned King’s comments and actions.
Congressman Steve King’s recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate. We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior.
A new poll from Change Research also shows King’s Democratic opponent J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player and paralegal, polling within a single digit of King. To be clear, this is one poll; FiveThirtyEight still gives King about an 80 percent chance of winning reelection in a seat he has held for 15 years and won in 2016 with a resounding 61 percent of the votes.
On the other hand, this could a sign of larger trouble for King. Coming a few days after a mass shooting believed to be motivated by anti-Semitism that killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, King is taking heat for his racist rhetoric and support for politicians in Canada and Europe with ties to neo-Nazis. Local Jewish faith leaders and a separate group of more than 40 interfaith leaders within the district are penning two letters to the editor denouncing King’s run and calling on more donors to abandon him.
For his part, King is blaming “fake news” and “Establishment Never Trumpers” in a statement released Tuesday.
King’s district — the most conservative in Iowa — has always come home to him. But the Republican, who hasn’t put up a single campaign ad on TV this cycle, is suddenly at risk of being overshadowed by Scholten. The Democrat has been beating King in fundraising and is putting even more ads on air in the final week.
“What is interesting about the Fourth [Congressional] District is that Steve King doesn’t expect a challenge, and he doesn’t campaign very hard,” David Andersen, a political scientist at Iowa State University told Vox. “I have not seen Steve King’s message. He keeps a year round campaign staff that is his family. And I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Steve King is a long-time racist. So far, he’s sailed easily to reelection.
King’s explicit racism has a long history, but he has been given even more of a platform under President Donald Trump, who himself has repeatedly echoed far-right and neo-Nazi messages. King notably has the Confederate flag displayed prominently in his office, and has repeatedly disparaged black, Muslim, and Hispanic people. He’s often said he doesn’t believe in multiculturalism, saying it holds America back.
In the House, the Iowa Republican holds a leadership position on a Judiciary Committee subcommittee on immigration, and isn’t particularly popular with even his most conservative colleagues. But until now, he’s been tolerated.
When King tweeted that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” Speaker Paul Ryan responded that he “would like to think [King] misspoke.”King went on television to try to clarify: “I meant exactly what I said. … If you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”
The district, which covers northwest Iowa, has embraced King. He has won by more than 20 points in every congressional race he’s mounted. Andersen says voters don’t seem particularly happy with how King represents them, but there is some pride in not being some “sleepy conservative district.”
“He doesn’t bring any federal dollars, he doesn’t sponsor legislation, but he brings notoriety,” Andersen said.
The two biggest issues in this district are the economy — especially the impact of how Trump’s trade regime is impacting the agricultural industry — and how people feel about Trump himself.
People in this part of Iowa love Trump. But also there is an understanding that if Trump’s trade wars with China continue, a lot of farms are going to have to shut down.
That’s where the Democrats’ message can step in.
The Democrat who thinks he can beat King
Until recently, JD Scholten’s campaign seemed like a longshot. But while King has been acting like his seat isn’t competitive at all, Scholten has raised more than $1.4 million, put up ads, and is planning to campaign in every county in the district.
Scholten is bombarding voters with ads, but King seems to be channeling most of his energyinto his Twitter feed. He has dwindling financial resources with which to make his case; King had just a little more than $176,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.
Scholten is a first-time candidate who was jolted into politics by Trump’s 2016 election, but his eyes are squarely on King’s seat.
“When you’re a young(er) Midwesterner who admires Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin, there’s not a greater political fight than defeating Steve King,” Scholten told Vox’s Jane Coaston in a March email interview. “His controversial statements are an embarrassment, and his ineffectiveness and votes to the detriment of the district are what fuel my passion in this pursuit.”
In such a conservative district, Scholten can’t win on Democratic votes alone, and he’s hoping to win over moderate Republicans and independents. He’s walking a fine line, supporting progressive policies like Medicare-for-all (he says he supports a public option first, but wants to work toward Medicare-for-all eventually) and supporting the Second Amendment.
King is explicitly anti-abortion, and while Scholten supports a woman’s right to chose, he is Catholic and supports expanding access to contraception, family planning, and adoption to reduce abortion rates.It’s a strategy embraced by special election breakout star Conor Lamb.
Even though King’s rhetoric hasn’t put him in electoral danger in the past, Scholten is banking the constituents of the Fourth Congressional District are sick of the racism.
“This is the best chance we’ve ever had to beat Steve King,” Scholten said. “People have finally grown tired of his divisiveness. A lot of moderate Republicans have told me they’re supporting me because they’re tired of him embarrassing them and giving their party a bad name. His rhetoric has grown stale at a time where people are paying attention more than ever.”
Sri Kulkarni’s innovative midterms strategy: campaigning in 16 languages.
When Democrat Sri Kulkarni started campaigning in the deep-red Texas district once represented by Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, consultants told him not to even bother trying to getthe district’s Asian-American vote.
“I was told, ‘Don’t chase after Asian voters, they don’t vote,’” Kulkarni said in a recent interview with Vox, adding: “Maybe they don’t vote because we don’t bother.”
Kulkarni, a 40-year-old former foreign service official under the Bush and Obama administrations, is doing the opposite of what the consultants told him. “Why don’t we try reaching out in other languages, not just English?” Kulkarni thought. He’s running a campaign with volunteers speaking to voters in 16 languages — aggressively trying to convince the district’s Asian-American voters to cast their ballots for him.
The district sits in the Houston suburbs, a rapidly diversifying part of Texas. The non-Hispanic white population has fallen to 40 percent, while the Asian community now makes up nearly 20 percent of the district.
It’s a simple premise: greeting a voter in his or her native language builds a relationship with that voter and opens a door to the community. Kulkarni already proved it worked in the primary, emerging on top in a field of five candidates. His campaign’s internal numbers suggested their outreach had dramatically increased Asian-American primary turnout, from 6 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2018.
“This thing that was a waste of time resulted in a 12-fold increase in people coming out in the Asian community,” Kulkarni told Vox.
Winning against Republican Rep. Pete Olson on Election Day will be tough. But Kulkarni and his campaign believe he has a fighting chance, and are buoyed by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently shifting the race to merely “Lean Republican.”
“I’d watch this one,” Cook’s Dave Wasserman tweeted.
Asian Americans are an important Democratic bloc. But turning them out can be tough.
Though Kulkarni appears to be proving the political consultants wrong, there was a reason they advised him not to chase the Asian-American vote.
Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters are a rapidly growing demographic; nationwide, the Asian-American population grew 72 percent between 2000 and 2015. They also have a tendency to register as Democrats. But the Democratic Party has had a tough time successfully courting this bloc.
A recent Pew study found 65 percent of Asian Americans identify as Democrats or lean Democrat, compared to 27 percent who identify as Republicans or lean Republican. But they don’t turn out as often as white voters: In the 2016 election, 49 percent of eligible Asian-American voters cast ballots, compared to 64 percent of white voters.
In other words, while Asian-American voters are far more Democratic than other, similarly educated white voters, they don’t show up to the polls as reliably.
This makes outreach to Asian Americans a risky bet for candidates, especially those in conservative districts like Kulkarni’s. It’s a diverse demographic that speaks a wide array of languages and therefore demands more staff and volunteers. For a typical campaign, that can be a lot of investment for what has historically been a low return.
But if Kulkarni has figured out how to crack the code in TX-22, that could be good for Democrats’ future electoral chances, especially in rapidly diversifying suburban districts.
The Texas Democratic Party and other issues-based progressive campaigns have been reaching out to Kulkarni to learn more about his strategy.
“We think that’s exactly what other candidates and the party should be doing,” said María Urbina, the national political director for Indivisible. “They’re redefining what it means to engage with voters where they are.”
Campaigning in 16 languages
It all starts with a deep dive into voter data.
Kulkarni and others in his campaign combed the voter files of the district and separated out all the individual groups they could identify: Out of 85,000 registered voters, they broke up the list into Gujaratis, Punjabis, and Bengalis from India; Latino voters; and Vietnamese-American voters and voters from other Asian countries.
The plan was to pair a campaign volunteer from each ethnic group or country with each community — someone who could speak the language could make connections and convince people from these insular communities to vote Democratic.
“When you break it down into these smaller groups, each one is small enough to be managed,” Kulkarni said.
The campaign then follows upwith campaigning in churches, temples, and community centers in the district.
“You campaign at places where immigrants gather,” he said. “They want you to talk to them, and they want you to listen to them.”
Just a simple greeting in another language can open countless doors, he added.
“That shows, ‘I see you’; that’s what we’re saying,” he added.
Kulkarni’s campaign style is very focused on something he calls “relational organizing” — volunteers put effort into getting family, friends, co-workers, or other people they know in the community to get out and vote.
“I think that by 2020, this is how all canvassing is going to be done,” he said.
Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and James Lankford have all brushed aside concerns.
It’s been a disturbing week of violence in the United States: A Florida man was arrested for sending bombs to 13 prominent Democrats and critics of the president; a white man in Kentucky shot and killed two black people at a grocery store in what appears to have been a racially-motivated attack; a Pittsburgh man killed 11 people in a synagogue in what has been deemed a hate crime.
That’s led to questions about whether President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and divisiveness have played a role in encouraging violence or, at the very least, need some toning down. Republicans don’t want to talk about it.
Vice President Mike Pence at an event in Las Vegas on Saturday called for “unity” and decried the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as “evil” and criminal. “There is no place in America for violence or anti-Semitism, and this evil must end,” he said.
In a subsequent interview with NBC News, he was asked whether Trump calling Democrats a “mob” might be something to reconsider, given recent events. He hedged.
“The American people believe in the freedom of speech,” Pence said. “And throughout the history of this country we’ve always had vigorous debates and then we settle those debates in the ballot box. We don’t settle them through acts or threats of violence like the pipe bombs we saw sent to the Obamas, the Clintons, to CNN and others.”
Trump’s response to the pipe bombs has not been one of firm condemnation — at a rally in North Carolina on Friday, he decried “political violence” and then resorted to his normal attacks on the media and encouraging the crowd’s “lock her up” chants. He acknowledged that he was supposed to be “nice” in light of recent events, but he just couldn’t help himself. At another rally the following day, he toned it down a bit — not calling Hillary Clinton by his usual nickname for her, “Crooked” — but continued to lob attacks at Democrats, including Rep. Maxine Waters, who received a bomb this week.
Pence on Saturday was also asked whether Trump’s rhetoric is healthy for the civil discourse. He said there’s no connection between “the kind of violent behavior we witnessed in Pittsburgh” and political debates.
It’s not just Pence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who is retiring at the end of this year, in an interview with John Dickerson on CBS’s Face the Nationsaid that he’s worried about “tribal identity politics becoming the new norm of how politics is waged” and said that the issue, on both sides of the aisle, is “unfortunately working.”
He placed some blame on the media, which he said isn’t covering bipartisan accomplishments and instead focusing on divisions. Dickerson asked him about whether Trump’s rallies, which often entail attacks on his opponents and fear-mongering about issues such as immigration and race, are an example of an attempt to unify.
“Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t,” Ryan said, acknowledging that Trump’s tactics get “the base running.”
These suspects’ motivations appear to be Trump-adjacent
While there’s no precise one-to-one connection between the president’s rhetoric and the shootings and attempted bombings this week, there are common threads.
Cesar Sayoc, the mail bomber, was a Trump supporter and was vocal about his contempt for the president’s opponents. The Washington Post notes that his social media accounts mentioned multiple of the people he attempted to send pipe bombs to, including Barack Obama, George Soros, and Hillary Clinton. He often attacked George Soros as a “globalist.”
Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, in his social media posts attacked Trump as a globalist and said Jews were at fault for helping transport members of the migrant caravans from Central America.
It’s not hard to see the similarities between these men’s beliefs and Trump’s rhetoric. The president often complains about globalists and at a recent rally declared himself a nationalist. The term “globalist” is often considered code for anti-Semitism.
Trump has for weeks been stoking fears about the migrant caravan, and much of his appeal to his supporters is based on fear of immigrants and racial minorities. Though he strongly condemned the Pittsburgh attack and anti-Semitism Saturday, he’s failed to do so at other key points of his presidency, including after racist violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.
The president has pointed the finger elsewhere, saying the media is at fault for fueling political divisions and hate in America and has unfairly cast him as a contributor to the current situation.
Many in the GOP are backing him up. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, also on Face the Nation on Sunday, said the Pittsburgh shooter’s beliefs couldn’t be tied to Trump because he considered the president a globalist who was allowing the caravan to happen (despite the fact that Trump is the one who’s keeping the caravan in the news).
“I wouldn’t connect the president to this particular shooting, just like I wouldn’t see that connecting Democrats when a person walked up to a baseball game last year in Washington DC and said, ‘Is this where the Republicans are practicing?’” Lankford said, referring to the shooting at a Congressional baseball practice last year.
Lankford acknowledged that the president’s conduct has not, perhaps, met the standard for public discourse that would be expected. “I think that the president needs to be more clear in his rhetoric and doesn’t need to be as caustic in his rhetoric,” he said.
Trump, however, disagrees.
“I think I’ve been toned down,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “I could really tone it up.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke is still trailing incumbent Ted Cruz for the state’s Senate seat.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke might only have a long shot at flipping one of Texas’s US Senate seats blue, but he is making gains among one group that generally votes Republican: Texas independents.
O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, is trailing his opponent by six points, according to a new poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. The survey found that 45 percent of likely voters said they would cast their ballot for O’Rourke, compared with 51 percent for Cruz. (That’s consistent with other recent polls of the Texas race: RealClearPolitics’ average has Cruz leading by about seven points, though one outlier poll conducted last month found O’Rourke beating Cruz by two points.)
But Texas independents have broken with their usual political allegiances in a surprising way. Republicans in Texas generally rely on independents and moderate Democrats to maintain their significant hold over state politics. In the Senate race, however, independent voters prefer O’Rourke to Cruz by 12 points, which suggests the grassroots enthusiasm that has rallied local progressives around O’Rourke may be spreading beyond the Democratic base.
Respondents in the Tribune and University of Texas survey were asked about their electoral preferences from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21 — before President Donald Trump visited the state to rally support for Cruz. At a campaign event in Houston on Monday night, the president tore into O’Rourke, branding him a “stone-cold phony” and an “open-borders left winger.” O’Rourke has made an unusually strong showing in a state that Trump won by nine points in 2016, campaigning on subjects normally taboo to red state Democrats like immigration and gun reform. The last time Texas had an election for the Senate, in 2014, incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn beat his Democratic rival by nearly 30 points, which may be why Republican strategists are nervous about how tight the current race is sitting.
Texas independents’ preference for O’Rourke is another worrying sign for the GOP at a time when Democrats across the country appear poised to outperform their traditionally weak midterm showings. For other statewide offices that the University of Texas poll asked about, like the governor and attorney general races, the Republican candidate is favored among independents. Independents break for Republicans in those races by double digits, and when asked whether they would support a generic Republican or Democrat for Congress, independents choose the former by 10 points.
O’Rourke probably won’t win, but he’s leading a national Democratic surge
In order for Democrats to capture the Senate in November, they will have to hold onto nearly all of the 10 Democratic seats currently up for reelection in states Donald Trump won in 2016. Should they clear this uncertain hurdle, Democrats would need to flip two additional seats currently held by Republicans. The polls don’t indicate that O’Rourke will be the one to do so. But even if he can’t pull off an upset victory, his unusually high enthusiasm among Democratic voters during this cycle may help drag down-ballot Democrats across the finish line in competitive races.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan notes, “November could mean the difference between a very conservative Texas and a perhaps more moderate, but still Republican-controlled, Texas.”
“And in the long term, 2018 could be a foundational year to rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas — a state with quickly changing demographics that could become increasingly liberal in years to come.”
O’Rourke’s campaign raised more than $38 million during the third quarter of this year, setting the all-time quarterly fundraising record for a Senate candidate. The campaign said that was a product of 800,000 small donations, reflecting the outsize attention and enthusiasm surrounding his bid. Whether that — and the support of Texas independents — will be enough to turn the Senate seat blue, is another matter.
Federal authorities arrest a man in connection to the pipe bombs mailed to public figures; Israeli forces kill five Palestinians in a Gaza protest.
Florida man charged in connection to bomb threats
Federal authorities arrested a man suspected to be behind the recent bomb threats against prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump, the Justice Department confirmed Friday. [Vox / Jen Kirby]
Attorney General Jeff Sessions identified the suspect as Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., 56, of Florida, who has been charged with five federal crimes, including illegal mailing and interstate transportation of explosives. He currently faces up to 48 years in prison. [CNN]
Federal authorities have also seized a white van in connection with the case; the vehicle’s windows are covered in pro-Trump and pro-Republican stickers. [NBC Miami]
Sayoc, a registered Republican, has an extensive criminal record. He’s been arrested at least 10 times, at one point for making a bomb threat. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to grand theft to the third degree. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
In a White House event, President Trump applauded the FBI, Secret Service, and other law enforcement for their quick action in identifying and catching a suspect. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America,” he said. [AP / Jonathan Lemire and Catherine Lucey]
The FBI narrowed its investigation to the state of Florida late Thursday, after identifying that many of the packages went through a mailing facility outside Miami. [Newsday]
Authorities said four more bombs have been intercepted, addressed to Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and billionaire Tom Steyer. [New York Post / Ruth Brown]
Two possible reasons the pipe bombs didn’t detonate include better security practices to identify suspicious packages and the fact that the bombs could have been created without the intention to harm anyone, or to provide a false sense of security before additional bombs actually go off. [Vox / Alex Ward and Stavros Agorakis]
Five Palestinians killed in latest Gaza protest
Israeli forces shot and killed five Palestinians and injured hundreds more after protests erupted along the Gaza border on Friday. [Jerusalem Post]
The Israeli Defense Force said 16,000 Palestinians gathered along the fence for the 31st Friday in a row. They hurled grenades, firebombs, and rocks at Israeli troops, who then retaliated with live ammunition. [Fox News / Trey Yingst]
Palestinians have taken to the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands from which they fled or were driven away. More than 210 Gazans have been killed in that time. [Reuters / Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta]
The American government has long backed Israel in the conflict with Palestine. Most recently, the US announced it will merge its Jerusalem Consulate, which serves as an unofficial embassy to the Palestinians, with the new embassy in Israel. [Reuters / Doina Chiacu]
Palestinian officials have cut ties with the US after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year and moved the US Embassy there. [Al Jazeera]
NBC confirmed Megyn Kelly Today will not return. Kelly received backlash after commenting on blackface Halloween costumes on the show Tuesday. [Today / Rheana Murray]
Merriam-Webster launched a new tool Friday that lets you find the new words used in print the year you were born. [Time / Raisa Bruner]
Actor Johnny Depp is reportedly not returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after playing the lead role for the past 15 years. Depp also received criticism for starring in the Fantastic Beasts sequel after allegations of domestic abuse against ex-wife Amber Heard arose last year. [Page Six / Fay Strang]
Another classic ‘90s teen film is going through the “remake machine,” as GLOW writer Marquita Robinson has been confirmed to write a new script for the 1995 hit rom-com Clueless. [THR]
An episode split in two emphasizes what’s working — and what isn’t — about season 3.
Every week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Karen Han get together to discuss the latest episode of NBC’s loopy comedy The Good Place. This week, they’re discussing the sixth episode of the third season, “The Ballad of Donkey Doug.” (Because the first two episodes aired as one installment, the episode number is one ahead of the number of weeks the show has aired.) Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!
Karen Han: While watching “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” I was reminded of what Todd said a couple weeks ago about the early part of the season, in that it seemed like The Good Place was going to have to put on its running shoes and sprint in order to ever surpass the high bar it had previously set for itself, and shake off the relatively slow start to the season. While “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” actually made me tear up — and laugh out loud more than once — I’m not sure it reflected the show hitting the stride that we thought it would.
That the gang is split up into smaller groups isn’t as much of a sore spot here as it was in previous episodes (Eleanor, Chidi, and Janet go one way; Tahani, Jason, and Michael go another), but not having everyone together still slows down the action. Watching Eleanor and Chidi workshop how Chidi could break up with Simone was both sad and hysterical (who hasn’t had to deal with that kind of anxiety?) but it felt like filler to me. Removing Simone from the equation seemed designed to inch the season’s plot forward while keeping Eleanor and Chidi in the episode, as Jason’s journey to help Donkey Doug — who was revealed to be his dad — allowed the episode to meet its moral development quota.
Or maybe I’m still adjusting to the fact that The Good Place has fundamentally altered its characters’ motivation. Now that they can’t get into the Good Place, more of their energy is directed toward helping other people, rather than toward their own self-improvement.
Then again, that’s why Jason’s storyline works. It’s the deepest dive the show has taken into his past to date, and, like Chidi’s break-up, though all the Florida insanity is funny, it’s semi-tragic, too. I mean, the fact that Jason calls his dad Donkey Doug stems not from how dope the nickname is but from the fact that his dad doesn’t really dig the idea of taking on a father’s responsibility.
I feel like my conflicting emotions about the episode are driving me into Chidi “I’ve made my decision, I want … to start crying” territory. Todd, maybe you had a little more success in parsing it all out.
Is this The Good Place’s new status quo?
Todd VanDerWerff: “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” so far as I can tell, represents The Good Place’s new status quo. Instead of being about its characters trying to help themselves, it’s now going to be about them trying to help their other loved ones, the better to help said loved ones avoid the Bad Place. Which isn’t bad as a premise for trapping everyone on Earth, even if it kinda leaves Michael and Janet without a lot to do. (Janet makes up for it by saying, “Bing!” every time she does something, because she misses her sound effects so.)
That may be why the Chidi side of this episode, which I would agree wasn’t on the same level as the Jason side of the episode, felt a little extraneous. Yeah, we probably need to know what happens to Simone, but I’m not sure an entire B-plot was necessary in the end. Plus, it’s wrapping up old business, instead of exploring new ideas.
It’s mostly an excuse to set up the fact that Janet has constructed an elaborate virtual reality simulation, which means she can effectively put people in an unreal world to test things out. This lets the show keep some of its “wild and surreal things can happen” tone, but almost everything that happened in the Chidi half of “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” seemed like it was blazing along at light speed, so I never had the chance to go, “Wait, what?” Maybe the breakneck pace was meant to gloss over Janet inventing seamless virtual reality, but I still felt like the show was on step 17 when I was still on step one.
(Sidebar: So far, it hasn’t broken the show, but the fact that Janet is functionally omniscient feels like something the writers either have to lean into or work hard to neutralize. So far, they’ve done neither and haven’t quite nailed the balance.)
That said, the Jason side of “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” is truly wonderful. The reveal that Donkey Doug is Jason’s dad is terrifically funny, and Michael and Tahani’s utter amusement at all of the circumstances of Jason’s upbringing made the story click even more. If this sort of story is where The Good Place is headed, I’m intrigued. If, instead, we’re just going to see a bunch more attempts to recreate the wild, anything goes atmosphere of the afterlife here on Earth, the show might start to chase its own tail too much for me.
Karen: I do wonder if we’re seeing a case of Chekov’s virtual reality simulation, given that there’s never a Good Place detail that hasn’t turned out to serve a purpose. (Or maybe I’m just overinvested in Eleanor’s Jason Statham fantasy. Girl, same!)
I’m also not entirely convinced that the new ideas we’re seeing are new enough. Jason’s half of the episode really was great (his tearful secret handshake with Pillboy is a work of art), but it looks like The Good Place is setting up what I’m going to refer to as a video game scenario: We’re seeing the characters help other people, yes, but they’re doing so by working through their own stories in a way that doesn’t feel organic so much as it feels like steps leading up to a grand finale. Jason has achieved closure, now it’s time for Tahani and Eleanor to do the same.
I think that’s why I was ultimately disappointed that “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” ended on the reveal that Eleanor’s mother is still alive, not least because it means the gang will be divided up once more. The only upside is that what comes next looks like it will be evenly balanced, as opposed to one side of the episode functioning as pure fluff, à la Chidi’s ordeal this week.
On that same token, though, what you said about The Good Place being on step 17 while we’re still on step one is enough to make me reconsider. Again, this is a show that does everything deliberately; so far, nothing is without a purpose, and maybe I should trust that this season is built the same way.
Lest we forget, everyone is still on the Judge’s shit list, which means there’s a cosmic reckoning waiting for them at some point. And I get the feeling that season three won’t end until we see some more moral hemming and hawing from our party’s supernatural contingent of Michael and Janet. Or maybe I’ll just end up eating my hat on all of this.
The show might be trying too hard to get back to an “anything goes” kind of storytelling
Todd: No, you’re right on that account, and the video game idea is astute. The characters are embarking on some side-quests to help characters who drop in pretty much for a single episode, then leave the narrative. I mean, I’d love to see Donkey Doug and Pillboy become series regulars, but it strikes me as unlikely.
There’s also the rub that the characters can’t tell anybody about the whole Good Place/Bad Place system, because that would make it impossible for anyone they tell to get into the Good Place. That pesky little detail complicates every relationship they have with anybody who isn’t one of the other series regulars.
The Good Place has always been a pretty insular show, but at least in the afterlife, we had figures like the Judge and Trevor and Vicky and on and on, characters who would pop in just frequently enough to keep the story moving. So far, the Earthbound antics haven’t developed the same set of supporting characters, and any time someone like Trevor ends up hanging out with our heroes, he’s quickly written out.
I think the virtual reality of it “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” bugged me just a little bit because — so far, at least — it has no bearing on the show’s larger reality. It was fun to watch William Jackson Harper run through a bunch of possible versions of breaking up with Simone, just as it was fun to see Kristen Bell play Eleanor slowly realizing she’s into Simone, at least in the simulation. (And, really, why don’t more men say they’re bisexual? It’s 2018!) But it’s inherently a story that runs in place, a comedic conceit that works in a scene but can’t carry a whole storyline. Chidi’s gutted feeling when he finally does break up with Simone is inherently more interesting, but the show buzzes right by it.
And yet the virtual reality stuff made me think about the simulation hypothesis, which Elon Musk (a particularly loathsome Tahani ex, it turns out) was obsessed with for a while there. The idea is that we live in an incredibly advanced simulation, created by descendants of people very like us, designed by them to get a sort of window into their past. It posits that we are, in essence, the Sims, but with autonomy. Or something like that.
The major philosophical question raised by the simulation hypothesis is — how do we behave morally if we live in a simulation? And the answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. The moral code you live by doesn’t change one iota, because even if you’re somehow aware of the simulation, it doesn’t make the people around you, or your interactions with them, less real. You still have a responsibility to them. We all still owe each other kindness and sincerity.
So maybe there’s more to “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” than I’m giving it credit for. But nearly halfway through season three, I’m increasingly concerned The Good Place is trying to extend its old heavenly delights to the planet Earth and struggling with just how little our reality affords those kinds of opportunities. In the Good Place, you can jet all over the universe in an instant. On Earth, it still takes the better part of a day to get from Australia to Florida, to say nothing of going back again.
After a string of attempted bombings against Democrats, Trump cast blame away from himself for divisive political rhetoric.
President Donald Trump sounded more somber than usual as he kicked off a Mosinee, Wisconsin, rally on Wednesday. It didn’t take him long to turn a call for unity in the face of political violence into a jab at the media and an allusion to Democratic “mobs.”
The news of the day was dominated by attempts to send pipe bombs tohigh-profile Democrats — including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director John Brennan, and billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. All were sent packages containing “potentially destructive devices.” (The package addressed to Brennan was sent to CNN, and the package addressed to Holder ended up at the Florida office of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former Democratic National Committee chair.)
After two years of encouraging his crowds to “lock her up” (and once tweeting a video in which he body-slammed a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face to the ground), Trump was the onecalling for an end to political violence.
His prescription was calling for unity — and thenblaming the media.
“Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy, itself,” Trump said. “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion, or control.”
Right after asking the country to come together, Trump sounded off on the media for what he characterized as sowing divisiveness.
“As part of a larger national effort to bridge our divides and bring people together, the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” Trump said. “Have to do it. They’ve got to stop.”
Trump also appeared to foist some of the blame for the heightened tension on Democrats. Though he did not mention the party by name (or note that many of those targeted were Democrats or had served in Democratic administrations), the president alluded to “mobs,” something he has clearly tied to the Democratic Party in his pre-midterms messaging of“jobs not mobs.”
“We should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property,” Trump said at the rally. “No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains, which is done often.” (Earlier this week, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report on socialism that compared Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin.) “It’s done all the time,” Trump said. “Got to stop.”
The president added the way to settle disagreements peacefully was at the ballot box, nodding to the November 6 midterms that are just a few weeks away.
Then he made sure to point out that he waskeeping his own behavior in check — a joke that ended the solemn message with a sort of wink to the audience.
“By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving tonight?” Trump said. “Have you ever seen this? We’ve all been behaving very well. We want to keep it that way.”
Trump hasn’t been shy about stoking political violence in the past
The president was in the position of asking for less discord and an end to political violence on Tuesday night, which is somewhat of an unusual position for him.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump once wondered aloud if there was something “Second Amendment people” could do to stop Hillary Clinton from being able to pick judges — seemingly alluding to violence against the Democratic nominee. And Trump has made light of attacks on reporters, something he did at a rally just last week.