Can Trump Boost Middle-Class Incomes?

December 2, 2016

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The state of the economy loomed large in the minds of voters as they went to the polls. According to CNN exit polling, 62% of the voters characterized the economy as “not good” or “poor,” and a majority of those who felt that way voted for Donald Trump. The 27% of voters who said they were worse off than four years ago voted for him by a 77% to 19% margin.

Although the economy has been growing steadily since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the rate of growth has been fairly slow, and the income gains from that growth have gone mostly to the very wealthy.

What does President-Elect Trump propose to do for the middle class? He would give them a modest tax cut, create good jobs by spending on infrastructure and negotiating more favorable trade deals, and stimulate the economy to increase the rate of economic growth. (I won’t discuss new trade deals here, since they are such an unknown at this time, and they require the cooperation of our trading partners.)

Taxes and spending

As I described in more detail in an earlier post, Trump would like to reduce personal income taxes and corporate taxes, as well as completely eliminate estate taxes. The income tax cut would provide a small benefit for the middle class. For example, a married couple with a $50,000 taxable income would have their taxes reduced from $6,572 to $6,000.

This might not be a free lunch, however. Like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him, Trump would like to cut taxes and increase military spending at the same time. If past experience is any guide, that would increase the deficit and make it hard to fund any job-creating domestic initiatives. If Congressional Republicans run true to form, they will rush to cut taxes and then clamor for spending cuts to avoid raising the debt ceiling. Trump’s fiscal problem is likely to be especially acute, since he wants infrastructure spending as well as military spending increases. He also wants particularly drastic tax cuts, including complete elimination of estate taxes (a huge financial windfall for his own family and those of his billionaire friends) and a reduction in corporate rates from 35% to 15%.

Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin, has created some uncertainty about tax cuts for the wealthy. He has said, “Any reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” That would be good news for the rest of us, since it would make the tax cuts fairer and also preserve revenue that could be better spent on job creation. However, Mnuchin’s promise goes against strong Republican inclinations, as well as being in opposition to the plan previously announced by Trump himself. According to the New York Times:

In that plan, middle-class families would see a 0.8 percent increase in their after-tax income, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation, while the top 1 percent of taxpayers would see a 10.2 to 16 percent gain. Another group, the Tax Policy Center, calculated middle-class families would get a 1.8 percent boost in after-tax income, while the top 0.1 percent of earners would see a 14 percent gain and a tax cut worth an average of $1.1 million.

I will be surprised of Congress can agree on enough changes in tax deductions to offset the large reductions in tax rates that Trump has proposed for the wealthy.

Economic growth

Ever since the Reagan Revolution, “supply-side” economists have dreamed of cutting tax rates without actually reducing government revenues, so as not to increase the federal deficit. In theory, that could be accomplished if tax cuts stimulated economic growth and increased the income base from which taxes are collected. In practice, Republican tax cuts since Reagan have not paid for themselves, and the annual deficit has risen under Republican administrations while falling under Democratic administrations. (The total national debt, however, has risen under both parties’ administrations, since only rarely has the government run a surplus. Bill Clinton did toward the end of his presidency, but then George W. Bush used the surplus as an excuse for another round of tax cuts and deficits.)

Since middle-class tax rates are already fairly low, the middle-class tax cut is probably too small to produce much stimulus. Those who believe in top-down economic growth are pinning their hopes more on the corporate tax cut. That could translate into widespread income gains, but only if corporations actually invest the money in expansions of output (as opposed to just distributing it in dividends to mostly wealthy shareholders or buying up existing assets), and spend a lot of it on labor, not just on labor-saving machinery.

What the country needs is a virtuous cycle of higher productivity and higher wages. Higher productivity justifies wage increases, and higher wages create the consumer demand that justifies investment in the expansion of supply. What is missing from the Trump economic policy, and from Republican policy in general, is much support for higher wages. That would mean federal support for workers in their efforts to bargain for a fairer share of the income gains the economy is capable of generating. For a man who presents himself as a friend of the working class, Trump has remarkably little to say on this subject. In a way, he is the personification of trickle-down economics, the billionaire who just asks people to trust rich folks like him to create wealth for the masses.

We get occasional hints that President-Elect Trump might depart from the standard Republican playbook of tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for everyone else. His interest in infrastructure spending and his Treasury secretary’s support for concentrating tax cuts on the middle class are hopeful signs. But overall, I remain skeptical that much that is good for working families will survive Trump’s embrace of Wall Street and the Republican establishment.


A Post-Truth Presidency?

November 30, 2016

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The term “post-truth” has entered our national vocabulary recently. The Oxford Dictionaries declared it the 2016 Word of the Year. We hear about “post-truth politics” and “post-truth election.” What’s going on here?

“In war, truth is the first casualty” is a familiar saying attributed to the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. One would expect political polarization to generate many falsehoods, as each side tries to bolster its own position and tear down that of its adversary. The fragmentation of media creates a new kind of provincialism, as people have the option to rely on sources that tell them only what they want to hear, true or not. Some websites have been deliberately putting out fake news stories, sometimes just to profit from the market for partisan messages.

Politifact has been rating the truthfulness of political candidates for several election cycles, and they report an increase in false statements from 2008 to 2016. The statements they fact-checked in 2016 earned the largest proportion of either “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings. Even more troubling is that the biggest offender was the candidate who won the election! Donald Trump had four times as many negative ratings as Hillary Clinton. Will President Trump be more careful to speak the truth when he is in office? So far, the evidence is not encouraging.

Who won the popular vote?

A case in point is Trump’s claim that Clinton won the popular vote only because of fraudulent voting. According to CNN, the official account shows Clinton with about a 2 million vote lead, with over 134 million votes recorded. The percentage breakdown is 48.1% Clinton, 46.5% Trump, and 5.4% other candidate. (That means, by the way, that the pre-election national polls were not as far off as they first appeared to be.) What would it take for fraudulent voting to produce a 2 million vote margin for the wrong candidate? If the illegal voters split evenly between the two major candidates, they would have zero impact on the outcome. If they split 60/40 in favor of Clinton, Clinton would pick up 20 extra votes for every 100 illegal voters, so it would take 10 million illegals to provide her 2 million vote margin. That’s about one out of every 13 people who voted. When you stood in line to vote, do you really believe that one out of every 13 people around you was voting illegally? We can cut that number down by assuming that the alleged illegals were a very pro-Clinton group, such as the Latinos who split 66/28 between Clinton and Trump in exit polling. Then Clinton would net 38 votes for every 100 illegal votes cast, and it would take only 5.26 million illegal votes or one out of every 25 voters to create the 2 million vote gap. Even that is an astounding amount of fraud by American election standards.

Trump’s story gets even more implausible, however. He has claimed that the voter fraud was concentrated in the states of California, New Hampshire and Virginia. Let’s assume that the vote counts in the other states are roughly correct, with a few too many Clinton votes here and a few too many Trump votes there, but an accurate result overall. Certainly Trump has adamantly defended the counts in the states that he won! Then Clinton’s 2 million vote margin would have to come from three states that recorded only about 17 million votes combined. Using the voting splits in the previous example, with at least 5 to 10 million votes having to be fraudulent to generate a 2 million vote margin, that would require a big chunk of the 17 million voters in those states! It would be election rigging to rival the most corrupt regimes in history. There is absolutely no evidence of illegal voting on such a scale.

[Addendum: The day after I wrote this, the New York Times reported the following: “Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead over Mr. Trump reached 2,526,184–five times Al Gore’s lead over George W. Bush in 2000. At 1.9 percentage points, her lead is now larger than those of 10 presidents, and it is approaching Jimmy Carter’s margin over Gerald Ford in 1976.” That news didn’t stop Donald Trump from claiming at his post-campaign campaign rally that he had won in a “landslide”.]

Why leaders lie

In one way, the popular vote does not matter, since it doesn’t change the outcome in the electoral college.  What does matter is having a president who has a reckless disregard for truth, along with ardent followers who are willing to believe just about anything he says. This got me thinking about falsehoods by previous presidents and the reasons for them. I thought of a simple typology of falsehoods, those involving ignorance, preconception, and just plain deceit.

Sometimes, presidents tell falsehoods because they are themselves ignorant of the facts. During the Vietnam War, the Johnson and Nixon administrations suffered from what was called the “credibility gap.” They kept presenting an overly optimistic prognosis for the war, based partly on inflated estimates of enemy casualties produced by the Pentagon. When CBS aired an expose about the deception, General Westmoreland sued the network for libel, although he later dropped the suit. We may never know for sure, but Presidents Johnson and Nixon may well have believed that the war was going better than it was.

A more subtle reason for falsehood is that leaders take the facts they have and make them tell a preconceived story based on their personal prejudices or ideology. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney very much wanted to invade Iraq for various reasons, not the least of which was access to Iraqi oil. But they needed a convincing rationale to muster support from the American people for a largely unprovoked attack, since Iraq had no obvious role in 911. Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction fit the bill, but the evidence for them was shaky. The administration exerted a lot of pressure on the CIA to interpret the evidence as convincingly as possible, even though the agency’s own analysts were skeptical. Bush and Cheney themselves probably believed what they were claiming, but that was largely because they wanted to believe it.

Sometimes leaders lie in order to protect themselves or denigrate their opponents. Richard Nixon obviously knew he was lying when he tried to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate break-in and other illegal activities. That’s just plain deceit.

Is one of these reasons for misleading the American people any better than another? Does it matter whether a leader tells a falsehood out of ignorance, preconception or deceit? Most people probably regard deceit as a the greater vice. If Donald Trump habitually says things that he knows are not true, then he should be ashamed of himself, and voters should be ashamed of themselves for electing him.

But I think we should also hold leaders to a higher standard, an attentiveness to truth that goes beyond just saying whatever one believes to be true at the moment, without investigation or reflection. As Trump himself has come to believe (although he lied when he said he always believed it), the pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a very costly tragedy for this country. How many other tragedies will we endure if the President bases decisions on inadequate information or extreme ideology? The stakes are too high to follow a egotistical leader who constructs his own reality and believes whatever he chooses to believe.

 


U.S. Election May Undo Efforts to Control Climate Change

November 15, 2016

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Early indications from Donald Trump are that he is poised to carry out his threat to repudiate the Paris climate agreement and dismantle the EPA regulations intended to implement it. Reuters reported yesterday that his advisors are looking into a number of ways to withdraw from the Paris accord, which is not necessarily a simple process. Trump has also appointed Myron Ebell, one of the most prominent climate change deniers, to lead the transition at the EPA, with the responsibility to recommend key personnel and set new directions for the agency. Ebell directs environmental and energy policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group partly funded by fossil-fuel companies. He argues that the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is bad for the economy and exceeds the agency’s legal authority.

What follows is a little background on the climate change issue.

The threat of climate change

The great majority of climate scientists now agree that global average temperature is rising, that the rise is largely due to human changes in the atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions, and that continuing the trend will have serious negative consequences: stronger storms, longer droughts, loss of farmland to desert, food shortages, rising sea levels and coastal flooding. Could the science be wrong? Perhaps, but who is Donald Trump to say that it is?

If the science is not wrong, then slowing global warming is a serious economic and technological challenge. It is also a moral challenge, since the benefits and costs of burning fossil fuels are distributed differently. The benefits are distributed economically, going primarily to the biggest sellers, buyers and consumers of fossil fuels, as well as the workers whose livelihood has depended on those industries. The costs will be distributed more geographically, since whether your land turns to desert or your city is submerged will depend on where you live. The path we are on has great potential for environmental injustice, as some people enjoy economic benefits at the expense of others, many yet unborn. If the environmental damage and the resulting social upheaval are severe enough, everybody may lose in the end.

Responding to climate change will require global and national cooperation. Although market incentives have a role to play, such as the incentive to save on fuel bills by buying energy-efficient homes and cars, international agreements and strong national policies are also necessary. This is not a great time to return to nineteenth century nationalism or laissez-faire economics!

The Paris Accord

In December of 2015, the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement was approved in Paris. It set the goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels.” The agreement itself does not tell each nation exactly how much to control greenhouse gas emissions. It allows countries to set their own “nationally determined contributions” to the goal, requiring only that they be ambitious, progressive over time, and designed to meet the overall objective.

Even before the U.S. election cast doubt on this country’s commitment, environmentalists were already calling attention to the many possibilities for failure. The temperature goal itself may not be strict enough; the agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism to insure compliance; and even countries with the best of intentions could fail to deliver on their promises.

The agreement stipulated that it would go into effect only when countries producing at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions formally approved it. That threshold was reached this month when the European Union ratified it, just a few days before the U.S. election. As it stands now, 109 countries representing 76% of emissions are now on board. Since the United States represents 18% of emissions, U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t kill the agreement, but it would be a serious blow to its prospects for success, especially since some other countries might follow suit. If the world’s largest economy is not going to bear the costs of change, why should others?

The Clean Power Plan

Under the direction of President Obama, and under the authority of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first national standards to address carbon pollution from power plants. According to the EPA, power plants account for 31% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The new regulations are intended both to reduce emissions from power plants powered by fossil fuels and to promote alternative forms of energy.

Taking into account the regional energy distribution system, the EPA sets emission goals for states, while allowing the states some flexibility in how they go about meeting the goals. Specifically, the regulations aim to (1) make improvements in coal-fired plants to reduce their carbon emissions, (2) move away from coal toward lower-emitting natural gas, and (3) promote renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The plan includes a Clean Energy Incentive Program to induce states to move in that direction.

The regulations try to balance the need to reduce emissions with the need to maintain the reliability of the country’s electricity supply. To avoid disruptions, emissions reductions are phased in over a period of up to 15 years.

Over 100 companies and 28 states are litigating some aspect of the Clean Power Plan. In February of this year, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the plan pending further judicial review. The Supreme Court itself is likely to weigh in sometime next year.

Many ways to delay

The transition to cleaner forms of energy was never going to be quick and easy. The fossil fuel industry is very powerful, and their influence on politicians considerable. Although Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and fight the “special interests,” reducing the influence of Big Oil was probably not what he had in mind. Maybe he could be persuaded to take environmental regulation more seriously, but not if he surrounds himself with climate change deniers like Myron Ebell.

If President Trump persists in his disregard for science and the environment, he has many ways of blocking action on climate change. He would not have to completely renounce the Paris agreement. That would be difficult, since countries that have already signed it are not allowed to leave it until at least 2020. Leaving sooner would be a violation of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent agreement that was ratified by the U.S. Senate and later produced the Paris accord. However, Trump could direct the EPA to revise the regulations that implement the agreement, a process that could take years, or just appoint administrators who decline to enforce them. The United States would simply endure the international embarrassment of missing its emissions-control targets.

Another thing Trump could do is carry out his threat to cut off contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up for richer countries to help poorer ones with the costs of transitioning to cleaner energy. India has already declared that its participation in the global effort depends on such assistance.

I remember how, during the 1980s, the response to the international AIDS crisis was delayed by the Reagan administration. That was partly because of their fiscal conservatism, and partly because they thought of AIDS as a “gay disease” affecting only a morally suspect minority. (AIDS was once called GRIDS–gay-related immune deficiency syndrome.) A delay of several years in getting AIDS research funded no doubt cost many lives. I can’t help wondering how much environmental damage may be done before conservatives start taking the threat of climate change seriously. Scientists warn of a tipping point when the global warming trend becomes irreversible. Future historians may marvel that we worried more about Hillary Clinton’s email server than about the planet.


A Leap into the Dark

November 11, 2016

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Like most people, I was surprised by the election of Donald Trump as forty-fifth President of the United States. But I was not as shocked as some, because I had taken seriously Nate Silver’s warnings over at fivethirtyeight.com. He had Trump’s chances in the 30-35% range last week, and he had also warned specifically of the possibility of his winning the electoral college without winning the popular vote. (Trump is the fifth president to do so; John Q. Adams, Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin Harrison did it in the 1800s and George W. Bush did it in 2000.) After Trump’s sexual aggression scandal, I doubted that he could get above 40% of the vote, but that changed after the Comey letter brought the Clinton email controversy to the forefront again. That’s an example of a kind of political butterfly effect; Comey flapped his wings (or jaw) and influenced the political weather around the world. Another example is the election official who approved a confusing ballot format for West Palm Beach (known, appropriately, the “butterfly ballot”), which probably cost Al Gore the state of Florida and the 2000 election. That almost certainly gave us the Iraq War, and maybe the financial meltdown as well.

Winners and losers

Identifying the main losers in this election is not hard. Undocumented immigrants lose any path to citizenship and any protection against deportation, even if they have been in the country since childhood or have American-born children. African Americans lose federal government support for their struggle against voter suppression, racial profiling and mass incarceration. Women lose the best opportunity they’ve ever had to elect the first woman president. Foreign businesses will probably lose some access to U.S. markets (and also vice versa). Environmentalists will lose presidential support for the battle against global climate change, which our new President regards as a hoax. People all over the world may lose from that one. The list could go on and on.

Who won? Well supposedly, the biggest winners are supposed to be the working-class men displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs due to deindustrialization and globalization. Trump promises to bring back their mining and manufacturing jobs. Although most economists are dubious about that, there is a lot of commentary across the political spectrum that something should be done to create more economic opportunity for those folks.  One good thing that may come out of this election is a more serious national effort to create some good jobs, especially by investing more in infrastructure projects. That has at least as much support from Democrats as Republicans; in fact, it’s something that President Obama would have done by now if he could have gotten more Republican cooperation.

A Trojan horse?

That last point raises a troublesome issue about the Trump victory. In many ways, it’s a victory for the wrong party! The fate of the struggling working class is now more securely in the hands of the party that has traditionally been least supportive of their interests. Donald Trump is many things, but Franklin Roosevelt he ain’t. How did the mantle of working class champion fall on his shoulders?

Trump has actually changed his party affiliation many times over the course of his life, probably to help him in his business dealings. (He is fond of saying that he knows how corrupt the system is because he’s been so involved in it.) He had to run for president as a Republican, since his views about immigrants, African Americans and women are anathema to Democrats. Although he may have gotten his margin of victory from disenchanted rust-belt Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for him, the bulk of his support came from the large majority of registered Republicans who just supported the nominee of their party, as they supported Mitt Romney in 2012. The party is overwhelmingly white, but not particularly blue-collar. Those who are blue-collar came out strongly for Trump, but most of the more educated and affluent Republicans voted for him too. The small-business owner feeling burdened by regulation, or the evangelical Christian upset over abortion, may be angry, but their anger is not the same as that of the displaced manufacturing worker. Many conservative agendas coexist within the Republican party.

By making his cause the Republican cause, Donald Trump may have made himself into a kind of Trojan horse: He looks like a champion of the working class on the outside; but open him up, and out comes a horde of economic, social and cultural conservatives. The economic conservatives identify with the management and ownership class, not the working class, and they believe that economic benefits trickle down from the top.

Trump and the Republican Congress

The Trump victory has also reaffirmed Republican control of both houses of Congress, although Democrats made some small gains. Although Trump was not the first choice of the Republican establishment, I expect more harmony than discord between him and Republican lawmakers.

Congressional Republicans held open a Supreme Court vacancy all year so that he could fill it, and they should be happy to confirm his choice. Trump has promised to appoint justices similar to Anthony Scalia, which will insure that the Roberts court will continue to be the most pro-business court since at least the 1940s. For one thing, their decisions have made it much harder for workers and consumers to bring class action suits against businesses.

On the legislative front, one of the first orders of business will be repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Who will be hurt the most? Not the elderly, who have Medicare; not the very poor, who have Medicaid; and not the wealthy, who can afford private insurance without government subsidies. The act was aimed especially at people above the poverty line but below the median income, exactly where most white people without college degrees fall. Unless Congress comes up with some awfully good alternative, repeal will hurt many of the very people Trump has promised to help. That’s why true friends of the working class like Elizabeth Warren staunchly support universal health insurance, vigorously oppose Donald Trump, and are disliked by most Republicans. Don’t be surprised if Trump and the Republican Congress also try to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Board that Warren fought for.

One of Trump’s promises is to scrap or renegotiate trade agreements. Yet by voting Republican, Trump’s working-class supporters are keeping in power the lawmakers who have most supported those agreements, although recent Democratic presidents have supported them too. That is one issue where President Trump and Congress may disagree, and he may have trouble reducing the foreign trade that many American businesses rely on for customers, laborers and components. But when it comes to domestic economic policy, Trump’s positions are similar to those of the Romney-Ryan ticket: more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy; fewer regulations to protect consumers, workers and the environment. In other words, more of the same policies that helped produce the greatest economic inequality since the Gilded Age.

The working-class Democrats of the rust belt who crossed party lines to vote for Trump could easily end up with many of the policies they voted against when they helped defeat Romney and Ryan in 2012. If so, they will have been had. They can join the casino investors and Trump University students as victims of Trump’s grandiose promises. Or I could be wrong, and Trump will magically transform the Republican Party into the party of the working class and America into a more egalitarian society. Want to bet on it?

The view from Wall Street

And speaking of betting on it, what do the Wall Street stock bettors think? The markets dislike uncertainty, we are told, and for a moment markets around the world seemed spooked by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Then the mood turned more optimistic, at least in the United States. Investors seem to like the prospect of corporate tax cuts and fewer regulations, which should boost short-term profits. Bank stocks did especially well yesterday, amid talk of possibly repealing the regulations put in place after the financial crisis. (Alan Greenspan, whose lax regulation as Federal Reserve chair is one oft-cited reason for the financial crisis, has reappeared to argue for such repeal.) Wall Street also hopes that Trump can make good on his promise to accelerate the rate of economic growth.

I don’t try to predict short-term stock fluctuations. I generally think that investors ought to keep at least a portion of their portfolio in stock all the time, as long as they mitigate risk by being well diversified. I do believe, however, that the Trump presidency increases the long-run risk to the domestic and global economy. I do not see in his ideas any new formula for long-term growth, and I do see more risk of increasing income disparities and environmental degradation. The heightened uncertainty and risk makes stocks less valuable to me than they were last week, no matter what the market says at the moment.

 


Election Night 2016

November 6, 2016

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Although the presidential race has been tightening in the past week, the consensus among pollsters is that Hillary Clinton still has the advantage. She appears to be very close to the 270 electoral votes needed, while Donald Trump still has a ways to go. He would have to win all of the toss-up states where neither candidate has a clear lead.

That being the case, here’s what I’ll be looking for as the returns come in on Tuesday:

  • Clinton could deliver a nearly fatal blow to Trump’s chances if she were to carry any one of his must-win states early in the evening. The most crucial swing states he needs are Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, all of which close their polls at or before 8:00 PM. We may know something about Florida earlier than usual because of the high rate of early voting. Even if Clinton wins New Hampshire’s four electoral votes, Trump’s path to 270 becomes much harder.
  • If Trump does not get derailed early on, then it could be a long night. The ultimate outcome could depend on Nevada, when its returns come in after 10:00. That is also a tight race, but the early voting appears to favor Clinton because of heavy Hispanic turnout.
  • A Trump victory will look a lot more likely should he win one of the states where Clinton has consistently led in the polls, especially Pennsylvania (8:00) or Michigan (9:00). Right now, that looks less likely than either of the first two scenarios.

Even if the presidential election is decided quickly, determining control of the Senate will probably take a lot longer, maybe even into Wednesday or beyond. Many of the decisive battles are very close, and neither party appears to have a clear lead at this point.