james debate
james debate

Sunday, 20 November 2022

Last week, America went to the polls and elected a new Congress. This blog most recently posted on the subject with our final forecast. Now that the dust has settled (aside from a few straggler House seats and a Georgia runoff) it's time to step back and take stock of what happened. Were we surprised? What will the consequences be over the next few years? Most importantly, what does this all tell us about the direction the country is headed?

2022 us midterm congress election house senate trump democrat democratic victory republican defeat historic shock

It's safe to say that this was not the midterm election the Republican party expected.

As I noted in my midterm election preview, midterm elections tend to heavily favour the opposition party. In that preview I discussed a few of the reasons why this is the case. Whatever the reason, they tend to win, and they tend to win by a lot. The average opposition party gain in a midterm election is some 30 seats in the House and 4 seats in the Senate. In recent elections the gains have been even more severe: Democrats gained more than 40 House seats in 2018, Republicans gained 60 in 2010.

There is such a strong correlation between midterm election success and being in the opposition party that it has almost become a cardinal rule of US electoral theory. In the modern era, the only times this principle has not held have been under exceptional circumstances: 9/11 and the Clinton impeachment.

This year in particular had all the makings of an ideal storm of high inflation, mediocre Presidential approval ratings and narrow incumbent margins. It should have been a bloodbath. For this reason, all the talk in the build up to election night was not so much over who would win, but by how much the Republican party would win. The phrases "red wave" or "red tsunami" were thrown around a lot.

But this is not what happened. The Democrats have held their majority in the Senate and appear set to even increase their majority. The Republicans did take a majority in the House, but by the barest of margins with gains likely to be in the single digits, resulting in potentially the smallest House majority of all time. They went into election night with their majority considered a mere formality. In the end, they are likely to have gained 6-8 seats in the House and lost 1 seat in the Senate.

This really can't be stressed enough. This was a catastrophic election for Republicans. Despite a turnout advantage and a seemingly ideal electoral climate, they barely managed a tie. This was a historic electoral achievement for President Biden and the Democrats, and 2022 will go down in the history books as one of those asterisk elections, the one that years from now people will look back at and ask if the next election could be "another 2022".

So the question now is: how did this happen, why didn't anyone see it coming, and what does it mean going forward?

Why did the GOP underperform?
Analysts will be poring over this one for years, trying to figure out how the Republicans performed so badly. Democratic turnout was as tepid as one would have expected in a midterm election, but independents broke unexpectedly for Democrats. Why?

A key early observation is the fact that the Trumpist "MAGA" candidates all fared very poorly. All across the nation, election deniers and far right extremists lost the close, toss up races. In the big contests, they fared particularly dismally. Nowhere is this more clear than in Arizona. A traditionally red state, Arizona was swept by Democrats, winning a key Senate race as well as the Governor's mansion. On the losing end? MAGA darling Kari Lake, a TV personality who in the run up to the election had been tipped as a future star and potential Vice Presidential candidate for Trump's 2024 run. 

On the other hand, Republicans fared better in states where Trump and his brand of politics were kept at arm's length, most notably in Florida under the banner of Trump rival Governor Ron DeSantis. Indeed, the Sunshine State was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak spate of results for the GOP. Whatever else the data shows, it is clear that those closely associated with Trump fared worse than those that kept their distance.

An interesting datapoint is that Democrats appear to have overperformed most in the competitive battleground states, while their performances in the less competitive states falls more in line with pre-election expectations. This suggests that their campaign messaging has been particularly effective, a stark rejoinder to the commonly held wisdom that Democrats have lagged their rivals in this regard.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, of all people, summed it up perfectly when he said that Republicans lost the election because voters saw them as causing "too much chaos". I think he's hit the nail on the head here, but it's not the only factor.

A significant factor in the GOP's underperformance that should not be ignored is the redistricting process of the last two years. As I discussed in my pre-election preview, Republicans have had a significant structural advantage in recent midterm elections due to an election rigging process called gerrymandering (see that post for further explanation). Under the old districting, it was estimated that Democrats needed to win nationally by around 5% just to break even in the House. This is essentially what happened in 2020 when they won by that margin and held only a small majority. Under the new districts, that structural advantage has narrowed considerably and may even have vanished entirely. 

But just as other "asterisk" elections tended to be precipitated by significant events (9/11, impeachment), we also need to consider the exceptional occurrences that may have swung this election in Democrats' favour. 

Most notable among this has to be January 6. On January 6 2021, Donald Trump attempted to overthrow a democratically elected US Government by staging a desperate and ultimately deadly insurrection in Washington DC. This may well be the single most traumatic blow to the American psyche since 9/11. America was attacked on this day and for the first time since the Civil War, that attack came from within. For the first time in modern history, the very principle of American democracy was under threat. Hundreds of criminal charges have been filed in connection with that day, including multiple charges of insurrection. It's also been the subject of a major House investigation and now a Federal Special Prosecutor investigation. If anything can be said to be a significant, election swinging event, it's this.

The common wisdom leading up to the election was that the shock of this event had already worn off. That the American public, somehow, wasn't interested or didn't care about this assault on democracy. The media was full of premature hot-takes that Democrats should have spent more time focusing on kitchen sink type issues, that their grander arguments on ideals and principles would not reach the average voter. This has proven to be well wide of the mark. Voters did, of course, care about this horrific and shocking moment in American history, and it appears to have significantly poisoned the Republican brand. A reminder to take media punditry with a pinch of salt, the people running the campaigns usually have better data than they do.

Remarkably, this was not the only such event in the build up to this election. In summer 2022, the Supreme Court voted to overturn the decades-standing precedent that a woman is entitled to bodily autonomy, the case of Roe v Wade. It sparked widespread outrage all over the country, but as with January 6 the common wisdom was that the anger had worn off by election night, that voters were apathetic and unconcerned.  Again, this was clearly wrong. The anger has persisted through to election night and it has cost Republicans big.

As I said, this is a question that will be talked about for years to come. But when all is said and done, the reasons for GOP underperformance in 2022 are likely to be a combination of poor candidate quality, losing their gerrymandered advantage, and the two opposition-rallying events of Jan 6 and Roe v Wade.

Why didn't anyone predict this?
While the GOP's disappointing electoral performance will rightly remain the big story of the 2022 election, an equally worthy story is the fact that all the experts, all the forecasters and analysts did not see it coming. 

The media was unanimous in the build up to the election. This was going to be a red wave, a historic and massive victory for the Republican Party. Fivethirtyeight forecast an almost 90% chance of Republicans winning the House and a 60% chance of winning the Senate. RealClearPolitics predicted they would gain 50 seats in the House and sweep the competitive Senate races for a whopping 4 seat gain. Media all over the world were certain of this outcome regardless of their political persuasion, from the far right propagandists of Fox News to left leaning outlets such as the Guardian. They all missed it.

But not everyone missed it. On this very blog, a week before the election, I predicted that Democrats would hold the Senate at a time when few others were doing so. I also called the House race a toss up at a time when just about everyone else viewed it as a landslide, and predicted a much smaller than expected GOP majority. At the time of writing, I have correctly predicted every single Senate race that has been called. I'm not a professional by any means. So how did I, an admitted amateur, see what the professionals did not? It wasn't hope, it wasn't wishful thinking, it was there in the data, clear as day.

As I noted in my preview, the numbers really weren't that good for Republicans. Democrats were fundraising at a high level, special elections were breaking for Democrats by margins far above their expected baseline. These are very bullish signs for a party's electoral chances. Most importantly though, the polls were not good for Republicans, despite what the experts said.

For most of the summer, polls consistently predicted a close race with perhaps a narrow Democratic advantage, much to everyone's surprise. For the reputable, high quality pollsters, this was the consistent and clear picture coming from the data and it should have been a big red flag for Republicans. Then a month before the election, the polls suddenly swung in Republicans' favour. Analysts interpreted this as some late, unexplained shift in the race. There was just one problem: it was entirely fictional. 

Let's not beat around the bush. There are pollsters out there that are not serious polling firms. They are propagandists whose intent is to try and drive momentum towards their preferred side. They do it every year and yet, somehow, people keep paying attention to them. Get ready, because I will name and shame.

Look at the polls during that period of the race. Look at the actual pollsters. You will see time and time again it was the same few pollsters showing this late movement towards Republicans: Rasmussen, Trafalgar, Co-Efficient and InsiderAdvantage. None of the other pollster showed this movement. None of the gold standard, reputable pollsters saw anything other than consistently favourable Democratic prospects. 

Now look at the 2020 polls. You will see those exact same pollsters predicting a Trump victory. 2018, the exact same thing. These few pollsters do this every election cycle, and it's time we stop taking them at face value. 

Rasmussen is commonly considered as the gold standard of partisan right wing pollsters. One only needs to look at their shamelessly partisan press releases, typically full of Republican party talking points and attacks on the liberal media, to see the type of operation they're running. Their data has always been suspect, not only for its consistent partisan lean, but for its unusual movement and trends that are generally not reflected in other polls. In particular they have been frequently suspected by poll-watchers of pushing right-leaning numbers, and then shifting dramatically to the left with their final polls so that they can point to a respectable final prediction. Ultimately though, the data they produce is just flat out wrong. In 2018 they predicted Republicans to win the popular vote, in a year where they lost by a landslide margin. In 2020 they were equally wide of the mark. In 2022, they predicted a landslide Republican popular vote margin in a year where they are just barely breaking even. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with pollster having a particular "house effect" or partisan lean. So long as the methodology is consistent and honest, they can still provide useful data. But what really sets off red flags with Rasmussen is the fact that they refuse to acknowledge themselves as a partisan affiliated pollster, despite their obvious political lean. If they're dishonest about that, why would anyone trust the numbers they produce? It's time we stop paying attention to these guys.

Potentially even worse than Rasmussen is Trafalgar. Trafalgar has the ignominy of having called every single battleground state wrong in 2022. Even worse, they called several states that were nowhere even close to a battleground, wrong. They predicted Republican victories in Michigan, Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington. They lost those races by double digits. To call Trafalgar's numbers suspicious would be an understatement. Trafalgar consistently come up with polls showing very narrow Republican leads in every race, regardless of state. States that look nothing alike electorally, which end up with results that differ from one another often by double digits, and Trafalgar invariably finds Republicans leading all of them by the same 1% margin? It stinks to high heaven, even more so when the pollster reveals nearly nothing about their methodology. Trafalgar's methodology is secretive, their results are incoherent and make zero sense in context, and their track record is abysmal. They are not a serious pollster and it's time to stop taking them seriously.

These are what I would consider the "big two", but there are others that are worth mentioning. Co-Efficient is a Republican affiliated pollster who made headlines for predicting a Republican victory in New York, one of the bluest states in the country. During October they furiously spammed the polling averages with an absurd volume of polls, all of which boasted similarly outlandish predictions of Republican victory in blue strongholds, none of which panned out. Then there is InsiderAdvantage, a pollster run by noted Republican propagandist and TV host Sean Hannity. Needless to say, his polls were not accurate. That didn't stop them from having an outsized effect on the polling averages though.  

I can criticise these pollsters all day, but for what? Ultimately the key point here is that these were the only pollsters showing this mythical red wave. The reputable pollsters showed nothing of the sort, but their results were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of polls that these right wing organisations churned out to "flood the zone" and manipulate the averages. They were the ones pundits and forecasters were relying on for their predictions. It was obvious that these guys were just trying to game the system, so why did the "experts" fall for it? That's a really good question.

A big part of the problem this year was the lack of high quality polls. For whatever reason, the traditional pollsters were largely MIA, while these right wing pollsters flooded the zone with their propaganda. This meant that the polling averages and electoral forecasts were generally dominated by these junk pollsters. What little high quality polling data we did have painted a very different picture, but for whatever reason the analysts ignored this, and allowed the junk polls to influence their forecasts.

I suspect a big reason for this is all the anti-polling discourse that has become fashionable in recent years. I have written frequently about how this is mostly hype: the polls weren't actually that bad in 2016 or 2020 they were just poorly interpreted, and the polls in 2018 were pretty much dead on. Nevertheless, it appears even the experts have been influenced by that hype, and the 2022 coverage has been characterised by an inherent distrust of the polls. With this in mind, it's not surprising that fewer people were commissioning polls from the mainstream pollsters, and that a disproportionate number of the polls that were commissioned were commissioned for political purposes. 

At a time when we have been (unfairly) conditioned to mistrust polls, it is not surprising that many fell back on fundamentals and historical precedent for the basis of their predictions. The problem with 2022 is that they relied on this too much, while failing to properly evaluate the data that was out there.

A special mention also needs to be made of RealClearPolitics. RCP is, ostensibly, a polling and political news aggregator, non-partisan in nature. That's all a facade though. Their political bias and fickle methodology has been widely criticised in the past. In particular they have a tendency to pick polls that favour Republicans, then ignore those same polls if the results get worse for them, and they arbitrarily set cut off dates for polling averages depending on what gives Republicans the best result. RCP has been pretty bad for years now and, much like Rasmussen, getting worse with every election cycle. 2022 marks a new low for the organisation, with a final forecast that was embarrassingly wide of the mark, predicting Republican victories in states that were never competitive and lost by wide margins. 

If there is one thing we can all take away from the 2022 election, it is that there is no reason whatsoever to listen to anything that comes from RealClearPolitics, Rasmussen, Trafalgar or their ilk ever again. They are not serious organisations and should not be treated as such. It is time we all recognise this.

There is no denying it. 2022 was a very bad year for the pundits and forecasters. They ignored the high quality data (which in fairness was lacking in quantity), allowed themselves to be swayed by trash data. They listened to the polls that supported their preconceptions and expectations and disregarded anything that didn't. The data was there. I pointed it out in my preview. They just ignored it for some reason. 

What does this mean going forward?
There's no sugarcoating it. Republicans are in big trouble. If they couldn't win in the highly favourable electoral climate of 2022, what hope do they have in 2024, a year that will almost certainly be more favourable for Democrats?

The answer is "not much". Not unless something changes. If Republicans go into 2024 still championing the crazies and conspiracy theorists, they will lose big. The question is whether they will learn the right lessons from this setback.

More immediate is the question of how Government will function these next two years. With split control of Congress it appears unlikely that much of anything will get done. The new Republican House majority has indicated that they intend to prioritise political theatre, fake investigations of Democrats and their families. First they will need to actually agree on a House Speaker, however, and with their tiny majority there's very real doubt about whether they will be able to do so. There has even been serious talk of a compromise candidate between Democrats and moderate Republicans. 

Additionally, with such a small majority, can we even be sure they will hold that advantage until the next election? Every single retirement, every death, every defection and special election going forward is going to be a matter of national import, potentially one that could swing Congressional control. We will see what happens, but this could get into some pretty murky, unprecedented waters.

In particular, this election was a disaster for Donald Trump. For the first time since his political ascent, his domination of the Republican Party appears to be in doubt. His allies and chosen candidates all fared miserably, while his political rivals did well. Many elected officials, news organisations (Murdoch in particular) and, indeed, voters, appear to be breaking with him, having finally had enough. Post election polls now have Ron DeSantis as frontrunner for the GOP nomination, with large numbers of Republican voters not wanted Trump to run at all. It will be very interesting to see what happens next. It is clear that many Republicans will no longer back him, but at the same time his diehard basis is very loyal. Whether anyone can find a way to unite this fracturing political party ahead of 2024 will be the big question.

Perhaps the most significant takeaway from the 2022 elections (in terms of electoral politics) will be the apparent end to the GOP's semi-permanent gerrymandered advantage in the House. Between 2010 and 2020 it really was the case that the House was essentially out of reach for Democrats, even in years where they were winning by wide margins. Following redistricting, those days appear to be gone. Democrats have managed to essentially tie the House race despite having little if any national advantage in the polls. It could be a fluke, but right now it appears that their gains in redistricting may have been even greater than initially thought. The result could be that the House elections are much more competitive in the years to come.

Finally, there's the question of the polls and forecasters. We need to be very clear on this. The polls in 2022 were generally quite good, but there was a lot of junk data out there muddying the waters, and the "experts" did a very poor job in critically evaluating between them. Sadly, I fear people will take the wrong message from this election and distrust all polls, rather than discerning specifically those that deserve to be distrusted. We need to do what we can to make the general public more data-literate, and start calling out the con-artists in political media for what they are.

So there it is, 2022 election is done, and the first battle lines have been drawn for 2024. This is an election that will be remembered as a historic accomplishment, as well as a potential turning point in the politics of the nation.

Saturday, 29 October 2022

We are now less than two weeks away from the 2022 US Congressional Midterm elections. These elections will determine the balance of power in Washington DC for the next two years and could well set the tone for the upcoming Presidential elections, including the widely expected return of you-know-who. If there is one thing we have learned from the past few years, it is that elections can have serious repercussions. All around the world, eyes will be on the United States.

2022 us presidential congress election house senate trump biden democrat republican
The Democratic Party heads into this midterm election with full control of Government. They hold the White House as well as majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The White House, of course, is not up for grabs this year, but every seat in the House faces an election, as do 1/3 of Senate seats. Much to play for, as it were.

Today I will be taking an in depth look at the House and Senate separately. But before we get into that let's quickly go through the golden rules of midterm elections, which apply to both the House and Senate elections and are vital towards understanding the dynamics at play this year.

1. Midterm elections generally show lower voter turnout than Presidential elections. I have written in past election cycles about why this might be the case, but it essentially boils down to people just caring less. Rightly or wrongly people just see the President as a more important and more glamorous role. Everyone knows who he is, he's a celebrity. By comparison, very few Americans can even name their Congressional representative.

2. Low voter turnout generally favours the Republicans. This one might seem less obvious, but statistically it is undeniably true. We could spend an entire article discussing the reasons why this might be the case, but most experts will agree that it comes down to something quite obvious. In a low turnout year where people are less motivated to vote, the most likely people to still show up and vote are a) those who care the most (ie those who are most switched on to the latest political happenings, spend more time watching cable news, etc) and b) those with the easiest opportunity to vote (ie those with more free time on a Tuesday). So who watches a lot of cable news and is less likely to have no work or other commitments on a Tuesday? The elderly, and low-education voters, two voting blocs who have very heavily backed Republicans in recent years.

3. Midterm election turnout almost always favours the party in opposition. This is another fact that is very clear in the data, the party which holds the White House almost always comes off worse in the midterms. It makes perfect sense really. Fear and anger are great motivators to vote, and the party out of power is invariably the angrier.

This last point, in particular, is really key. The track record of the President's party losing midterm elections is extremely strong and goes back decades. It's such a strong record that it holds true regardless of who the President is or how popular they are. Even Barack Obama, a popular and successful two-term President who left office with the highest approval ratings of any outgoing President, lost both of his midterm elections by wide margins. 

Based on these factors, our starting presumption should be that the Republicans are a strong favourite to win. They typically benefit from the lower turnout and enthusiasm of midterm elections and this year have the added benefit of being in the opposition. But despite this, the available data heading into these final weeks does not appear to indicate the red-wave blowout we might expect.

In fact, despite the Republican party's apparent advantages this election cycle, Democrats appear to be leading in most national polls. The polls released this week (at the time of writing) have Democrats leading by +1 (Tufts), +3 (Echelon) and +4 (YouGov), with only the usual partisan pollsters showing a Republican lead. An average of the most recent ten polls (excluding partisan pollsters from both sides) has Democrats ahead by 1% and most non-partisan polls in recent weeks have had them 1-2% ahead on average.

The situation appears particularly worrying for Republicans if you look at other elections that have taken place so far this year, typically a good predictor of midterm success. Fivethirtyeight's analysis suggests that in special elections held since the summer, Democrats have outperformed their partisan baseline by 11% on average, an astonishing result that would be more in keeping with a blue wave than a Republican leaning or even a close election.

We find ourselves in a very unusual position for a midterm election, one where the fundamental electoral presumptions are ostensibly at odds with the actual data and polling. This gulf is actually perfectly illustrated in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, where a polls-only analysis has Democrats as solid favourites to hold the Senate, whereas the expert opinion has it as a toss-up.

Now before we get into our final predictions, let's have a quick look back at how this blog did last time around. The Ephemeric's 2020 election predictions correctly called the winner in all three of the Presidential race, the House race and the Senate race. The Senate predictions were within 1 seat of the actual results and the Presidential predictions called every single state correctly except for Iowa and the lone electoral vote from Maine's 2nd Congressional district. The Ephemeric was one of the few places to correctly predict Democrats to win in Georgia and Republicans to win in Florida. I say all this not to brag but just to point out, before we get into this year's forecast, that this blog has a formidable track record in predicting US elections.

So what to make of the unusual 2022 situation? I think the Republican advantage still holds, but it won't be as golden a year as it should have been. I will dive deeper into my reasoning behind this, but first of all the headline prediction you all came here for: The Ephemeric predicts the Republican Party to retake the House of Representatives and the Democratic Party to hold the Senate.

House of Representatives Verdict: Republican Majority

2022 us congress election house senate gerrymandering rigged illegalCurrent House Map: Democrats - 220, Republicans - 212.
Predicted House MapDemocrats - 202, Republicans - 233.
Approximate Net Change: Republicans gain 15 - 20 seats.

The above map is based on data from a variety of aggregators, including Pollster, Fivethirtyeight, and analysts including Sabato and Cook Political, and shows the expected House map. The rest is pretty self explanatory: dark blue represents safe Democrat wins, light blue leans Democrat, grey is toss up. Meanwhile on the other side, light red to dark red represents lean to likely Republicans.

So first thing is first. The uninitiated may well look at all the red on that map and assume that Republicans are steam-rolling these elections.
 A reasonable thing to think, but look closer and you will see that most of that red belongs to just a few very large seats, covering vast tracts of rural land where very few people actually live. If you zoom in to the denser population centres you will see dozens of much tinier, but far more populated blue districts.

On paper, 2022 should be a blow-out year for Republicans to retake the House. Currently Democrats hold only a small majority, 220 seats with 218 needed. As we have already discussed, the opposition usually performs well in midterm elections and the Republican Party in particular has (in recent history) benefitted from the lower turnout and enthusiasm of the midterm election cycle. The average gain for an opposition party in a midterm is around 25 seats, and recent cycles have tended to be even higher, 40+. They only need to pick up 6.

In an ordinary midterm election cycle, these factors should make the requisite gain a mere formality. But what about those polls and special election results? In order to talk about those in greater detail we need to discuss the one additional key factor in House elections: gerrymandering.

As a reminder for those new to American politics: gerrymandering is the process through which partisan actors draw up the borders of Congressional districts in such a way that voters more likely to vote for your opponent are pooled into as few districts as possible, while your voters are spread into as many districts as possible whilst still maintaining a lead in those districts. This process effectively allows you to increase the number of seats you win, even if you don't increase the number of votes you get. It results in some bizarre and shockingly manipulative district boundaries. For lack of a better description, it's a legal way of rigging a democratic election. For further clarity on how this trick can be used to manipulate election results, please see the diagram below.

2018 us midterm congress election house senate gerrymandering rigged illegal
Gerrymandering has been a huge factor in recent election cycles. The Republican control of the 2010 redistricting process allowed for Congressional maps to be gerrymandered to an absurd extent for these past 10 years, bad enough that it was estimated Democrats would need to win by around 5% nationally (a near landslide margin) just to break even in the House. This was even put to the test in 2020, where Democrats did win by about 5% nationally, and only just squeaked a majority in the House.

However, Democrats' recent electoral successes have allowed for a much more equitable redistricting process in 2020. Republicans maintain their gerrymandered advantage, but it's much smaller than it was before, with current estimates suggesting Democrats now only need to win by about 2% nationally to break even. 

Now look back at those polls, what do you see? Democrats leading by 1-2%, almost exactly the hypothetical break-even margin. If we take the polls at face value, this race is essentially a toss-up. Sure, you could argue that historical precedent would tip the scales in Republicans' favour, but equally you could point to the recent special election results as tangible proof that this advantage may not in fact be materialising. 

To put it another way, even though the Republicans on paper only need to pick up 6 seats, the recent redistricting has actually moved the baseline further away from them. It's almost as if the Democrats have an extra ten or so seats. So while it may look as though Republicans only need to slightly outperform their 2020 results in order to take a majority, the less favourable gerrymander this year means they really need to pick up more ground. To be clear, the additional margin is not huge (well within the historical average for an opposition party gain) and they would still be solid favourites to do so. But if the less than stellar polling data proves to be accurate, it might be a bit closer than people are expecting. I should note that there has been some evidence of polls trending towards the Republicans in recent weeks, which may indicate they will outperform the current polling, but this seems to have levelled out in recent days. 

As for the polls themselves. "How can we trust them?" I hear some people ask. "They're always wrong." Polling has gotten a bit of a bad rep in recent elections, unfairly so. The 2016 and 2020 polls were nowhere near as far off as conventional wisdom would have you believe. Clinton led by 4% in the polls and won by 2%. Biden led by 8% in the polls and won by 5%. Most significantly, the polling in the most recent midterm cycle, 2018, were almost exactly spot on, and in fact overestimated the Republican Party's support. To be clear, there have been certain states with consistently big polling misses in recent years (FL, OH and WI in the Republicans' favour, NV and arguably GA in the Democrats' favour), but in general and nationally the polls have tended to be reasonably accurate without any particular bias.

So despite the hype, I don't buy that there's enough evidence to support a theory that the polls will inherently underestimate Republicans. That simply isn't true historically and certainly was not true in the most comparable recent election cycle, 2018. You could well have a polling error in either direction of a few percentage points, and given the fine margins that could well be significant in determining the balance of power. But anyone who tells you they know which way such an error will go or that Republicans can be presumed to be outperforming the polls is talking pure nonsense.

I have ultimately gone for a Republican majority. The polling and special election results may not be indicative of the red-wave that history suggests they should achieve, but the margin they need to gain is still small enough that a modest polling improvement from 2020 should be enough. I think Republicans will be able to win the majority, but it will be a smaller gain than would have been expected in such an advantageous electoral climate, 20 or so seats compared to recent cycles' 40+ gains.

Senate Verdict: Democratic Majority

election 2022 midterm congress biden trump senate map forecast
Current Senate Map: Democrats - 50, Republicans - 50.
Predicted Senate MapDemocrats- 50, Republicans - 50.
Approximate Net Change: Democrats gain 0-1 seats.
Key states to watch: PA, GA, NV, WI, NC, OH, AZ

If the House is looking like a relatively safe bet for the Republicans, the Senate right now is showing a small but clear lean in the other direction towards the Democrats. This really shouldn't be the case. The 2022 map may not be as absurdly one-sided as 2018 (a year where Republicans managed to hold the Senate despite a blue wave), but it is still pretty favourable for them with most of the competitive races in conventionally red states like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina as well as 2016 Trump states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But while there are enough close races here that a Republican majority is still very possible, Democrats head into the final stretch as favourites.

The Senate right now is split evenly, 50/50, with the Democratic Party controlling a majority by way of Vice President Harris' tie-breaking vote. 

The Republican Party has three clear pick up opportunities: AZ, GA and NV. 

AZ and GA are conventionally red states, while NV is one of those states that is always viewed as a toss up, even though it has reliably voted Democrat in recent years. Interestingly, of these three it is Nevada that is currently polling the closest, but to be quite frank I am skeptical. There haven't been many high quality polls there and polls in recent electoral cycles have pretty consistently overestimated Republicans. The polls are close enough that I will call this a toss up for now, but I would still expect a Democratic hold here and so far the early voting data would seem to support this. Everyone is looking at NV as the most likely pick up for Republicans, I think it is overrated.

Meanwhile, Democrats have actually led pretty consistently in the conventionally red states of AZ and GA. There are two main reasons for that. 1) These states are far more purple now than conventional wisdom has accepted. 2) The Republican candidates are exceptionally weak. But while I think Republican chances in NV are overrated, they may actually be underrated here. In a year where the national electoral environment favours Republicans, they could well outperform polls in conventionally red states such as these. In addition, they lead comfortably in the polling for the Gubernatorial races in both of these states, and at a time where ticket splitting is becoming increasingly rare, I could easily see the two Senate candidates riding their coattails to a win (as happened in a few races in 2018). 

To be clear, Democrats are narrowly favoured in all three of these states. But the margins are narrow enough that the law of probability suggests that there's a good chance Republicans pick up at least one. 

Democrats, meanwhile, have four realistic pick up opportunities: NC, OH, PA and WI. 

One of these, PA appears to be leaning in their favour. As above, the main reason for this is the gulf in quality between candidates, with Republicans inexplicably tapping celebrity quack and noted New Jersey resident Dr. Oz to run against the popular, salt of the earth Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. There have been doubts raised about Fetterman's health in recent weeks, but so far there isn't any credible polling to show it having an impact on the race. At the same time we have an inverse of the situation in GA and AZ, with a Democratic Gubernatorial candidate leading polls. I expect the combination of Fetterman's sustained polling lead and the coattails of the Democrats' popular Gubernatorial candidate to secure a pick up here.

NC, OH and WI are more interesting. Polls had generally been showing these races as competitive, or even leaning in the Democrats' favour over the summer. There has been some movement back to the Republicans in these final days, but the margin is very narrow. The races may appear competitive, but I am skeptical. OH and WI in particular significantly overestimated Democrats in 2016 and 2020 (although not in 2018). I think Democrats are in a similar situation in NC, OH and WI as Republicans are in NV. The polling is solid, but the reality may not be quite so favourable. 

Ultimately, despite the favourable electoral climate, the odds appear to be stacked against Republicans when it comes to the Senate. If Democrats do manage to pick up PA, Republicans will need to win two of NV, AZ and GA. This is absolutely achievable, but with Democrats leading polls in all three it's a tall order. They would also need to hold off Democrats in NC, OH and WI, where the margins are narrow enough that a Democratic pick up is entirely plausible. Republican hopes of taking the Senate most likely rest on holding that PA seat, which they are not currently favoured to do. Democrats retaining a majority with either 50 or 51 seats seems the most likely.

So there it is. By no means a foregone conclusion, but the polling right now strongly suggests an election night that results in a split Congress. In a year where Republicans were widely expected to sweep the legislature, that would have to be seen as a big disappointment. If I had to put numbers to it, I would say the Republican House is 75% likely, and Democratic Senate 60% likely. There is still time for this to change, and the fine margins are such that a wide range of realistic outcomes exist, but if I were a betting man this is how I would place my money. 

Friday, 23 September 2022

Created by Akiva Goldsman
Network Paramount+
Starring Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Celia Rose Gooding
Genre Sci-Fi
Running Time 46-62 minutes

star trek strange new worlds pike spock uhura discovery paramount best new show 2022 awards
It would be an understatement to say that CBS/Paramount's attempts to revitalise the Star Trek franchise have been met with mixed reception. The first attempt, Star Trek: Discovery, went to great lengths to distance itself from earlier entries in the series, instead seeking mainstream relevance by becoming a derivation of other recent successful media such as Game of Thrones, managing to alienate new and old fans alike in the process. The second attempt, Star Trek: Picard, drew all the wrong lessons from this, attempting to paper over the tonal and pacing issues with gratuitous nostalgia. Both have their flaws and, occasionally, strengths, but neither were able to consistently overcome poor writing and paper-thin characterisation.

So it is something of a minor miracle that the third attempt, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, has actually managed to nail the formula. SNW strikes the ideal blend between capturing the magic of the old series, while providing a modern refresh for today's audiences. 

A big reason for this improvement has been the shift back to episodic storytelling. Classic Star Trek certainly had its long-running story arcs, but Discovery and Picard took this to an extreme, with each season essentially becoming a ten-hour movie. This is a format derived from the worst excesses of the TV bingeing era, and there's a number of problems with it. Frankly, there aren't that many stories that are so good they justify a continuous, uninterrupted ten hour run-time. The second season of Star Trek: Picard had a decent story, but it could easily have been told in four episodes rather than ten. The strict focus on a season-long arc also necessitates a greater bias towards action and large-scale drama, without allowing time for the more cerebral or character-focused storytelling that Star Trek has always done so well.

Even the most interesting TV story arcs, shows like Lost or Breaking Bad, were broken up into individual short-form stories to keep the audience engaged. Doing so allows for a greater variety of storytelling and provides a more elegant opportunity to fill in supporting plot details, such as character backgrounds and traits. This format places more emphasis on character-based storytelling, and the result is a supporting cast that is more fleshed out, just a few episodes in, than Discovery's bridge crew even after four seasons (seriously, four years in and I challenge anyone to name every member of the Discovery bridge crew without looking it up).

This has always been the heart of Star Trek. The Sci-Fi trappings are just the spice. At its core, Star Trek is about the characters. You need to be invested in the characters and care about their personal journeys (and I can't believe I need to say it, Discovery, but they need to "have" journeys to begin with), otherwise it just doesn't work. 

SNW's creative team have also struck a better balance in the tone of the series. Star Trek has always been mostly lighthearted. It's a family friendly series, one which shares as much DNA with the weekly sitcoms of old as it does with higher concept drama and fantasy. SNW understands this, and the characters are all the more appealing and relatable for it. I can only hope this is the end of the schlocky, grimdark stylings experimented on with Discovery (and to a lesser extent Picard).

But above all else, the writing here is simply "good". The individual stories are compelling and thought-provoking. The characters are rich and their motivations relatable and believable. The dialogue feels natural and organic. The acting is solid. Each character behaves as you would expect a professional doing a job to behave (no more gratuitous whisper-dialogue, teenage tantrums and crocodile tears). Everything here is just right.

It still isn't perfect. Behaviourally and aesthetically, the characters here draw a little too much on contemporary culture, something which will age poorly. Ron Moore (showrunner of Star Trek: The Next Generation) famously said that Star Trek almost had to be written as more of a period drama, like something out of Jane Austen, to ensure that its voice and manner of dialogue were not tied to a specific moment in time. There is nothing quite so bad here as Discovery's "InstaLOL" character Tilly, but there are certainly a few characters that I can imagine looking back at twenty years from now and thinking how dated they look and sound. SNW also finds itself occasionally constrained, in terms of storytelling, by the fact that it is yet another unnecessary prequel series. Hopefully the success of this show will give the writers the confidence to take the franchise forward with a true sequel.

But these nitpicks are more stylistic issues, and none of them take away from what is otherwise a marked step forward for the franchise and a return to form. At long last, the Star Trek franchise has re-discovered its identity and delivered a series of quality for new and old fans alike.

Saturday, 27 August 2022

The football season is underway and it promises to be one for the history books. If this summer seemed strangely empty, it's because we are about to see a first ever winter World Cup when Qatar 2022 kicks off in December. A strong factor in fortunes this year will doubtless be how well teams can adapt to this new twist in the schedule: a more rested start to the season, with an absolutely chaotic mid-section. The 2022/23 season is chock-full of delicious subplots and rivalries and I am excited to see how it all plays out. So without further ado, let's dive into it and get the season underway.

premier league 2022/23 preview

Premier League 2022/23 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Bournemouth, Southampton, Nottingham Forest
Golden Boot winner: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)
New signing to watch: Erling Haaland (Manchester City)
Young player to watch: Reece James (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Ralph Hasenhüttl (Southampton)
Shock of the season: Erik ten Hag sacked in his first season

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 5th
Manager: Mikel Arteta

It seems like every year there is a great amount of hype around Arsenal. The Gunners are perennially tipped with being on the cusp of a return to the upper levels of English football, a promise that always ends up falling short. Over the past few seasons, Arsenal have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on mostly dud signings and have little to show for it (aside from one asterisk of a cup final for which they rightly receive little credit). 

Yet, this season there is the very real sense that progress is being made. Arsenal have started to make investments in the right places and their more promising youngsters have started to come of age. They lost Aubameyang to Barcelona, but replaced him astutely with the proven Premier League talent of Gabriel Jesus. Midfielders Saka and Odegaard have been revelatory over the past season. The signing of Zinchenko may well be the missing piece of the puzzle, providing some genuine class at the back and reducing the club's dependency on the injury prone Kieran Tierney.

Doubts still remain as to whether Arteta is the man to pull all this together, but there is a real feeling of positivity around the club for a change and the sense that this could well be the year that sees them return to European competition.

Key Signing: Gabriel Jesus
Key Man: Martin Odegaard
Verdict: For the first time in years, Arsenal look like genuine top four contenders.

Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,095
Last season: 14th
Manager: Steven Gerrard

This time last year, Aston Villa looked set for big things. Some very ambitious transfer activity saw the recruitment of prominent attacking talents like Leon Bailey, Bertrand Traore and Emiliano Buendia. But Steven Gerrard's men flattered to deceive, and a surprisingly lacklustre finish in the lower half of the table was the end result. It remains to be seen whether this was merely teething issues for this promising side or something else, but now in Gerrard's first full season with the club the pressure will surely be on to make the most of the talents available.

The Villans have been busy in the transfer market once again, with the most notable coup being the signing of Philippe Coutinho, the ex-Liverpool man who, just a few seasons ago, was Barcelona's record £150million acquisition. Coutinho's Barcelona stint turned out to be something of a disappointment, but if he can recapture even a shred of his former quality he could well be the force that propels Villa to great things.

Of course, no preview of Villa's season is complete without mention of the media-tantalizing prospect of a Gerrard/Lampard managerial rivalry to grace the Premier League. Just one of the tasty plotlines that will be running through this season.

Key Signing: Philippe Coutinho
Key Man: Danny Ings
Verdict: After a year of stagnation, expect Villa to rise. Europa League qualification has to be the target.

Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,364
Last season: Promoted (Runner-up)
Manager: Scott Parker

A return to the Premier League for new-look Bournemouth, now helmed by media-darling Scott Parker. A rough welcome lies ahead, with matches against City, Arsenal and Liverpool early on, and I'm not sure it's going to get much better.

At the risk of sounding harsh, there's little that stands out from this Bournemouth side. In a league where every side, even those struggling at the bottom, are blessed with resources and impressive talent, that may well not be good enough. It's worrying that the core of this side largely consists of the same players who were present at the club's last relegation, while their attacking prospects seem to be very much reliant on Dominic Solanke, a player who, while very impressive at Championship level, is unproven in the Premier League.

There's not much to get excited about in the summer transfer business either. Joe Rothwell has impressed in the lower leagues, but for a team in desperate need of top level talent, at the time of writing they haven't found it.

Key Signing: Joe Rothwell
Key Man: Dominic Solanke
Verdict: A prime relegation candidate.


Nickname: The Bees
Ground: Brentford Community Stadium
Capacity: 17,250
Last season: 13th
Manager: Thomas Frank

I'm not one to pat myself on the back, but at this point last season, while most pundits were predicting abject relegation for Brentford, I made the somewhat bold prediction that they would survive and quite comfortably. Not only did that prove to be correct, but their 13th place finish matches my pre-season prediction exactly. Indeed, you'd have to say Brentford had a remarkable first season in the Premier League. Now the question is can they repeat the feat, or will they fall victim to the dreaded second season syndrome?

On the one hand, Brentford have lost their talismanic midfielder Christian Eriksen, now back at his career best. But frontman Ivan Toney has remained. The club has also strengthened well elsewhere. There is much hype surrounding the transfer of Aaron Hickey, who had been linked with a move to illustrious clubs such as Arsenal. But the key signing for me is Ben Mee, whose top flight experience and consistency at the back will be invaluable for a club that may well need to fight for survival.

This is a well-run club and they have been smart in the markets. It could well be a tough season for Brentford, but I think they have enough about them to stay up if they can avoid key injuries and retain Toney through the end of the transfer window.

Key Signing: Ben Mee
Key Man: Ivan Toney
Verdict: A relegation risk but I think they'll survive again.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 31,800
Last season: 9th
Manager: Graham Potter

Brighton are remarkable well run outfit and their progress up the league system in recent years has been a remarkable story. Last season saw Potter's side rise to new heights and a record league finish. It wasn't long ago that Brighton in the Premier League sounded like a pipe dream, but now they are a very fine side and established top flight mainstays. Accordingly, they begin this season a deserved wave of positivity.

Can they take the next step and establish themselves as a top ten side? It will be difficult with the increasingly high standard of competition around them, with matters not helped by the fact that several of their key players will have World Cup duties as a distraction. But to the extent they can keep their spine of Robert Sanchez, Leandro Trossard and Lewis Dunk fit and available, this will be a tough side for any other to face. 

Brighton are also blessed with some very exciting young talent in the squad, most notably Chelsea academy graduate Tariq Lamptey who has already established himself as a first team stalwart. I also expect we will be hearing a lot more from Jeremy Sarmiento this season if he can stay fit. Levi Colwill on loan from Chelsea is another very promising young defender, who had been considered in potential contention for first team duties at Stamford Bridge before the signing of Koulibaly. Then there is the 18 year old Julio Encisco, signed this summer from Paraguayan club Libertad. Already a full international in spite of his tender years, there is great buzz that Encisco could become a Premier League hit over the next few years.

Key Signing: Levi Colwill
Key Man: Leandro Trossard
Verdict: Matching last season's feats will be a tall order, but should achieve a solid midtable finish.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Thomas Tuchel

It's the start of a new era at Stamford Bridge, with Todd Boehly's consortium taking the reins from the long-standing Abramovich regime. Ambitions are high, nothing short of world domination in Boehly's words, but fans and pundits would be wise not to expect too much this season; this Chelsea side still have a lot of work to do.

It would be easy to look at the £200 million odd spent on transfer fees this summer and think that Chelsea will be bristling with talent and contend for the title. But the fact is they also lost a significant amount of talent during the summer turmoil for which the new acquisitions just barely compensate, little has been done to actually improve this squad beyond where they were last season. Most notably, Chelsea head into the season without a recognised striker in the squad following the departures of Lukaku and Werner (and more importantly, Tammy Abraham last season). That's an extraordinary state of affairs and means the club will need to rely on playing the likes of Kai Havertz out of position, or untested academy players like Armando Broja. 

Other than this (rather significant) gap, Chelsea's squad is strong. They have an enviable core of young talent with Reece James, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and others, while their new signings are good ones. Raheem Sterling is an elite attacker who will trouble any defence, while Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the world's top defenders and one of the few players who could have stepped in for the departing Rudiger. It's a good side, but difficult to see where the goals will reliably come from. Unless that changes, Chelsea will face a difficult challenge to stay in the top four.

Key Signing: Raheem Sterling
Key Man: Reece James
Verdict: Will struggle to achieve top four without reinforcements up front.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,486
Last season: 12th
Manager: Patrick Vieira
What more can be said about the job Patrick Vieira has done at Crystal Palace? Taking over the reins amind a period of great instability at the club, last season they were the pick of many pundits to face the drop. But Vieira's team exceeded expectations to claim a safe midtable position and did so credibly.

The talismanic Wilfried Zaha remains the star man for Palace, but not to the same lopsided degree as has historically been the case. There is an exciting young team at the core of last season's successes, notably the burgeoning defensive pairing of Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen, as well 19 year old crowd favourite Michael Olise. 

However they face a huge task to fill the gap left by last season's loanee Conor Gallagher, now back at parent club Chelsea. Gallagher was arguably one of the best young players in last season's Premier League and his absence will be felt here. The man Palace fans will be hoping to step into this role is 22 year old Chieck Doucouré, impressive last season in Ligue 1 for Lens.

I see this side as a work in progress and, particularly with the loss of such a key player, I wouldn't expect to see much greater ambition from the club this season. That said, I also don't expect their position in the top flight to be in any particular jeopardy.

Key Signing: Cheick Doucouré
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: Another comfortable midtable finish awaits.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 16th
Manager: Frank Lampard

The last few seasons have been an emotional rollercoaster for Everton fans. From the highs of the Ancelotti appointment to the lows of Rafa Benitez, the club were ultimately only saved from relegation last season by the talented, yet unproven hands of Frank Lampard.

Firstly the manager: despite his relative lack of experience, Frank Lampard is a very talented manager. He did excellent work at Derby County and was harshly treated at Chelsea despite building a team with arguably their best core since the first Mourinho period. He will get the best from this Everton team if given time.

The bigger problem is that no matter who the manager is, there's only so much you can do with an uninspiring squad. The loss of Richarlison is a big blow and despite spending £20 million on Dwight McNeil I don't think they have adequately replaced the threat he offers up front. Particularly with Calvert-Lewin's injury issues, there will be a lot of hope placed on the shoulders of youngster Anthony Gordon. At the back, however, they look much more solid, with Pickford reliable as always and the signings of Amadou Onana and James Tarkowski good upgrades defensively.

Key Signing: Amadou Onana
Key Man: Jordan Pickford
Verdict: Should stay up, but this squad still needs improvement to rise above the relegation fray.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 22.384
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Marco Silva

A return to the Premier League for one of England's great yoyo clubs and already the Cottagers are the favourites of many to go right back down again. I don't see it though. I think this side is better than people give them credit and they will stay up.

Make no mistake relegation is certainly a risk, but this is a pretty good Fulham side, as anyone who watched their record-breaking exploits in the Championship last season. I tip Aleksandar Mitrovic for a big season on his Premier League return. The man gets goals and right now I think he's better than he has ever been. Elsewhere, Andreas Pereira is an inspired signing, and people are underrating the impact Joao Palhinha will have in this midfield. 

It's a good side and I'd say they've recruited well to play at a top flight level. It's not been the wild and ill-fated shopping spree of 2018, but a more shrewd and deliberate approach. It's one that will suit their ambitions well this season. They don't need to try and build the next Leicester City, they just need to grind out enough points.

Key Signing: Andreas Pereira
Key Man: Aleksandar Mitrovic
Verdict: A relegation risk, but I think they will stay up.

Nickname: The Whites
Ground: Elland Road
Capacity: 37,890
Last season: 17th
Manager: Jesse Marsch
One of the big stories of recent Premier League seasons, Leeds have impressed in fits and spurts since their return to the top flight and generally maintained a good level of play even as their managers and playing staff have rotated. I've see a few people tipping them for the drop this season, but even though they ran it close last season I don't see it happening.

The main challenge for Leeds this season will be the loss of two key players in Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha. This is no easy task, but Tyler Adams looks a promising Phillips replacement so far, while the hope is that Brenden Aaronson will be able to grow into that attacking threat Raphinha used to offer. While some transition is to be expected, there is still some pretty good talent in this Leeds side. Rodrigo is genuinely one of the better forwards in the league, and he will be pivotal to their chances. 

This is a dangerous side that can cause problems for any other on their day, the question will be whether they can address their fragility at the back. New signing Rasmus Kristensen could end up being the acquisition that most influences their fate over the next 9 months, for if he can bring some stability to this backline then you would think this Leeds side have a good chance of finishing safe.

Key Signing: Rasmus Kristensen
Key Man: Rodrigo
Verdict: May fall into the relegation battle, but if new signings can gel I would expect them to achieve a safe midtable finish.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,261
Last season: 8th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
It is perhaps unsurprising that Leicester have failed to live up to their billing following that remarkable title win. Each season it seems expectations are raised and on paper you can see why. This is a very solid squad with all the foundations for success. Yet, following another bland 8th place finish and with almost all of the golden age squad now departed, the question remains will they finally make that push into European contention, or slink back into midtable safety.

It's baffling then, that the club has shown little apparent interest in rebuilding and strengthening. At the time of writing, their only signing has been a new backup goalkeeper. It's perplexing, especially as questions remain as to the status of so many key players. Fofana may yet leave to Chelsea, Tielemans may move to Arsenal and Jamie Vardy, great though he is, will turn 36 this season. 

To be fair, there is still a core of very good players here. Those mentioned above (if they remain fit and at the club) as well as James Maddison, Daka, Iheanacho, Perez and others. But each season that the club do not strengthen, they weaken, especially with their rivals spending huge amounts on new talent. So while I am not going to suggest that Leicester have a potential relegation fight on their hands, I still think this could be a difficult season for them that sees them once again fail to meet their targets.

Key Signing: N/A
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: A tough season awaits that could see the club slump into the lower half of the table.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
As ever in recent seasons, expectations are high at Liverpool. It is a given that this club will be in contention for honours and remain the closest challenger to Manchester City's imperious array of talent. Yet, there is the odd whiff of stagnation about this team.

Sadio Mané has been a big, underappreciated part of this club's success in recent years and his departure to Bayern Munich will come as a blow. Darwin Nunez is ostensibly the man who will slot into his role following a fantastic season at Benfica, but is unproven at this level. Transfer business this summer has otherwise been minimal, although there's some buzz around the signing of youngster Fabio Carvalho. 

The core of this team otherwise remains the same. Alisson is a top level goalkeeper, Trent Alexander-Arnold an excellent wingback, Virgil van Dijk one of the best defenders of his generation, and of course Mo Salah, probably the best footballer in the world right now. 

Liverpool will be up there, but I do feel that they haven't done enough to up their level to challenge City this season, whereas their main title rival has done plenty to strengthen, as we will see.

Key Signing: Darwin Nunez
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: There or thereabouts.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,017
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

While they may have missed out once again on that elusive European title, Manchester City's domestic dominance last season says everything you need to know. This is still very much the team to beat and one of the few teams unquestionably in the hunt for the title this season.

Pre-season, all the talk has been about the new man Erling Haaland. Haaland has long been tipped as one of the key players of his generation, and a future Ballon d'Or contender. Considering one of City's few weak spots last season was the lack of an Aguero replacement up front, Haaland could well be the missing piece of the puzzle that finally makes them genuine Champions League contenders.

The rest of the squad is, of course, still great.. They boast an embarrassment of riches in defence and attack with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker and many others. The fact that they have players like Nathan Aké, Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva not even guaranteed a starting place makes clear just how deep a squad they have. 

While European success is undoubtedly at the forefront of the club's minds, the opportunity to make domestic history won't have escaped their notice. Should City win the title again this year, which they could well do, they would become one of only two clubs (the other being Man Utd) in the Premier League era to win three titles in a row, and one of only four (Liverpool, Arsenal and... err... Huddersfield) in the entirety of English top flight history to do so.

Key Signing: Erling Haaland
Key Man: Kevin de Bruyne
Verdict: Title favourites.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 74,879
Last season: 6th
Manager: Erik ten Hag
How do you fix a problem like Manchester United. The post-Ferguson era has been a series of false dawns as a precession of the game's brightest managers have tried and failed to find success. The latest is Erik ten Hag, the man who revolutionised Ajax and restored their place as one of Europe's big clubs, and he's got a heck of a job on his hands.

It's hard to pinpoint what exactly is the problem with this club. They have endless resources, name brand recognition, and some of the most highly regarded talent both on and off the pitch. Yet they consistently disappoint. These defenders are all good players individually, but there is no one organising the back line. Cristiano Ronaldo is still a good player despite his advancing years, but his presence in the team sucks all the air out of the room. His supporting cast all face their own issues: Martial's injury woes, Sancho's failure to thrive in the Premier League, Rashford's lack of progress. Even star man Bruno Fernandes has never really lived up to the potential shown in his first half season.

It's been a quiet, yet deliberate summer of transfer activity for the club. The signing of Christian Eriksen on a free is great business, while Lisandro Martinez should also improve the squad. The club has also shipped out a lot of the dead wood and aging benchwarmers, which can only have a positive impact. Despite this, much more needs to be done before United can once again trouble the top of the table.

Key Signing: Christian Eriksen
Key Man: Bruno Fernandes
Verdict: A club in transition that don't look ready for prime time.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,305
Last season: 11th
Manager: Eddie Howe

Exciting times for Newcastle United. After all the years of drama and discord, Mike Ashley has actually gone and the club finds itself under new owners. The new boss comes with deep pockets and plenty of ambition. Is this a false dawn or the start of big things for the Toon?

Despite all the hype, the new regime's approach to squad building has been more careful and measured than one might have expected. No flashy big-money strikers, plenty of solid, pragmatic spine. Nick Pope is an excellent signing in goal, while Botman and Targett add grit to the defensive line. 

This squad could certainly use some more attacking threat, with Allan Saint-Maximin still very much the key to their offensive hopes. Callum Wilson is as solid as ever, but beyond those two depth is quite thin. Further back, however, they look solid, with the reinvented midfield general Joelinton the beating heart of a team that will take some beating.

For the first time in a long while, the future looks bright for Newcastle, but don't expect too much too soon.

Key Signing: Nick Pope
Key Man: Joelinton
Verdict: Should have a solid season, perhaps push into the top half.


Nickname: The Reds
Ground: City Ground
Capacity: 30,445
Last season: Promoted (Playoff)
Manager: Steve Cooper
Here's one for nostalgic football fans. A former giant of a football club with a storied history, Nottingham Forest have nevertheless found themselves looking in from the outside since their relegation in 1999. The new owners have high ambitions as they seek to re-establish the reds as a player in the English top flight, but in truth they will do well to stay up.

No one can say they aren't giving it a go, however, and Forest have added no fewer than 14 players to their squad over the summer for a reported combined outlay close to £150 million, including £42 million spent on Wolves' Morgan Gibbs-White and £17 million on Taiwo Awoniyi, whose return of a goal every other game in the Bundesliga last season was very impressive. But the most significant of the bunch may end up being the shrewd free transfer of Jesse Lingard, an ephemeral if undoubtedly talented player who brings some much needed top flight experience.

They need it too, because the squad that won Forest promotion is worryingly low on experience of playing in the country's biggest league. Even at the Championship level last season their backline was often considered shaky and their depth of attacking options looks thin, even with the new signings. It will be interesting to see how Forest's core of young talent step up to the big time. Players like Welsh international Brennan Johnson and Ryan Yates are unproven but with plenty of upside potential. If Forest are going to surprise a few people, it may come from those kinds of players.

Key Signing: Jesse Lingard
Key Man: Brennan Johnson
Verdict: Romanticism notwithstanding, Forest face a tough fight for survival.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 15th
Manager: Ralph Hasenhüttl
For a club with so much perennial potential, Southampton have been moving sideways for a number of years now. Any time they look like they might be building a team to push up the table, that talent gets poached by a bigger club. Not enough has been done to replace outgoing key players, and the result is a team that is more miss than hit.

That lack of goal threat up front could come back to bite them this season. Instead, the Saints will be counting on their new recruits bolstering the midfield and backline to bring some additional spine. In particular, the signing of Manchester City hot prospect Romeo Lavia will be a tantalising prospect on the south coast. Rumour has it that City have insisted on a buyback clause, so hotly tipped is Lavia.

Of their current playing staff, it is clear who stands out. A box-to-box midfielder and deadly set piece taker, James Ward-Prowse is the captain and just about everything in this team runs through him. His midfield will be productive, but without a proven top flight goalscorer up front, there's only so much that productivity can achieve.

They aren't much discussed when it comes to the relegation battle, but in truth Southampton only just managed to stay up last season. I could easily see them being dragged down into that fray again this season.

Key Signing: Romeo Lavia
Key Man: James Ward-Prowse
Verdict: In real peril of relegation if Hasenhüttl can't achieve greater stability.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Capacity: 62,850
Last season: 4th
Manager: Antonio Conte
What a difference a year can make. It's been years of post-Pochettino stagnation, with even the great Jose Mourinho unable to coax some life from this side of perennial underachievers. This year, however, that may finally be about to change. Antonio Conte is at the reins, and his side are tipped for big things.

There's a few reasons why expectations are suddenly so high. Firstly, there's the manager himself. Antonio Conte is one of the best in the game, known for getting the best out of any assortment of players. If these players have talent, he will get it from them. Second is the side itself, which is shaping up to be quite excellent on paper. Harry Kane, of course, needs to introduction, but lately it's been the man Son Heung-Min who has set the imaginatively named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium alight. If those two are on form, then Spurs can boast one of the finest attacks in Europe.

Tottenham have also recruited well over the summer, something for which they have been criticised in past years. The acquisition of Richarlison from Everton is clearly a headline move, the Brazilian long tipped as a star of the future. But particularly intriguing is the signing of Ivan Perišić from Inter. The Croatian may be 33 years of age now, but he brings with him vast experience and the ability to play anywhere up or down the flank.

If I am honest, I think the hype over Tottenham is excessive. This is a good side with a great manager who should get into the top four, but any talk of the title is very premature. They need far greater depth all across the board before we can even consider such a thing.

Key Signing: Ivan Perišić
Key Man: Son Heung-Min
Verdict: A strong top four contender, but unlikely to trouble the big two.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 7th
Manager: David Moyes

It's a good time to be a West Ham fan. David Moyes, it is safe to say, has simply blown past all expectations in recent seasons with very credible 6th and 7th place finishes. Can they build on this and establish themselves as a "best of the rest" club in English football, or will they fade away as so many others have before?

There is a good solid core to this team. Fabianski has been solid in goal, behind a rock solid defence of Cresswell, Coufal, and Kurt Zouma. It is still Declan Rice in the heart of the midfield who is the essential man in this side, pulling the strings and dominating everywhere. 

The problem in recent years has been up front. Michail Antonio is a handful, but not prolific enough for a club of this stature and with little depth behind him. This summer's transfer activity may remedy this long-standing weakness, however, with the arrival of Gianluca Scamacca. The former Sassuolo man has shown a knack for goal, despite being just 23 years of age. 

Like Tottenham, I feel this is a club that has a habit of being overhyped. I've seen some pundits talking of a top four challenge, which will categorically not happen this season. Frankly, I wonder if enough has been done to deepen the squad, particularly in attacking midfield. This side has performed well recently, but with their rivals strengthening around them, they may find themselves slipping down the table without further recruitment.

Key Signing: Gianluca Scamacca
Key Man: Declan Rice
Verdict: A solid, if less inspiring season seems likely, with a midtable finish.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 32,050
Last season: 10th
Manager: Bruno Lage

One of the more interesting clubs to watch in recent years. Formerly a Big Club™ as recently as the mid 20th Century, buoyed in recent years by a wave of foreign investment. Their first few seasons upon returning to the Premier League bade well for the future, a few statement-of-intent signings leading to creditable performances and contention for European qualification. Since then, however, it hasn't exactly panned out as hoped, with two midtable finishes in the past two seasons and an overriding sense that things have gone off the boil to an extent.

Wolves remain a club blessed with resources and hold the ambition of pushing into the top six. In practice, this will be easier said than done. Ruben Neves remains a classy player, but otherwise this is a playing squad that looks diminished from what it was just a few years ago. Goals have continued to be a major issue, and much of the club's hopes may rest on how well new striker  Hwang Hee-chan settles into the Premier League. The signing of Nathan Collins at the back will also provide some a needed boost to a squad that had struggled with just three centre backs for much of last season.
Those ambitions will need to wait, and with their rivals strengthening all around them this could be a tricky season for Wolves. I don't think they are in danger of any kind of existential threat, but I could easily see them sliding down the table this season.

Key Signing: Hwang Hee-chan
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Without further reinforcements will struggle.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Arsenal
4. Tottenham
5. Chelsea
6. Manchester United
7. Aston Villa
8. Newcastle
9. Brighton
10. Crystal Palace
11. West Ham United
12. Leicester
13. Leeds
14. Wolverhampton Wanderers
15. Everton
16. Brentford
17. Fulham
18. Bournemouth
19. Southampton
20. Nottingham Forest

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Are you surrounded by water? Is the sun shining? Does the year end in an odd number? No... but, let's pretend that it does. It can only mean one thing. It's time for the Biennale!

ephemeric venice biennale 2022 art
Every two years, or three in this most unusual of circumstances, the Venetian Lagoon becomes the centre of the artistic community for six months. Quite why it was determined that the intense lagoonal humidity made an ideal setting for enjoying fine art in large crowds is lost to time, but it doesn't matter. All the big names in the world of art are here. So, after a late morning cicchetti and a quick vaporetto from the Zattere, we find ourselves at the Arsenale.

Superyachts line the canal as we approach the Giardini. Every corner of this town is burnished with special exhibitions and installations during this period, but it is here that one finds the main event: the national pavilions, permanent structures owned and managed by each of the participating nations, each housing the representative artist chosen by that nation's ministry of culture. 

There is much to see, more than can reasonably be done justice here. These are the highlights of what La Serenissima has to offer this year.

Republic of Korea

venice biennale korea 2022

Top of everyone's must see list at the 2022 Biennale is the Korean pavilion, exhibiting the work of Yunchil Kim. It's easy to see why, comprising a dazzling array of creations and machines that harmoniously blend the mechanical and biological. The centrepiece is Gyre (pictured), an undulating, mechanical snake-like contraption covered with articulated panels of iridescent fluid that honestly needs to be seen in motion to be appreciated. Other installations include a chandelier of liquid canisters, pistons and tubules that pumps Venetian water, a cascading tower of lights that reacts to subatomic particles, and a kaleidoscopic series of light-bending panels that uses special lenses to create a beautiful pattern effect around the movement of fluids. Korea's pavilion is a marvel both of engineering and aesthetics, a room of living, breathing sculptures that is everything a Biennale installation should be.


france biennale venice 2022

Taking a very different approach is Zineb Sedira's French pavilion. An ode to the activist filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, the pavilion is transformed into a film set, an editing room and a screening room, with cameras even set up to allow guests to briefly appear on screen. As an immersive setting, this is quite interesting to explore, albeit somewhat undermined by the many thousands of other Biennale guest cluttering all of the show spaces, occupying what interactive elements exist.


malta biennale venice 2022

Another one that really needs to be seen to be appreciated, Malta representatives Arcangelo Sassolino, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, and Brian Schembri have created an installation that utilises induction technology to create a shower of molten steel droplets falling into cold water, before hissing and fizzling out of existence. This is, believe it or not, intended to be a kinetic reimagining of Caravaggio's The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. As a visual effect it is quite eye catching and oddly haunting, although I wonder if it would still be so without the ominous music playing over the room's speaker system.


venice biennale hungary 2022

This one you either love or hate. In this solo exhibition, Zsófia Keresztes uses tile mosaics to create some truly unique images. Moulded surrealist sculptures with an organic feel to them representing metamorphosis of the body. It's like someone tried to bring the imagery of Dali and Kafka to life in a Gaudi-esque form. Some people react with revulsion, others with fascination. In either case it's certainly worth seeing.


venice biennale austria 2022

With Austria's pavilion, Karola Kraus explores body consciousness through the imagery and tastes of our pop cultural history, drawing on the aesthetics of television, fashion and music to create a psychedelic dreamscape that. For something a bit lighter and more ironic, this is worth a look, as well as for its clear visual charm.


venice biennale uzbekistan 2022

Uzbekistan's pavilion is likely to fly under the radar somewhat, due in part to its location away from the main event space in the Giardini, but their Garden of Knowledge, created by Charlie Tapp and Abror Zufarov stands out to me as one of the more visually memorable spectacles. Floral sculptures and a fully reflective stainless steel floor create the illusion of walking on water in this most serene exhibition space (no shoes allowed though). There is something sublimely refreshing about this room, so long as you can get over the immediate sense of vertigo one gets from looking down.


venice biennale italy 2022

No round up of the different national pavilions can be complete without a mention of the home-team, Italy. By far the largest exhibition space, Gian Maria Tosatti has used the pavilion to reflect on the state of the nation and economic ennui. Divided into two sections, the first allows guests to explore a series of dusty warehouses filled with disused machinery and operational spaces, evoking the economic depression and stagnation that has become endemic. "The rise and fall of the Italian industrial dream". The second then turns to the balance of humanity and nature with "the destiny of comets", a dimly lit space filled with harsh, mechanical sounds astride a seemingly endless corridor of water, with the only visual landmark a series of moving, twinkling lights. Obtuse? Sure, but interesting.

The Central Pavilion

venice biennale central pavilion 2022

Of course, no visit to Biennale is complete without seeing the central pavilion, an expansive gallery space that features hundreds of different artists spread across multiple buildings. There's something for everyone, from fluorescing flowers to digitised cosplay that expertly blends computer and practical effects to create scenes that become difficult to separate reality from imagination. Precious Okoyomon has turned one gallery space into an expansive butterfly garden. Bogota-based artist Delcy Morelos turns another into maze of soil and farming equipment as a representation of cocoa and cinnamon farms. Most bizarrely, one room consists of a giant strange of what looks like human hair that fills the room. This one made me uncomfortable, not going to lie. The content here doesn't always succeed, but there's enough spectacle and ambition to justify the price of entry and make for an entertaining day out.


venice biennale other anish kapoor 2022

But Biennale extends far beyond the boundaries of Giardini and the Arsenale and worthwhile exhibitions can be found all over Venice. My pick this year was British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, known for his ambitious, often surreal installations. This year he has taken up space in his own workshop at Palazzo Manfrin, as well as some gallery space at the Gallerie dell'Accademia. There are some old Kapoor favourites here. His wax catapult (unfortunately inactive here), his room of mirrors, and all manner of mind-bending optical illusions including recessed carvings that look to be floating and sculptures that appear 2D from some angles and 3D from others. Always worth a look.

So there you have a whistle-stop tour of this year's Biennale. This is, of course just a sample of all that there is to see around town this year. But for now, I need to find a place to cool off with a drink and some gelato. See you in two years' time!

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