james debate
james debate

Friday, 16 November 2018

Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Written by Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin
Starring Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields, Reeve Carney, Patrick Page, Amber Gray
Theatre National

hadestown national theatre orpheus euridice eurydice persephone hades greek mythology

If the big test of a new musical is how doggedly the songs stick in your ear over the following days, then Hadestown is a smashing success. Anaïs Mitchell's reinterpretation of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has proved so successful since its early days as a travelling show and concept album that it has spawned three theatrical productions in just two short years. The off-Braodway production came first, followed by the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. Now Hadestown moves to its biggest venue yet at the famed National Theatre in London.

For those who can't quite recall their prep school classics lessons: Hades is the God of the underworld, who abducts and subsequently marries Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter (the Goddess of agriculture), in her despair, causes nothing to grow on the Earth. Hades eventually allows Persephone to return to the Earth for half of the year, during which time vegetation can grow again, bringing us the Spring and Summer. Elsewhere, Orpheus is in love with Eurydice. In the original text (this part is changed here) Eurydice dies and Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to convince Hades to let her return through the power of his music.

Mitchell's adaptation transposes these tragic events to a New Orleans jazz/blues musical. If the concept at first sounds like a novelty, it's surprising just how naturally it fits. Blues is after all a genre of music that was born of social oppression and economic depression, and Mitchel has aptly spun this old tale into a surprisingly modern parable about inequality and climate change.

The separation between Hades and the world of man is now framed as a struggle between the haves and have-nots. The Underworld is presented as a cold and prosperous metropolis, as compared to the impoverished overworld devastated by the environmental impact of Persephone's absence. Instead of dying, in this version of events Eurydice is driven to the underworld out of desperation. These themes clearly bring additional relevance to the old text, particularly against the thematic setting of Louisiana, a state commonly ravaged by hurricanes and still deeply beset by social and racial divides.

It's brought to life through some excellent staging and a set design that elicits the faded glamour of a New Orleans townhouse. You can feel the weight of the cast-iron facades and worn stucco. Meanwhile good use is made of the Olivier theatre's trademark configurable stage, the choreography enlivened by rotating floors and raised platforms as needed.

As mentioned, all of this is told through some very catchy music, with strong performances throughout most of the cast. The clear standouts are the only two cast-members to have featured in every stage performance: Patrick Page as Hades, and Amber Gray as Persephone. Gray's charismatic, growling Persephone in particular absolutely steals every scene in which she is present, fittingly in light of the narrative context which surrounds her character.

Unfortunately, Hadestown has a bit of a lead problem. Whereas for the most part Hadestown commits to its deep-south blues aesthetic and musical style, the two lead characters look and sound like they could have walked off the set of High School Musical. It's surprisingly jarring, and just doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the show. Eurydice I can forgive because the actress has a very strong voice, but the casting of Orpheus is harder to justify.

We are told that the Orpheus of this setting is supposed to be this inspiring, revolutionary figure, who creates such a stir with his music and passion that Hades allows him to leave just to be rid of him, but rather than this rousing and charismatic individual we get a remarkably bland guy in skinny jeans straining his voice in a cringe-worthy, pretentious rasp. In this context Orpheus is meant to be this divine rock star figure, think John Lennon starting a revolution, David Bowie bringing down the Berlin wall, Dillon, Morrison, I'd even have taken a Garfunkel... instead what we get is reminiscent of the lame college roommate that we all probably had at some point who sits in his room crooning along (poorly) to his guitar. It's hard to buy this portrayal, and it breaks the immersion of what is otherwise a fairly slick production.

So not a flawless production, but these are minor criticisms of what is otherwise a hugely entertaining show and one of the best new musicals I've seen in a while. I began this review by saying that the one true yardstick of a good musical is how the songs stick with you, and in that sense I can comfortably predict that Hadestown is a show that will linger on in the memory.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Last week, America went to the polls and elected a new Congress. This blog has posted on the subject over the past few months, culminating in last week's final forecast. Now that the dust has settled (aside from a few straggler House seats, a Mississippi runoff and a Florida recount) 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?

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

Let's begin by stating the obvious: this was a blue wave election.

Democrats took control of the House, with gains now expected to end up just short of 40 seats, and a popular vote margin of around 8%. Let's not beat around the bush, that's a historic result. This is the third largest swing in the House in 40 years, and the largest for the Democratic Party since the Watergate scandal. An 8% popular vote margin is greater than all bar one Republican House majority in the party's history.

This result exceeds expectations, but not by much. The Ephemeric predicted gains of around 30 seats, but with the caveat that due to the way House districts have been gerrymandered, a slight deviation in national margin could translate to a significant number of additional seats. In fact I specifically suggested that each additional percent over the expected 7% threshold might translate into an additional 10 seats, and that's almost exactly what we're seeing.

Meanwhile in the Senate Republicans look set to gain 1-2 seats depending on what happens in the Florida recount (I'm assuming the Democrats will be unable to pick up the Mississippi runoff unless Cindy Hyde-Smith makes a few more gaffes like this). Again, this is very much in line with The Ephemeric's pre-election expectations of a 1-2 seat gain.

There has been a lot of talk about a "mixed result", and suggestions that Democrats did not perform as well in the Senate as they did in the House based on this result. Sure, on the surface a Republican gain in the Senate may seem like a good result for them, but when you consider that the 2018 Senate map was one of the most favourable maps that any party has ever had, that becomes a harder argument to make. 18 out of 35 Senate races this year were in red states, and Democrats were on the defence in 26 of those states. In a normal election you would have expected Republicans to make gains of 5-6 on this map just by breaking even, so the fact that Republican gains were limited to just one or two is quite remarkable in many ways.

Ultimately Democrats ended up winning 69% of all Senate races this year, which would make this their 5th best result of the last 27 midterm elections, and a greater win percentage than Republican waves of 2010 and 2014. Make no mistake, Democrats performed just as strongly in the Senate, it just so happens that they had a lot of seats to lose.

But elections were not just held in the House and Senate, and throughout the state and local elections the blue wave was consistent. Democrats made substantial gains in the Gubernatorial races, flipping 8 states. A majority of Americans will now be governed by a Democrat. Similar gains can be found in the state legislature and judiciary, with potentially significant ramifications going forward.

There can be no doubt, this was a blue wave and a historically substantial one. Going further, this election was specifically a rebuke against Donald Trump, with exit polls showing a clear majority wanted their vote to send a message to the White House.

The country is a lot more blue now than it was pre-election. A majority of Americans will be governed by a Democrat. Many states, including some swing states, will now be dominated if not outright controlled by local Democrats. But of course the development of greatest national significance will be the new Democratic House majority.

So first the obvious: with a new House majority, Democrats can effectively block all Trump legislation from being passed, including budgets. This may be a moot point considering Trump and the Republican Party barely managed to get any legislation or budgets passed even with total control, but it at least provides additional comfort to the tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to rely on Republican incompetence in order to maintain their access to healthcare.

Of potentially greater import is the ability of the House to hold investigations and subpoena documents. The Republican majority's investigation into Russian election interference has been widely berated as a corrupt farce, while they have simply ignored the President's violations of the emoluments clause, his accusations of sexual misconduct, not to mention the fact that he has actually already been named as an unindicted co-conspirator on multiple felonies by his own lawyer. Investigating Republican Party corruption should certainly not be the first priority of this new Democratic House, but it is at least comforting to know that we have checks and balances who will now prevent this corruption from spiralling out of control, and hopefully bring some of the more egregious offenders to justice. And of course, this new power also has ramifications with respect to the all-important Robert Mueller investigation.

One of Trump's first priorities post-midterm has been (revealingly) to replace Jeff Sessions with his own loyalist in the Department of Justice. Many have suggested that this action is a first step towards firing Robert Mueller, but frankly there's no need for them to do something that would draw such unwanted attention. After all the DoJ can simply withhold funding or refuse to publicly release Mueller's final report. Robert Mueller could well conclude that Trump has committed multiple felonies, and if Trump's new Attorney General chooses to bury the report no one would ever find out. That's where the House Democrats come in. Now that they have subpoena power, it's going to be much harder for Trump to keep any official documents hidden away.

The new Democratic dominance at the state level is also likely to manifest itself in tangible ways, most notably in the realm of gerrymandering. North Carolina has historically been one of the most outrageous offenders, but now that the Democrats have taken a majority in the NC Supreme Court, there's the very real prospect of judicial action being taken to restrict such anti-democratic abuses in future. In this one state alone that could result in an additional 5 seats flipping Democrat in 2020. If similar steps against gerrymandering can be taken in other states, it could be over a dozen seats. So as you can see, even at the less glamorous local level, this election's results could have quite a significant impact on 2020.

It's also worth discussing how it's become quite fashionable to say "ignore the polls", "the polls are always wrong". But in actual fact this was a very very good night for the polls and forecasters. As you can see, even my own forecast was almost exactly right in both the House and Senate, and I'm far from alone in that regard. The quality of polling in America is actually pretty darn good if you know how to use them correctly.

As a final observation, the fallout from this election appears to have cemented a very unfortunate attribute of today's politics: complete detachment from reality.

A way too early preview of Election 2020
Don't get me wrong, midterm elections are awesome. But it's fair to say that the real reason many Americans tuned in is to find out how likely Trump is to be re-elected in 2 years time. So at the risk of jumping the gun a bit, let's have a quick look towards the next set of elections, and whether we can divine any clues from this year's results as to how those are likely to unfold.

Presidential election years are usually more favourable for Democrats from a demographic perspective, which means all else being equal you might expect Democrats to perform even better in 2020 than they did in 2018. But of course, 2018 is looking to have been something of a wave year for Democrats, and historically speaking when one party has that kind of momentum it is extremely rare for them to maintain that position into subsequent elections. So it is likely that any benefit from the Presidential year demographics will be offset by some reversion to mean. Nevertheless, Trump is historically unpopular, and that was a major factor in his party's sweeping losses in 2018. Ultimately, if he remains this unpopular, it's difficult to see him winning re-election, and Republicans could have a tricky time in the Congressional elections.

Of particular concern for Trump will be the strong performance of Democrats this year in rust belt states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states that he won in 2016 and that he needs to win again in 2020. Those states were barely even in contest in 2018, and certainly did not have the kind of close results that one would expect from genuine swing states. This will be a central question of the 2020 campaign, have those key states turned against Trump?

Equally concerning will be the Democratic victories in Arizona in the House and statewide. Arizona is one of those states that has been on the cusp of turning purple for a few years, and almost went for Hillary in 2016. It's starting to look like this will be a genuine swing state for 2020.

But it's not all bad news for the President. The close results in Florida and Ohio in what was otherwise a strong Democratic year suggest that Trump's support remains surprisingly robust in these states. These historically purple swing states are increasingly starting to look like dependable red states, and that is potentially a huge boon to any future Republican Presidential ambitions.

Meanwhile in Texas and Georgia, two red-but-increasingly-purple states that went very close in 2018, it is tempting to make points similar to those in Arizona. But considering the high Democratic enthusiasm of 2018, and the specific, notably unpopular Republican candidates they faced in these states, I think it is unlikely that Democrats will fare any better here in 2020.

So overall the early picture that is shaping up is one where Democrats are modest, but by no means unassailable favourites to win in 2020. The rust belt that was so crucial for Trump in 2016 looks to have returned to the Democrats, and if that trend continues it could be fatal for Trump. While the sun belt looks increasingly competitive, my immediate hot-take is that it will be these three states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that will determine the outcome of 2020.

Down-ballot, Democrats could face a tough battle to retain control of the House unless significant gerrymandering reform is accomplished. We discussed this in our election preview, but the House map has been artificially drawn up in such a way that Democrats need to win by sweeping landslide majorities just to stand a chance of winning control. They had such a majority in 2018, but two in a row will be tricky. The key here will be whether Trump remains toxic enough to keep Democrats' numbers high, and whether key states like Texas or North Carolina have district maps redrawn (which would arguably make Democrats clear favourites).

The Senate, meanwhile, is looking very favourable for Democrats. Six years ago was 2014, a wave year for Republicans, and as a result they will have a lot more seats to defend than in 2018. Republicans have a likely pick up opportunity in Alabama, but otherwise face an uphill battle to keep Maine, Colorado and North Carolina, while Democrats have good opportunities in Iowa, Arizona, Georgia, and, based on this year's results in those states, potentially Alaska and Montana. This is where the fact that Democrats managed to keep the Republican majority to just 2 or 3 seats in 2018, when it could have easily been more, will be crucial. Had Republicans gone to 54 or higher, I'd have made them clear favourites to keep their majority, but at just 52 or 53 it really opens up the possibility of a Democratic majority in 2020.

So there it is, 2018 election is done, and the first battle lines have been drawn for 2020. We went into this election facing a political system rife with corruption and blatantly anti-democratic electoral practices. While this election won't fix everything, the people have duly stepped up and taken a first step in the fight back for American values.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Two weeks ago The Ephemeric spoke about the upcoming United States Congressional Midterm elections and made an argument for why participation is so important. Now with just a week of the campaign remaining, I wanted to switch things up a bit and turn our attention to election day itself. What can we expect, and what does it all mean going forward?

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

So what will be the story of the 2018 elections? Well the expert opinion has been pretty unequivocal: they are expecting a blue wave. Donald Trump is historically unpopular, and the expectation is that voters will overwhelmingly back his opposition, potentially handing the Democratic Party Congressional majorities for the first time since 2010. Indeed polls have suggested an overwhelming Democratic advantage ranging from the high single digits to mid double digits. By comparison, Obama's landslide 2008 victory which resulted in a historic filibuster-proof Congressional majority was won with a margin of only 7%. Polls today suggest a considerably larger margin of victory in 2018, so surely the Democrats should sweep the elections?

As much as I would like this to be true, I'm going to pour some cold water on that consensus. As you will see, the Democrats are still very much a long shot to take back Congress despite their strong edge in the polls. As contradictory as this might seem, the US electoral system is set up (by design) so that the party which receives the most votes does not necessarily win the most seats, as we will explore in greater detail.

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. Last week I briefly touched on the reasons why this might be the case, but in essence it's because people just care 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 invariably 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. As the Republicans have so ably shown, fear and anger is a great motivator to vote, and the party out of power is invariably the angrier - although you can understand now why Trump and his accomplices have been so keen to dial up the anger and hate among their base.

So from the above dicta, you can see why the Republicans have generally done very well at the last few midterms under Obama, despite losing both Presidential elections quite handily. The demographics of a midterm election clearly favoured the Republican Party, as did the fact that they were the opposition party at the time. This time, however, things are slightly different. They still have the demographic advantage, but they are no longer the opposition. With these two factors at odds, you might expect that in an ordinary year the polls would reflect a stalemate, or even a slight Democratic advantage. But that's not what we're seeing in the polls at all.

This year there is the additional X-factor of Trump. As we have said, Trump is historically unpopular this year, and that is serving to increase the Democratic advantage considerably, to the point where many states have been reporting turnout estimates comparable to those of Presidential elections. This is both remarkable and potentially devastating for Republicans.

With this additional factor, the advantage is very clearly leaning in the Democrats' favour. And yet, as we will see in the following analysis, even a significant lead in the polls is no guarantee of electoral success this year.

Now let's give you the summary verdict that you came here for: The Ephemeric predicts the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives, and the Republicans to hold the Senate.

House of Representatives Verdict: Democratic Majority

election 2018 house republican democrat trump electoral map forecast Current House Map: Republicans - 235, Democrats - 193.
Predicted House Map: Republicans - 205, Democrats - 230.
Approximate Net Change: Democrats gain 30 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. You are probably looking at that map and thinking, "Wow that's a lot of red, and here I thought the Democrats were having a good year!" 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.

In actual fact, this represents a very bad map for Republicans. How bad? Well based on the above data, even if Democrats only win the districts highlighted in blue that already lean in their favour, and lose all of the toss-ups, they will still win the House. And of course, the size of their popular vote margin is so significant that you would probably expect them to win a lot of the toss-up and even a few of the lean Republican seats too.

So the polls are pretty unambiguous, the Democrats have the advantage, and a pretty big one. At the time of writing, the most recent average shows Democrats with a 9% margin, and there are several polls showing leads in the double digits. It can not be overstated just how astonishing a margin this is. For comparison, Obama's landslide victory in 2008 was with a 7% popular vote margin, his comfortable re-election in 2012 came with just a 5% margin. American politics is very evenly matched and elections are typically won by just a low single digit margin. A high single digit or even double digit margin is rare, and in an ordinary year would suggest a historic blowout.

Unfortunately, such a historic blowout is highly unlikely despite the significant polling lead. This is due to a little thing known as gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering, in a nutshell, 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

So how bad is the gerrymandering problem? Well if that North Carolina example above doesn't make it abundantly clear, it's pretty damn bad. It's bad enough that even with the Democrats' 5% winning margin in 2012, and a 2% winning margin in 2016, they still only won a minority in the House. It's bad enough that analysts expect that Democrats would need a winning margin of at least 7%, itself a rare and historic margin, just to have a shot at a majority. So as you can see, with the current expected winning margin of about 9%, Democrats are still only just favoured to win a House majority.

Now here's the silver lining for Democrats. As you may have surmised from the above examples, gerrymandering can be used to take a region that leans Democratic and create a lot more Republican leaning districts out of it. The trade-off is that while there will be a lot of red districts, by their nature a huge number of these will have only a slender Republican lean, since the process requires their voters to be spread out over multiple districts. This means that, while the threshold for a Democratic majority is higher, once this threshold has been met suddenly a huge number of seats becomes winnable. So to put this into numbers, while the difference between the Democrats winning by 2% or 7% might be pretty small, maybe 10 seats, the gains become exponential after that, potentially an additional 10 seats for each percentage point. So while the current data suggests a gain of maybe 30 seats, if that data underestimates Democrats by even just 2-3%, we could be looking at staggering gains of 60-70.

So as you can see, this is a challenging election to forecast. The unique combination of extreme gerrymandering and Democratic enthusiasm means that even a change in polls of a percent or two can potentially be enough to change a dozen seats. In my view, the key takeaway is that despite the hype, the House is far from a slam dunk for Democrats. Thanks to gerrymandering there is a significant threshold for them to cross before they really become competitive.

Based on the current data, Democrats will most likely win the House, but it probably won't be the historic majority that the polling or punditry suggests. They need 25 seats for a majority, and my expectation is that barring a polling error, they will probably only get a little more than that amount, with an approximate gain of 30 seats.

Senate Verdict: Republican Majority

election 2018 clinton trump senate map forecast
Current Senate Map: Republicans - 51, Democrats - 49.
Predicted House MapRepublicans - 52, Democrats - 48.
Approximate Net Change: Republicans gain 1 seat.
Key states to watch: AZ, FL, IN, MO, ND, NV, TN, TX, WV

So if the House paints an optimistic, yet cautious picture. The Senate is a very different story, and despite the Democrats' significant national advantage, I actually expect them to have trouble maintaining even their current status in the Senate, and could potentially lose seats.

How can that be possible when they have such an advantage this year? It's an issue with term lengths. Whereas every single seat in the House is up for election every cycle, Senators get to serve 6 year terms, meaning that only a selection of seats are actually up for election each cycle. 6 years ago was 2012, a good year for Democrats in which Obama won re-election, and the Democrats increased their then Senate majority by 4 seats. This means that Democrats will be defending a lot of seats this year.

So how bad is it? It's very bad. Democrats will be defending 26 seats this year, compared to just 9 seats being defended by Republicans. Even worse, Democrats will be defending a number of seats in deep red states like Missouri, West Virginia and North Dakota, states which reliably voted Republican even in Obama landslide elections. So not only do Democrats need to defend these extremely difficult seats, they then need to try and pick up at least 2 Republican held seats, which are also exclusively in deep red states this year.

It is a daunting Senate map for Democrats this year. In a normal year where the polls are roughly even, you would expect Republicans to dominate this map, maybe pick up 4-5 seats. But again, this is not a normal year, it is one in which the Democrats have a significant nationwide advantage. The fact that we are even talking about the Senate elections this year as competitive is an impressive achievement for the Democrats, and shows how successful they have been at expanding their map.

The media narrative has been one of a Democratic wave this year, so it's important to set appropriate expectations. Democrats should have no business being competitive on this map. They should have no business winning elections in West Virginia and Indiana in 2018, especially in a midterm year where the voter demographics inherently favour their opponents already. So while 2018 may very well be a strong Democratic year with a significant national advantage, the chances of them taking a Senate majority based on this map are exceedingly slim, and even maintaining the status quo would be a remarkable victory.

Of the 35 seats up for election this year, there are 9 key races that will determine the outcome. These can broadly be divided into three categories: the "pure toss-ups" which are so close that they can't be called one way or the other, the "lean" states which are highly competitive but clearly leaning in one direction, and the "likely" states which are still considered winnable but can be predicted with relative confidence. These states are categorised as follows, with the current seat holder indicated in parentheses:

  • Pure toss-ups: Missouri (D), Nevada (R), Tennessee (R) 
  • Lean states: Arizona (R), Florida (D), Texas (R)
  • Likely states: Indiana (D), North Dakota (D), West Virginia (D)

So let's look at these in reverse order, starting with the likely states.

Likely states
Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia: these are all deep red states held by Democrats. In a normal year you would expect these to be easy pick ups for Republicans, especially in a midterm year, and yet Donnelly and Manchin appear to hold quite comfortable and consistent leads in the polls in Indiana and West Virginia respectfully.

The same is not true of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Now North Dakota is a weird state. Very Republican, but also very small and therefore much more locally focused. This means that when it comes to state and local elections, partisanship has historically not mattered as much as personal brand, and Heidi's brand is so strong that even her opponent needs to start speeches with, "Look, I like Heidi, who doesn't like Heidi?"

On top of this, the polling out of North Dakota has been very poor, with only two polls in the past month and a half, both done by the same pollster, and a partisan (Republican operated) pollster at that. Being a partisan pollster doesn't necessarily mean you should ignore the result, but it does suggest you take it with a pinch of salt. Given the uncertainty, I was hesitant to put North Dakota in this category, but have ultimately done so based on a convergence of factors: the older (higher quality) polls showed a small Republican lead, and since that time polls in other red states have, if anything, shown movement away from the Democrats rather than towards them. Leaked internal polls also seem consistent with the notion of a moderate Republican advantage. Add to this the fact that we have seen a marked increase in the nationalisation of other small-state elections this year, and it all points to an outcome where a Republican victory seems very credible, and the most likely outcome here.

Lean states
Arizona is looking like something of a gift for Democrats. This is the election to fill the seat vacated by retiring Republican, and consistent thorn in Trump's side, Jeff Flake. It's a Republican-held seat in a pretty red state that has consistently voted Republican for years, and yet the polling has been very strong for Democratic challenger Kyrsten Sinema. This is actually not as surprising as it seems. Trump is pretty unpopular in Arizona, despite its reputation as a red state, and Hillary actually came surprisingly close to winning there in 2016. Given the swing towards the Democrats this year, a moderate advantage for Sinema is more or less what we would expect to see here.

Florida is a state that until recently was considered to be a bit of a toss-up, and even a good pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Bill Nelson is your classic establishment Democrat after all, his challenger Rick Scott is a (strangely) popular former Governor of the state, and Trump's support in-state proved surprisingly robust during 2016. Now it looks like the race is starting to get away from them. Quite why this is the case is open to interpretation; perhaps accusations of corruption against Rick Scott are finally gaining traction, or perhaps it's a knock-on effect of Andrew Gillum's wildly enthusiastic run for Governor firing up the base. In any case the polls of late do seem to show races in this swingiest of swing states getting more and more comfy for Democrats.

Texas is an interesting one. Typically considered the deepest of deep red states, Texas polls have been surprisingly close, with many showing the Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke within the margin of error, particularly in polls of registered (rather than likely) voters. Texas has long been discussed as an increasingly purple state due to its high Latino population, as well the increasing influence of its young and educated urban centres (both of which heavily vote Democrat). I'm not sure we're seeing any particular evidence of this yet, and rather the closeness of this race appears to be down to the candidates themselves. Ted Cruz is notoriously unpopular, both at home and in Washington, whereas Beto's campaign seems to have given us the next big political superstar, smashing fundraising records and earning comparisons to JFK and Obama. Ted Cruz remains very much favourite in the polls, but here's the thing: polls of all voters are actually showing Beto in the lead or tied, it's only the likely voter models that give Ted Cruz the advantage. In other words, this comes down to turnout and enthusiasm. If Beto can turn his hype into actual votes, he still has a shot.

Pure toss-ups
Missouri is the quintessential toss-up state this year. A Democratic incumbent in a traditionally red state, who in an ordinary year should have no chance of winning. And yet polls have been showing McCaskill slightly ahead or tied with challenger Hawley. This is a difficult one to call. With the race essentially tied, my instinct would be to give the advantage to the Republican due to the partisan lean of the state and the inherent turnout advantage in a midterm election. But at the same time, McCaskill has been in this position before, in much less favourable political years, and still managed to win. For one reason or another, she typically does outperform her polls and grind out the result, so if on election day the polls show her as tied or narrowly leading then I suspect she will again. Ultimately though this race could go either way.

Nevada is a peculiar state. Traditionally red, though it did vote twice for Obama, and even went for Hillary during the 2016 election. One would therefore expect that in a year which has swung decisively towards the Democrats from 2016, they would be favoured to win. But this is still a red leaning state, and the Republican has an incumbency advantage. The result is a race where polls show the contest essentially tied, with perhaps a slight Republican lean. It is worth pointing out that in 2016 polls did show a similar Republican advantage, but then voted comfortably for Hillary, and the same happened for former Senator Harry Reid in 2010. This is a state with a track record of underestimating the Democratic lean in polls, and so despite the Republican polling lead, I consider this state very much a toss-up.

Lastly, Tennessee. It might seem strange to have a deep red state like Tennessee listed as a toss-up, but that's undeniably what the polls have been showing. In Phil Bredesen, Democrats have a very popular former Governor of the state who has never lost an election in Tennessee. But this is still a deep red state, and Blackburn has sensibly sought to nationalise the race in order to make Bredesen pay for his Democratic affiliation. Whether it will work is anyone's guess. Bredesen has led in most polls this cycle, including the most recent poll from SSRS, but following the Kavanaugh confirmation there were some polls showing quite decisive Republican leads. As with North Dakota, the problem here is that there have been very few polls in recent weeks, meaning that any prediction necessarily entails a lot of guesswork. Nevertheless, the Bredesen lead of recent high quality polls, coupled with the local dynamics of this popular candidate, lead me to believe that he has at least as much a shot as Blackburn here. This is a true toss-up.

Now if you were to look at each of these states individually, and tot up the results of my predictions above, you would get to a stalemate 51-49 Republican advantage. And yet I have not predicted this result, but a +1 gain for Republicans. The reason for this is simple. Senate polls are often wrong, particularly in states where there is very little polling (see Tennessee and North Dakota in particular). The fact is that there is a greater than likely chance that some of the current state predictions will be wrong, and so the question becomes which side has the greatest potential upside in the event of polls being off.

The crucial point here is that there are a lot of states where Democrats look likely to win by very slim margins. This means that if we assume a polling error in line with the historical average, an error in favour of the Democrats would not likely flip any additional seats towards them, whereas such an error to the Republicans' favour would probably flip at least 1 that we have currently predicted as a Democrat win. In making this forecast, I have attempted to predict not just what I think will happen in each key race, but where I think the likely polling errors could be. All put together, it depicts an election where the advantage lies with the Republicans, but probably less than it should be considering the favourable map this year.

So based on current data, and taking into account historic polling errors and the current expected margins, our expectation is that the Republicans are most likely to gain seats in the Senate. Given the closeness of many of these races, there is a lot of room for error in this prediction. We could feasibly end up with anything from +4 Republicans to +2 Democrats. But on the balance, +1 Republican seems most likely.

So there it is. An expected Democratic gain of around 30 seats should give them a House majority, while a favourable Senate map means Republicans are looking far more comfortable there, with an expected gain of 1 seat, and a retained Majority. What does this mean going forward? We'll come back to that after the election, and give you a preview of what the remaining two years of Trump's term are likely to hold.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

It is an even numbered year, and if you are an American that can mean only one certain thing: it's election season. But Donald Trump is not on the ballot this year. No, these are the Congressional Midterms, which will determine the makeup of the legislature for the next two years, profoundly shaping the remainder of Donald Trump's term in office. Everything that we have seen over the past two years have led to one inescapable conclusion: this is a high stakes election, and it is utterly imperative that we get out and vote for the Democratic Party.

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

Why vote?
It is fair to say that the average voter considers midterm elections to be of less importance than Presidential elections. The President is the most powerful person in the world after all (or used to be anyway), whereas only 1 in 3 Americans can even name their Congressional representative. It may be time to reconsider that mindset.

The past two years have shown us just how important Congress really is. It is Congress who passes the laws, and determines whether you get to keep your healthcare. It is Congress who confirms Supreme Court appointments, and blocks unfit nominees. Perhaps most importantly, it is Congress who holds the power to investigate all of Washington's corruption or choose to cover it up. The average person on the street who doesn't care about politics may not be particularly affected in their day-to-day life by what goes on in Washington, but they sure as heck will be affected by rising healthcare premiums, cuts to social security, and draconian courts striking down the rights of women, minorities and the LGBT community.

Suffice it to say, those are things that affect everyone, and this election is your opportunity to have a say. If you've had enough of the liars and crooks, the violent thugs and misogynist assholes that seem to wield disproportionate power in this country, this is your one opportunity to say "enough is enough".

Why vote Democrat?
Now ordinarily the focus of a post like this would be to consider the policy differences between candidates and parties, and evaluate who's got the best ideas. But these are extraordinary times, and such a traditional analysis is going to be difficult to do this year. But let's be clear, there is no comparison between the two parties' platforms.

Democratic economic policy under Obama brought us record low unemployment, record high markets, and decreased the budget deficit for the first time since, well, the last Democratic President Bill Clinton. Republican economic policy brought our economy to ruin under Bush, and Trump seems dead set on starting a trade war that will send consumer prices sky rocketing.

Democratic healthcare policy expanded healthcare coverage to tens of millions of Americans, and significantly slowed the growth in premiums. Republican healthcare policy is non-existent beyond "Obama did it, ergo it is bad".

Democrats have an ambitious proposal for renewable energy investment and pollution control, Republicans don't even acknowledge that climate change is a thing, even as scientists warn that we are mere decades away from global disaster.

Democratic foreign policy brought admiration and respect, kept domestic terrorism at bay, and helped keep global geopolitics stable. Trump's laissez-faire foreign policy has allowed for a surge in state-sponsored murders, dictators running roughshod over the Middle East and Asia, and then he went and sanctioned Iran just for the hell of it. That's without even mentioning the ridiculous photo-op with Kim Jong-Un which accomplished nothing.

Marriage inequality, women's rights, anti-racism. The two parties' records speak for themselves.

Ideally, this policy focus would form the core of an endorsement post such as this, but as I say these are extraordinary times. I've long had my issues with the Republican Party. I felt they were embarrassingly dishonest during the Obama years, opposing him not on policy grounds, but simply out of partisanship. The Senate Republicans refusing to vote on a Supreme Court nominee for over a year remains one of the most shamefully partisan acts that Washington has ever seen, while their continued obsession with taking away access to healthcare, simply for the sake of scoring points, is an affront to the value of human life.

You absolutely need to have different sides and ideological debate in a functioning democracy, but that requires both sides to engage with one another in good faith, and that simply has not been the case. The modern Republican Party has increasingly taken advantage of voters' fear and ignorance, and stoked our darker instincts. This makes a policy comparison a pointless exercise. There are no Republican policies, only politics.

At the time I chalked this up to an act of desperation after the failure of President Bush, and the landslide victories of Obama and the Democrats left the Republican Party teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. But if that were the case, you would have expected them to revert to some level of moderation and decorum upon taking power, and that has not happened. Instead they've gone even deeper into the swamp.

The new party of Trump
Over the past two years we've seen Republicans vote on a behemoth tax cut for the wealthy without even reading the bill (an ungodly mess of a bill that the IRS have spent the past year unspooling). We've seen them engage in shamelessly obvious cover-ups and political games. We've seen them rush through an alleged sexual offender to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court without allowing for any investigation of his offences, even after his own hearing was marred by apparent dishonesty, brazen partisanship, and a temperament that was so clearly insufficient for the Supreme Court that the American Bar Association withdrew its endorsement.

This is no longer a party of serious ideological conservatives. It's a party of bumbling shysters, of Lindsey Graham retching and mewling for the cameras, and Nikki Haley doing her best John Wayne impression and "taking names" at the UN. Politicians have always been performers and grand-standers to an extent, but this Republican Party is taking things to a cynical new low.

This is all before even mentioning the man in charge of the party. During the 2016 election The Ephemeric reported on Donald Trump's corruption and scandals, which, let's face it, turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg - this was before the extent of Trump's Russia connection was known, before his years of tax evasion became public knowledge, and before his own lawyer named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in a variety of federal crimes. Even then, no one could have predicted his moral turpitude, his shameless disregard for reality, and his abject corruption.

So yes, the swamp is swampier than ever. No fewer than a dozen Republican officials have been convicted of crimes in the past two years, and one expects that number would be even higher if they were not trying their hardest to block any investigation into their activity.

The Republican war on democracy
And you know what? Everything that's been written above is a perfectly good reason to vote Democrat, but it's not the reason why this year is so important. Those are all terrible things being done by terrible people, but there's so much more at stake.

We've seen an unprecedented assault on free speech and justice these past years, whether it's inciting violence against the "enemy of the people" journalists, politicising the justice department, and firing disobedient police chiefs. Republicans have declared war on reality, and now simply dismiss any inconvenient information as "fake news". Donald Trump has openly stated that Republican politicians should not be charged with crimes because it harms their election chances. He also fired the head of the FBI, in his own words, because of "the Russia thing". This is not the conduct of a modern, legitimate Government, it's the behaviour of a lawless mafia state.

Basic democratic rights are under threat, with Republicans seemingly dead set on disenfranchising as many voters as possible, and gerrymandering the country into a grotesque and unrepresentative shape (more on that to come in a later blog post). Here's a fun fact, Republicans have won a majority of the popular vote just once in thirty years. Our current President was elected by a minority of the people, our House was elected by a minority of the people, and our Senate majority represents a minority of the people. At some point you have to ask yourself, in what kind of democracy does the fewest number of votes win, and not just once, but consistently?

We are never going to agree on everything, but all Americans can agree that speech should be free, that elections should be fair, and that no one is above the law. Democracy relies on the ability to scrutinise those in power, the unbiased application of justice, and the universal right to vote and have that vote count.

I have written above why I would vote for the Democratic Party, but frankly those usual considerations seem trivial in comparison this year. The Republican Party has taken clear, no longer merely hypothetical, concrete steps to undermine the basic tenets of democracy. This goes far beyond politics and partisanship, this simply can not be tolerated regardless of your political persuasion. For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that we vote Democrat this November. Whether you're liberal, conservative, or independent, a message needs to be sent to the Republican Party.

And it's not just those on the left who are saying this. Long time Republican officials and strategists including Steve Schmidt, David Frum, and Max Boot have all similarly called for a fresh start. Even conservative newspapers like the Des Moines Register. Intellectually honest conservatives and people of all ideologies who put country before politics are all coming to this conclusion.

As difficult as it is in this hyper-partisan age to turn your back on your "team", a bipartisan consensus is forming that the Republican Party needs to be torn down and we need to start over. They need to receive such a shock, such devastation, that they are forced back into sanity, and only then can we return to some form of functional Government.

The unfortunate truth is that the reason bad people get away with doing bad things is because we let them. Elections are the opportunity we have to shape the world around us, and I fear that through a combination of apathy and the ill-judged instinct to false equivalency there's a real risk that this country will just sleepwalk into some kind of a Russia-style authoritarian hybrid democracy. I appreciate that it sounds hyperbolic, but considering the brazenly anti-democratic practices going on this country already, you can argue that we're already well on our way.

Authoritarianism is an insidious thing, and we have seen all too often throughout history what happens if left unchecked. It can not be allowed to fester in this country any longer, it needs to be cut off immediately and it needs to be made clear that Americans will not stand for it. I encourage everyone to vote Democrat this November, not just because their policy is what's best for America, not just so that the corrupt and criminal can finally be held to account, but because our shared principles of decency and human rights are under attack. This is not a normal election, nothing less than American democracy is on the ballot. Let's put an end to this nonsense.

Monday, 15 October 2018

The Royal Academy of Arts has generally received little fanfare relative to some of its more glamorous London museum rivals, but over the past 12 months this gallery has quietly been undergoing a significant transformation. I was recently fortunate enough to attend a preview of Oceania, the first major exhibition of this new era, and the difference was quite remarkable.

oceania royal academy of arts

Let me preface by saying that I have been going to exhibitions at this Piccadilly-based institution since I was a child. From blockbuster Hockney to niche Living Bridges, and everything else from Sensations to Apocalypse. There have been a lot of memorable shows at the RA, but in a general holistic sense very little has changed during that time. Burlington House is a grand old building, but one whose stodgy interiors have been in need of refurbishment for years. And while many highly regarded artists have been represented, few exhibitions have really shown the creative flair to try and do more than simply display their works on a wall. So coming from that perspective, the changes that have taken place over the past 12 months seem quite dramatic.

It begins with the expansion between the two previously disparate galleries of Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. The connections between these two awkward islands were previously little more than utilitarian office corridors, closed off and hidden from the public. Now these have been opened up, and developed into a quite lovely additional wing to display permanent items and RA history. This unification into one grand Royal Academy provides additional galleries, completely redone interiors, and new facilities for lectures and workshops. Additional space and modernisation is always appreciated, but it's the quality and style of the refurbishment that most impresses. The RA no longer looks like a run-down secondary school, it truly looks a top class institution.

Which brings us to Oceania, a showcase of south Pacific art, and the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom for several decades. As a flagship exhibition to celebrate this new-look RA it is everything that could have been hoped for.

The pieces are varied and impressive. Large, ornate canoes and ceremonial tools. Small but highly detailed sculptures and statues. One room contains a bizarre but dazzling grand piano carved with the finery of Pacific tribes, another uses an entire wall to project a giant scrolling video depicting the history of the Island tribes. It all makes for a visually splendid, and strangely immersive tour through a culture and history that is at once alien, but with a surprising historical influence over our own art landscape

But as important as the quality and depth of the content is how it's presented here. In the past, whether it's been Picasso or Ai Weiwei, little has differed in the look of the gallery itself. For Oceania the curatorial team has put in a great deal of time and effort into helping the exhibition space complement the artefacts. One room uses re-painted walls and clever ripple lighting effects to convey a sense of being underwater, another is adorned with silk sheets to evoke flowing water. The design of this exhibition shows creativity and boldness that is well beyond anything I can remember seeing at the RA.

I came away from this evening very intrigued. In Oceania the RA have put together a striking and gorgeously assembled showpiece to herald in a new era, one which firmly establishes the RA among London's leading attractions. This is a must see for fans of museums and culture.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but now that we've had our approximately ten days per year of sun it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2018/19 preview

Premier League 2018/19 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham
Relegated: Brighton, Southampton, Huddersfield
Golden Boot winner: Harry Kane (Tottenham)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
New signing to watch: Richarlison (Everton)
Young player to watch: Ruben Neves (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
First manager to get the sack: Mark Hughes (Southampton)
Shock of the season: No Chelsea striker's goal tally will hit double digits

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 6th
Manager: Unai Emery

Terra incognita for Arsenal. It's no secret that the past twenty years have not been awash with glory for the club, and as I (controversially) predicted this time last year it appears that long-time manager Arsene Wenger has finally had enough. To unoriginally call it the "end of an era" would be an understatement; there is after all an entire generation of adult Arsenal fans who have never known any manager other than Wenger. For all his highs and lows, even rival fans would have to begrudge the man a special place in the history of English football. It's no exaggeration to call him a landmark figure in the genesis of modern football, and he will no doubt be remembered with great affection.

The new man shows promise. Unai Emery offers a combination of experience and youth in the dugout, with top level experience in his armory from two years at PSG, not to mention an unprecedented hat-trick of consecutive Europe League titles with Sevilla. He'll have his work cut out for him to turn Arsenal back into a club capable of competing with the league's big hitters. He inherits a lopsided squad littered with expensive underperformers. The mercurial talents of players like Aubameyang, Xhaka, Ozil and Ramsey have proven all too intermittent over the years, and instead much of the attacking heft may rest upon last year's star signing Alexandre Lacazette. Meanwhile the squad has long been plagued by an unconvincing defensive lineup that is increasingly dependant on an ageing Petr Cech in goal.

Emery has bolstered his squad with a not insignificant £80 million in new players, with no fewer than nine new faces joining the squad, a few of whom admittedly are expected to go into the youth and reserves sides rather than the first team. Of the new boys, only Matteo Guendouzi looks set to really shake up the side, and at just £7 million he could end up being one of the bargains of the season.

Key Signing: Matteo Guendouzi
Key Man: Alexandre Lacazette
Verdict: A fresh start brings optimism and the expectation of improvement, but they have got a long way to go to break back into the top four.

Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 12th
Manager: Eddie Howe

Bournemouth are having a good run in the Premier League at the moment, and last season secured another comfortable mid-table finish. Great credit has to go to manager Eddie Howe for his constant drive to exceed expectations. Now the question is, where can they go from here? Our bet is for another season of stability and consolidation.

Their meteoric rise through the leagues (League One just six years ago!) is only part of the feel-good story surrounding the club right now. Progress has been made on a new stadium, while their summer's transfer activity has been typically astute. That left back Diego Rico passed on a move to Dortmund in order to join the Cherries is something of a coup for the club.

Equally, they have done a good job in retaining their key players from last year with a fine core of players like Nathan Aké, Lewis Cook, and Callum Wilson. It's not the league's deepest squad, but they are well stocked in the midfield and up front. However serious concerns remain in defence, where Bournemouth recorded the fewest clean sheets of any team last season. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.

Key Signing: Diego Rico
Key Man: Lewis Cook
Verdict: We're going for a solid mid-table finish.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 15th
Manager: Chris Hughton

It was an impressively spirited debut in the top flight for Brighton, but a year later and the spectre of the dreaded second season syndrome looms tall in everyone's mind. A considerable £60 million has been spent on reinforcements to ensure a year of consolidation for the league's freshest faces, but a difficult challenge still awaits.

The squad is not awash with proven top level talent, so it is fortunate that they have in Chris Hughton a manager well-versed in the ways of shoe-string Premier League survival. He'll be relying on key players like Pascal Groß and Lewis Dunk, while being hopeful of a return to fitness and form for Anthony Knockaert. Hughton has made some shrewd signings in the form of Bernardo, and Eredevisie top scorer Jahanbakhsh, the latter of whom is a potential game winner if he hits the ground running.

The Seagulls understandably begin the season on a wave of enthusiasm, but they know they face an uphill struggle in order to survive. Away fans best enjoy the opportunity for football trips to the beach while they can.

Key Signing: Alireza Jahanbakhsh
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for the drop.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 7th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Last season's most remarkable success story. A side that had been tipped by many for the drop, but instead ended up qualifying for Europe. I said this time last year that Dyche could push this team onto something special, but their performance exceeded any reasonable expectation. There's an argument to be made that lightning can't strike twice, or that Dyche may now have outgrown this club. For the time being though, it's full steam ahead, and fans will just be hoping for more of the same.

Burnley's playing squad boasts a surprising amount of quality, including the likes of Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood, Jack Cork, and underrated defender Ben Mee. If Steve Defour can recover some fitness and consistency, so much the better. Dyche has made some decent additions this season as well, including Ben Gibson, Joe Hart and in particular Matej Vydra.

But it's not just on the pitch that Burnley are showing their ambitions. Significant investments have been made over the past few years in infrastructure and training facilities, and the aim is now very much on establishing themselves as a top flight side, and building from there. It's a tough ask, but so was qualifying for Europe.

Key Signing: Matej Vydra
Key Man: Ashley Barnes
Verdict: Surely a repeat of last season is too much to ask, but a safe mid-table finish seems likely.

Nickname: The Bluebirds
Ground: Cardiff City Stadium
Capacity: 33,280
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Neil Warnock

It's been a bizarrely turbulent period for Cardiff since being acquired by Vincent Tan. First the billionaire investor attempted to change the club's colours from blue to red, and the club crest from the traditional bluebird to a Welsh dragon, all for the sake of marketing. Following a fan outrage of biblical proportions, some sense of normalcy has returned to the club. Then Tan appointed Neil Warnock.

Warnock is quite the character, but to his credit he did manage to achieve Tan's long-held ambition and win promotion to the Premier League. Now that they're here, there's the temptation to believe that they will walk the same path as other billionaire-owned clubs to glory but make no mistake, they are a real relegation risk.

It's not that the club hasn't invested this summer, it's that the new recruits have done little to plug the depth and quality problems faced by the club. Sean Morrison and Junior Hoilett are crucial to their survival hopes, while new man Bobby Reid will fit straight into the side, but it's hard to see where the goals will come from, or who will hold the defence together if key players get injured. This is a squad with major holes for such a high level, and it may cost them.

Key Signing: Bobby Reid
Key Man: Sean Morrison
Verdict: Tough battle for survival.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 5th
Manager: Maurizio Sarri

The second of last year's controversial predictions concerned the team that had been tipped by many to win the league. I was called silly by more than a few people for predicting a Chelsea finish outside the top four, and yet that turned out to be eerily prescient, right down to the detail of how it would play out. Unfortunately for Chelsea fans I don't see anything this year to indicate a significant or sustained revival.

Let's not dance around the elephant in the room. Chelsea have replaced a manager who has decades of top level football experience and who has in two seasons brought the club a league title and an FA Cup with a not-exactly-young banker-turned football manager who has never won anything in his career. A manager who has neither potential nor experience on his side and has proven nothing. If it sounds like the latest in a series of absurd decisions made by the club, that's because it is.

On top of this, Chelsea have failed to plug the significant holes in their squad, and begin the season without a dependable first choice striker and with no cover in the defensive midfield role. With Sarri set to switch to a flat back four, that lack of central defensive coverage leaves the team looking very vulnerable down the middle of the pitch. But the most terrifying tactical blunder heading into the season is Sarri's return to the high defensive line last attempted at Chelsea by Andre Villa Boas. We all saw how that turned out. This is a Chelsea side with the potential to concede a massive amount of goals, and as the season wears on and opponents start to figure out this manager's tactics, they could find themselves in a world of trouble.

The silver-lining for Chelsea fans is a number of actually pretty decent last minute transfers, including the surprise coup of snatching Jorginho out from under Manchester City's noses, the world record fee paid for goalkeeper Kepa, and the very promising Kovacic on loan from Real Madrid.

Key Signing: Jorginho
Key Man: Eden Hazard
Verdict: A tactically questionable manager and a thin squad peppered with genuine quality. Unlikely top four hopes will depend on their rivals slipping up.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,456
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. Yet under Roy Hodgson the club enters the season with an air of positivity. The team didn't make much of a going in the early stages of last season, but the managerial change seemed to bring about a renewed vigour, ending the season a very impressive side. Now entering their sixth consecutive season in the top flight there is the hope that the club is starting to be seen as a Premier League mainstay, rather than one concerned with mere survival.

Indeed there is much to like about this Palace side, from the attacking threats of Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke, to the excellent fullback pairing of Patrick can Aanholt and Aaron-Wan Bissaka, but the clear star of the side is Wilfried Zaha, courted by many and arguably the league's best player outside of the top six.

If there is a note of caution to be raised, it is in the summer's somewhat subdued transfer activity, particularly in light of the numerous departures, most notably that of midfield stalwart Yohan Cabaye. But while the club may not have brought in as many new faces as fans would have hoped, the ones that have arrived at Selhurst may prove to be shrewd moves, in particular the free transfer of Max Meyer, who it is hoped will slot in for the aforementioned departed Cabaye.

Key Signing: Max Meyer
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: This is not the season to begin a push for Europe, but should see Palace achieve another comfortable mid-table finish.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 8th
Manager: Marco Silva

It's been a few seasons of uncharacteristic turbulence for Everton. Following the disastrous tenure of manager Ronald Koeman, and the brief stop-gap appointment of Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva will become the fifth man to coach this Everton side in just two years.

This turbulent era extends to the playing staff, with many of last season's big money flops being moved out, and a general clean up of the wage bill well underway. Last season's top scorer Wayne Rooney has been moved on to the MLS after just one season, presumably as part of this effort of financial prudence. But if you think that Everton's disastrous first foray into the world of 2010s Premier League cash-splashing will induce a retreat into purse-pinching ways, think again. The club raised a few eyebrows in its decision to drop a club record £50 million on the still rather unproven Richarlison (though early performances indicate that he may yet live up to this price tag), and an additional £50 million was spent between Barcelona defenders Lucas Digne and Yerry Mina.

So what does all this mean for the season ahead? Hopefully the start of a more stable era. They're a good side, and one of the strongest squads outside the top four with the likes of Pickford, Keane and Sigurðsson, while the new defensive additions should stand them in good stead. There is an absence of players who can offer real penetration, particularly among their extended squad, and of course they miss a frontman of true proven quality. They'll make a good showing of it, but unlikely to trouble the top four this season.

Key Signing: Richarlison
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, just outside the top six.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 25,700
Last season: Promoted (Playoffs)
Manager: Slaviša Jokanović

Welcome back to the Premier League for everyone's least hated club, and bring on the away days at the country's most delightful ground in Craven Cottage. But Fulham are not just here to make up the numbers. Jokanović has built a side with a real buzz about them, and spent a frankly astonishing £100 million on strengthening further. This is unsurprisingly a record for a newly promoted side.

In Ryan Sessegnon Fulham boast one of the most exciting and buzzed about young talents in the Premier League this season, while playmaker Tom Cairney forms the beating heart of a productive midfield. Their extravagant summer spending has added well and added broadly with the headline signings of Seri and Mitrović joined by loan moves for the likes of Calum Chambers, Tomothy Fosu-Mensa, and André Schürrle. American owner Shahid Khan has matched his ambitious talk by promising unlimited funds, but stressed that such funds would need to be spent wisely and in the right way. As a result, Fulham now have the makings of a very decent Premier League side.

Expectations are high for a newly promoted side, but so too is the pressure. If Fulham get off to a rocky start, there's a good chance that Jokanović could find himself among the early season casualties. There's a hype about this team right now, but these things take time, and I wouldn't be surprised if they fell short of expectations this season.

Key Signing: Jean Michel Seri
Key Man: Ryan Sessegnon
Verdict: Should survive, but likely to fall short of expectations in the table's bottom half.

Nickname: The Terriers
Ground: John Smith's Stadium
Capacity: 24,500
Last season: 16th
Manager: David Wagner

Everyone expected Huddersfield to go down last season (for the record The Ephemeri predicted otherwise) and yet they ended up confounding critics and putting in a decent showing in the top flight. But second season syndrome is a thing, and the question has to be have Huddersfield done enough to consolidate their position in this league?

Terence Kongolo and Erik Durm are impressive defensive signings, but otherwise there is a notable lack of proven Premier League quality throughout the squad. Despite that, in Hogg they have excellent defensive cover through the midfield, and in Christopher Schindler a rock in defence. This is going to be as tough a side to beat as any. Unfortunately as I look around at their rivals for survival I'm not convinced they have the match winning players to compete. A lot of pressure will be on Alex Pritchard to deliver, and if Town are going to stay up, he will have a vital part to play.

David Wagner knows the challenge he faces, but team spirit and tenacity can only carry a team so far. At some point Huddersfield are going to have to show they have the quality for the top flight, and at the moment, I'm not seeing it.

Key Signing: Terrence Kongolo
Key Man: Alex Pritchard
Verdict: A genuine risk for relegation.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 9th
Manager: Claude Puel

It's been a rough ride for Leicester since their still hard to believe title triumph a few years back. A few managerial changes and some pretty mixed performances. Now another of their title winning stars Riyad Mahrez has left, leaving even fewer of the old guard left to keep them afloat. But things are not as dark as they seem.

For all the doubters, Leicester still managed to finish a respectable 9th last season. Puel has built a solid team around the key players like Vardy and Maguire. They've spent ambitiously over the summer too, and in particular Ricardo Pereira and James Maddison look like very shrewd additions. The latter in particular starts the season with something of a mystique about him after turning heads with his performances in the Championship. It will be interesting to see how the the youngster adapts to life in the top flight, but this could prove to be a remarkable signing.

So what are their prospects, really? They're not top four challengers, but if they can achieve greater consistency than they did last year they could really be a force among the next best teams. A place in Europa League qualification is certainly not out of the question.

Key Signing: James Maddison
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Safe mid-table for sure, with a possible push into the top seven.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 4th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Last season saw another year of marked improvement for Liverpool, and a 4th place finish belies the fact that they ended the season as one of the form teams in the league. Add to that an impressive Champions League challenge and an unbelievable run of form for Mo Salah, and there's a real buzz in the air that this could be a big year, and perhaps even a title contending one. But is the hype premature? After all this team did just finish 4th last season, and only by a whisker at that. It's been decades since Liverpool last won a league title, and yet every season they get tipped for potential glory, undeniably due in part to the huge ex-Liverpool presence in the media. Could this season really be different?

All the buzz is naturally about Salah, but really the entire frontline was immense last season, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané's contribution being hugely underappreciated. A solid midfield of Henderson and Milner has added the steel of Naby Keita, and at the back they have spent a significant sum on the (briefly) world record goalkeeper Alisson. Goalkeeper was undoubtedly their weak spot last season, especially with a decent backline taking shape in Robertson, Van Dijk, Gomez, and the exciting youngster Alexander-Arnold. This signing could be the final piece of the puzzle.

So what's in store for this season? They've spent massively over a number of seasons, and have the top class squad to show for it. It's hard to pick glaring weaknesses in this side, and you'd have to say that on their day they could be a match for any other in the league. Manchester City start the season as heavy favourites, but maybe Liverpool shouldn't be counted out so soon.

Key Signing: Alisson
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: Title contenders, but still very much underdogs compared to City.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

After a rocky start to his City career, the pressure was truly on for Pep last season. He duly delivered the league title, proving once again that there is nothing this manager can not accomplish given several years and a billion pounds in new players. It's certainly quite the comeback story after several years of disappointment at Bayern and City. But regardless of what anyone thinks of the man, there is no question that in terms of playing staff this Manchester City side is up there with the best football teams in the world today.

The question now is whether they can become the first team to retain the league title since 2008, and they begin the season as heavy favourites to do just that. Unlike each of Chelsea's last two disastrous title defences, City do not appear to be resting on their laurels, and have opened the checkbook once again to sign Riyad Mahrez. A smashing player for sure, but one really has to wonder where he's going to fit into a starting XI that already includes the midfield depth of De Bruyne, Sterling, Gundogan, Silvas both David and Bernardo and Fernandinho. That Man City show no compunction in spending a cool £60 million on what in all likelihood will be a substitute player sums up perfectly how they have managed to reach such a high level, and how far their rivals need to go in order to bridge the gap.

But while this is a squad blessed with an embarrassment of riches and exciting recent signings, the main man remains veteran Sergio Agüero, now entering his eighth season in the Premier League, and with more than 140 goals in the competition he has surely got to be recognized as one of the greatest ever strikers to play in this country.

Key Signing: Riyad Mahrez
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Jose Mourinho

Manchester City's closest rivals last season, finishing as runners up in the Premier League, their highest finish since the departure of Alex Ferguson. It was Mourinho's United side that pushed Pep the hardest last season and has the smallest gap to bridge. So then why does it seem like everyone is writing them off? Why is all the hype about Liverpool who finished 4th? Why does Jose Mourinho look like he's on the verge of a meltdown even before the season starts?

These are questions that should be weighing on United fan's minds as the season begins. But is all the doom and gloom justified? Jose has been having a sulk for not being active enough in the transfer market, despite the fact that a solid £70 million was spent on the likes of Fred and Dalot. And of course it's still otherwise the same squad that ground out their way to runner up last season. Lukaku remains a formidable force up front, while Paul Pogba looks set to ride his impressive World Cup form into the new season. Mata brings creativity aplenty, while in David de Gea they have probably still the best goalkeeper in the world currently.

Ultimately I suspect the negative atmosphere is a bit overblown. I wouldn't make them title favourites, but still heavily favoured for Champions League qualification. Their early season form has been a bit rocky, but as we've seen so many times before it doesn't always matter who comes flying out of the blocks. Consistency is key and Mourinho has built a career in consistently churning out points.

Key Signing: Fred
Key Man: David de Gea
Verdict: Top four finish.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: 10th
Manager: Rafa Benitez

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. Under Rafa Benitez there appears to be a hint of stability about the club at long last, but is it all destined to end in tears?

To achieve a top ten finish with what even the hardcore fans would have to admit is a somewhat limited squad is no small accomplishment for the Spanish veteran, but an outlay of some £20 million this summer is frankly minuscule by today's standards (newly promoted Fulham spent £100 million for comparison). The lack of financial backing from a notoriously thrifty Mike Ashley is creating a clear tension behind the scenes, and there's a real question of whether the manager will still be here next season.

For the time being though, Rafa has a unit that works. Jamaal Lascelles has been impressive at the back, and is rightly turning the heads of a few bigger clubs. Meanwhile the loan of Robert Kenedy for a second year running will be a boon on the left flank. Mo Diamé and Matt Ritchie make add to what is a decent top flight spine, but there's not much depth beyond that. More troubling, it's not clear where the goals are going to come from. Early fixtures have seen Rafa rotating among the four available strikers suggests he does not yet have full confidence in any one, and it's an area that needs attention. Otherwise it could be a tough season.

Key Signing: Kenedy
Key Man: Jamaal Lascelles
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 17th
Manager: Mark Hughes

It's been a rough couple of years for Southampton. A meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the Premier League was duly met with a scavenging of the club's most prized assets (mostly by Liverpool). They've generated a lot of revenue from those sales, and yet somehow it appears to have been squandered. Add to that a number of managerial changes and a general air of instability, and Southampton ultimately found themselves just barely clinging to top flight football. If Mark Hughes is not able to steady the ship they could be in for another difficult season.

While the golden boys may have moved on, there's still plenty to like in this team: the width offered from the back by Cédric on the right and Ryan Bertrand on the left (quite possibly the form left back in the league over the last few seasons), the mercurial talents of Redmond and Lemina, and the forward graft of Charlie Austin among them. The addition of Danny Ings to the squad will give them a little more up front, joined by Mo Elyounoussi of Basel who fans are hoping will turn out to be the offensive midfield option that Boufal was supposed to be last year.

But this is a very vulnerable team, especially against opponents playing through the middle of the pitch. Depth is also a problem, especially given the last few seasons of flop signings. This is a squad in need of major rebuilding, and they just did not achieve that this summer. It could be a long season for the Saints.

Key Signing: Danny Ings
Key Man: Ryan Bertrand
Verdict: A real risk for relegation this year.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

There's not much more than needs to be said about manager Mauricio Pochettino. The man was a phenomenal success at Southampton and he has carried that midas touch on to Tottenham. Last season was a remarkable feat, and another year of Champions League football awaits.

With their top four status consolidated, one might have suspected that Tottenham would leap on the opportunity to build and finally mount that long muted challenge for the title. Yet this summer we have seen a strangely unambitious Tottenham, the first in Premier League history not to make any signings. The good news is that they have managed to keep ahold of all their key players. As such, their lack of activity may not necessarily be a problem, after all this was a very fine team last year and retains the same depth of quality as before.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Lloris, Dier, and Christian Eriksen all performers of the highest quality. Also keep an eye on Lucas Moura, signed last January to much fanfare, but eased slowly into the team. Now that Pochettino has had a good look at him we expect to see him become more involved, and if he can reclaim the potential shown at PSG he could be as good as a new signing. But the keys to this team undoubtedly belong to Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Picking one out of the two of them as a key man for this team is a difficult task, so central are they both to the way this club plays. With a squad this good, and still largely intact from last season, anything really is possible.

Key Signing: N/A
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Will be right up there, top four and outside title contenders.

Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 14th
Manager: Javi Gracia

Another year, and yet again the bookies and pundits alike are all tipping Watford for the drop, and I just can't see a justification for it. We've seen what happens with Watford, they come flying out of the gates, wow the pundits, and then burn out by Christmas. For sure, they have a second half of the season problem, but despite that they haven't looked like a team with a real threat of relegation for a couple of years now, and I don't see that changing.

Certainly it's not all candy and roses for the club. The constant managerial merry-go-round has led to a sense of constant upheaval, and the loss of the talismanic Richarlison to Everton comes as a blow. But they have reinvested those proceeds well, and I'm particularly excited to see Deulofeu and Masina, while Ben Foster marks an upgrade on the ageing Gomes. It's really a pretty decent squad, with a strong midfield of Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes and Pereyra, not to mention Chalobah. Troy Deeney is always a threat up front. Question marks do remain over the defence, making this very much an offence-minded team, but that's a liability that will no doubt cause problems as the season unfolds.

They're certainly not going to uproot any top ten trees, but this just doesn't look like a team in a relegation battle, there are other squads with bigger and more numerous problems. On paper they should be a safe mid-table side, they just need greater consistency.

Key Signing: Gerard Deulofeu
Key Man: Will Hughes
Verdict: Lower half of the table but should be safe.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 13th
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

Always a pundits' favourite. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them. One season they'll look on the verge of a big leap, only to slump to a safe mid-table finish the next. At their worst, they find themselves dragged in and around the foot of the table. So it is again, and with the Pellegrini hype in full swing, there's real talk of a top ten finish and maybe even a push for the Europa League. But such things seldom happen over night, and Hammers fans would do well to strike a tone of caution.

On paper they should do well, they've spent big this summer after all. Yarmolenko, Diop and Felipe Anderson are the headline new signings (the latter two both breaking the club transfer record), but Fabianski and Wilshere could prove equally significant additions. The spine of the team remains Arnautović and Noble, while there are high hopes for youngster Declan Rice, but one wonders if there's really enough here to mount a credible push into the top half of the table.

Expect a slow bedding period for a side with this many changes, but if they can gel, and if they can bring a fresh attacking impetus to their game, then they can do well this season. There's not a whole lot between the teams in the middle of the table, and you could see West Ham finishing anywhere from 8th to 15th or so. Based on their form at the end of last season, their pre-season, and the general state of the squad, I think they could have a tricky start and never really get into momentum.

Key Signing: Felipe Anderson
Key Man: Marko Arnautović
Verdict: Lower mid-table finish.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 31,700
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

The gap between the Premier League and lower divisions is wide, and newly promoted clubs often have the odds stacked firmly against them. Backed by new riches of Fosun International however, Wolves have seen something of a revolution, spending big, signing big. The capture last year of Porto youngster Ruben Neves was a stunner, and the Championship was ultimately won at a canter with Neves a particular highlight.

This year they have impressed in the markets again, and the signings of Diogo Jota, Moutinho, and Rui Patricio are remarkable signs of ambition for a newly promoted side. So the season begins with Wolves tipped for some quite lofty targets, a top half finish and maybe even a push for Europe.

This is a team with exciting prospects and new faces for the English top flight. In Neves they boast arguably the young player to watch this season. But this is still their first appearance in the Premier League for six years, and the top level of English football is a harsh mistress. For all the hype and excitement, there will inevitably be a learning curve. This is a squad with huge potential over the coming years, particularly if the financial backing continues, but this table I think they will be quite content just to stay clear of the relegation battle and eke out a safe mid-table position.

Key Signing: Diogo Jota
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Safe mid-table finish on the cards.

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

Footnote: How did we do last year?

premier league 2018/19 preview

Not too bad actually. Only five teams ended up >3 positions off from our predictions, six were predicted exactly right, and five were just one position off. More than half the league table was predicted to within one place of their actual position. Really only four teams: Southampton, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace were significantly off. By comparison, the Guardian's predictions contained only two correct picks, and more than half were at least three places off their actual finish. A reminder then, that most pundits literally just write nonsense.

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