Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Electability Counterfactual

In Pennsylvania, the biggest delegate prize on Tuesday, April 26, 11 percent of Democratic primary voters indicated in exit polls that “electability” was the “candidate quality” they cared about most.  Of those voters, 83 percent cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The results were similar in Connecticut and Maryland and have been pretty consistent throughout the entire country; the 8 to 21 percent of voters who value electability more than anything else have overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in every state in which exit polling is available except Vermont (where Clinton got “only” 50 percent of the votes based on this criterion).  The strongly held belief among Democratic primary voters – at least, those Democratic primary voters who care most about the electability criterion – seems to be that Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win a head-to-head general election matchup.

This belief, however, is completely at odds with the evidence.  Polling data and voting results clearly imply that Sanders would match up better against any of the Republican candidates than Clinton would.  If voters who cared about electability had been aware of this evidence when voting, Sanders could very well be on his way to wrapping up the Democratic nomination (rather than facing a very narrow, though not impossible, path to victory).

I don’t personally value perceived electability very much: I care more about candidate records and values, electability often ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy and, given that it requires speculation about numerous unknown factors, electability cannot be gauged with certainty.  But I’ve written about it during this election cycle both because there are people who do care and because a fact-free media narrative about electability has been sowing misinformation among Democratic primary voters.

Head-to-head polling matchups against potential Republican candidates are the most direct evidence we have on the question of electability.  As the graph below illustrates, those polls clearly favor Sanders, and they’ve done so since before voters in the first primary state (Iowa) headed to their caucus locations.

Head-to-Head Polls

Pundits continue to insist, as they have for months, that these poll results are “meaningless” (or, at best, that they “overstate [Sanders’] general-election prospects”).  They argue that Sanders “hasn’t been attacked” yet by Republicans and that, if attacks began to air, “his advantage over [Clinton] would disappear.”  Yet Sanders has been attacked by the GOP; Donald Trump has been calling Sanders a “maniac” and “communist” for the last six months, Right-wing media outlets have been telling people that, under Sanders, “your paycheck will feel the Bern,” and Future 45, a Republican Super PAC, launched an ad campaign back in February intended “to start educating Americans about [Sanders’] out-of-touch record.”  In fact, the “glaring [general election] vulnerabilities” one columnist described Sanders as having back in February – being old, being labeled a “socialist,” and wanting to raise taxes – are all things that Hillary Clinton and/or her surrogates have already attacked him for during the primary season.

GOP operatives would surely intensify their attacks on Sanders if he became the Democratic nominee.  But the fact of the matter is that head-to-head polling in April is often predictive of general election outcomes and that, in spite of numerous attacks leveled against him over the past few months, Sanders’ popularity has continued to rise steadily.  Clinton’s popularity, as the chart below shows, has been consistently headed in the opposite direction.

Favorability

In addition, young voters, who “arguably won both the 2008 and 2012 elections for Barack Obama,” prefer Sanders to Clinton by very large margins.  So do Independents.  If the Democrats want to secure these critical voting blocs in November, the next two graphs strongly suggest that they’d be best off with Bernie Sanders as their nominee.

Youth

Independents

In short, the electability evidence overwhelmingly favors Sanders, and most voters who have seen it, as I’ve been unsurprised to discover while phone banking and canvassing on Sanders’ behalf, find it convincing.  The problem is that most people haven’t seen it and/or have been told, erroneously, that it doesn’t matter; that’s the most likely explanation for the exit poll results we’ve seen thus far.

Just for fun, I decided to see what the election would look like in an alternate universe, one in which this evidence was widely available to all voters.  Those who prioritized electability would at the very least split evenly between the two candidates, but would more likely vote for Sanders in margins as large as those by which, in the actual results, they’ve broken for Clinton.

Holding every other voter’s preferences constant, these scenarios would have drastically shifted election outcomes.  If voters prioritizing electability had been equally as likely to break for Sanders, Sanders would have won Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Nevada.  Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have fallen from 287 to 129, a total that would have been viewed as surmountable.  And if Sanders dominated among these voters, he would have won New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well.  As the graph below shows, increased awareness of electability evidence could very well have put Sanders ahead of Clinton by 83 pledged delegates.

Electability What-If

In other words, if the facts on electability had been publicized and everything else had remained constant, Sanders might today be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

That’s obviously a huge “if” and it doesn’t in any way change reality: Clinton is winning big and time is running out.  But electability hypotheticals provide some insight into how the 2016 Democratic primary process, like far too many of our public debates, has been driven more by misleading media narratives than by the facts.

I know, I know – as Sanders likes to remind us, “telling the truth” is considered a “radical idea” in American politics.  But as his candidacy has also underscored, that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Update (6/5/16): Adam Johnson has thoroughly debunked “The Myth That Sanders Hasn’t Been Criticized.”

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The New York Primary was a Sh*tshow. Here’s Why.

Russ Nickel is a screenwriter (with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University and an M.F.A in Screenwriting from Chapman University) who used to believe his vote mattered.

Russ Nickel.png

Russ Nickel

Like many Bernie Sanders supporters, I’m new to politics – most of my knowledge came from comedians, who seem to be the only ones unaffected enough by corporate media to be able to tell the truth (Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, I’m looking at you). They drilled into me some of the worst aspects of our system, and Super PACs were at the top of the list. But I resigned myself to the fact of their existence. Citizens United happened, every candidate was corrupt, and I might as well just sit back and focus on pursuing my career, not worrying about the country as a whole.

Then there was Bernie, a man who was untouched by the corruption of the system, who was addressing every issue these comedians had shown me was so important (the insane wealth gap, privatized prisons, climate change, women’s rights, LGBT rights, education, pretty much everything in The Big Short).

Like many Bernie supporters, I had faith. I believed everyone got a vote. I believed the will of the people mattered. But that faith has been destroyed. Not my faith in Bernie, of course—I’ll be hosting phone banking events and canvassing as much as I can—but my faith in democracy is well and truly gone. Here’s just some of what went wrong in New York’s Primary:

126,000 Voters Dropped from Voting Rolls

Shortly before the election, 126,000 Democrats were dropped from the rolls. This is a huge number, and it’s so significant that Mayor de Blasio (who is himself a Hillary Clinton supporter) demanded an explanation. Voters were removed for a number of reasons, often because they were “inactive.” Why should you be removed if you haven’t voted recently? And more importantly, why did this purge occur shortly before the election? Many of these purged voters showed up to their polling places and were unable to cast a vote. This is neither a Bernie nor Hillary issue. It’s just a democracy issue.

Voter Registrations Changed on a Massive Scale

Countless stories are rolling in of voters’ registrations being changed from a party they’ve voted for their whole lives to something else. This is particularly problematic in a closed election, where only Democrats can vote for the Democratic candidate. When voters showed up and were registered under the wrong party, they were given two options: either get a court order or fill out an affidavit.

It’s ridiculous that there is so much burden placed on voters. Voters should not be expected to travel to a court, speak to a judge, and receive a court order to vote. And even if they do miraculously have the time to do that, it’s not enough; they also need some sort of proof that they used to be registered as a Democrat. The onus should not be on the voters to keep evidence to prove their political affiliation.

Who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of voters were turned away on Tuesday? Stories of this are everywhere (like this, or this, or this—the list goes on). In that first case, the poll worker actually discouraged the person from voting.

Registrations Changed Due to Forgeries

Who knows how many of the switched registrations were malicious? There are already accounts coming in of people’s signatures being forged so that when they showed up, well, they had to fill out an affidavit.

In fact, it got so bad that…

New York City’s Comptroller is Auditing the Board of Elections

Technically this is something going right, but it’s just further proof of things going so wrong. You can read his letter here. He brings up a number of critical points, like…

Polls Opened Hours Late

Multiple polling locations didn’t open until hours after their listed opening time. This meant that voters arrived, stood in line, and eventually had to leave for work, unable to cast a vote. These locations often suggested voters go to another location and fill out a provisional ballot.

Provisional Ballots and Affidavits Were Often Unavailable and Likely Won’t Be Counted

Many voters wanted to fill out provisional ballots and affidavits in situations when, for whatever reason, they weren’t allowed to vote. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of polling locations not having these ballots (like this and this). One report even states that the location refused to hand out provisional ballots, and when the Attorney General was contacted and instructed poll workers to do so, the local Board of Elections replied by saying “the Attorney General doesn’t run this office.”

Who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of people didn’t even fill out these ballots? And there may be literally hundreds of thousands of people who did. Not only might these ballots not be counted, but if they are, it will happen weeks after Hillary has gained momentum from her win. This fiasco illuminates exactly how messed up the system is. People want to vote. They want to be part of our democracy. But they’re being told that they can’t, and when they can, they’re being told their vote doesn’t matter.

An Emergency Lawsuit was Filed

The registration problem got so bad that a lawsuit was filed and there was an emergency hearing. Unfortunately, rather than make any sort of real decision, the judge said that, because this was a county-by-county issue, the lawyers would need to produce defendants in every single county (that’s over 60 defendants). They were given about 20 minutes to do this. Obviously, that time limit is absurdly unrealistic, so the hearing had to be postponed. This meant that literally millions of voters were unsure whether the election would be open and their votes would count. The judge said it was okay because voters already had a remedy; they simply had to go to a judge and get a court order allowing them to vote.

No Working Machines

Even when polling places opened on time, there were reports of locations without a single working machine. So what’s the solution? Oh yeah, an affidavit. Of course. Or wait until a new machine is brought in, not knowing how long that wait will be. Again, people had to leave because of work.

Voters Listed in Wrong Location

As I write this list, my anger and depression are hitting me all over again. There are so many stories of voters going to polling locations only to not be listed. Here, take an affidavit, they were told, but many would-be voters were more stalwart and refused. Sometimes they turned out to magically be listed after all, and other times they were listed in different districts, despite having no change of address or anything—they were simply mis-listed. Or sometimes, literally everyone at the location wasn’t listed and was forced to fill out our good friend the affidavit.

New York has “2nd Lowest Voter Turnout So Far”

It’s absurd that New York is only ahead of Louisiana in terms of voter turnout. Only 19.7% of eligible New York Democratic voters cast a ballot. You know why the title of this section is in quotes? It’s because New York’s turnout was actually higher than usual and above what the official numbers indicate (here’s an article literally titled “Voter turnout unusually high in New York”). It’s because tens or hundreds of thousands of people were forced to fill out affidavits or were simply turned away. So yes, they turned out, but then they didn’t get to vote.

In Some Districts, Hillary’s Margins were Less than the Number of Affidavits

Hillary won some districts (again, no telling how many at this point) by small enough margins that the number of affidavits (which seem to have largely affected Bernie supporters) could overturn her victories.

One Polling Location on Lockdown

The silliest one yet. One polling location happened to go on lockdown. Meaning more people couldn’t vote. And all of this still doesn’t bring up the #1 problem with New York’s primary:

THREE MILLION INDEPENDENTS WEREN’T ABLE TO VOTE

Sure, maybe it’s fine to have a closed primary. I don’t know. But having the registration change deadline be October of the previous year, literally 6 months earlier, is absolutely insane. Few people even knew about Bernie’s campaign at this point. This law makes it virtually impossible for a come-from-behind candidate to win this state. It’s absurd. Bernie does incredibly well among Independents. These are people who are going to vote in the general election. They wanted to vote for Bernie in the primary, but they couldn’t.

To Conclude, Voter Suppression has Ruined this Election

Voter suppression has happened throughout the country. There is a lawsuit currently underway in response to Arizona’s disgraceful procedures, which many claim constitute blatant voter suppression. In Chicago, an official audit by the Board of Elections just showed that, while Bernie lost with 47.5% of the vote in one precinct, after an audit, he won with 56.7% of the vote. That’s absolutely insane. That amounts to a swing of 18.4% in the final results!!! The media continues to tell us that Hillary is an unstoppable force and Bernie an unelectable candidate, but the only 2 states Hillary has won in the last 10 primary contests are under investigation for election fraud and voter suppression. Think about that.

We live in America, a country ostensibly founded on the principles of democracy. This election has shown that the people do not have a voice. We cannot win. This is what we’re fighting against.

What would the New York Primary results look like if the hundreds of thousands of voters who wanted to exercise their democratic right to vote were simply allowed to? If the millions of Independents actually had a chance to make their voices heard?

What would it look like?

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California (and Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota), Here We Come

After Bernie Sanders outperformed expectations in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina but still fell short of victory in every state that voted on March 15, analysts noted that Sanders would need to secure an average of 58 percent of the remaining vote to win the Democratic nomination.  In the time since, Sanders has run a bit below that mark; while he secured very big wins among overseas Democrats and in Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, and Washington, a tough loss in New York held him to just over 55 percent of the last few weeks’ pledged delegates.  But while New York was undeniably a setback, Sanders has still had a strong start to the second half of the primary season and maintains a definite (albeit low-probability) shot to win.

The election will likely hinge on June 7, when voters in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota will all head to the polls.  Combined, these states hold just under 50 percent of remaining pledged delegates.

California, home to 34 percent of remaining pledged delegates all by itself, is particularly enticing for Sanders.  The state has a semi-open primary, meaning that “No Party Preference” voters (but not Republicans or members of the American Independent Party) can participate in the Democratic nominating process, and such voters prefer Sanders to Clinton by wide margins.  California is also on the West Coast, where Sanders has performed quite well thus far, and it is a leader on issues like environmental sustainability and the minimum wage, areas in which Sanders has a much bolder platform and stronger record than Clinton.

As has been the case throughout the country, Sanders’ standing in California polls has steadily risen as voters have become more familiar with him.  He still trails Clinton by 8.5 percent there, but that’s a major improvement from where he was only a couple months ago, and he’s definitely got a chance to close the gap more and overtake Clinton before voters head to the polls on June 7. Big Sanders wins in California and the other states that vote that day certainly aren’t high-probability events, but lower-probability things have happened during this election cycle.

How big those June 7 wins will need to be will depend on how the next seven weeks shake out.  The graph below shows the June 7 vote share Sanders would have to get under four possible scenarios:

  • Pessimistic Scenario: The current polling averages hold in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Other contests, for which there is too little reliable polling for a recent average, are assumed to follow the aggregate national polling average.
  • Somewhat Optimistic Scenario: Sanders meets FiveThirtyEight’s original projected targets in remaining non-California contests.
  • Very Optimistic Scenario: Sanders earns the average share of overall remaining pledged delegates he needs across all non-June 7 contests.

Sanders Share Needed.png

As the graph makes clear, Sanders has a very uphill climb ahead of him. But he also still has a potential path to victory.  What that path will look like is not entirely within our control, but his supporters’ continued advocacy in Connecticut, Delaware, Guam, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, the Virgin Islands, and West Virginia can make a big difference before California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington, DC (the only place that holds a primary after June 7) head to the polls and potentially help him win this thing.  Every remaining primary matters.

Update (4/20/16): This post originally used the term “Independents” instead of “No Party Preference” voters, but this wording was changed to avoid confusion given the existence of the American Independent Party.

Update (4/26/16): Sanders’ aggregate performance in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island was roughly consistent with the pessimistic scenario outlined above; that scenario has gotten a little more favorable, but the other scenarios are now steeper.

What Sanders Needs

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A Less Wonky Bernie Sanders Would Still Make a Great President

bernie-sanders-visits-daily-news

Bernie Sanders at an interview with the New York Daily News on April 1, 2016 (image via Shaun King).

According to much of the mainstream media, Bernie Sanders’ recent interview with the New York Daily News was an unmitigated disaster. Chris Cillizza wrote that “Sanders struggled.  Often mightily.”  Jonathan Capehart argued that Sanders “seemed surprisingly out of his depth.” David Graham contended that Sanders “couldn’t offer a coherent answer,” Damon Linker said he “bombed big-time,” and the Washington Post Editorial Board complained that he displayed “shocking ignorance on his core issue.”

The problem with this media formulation is twofold.  First, as experts like Dean Baker and Mike Konczal have explained, Sanders grasps the issues discussed in the interview much better than most of his critics do.  With regard to Sanders’ much-maligned comments on breaking up big banks, for example, political economy reporter Zach Carter noted that “[t]he legal landscape Sanders describes is basically correct and not embarrassing to anyone who actually understands it.”

Second, a closer look at the interview reveals a crucial point about the presidency that is often overlooked: a candidate’s values, vision, and record matter a lot more than the specific policy proposals that candidate unveils during campaign season.

That’s true because literally “[t]housands of people work in the West Wing, the East Wing, the Cabinet, and the Executive Office of the President.”  These are the people who actually write the granular policy proposals that come out of the President’s office; it is their job to “carry out the priorities of the…Administration.”

Neither Sanders nor Hillary Clinton, if one of them were to become President, would hash out all the details on the dozens of issues that cross the President’s desk every day.  They’d both have staffs to do that.  What they would do is guide the construction of those details: they’d lay out their goals, outline the broad contours of how to get there, appoint and/or hire staff who share their vision, and exercise final decision-making authority.

Sanders alluded to this point repeatedly during the Daily News interview, explaining what he wanted to do and describing how, when it actually comes time to do it, he’d need to gather more information and consult experts on the specific course of action to take.  He’d rely on the Treasury Secretary and other staff “who know a lot about this” to figure out the best way to break up the banks.  He’d direct his Attorney General to figure out how to aggressively prosecute wrongdoing on Wall Street.  He’d need “paper in front of” him before deciding exactly what Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territory should look like.  These statements make a lot of sense and shouldn’t disturb anyone – unless, of course, you worry about who the Treasury Secretary, Attorney General, and/or staff providing his briefing papers might turn out to be.

And therein lies a crucial difference between Sanders and Clinton: the people with whom they surround themselves.  Clinton’s staff and donor list reads like a who’s who of Establishment Democrats, wealthy interests, and corporate lobbyists.  She draws advice from the same foreign policy firm used by several Republicans and refuses to condemn corruption from close friends like Rahm Emanuel.  One of her prominent surrogates, David Brock, is known for “scurrilous hatchet jobs,” including his attempt to discredit Anita Hill (who was sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) during the 1990s.

Sanders, on the other hand, has a history of hiring social justice advocates to work for him.  He plans to “shut the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government.”  His racial justice platform explicitly states that his policies would be developed with “input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from civil rights organizations.”

None of that is to say that all of Sanders’ staffers would be perfect or that all of Clinton’s staffers would be cause for alarm.  In fact, I’m sure you’d find a number of great people working in a Clinton administration.  But while there’s undeniably value in having some people with financial industry experience in regulatory positions, for example, Clinton’s pool of possible advisers doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence among those of us concerned about the influence of money in politics.

Especially given Sanders’ superior record and bigger goals in areas ranging from Wall Street reform to the environment, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a team he assembled would push hard for change.  They wouldn’t necessarily get their entire wish list, but they, unlike a Clinton administration, could be expected to fight tooth-and-nail for power-balancing policy.

Thus when Clinton jumped on the media narrative and used the Daily News interview to accuse Sanders of not understanding “the law or the practical ways you get something done,” her critique wasn’t just incorrect; it completely missed the point.  What a presidential candidate wants to do, and that candidate’s credibility in advocating for it, is a lot more important than whether that candidate has memorized the minutiae of policy proposals.  Technocratic knowledge can’t fix weak goals.  There are, however, a plethora of policy experts around to help candidates who want to implement a bold, power-balancing policy vision.

So while Sanders does actually have a firm grasp on a lot of policy details, that’s not the main reason I’m voting for him.  I support Bernie Sanders in large part because he would bring a new mode of thinking – and new people – to the White House.

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Clinton is “So Sick” of Inconvenient Truths

At a rally on Thursday night, Greenpeace activist Eva Resnick-Day approached Hillary Clinton to ask a question.  Her exchange with Clinton was caught on video and is shown and transcribed below.

Resnick-Day: “Thank you for tackling climate change.  Will you act on your word to address fossil fuel money in your campaign?”

Clinton: I do not…I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies. I am so sick…

Resnick-Day: Yeah, and registered lobbyists.

Clinton: I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I’m sick of it.

It’s important to separate a fact-based assessment of this exchange from our beliefs about the meaning of the relevant evidence.  Here are the facts:

  • Resnick-Day has nothing to do with the Sanders campaign – she works for Greenpeace.
  • Resnick-Day’s question followed up on outreach Greenpeace had been doing for months: they’ve asked Clinton “to address fossil fuel money in [her] campaign” before and Clinton has dodged the question. In December, an activist from 350 (another environmental advocacy group) asked Clinton about taking money from the fossil fuel industry and Clinton responded “I don’t know that I ever have…I’ll check on that.”
  • Companies do not donate directly to candidate campaigns – that would be illegal. As The Huffington Post reported last July, however, “Nearly all of the lobbyists bundling contributions for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign have at one time or another worked for the fossil fuel industry.”  Greenpeace’s critique is that Clinton’s campaign and Super PACs affiliated with her campaign have “received more than $4.5 million from lobbyists, bundlers, and large donors connected [with] the fossil fuel industry.”

Given these facts, it is perfectly fine for Hillary Clinton to note that, while she has taken money “from people who work for fossil fuel companies,” she has not taken any from the companies themselves.  It was also perfectly correct, however, for Resnick-Day to add “and registered lobbyists.”  And since nothing Clinton was confronted with here was new, false, or generated by the Sanders campaign, Clinton’s claim that the “Sanders campaign [was] lying about [her]” was entirely unfair and divorced from reality.

Those defending Clinton have made a few reasonable points about the interpretation of the facts above.  Some have observed that the Sanders campaign has also received some money – about $54,000 – from individuals associated with the oil & gas industry and that Clinton’s haul from that industry comprises a small fraction of her total campaign contributions (the plurality of which come from individuals associated with Wall Street).  Others have noted that her lobbyist bundlers don’t exclusively hail from the oil and gas industry; they lobby for other corporate clients as well.  Yet it is wrong to assert, as some writers have, that donations to Clinton’s Super PACs shouldn’t count – there is close coordination between those Super PACs and her campaign – and it is undeniable that people associated with oil and gas interests like Clinton a whole lot better than they like Sanders.

Does that mean that Clinton is bought and paid for by energy interests?  Not necessarily.  But it’s important to note that, while a “sizable chunk of Sanders’ plan takes aim at the fossil fuel industry” by, among other things, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies, Clinton’s doesn’t go there. It’s important to note that, while Sanders is a staunch opponent of fracking, Clinton conditionally supports it.  And it’s important to note that, before Clinton’s recent changes of heart about the Keystone XL pipeline, Arctic drilling, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in response to pressure from Sanders and climate activists, she didn’t appear particularly interested in taking bold action on climate change.  It’s just as possible that Sanders’ climate plan being better than Clinton’s has caused the fossil fuel industry to like Clinton better as it is that the fossil fuel industry has caused Clinton’s plans to be worse, but neither possibility is particularly comforting to those of us who care about the environment.

It makes sense that Clinton doesn’t want Sanders discussing these facts: they don’t look particularly good for her.  But neither climate activists nor the Sanders campaign is lying about anything here.  Claims to the contrary from the Clinton team and her prominent supporters only serve to show that it’s easier for them to pretend than to defend Clinton’s record.

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