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Confusion over takedowns might impact Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje

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Jon Jones sat in the bowels of Houston’s Toyota Center in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, when he was asked by reporters about his controversial unanimous decision win over Dominick Reyes about 90 minutes earlier in the main event of UFC 247.

The light heavyweight title fight was a close one, a bout many fans scored for Reyes. But Jones said he was confident the judges would give him the nod.

“I got takedowns,” Jones said. “He got no takedowns. I got his back. At one point, I put a hook in.”

Minutes later, Reyes was sitting in the same place making his case for a victory — and scoffing at Jones’ notion of why he won.

“Those takedowns — how can you even score those as takedowns?” Reyes said.

The issue of takedowns and how much they are worth in the eyes of mixed martial arts judges is a divisive, complicated topic. Fighters, coaches and fans don’t always see eye to eye with how judges score them. And the result can be controversial, unsatisfying decisions at the premier level of MMA — UFC title fights where millions of dollars and career legacies are hanging in the balance.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has had multiple takedowns in every fight since 2013, will defend his lightweight title Saturday against Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Gaethje, known for his striking, will be trying to keep things on the feet, where he wants to damage Nurmagomedov with punches and kicks. The undefeated Nurmagomedov wants to drag Gaethje down to the ground to, as he puts it, “drown” Gaethje.

If it goes to a five-round decision, it’ll leave the judges with the task of determining whose style was more effective — were Gaethje’s strikes worth more than Nurmagomedov’s takedowns? — leading to potentially contentious consequences.

“There’s a definition of what is supposed to be scored, but you can’t take the human out if it,” Gaethje said during a recent virtual media day. “It’s in the eye of the beholder, per se.”


At UFC 247, Jones scored two takedowns in the fight, one in the fourth round and one in the fifth. He didn’t keep Reyes down very long either time and didn’t do damage or advance to a dominant position. While Jones won those rounds, it wasn’t because of the takedowns, according to John McCarthy, a retired MMA official who now helps teach other officials. There is a great disconnect, McCarthy said, between how judges score and how outsiders think they score.

“In Jon’s mind, he’s probably like, ‘Well, judges give a lot of credit to these takedowns.’ And it doesn’t matter that Reyes just got right back up out of the takedown or [Jones] didn’t really do anything with the position,” said McCarthy, who began officiating at UFC 2 in 1994 and has been training judges for more than a decade. “It’s like, ‘I got the takedown, they’re gonna give me big credit.’

“And it just perpetuates itself. It’s that flow that never stops until someone finally puts a dam on it and says, ‘No, no, no.'”

The Unified Rules of MMA scoring criteria were rewritten in 2016 by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC). This was the first update to MMA’s scoring criteria since the Unified Rules were first written — with the help of McCarthy, among others — in 2001. The idea four years ago was to firm up the scoring language, make it clearer and establish that it was a tiered system.

MMA judges score rounds based on effective striking/grappling, effective aggression and fighting-area control. However, those three things are not scored equally, which regulators say is the biggest misconception among fighters, coaches, fans and broadcasters.

Rounds are scored based primarily on effective striking/grappling. Only if that criterion is 100 percent equal between the two fighters does the judge then move on to effective aggression. If effective aggression is equal, only then does a judge look at fighting-area control. ABC rules and regulations committee chairman Sean Wheelock estimates that 90% of rounds are scored on just effective striking/grappling, about 9% on effective aggression and just 1% on fighting-area control.

A common theme among judges and regulators is that the word “control” is incredibly overused by people in MMA, because it so rarely gets taken into account, per the scoring criteria.

“It’s the last criterion that we use,” judge Sal D’Amato said. “So it really doesn’t come up often that, ‘Oh, he had cage control or Octagon control.'”

Per the scoring criteria, effective striking/grappling is defined as “legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match,” with the immediate being weighed more heavily than the cumulative.

“You can punch somebody, hit him 10 times and it has no real effect in the fight,” McCarthy said. “You can punch him one time and it has a huge effect. So, the one effective strike is probably going to have more value to the judge than the 10 that showed no true effect.”

Which means one big Gaethje punch could mean more to judges than multiple Nurmagomedov takedowns, unless Nurmagomedov is able to capitalize on those takedowns.

Judges are looking for effect and impact, which can be simplified into which fighter is doing more damage. D’Amato said in the striking portion of a round, he looks for blows that stop an opponent’s forward motion, make an opponent wince or force him or her to back up. Effect is the key word. Did that strike affect what the opponent was doing? With a striker like Gaethje, the answer is often clear.

With takedowns, a slam, or something else with elevation and velocity, is weighed more heavily than a run-of-the-mill trip or single-leg takedown. When he trains judges, McCarthy likes to hammer home the idea of what is and what is not an attempt to finish the fight. A slam can end it; a regular takedown usually cannot.

Effective striking/grappling is defined as “successful execution of takedowns, submission attempts, reversals and the achievement of advantageous positions that produce immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute to the end of the match.”

While a takedown scores, how much is it really worth? Not as much as a damaging blow on the feet, unless something offensive is then done on the ground, like ground-and-pound strikes, submission attempts and advancing into dominant positions. That is something that could come into play in Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje, McCarthy said.

“Khabib, at times, just gets the takedown,” McCarthy said. “His first takedown against Conor [McGregor at UFC 229 in October 2018], when you watch that fight and see what he did and all the work he put into it, eventually, he gets Conor to his back. … Now what are you going to do with the position once you’ve attained it?”

Nurmagomedov executed his first takedown 15 seconds into the first round and was able to move McGregor up against the cage, where he stayed on top of McGregor for the final four minutes. Nurmagomedov didn’t inflict much damage, but he won the round 10-9 on all three scorecards. He ultimately finished McGregor via fourth-round submission.


D’Amato said when he sees a takedown, he scores it. But then he looks for other things. Does the opponent pop right back up or just lie there? Does the fighter who landed the takedown get into side control or mount or land ground-and-pound? The answers to those questions will determine just how effective that takedown was and how much it is weighed toward the final round score, D’Amato said.

One of the biggest fallacies in scoring — an MMA urban legend, judges say — is the idea that a fighter can steal a round at the end with a takedown. Perhaps in a completely even round that could be the case, but those are rare occasions.

“Yeah, you score [the takedown],” Lee said. “But you’re not going to ignore everything else that happened in the round. And if you have someone that has gotten kicked and punched all over the place, you’re not going to forget that because there was a takedown.”

If the effective striking/grappling is completely equal, then judges will look at effective aggression, which means, per the criteria, “aggressively making attempts to finish the fight.” The rarely used fighting-area control is defined as assessing “who is dictating the pace, place and position of the match.”

When the scoring criteria changed officially in 2017, many judges began using them. But the new language was never really formally or clearly communicated to fighters, coaches and broadcasters. While the ABC is the overseeing body for the Unified Rules of MMA and is an association for athletic commissions, individual commissions all have different ways of doing things set forth by their state or tribal governments. Conveying rules and rule changes to fighters and coaches has always been a disjointed process.

“There’s a definition of what is supposed to be scored, but you can’t take the human out if it. It’s in the eye of the beholder, per se.”

Justin Gaethje, on takedowns

Prior to every MMA fight, the referee will meet with each fighter to go over the rules in the bout. But no one in any official capacity ever explains the scoring criteria to fighters or coaches, making the simple idea of how to win in MMA a fuzzy concept to many — including fighters, broadcasters and fans.

“Judges never come,” Nurmagomedov said. “Referees come. Referee always come. I never see judges. In my life, I never see judges in UFC. I don’t even know how they look.”

Wheelock said the “biggest problem” with scoring in MMA right now isn’t the judges, it’s the lack of understanding of what the criteria are.

In order to get everyone on the same page with the updated scoring criteria, Wheelock proposed the UFC hold a judging and refereeing seminar for fighters and coaches to attend.

“Whether you fly us to them or them to us, or fly all of us to a neutral location like Las Vegas — get that information out there,” Wheelock said. “This sport is from the top down in terms of knowledge. If the UFC guys know that, then everybody in the gym mysteriously knows that. It’s kind of amazing that we’re 27 years into the UFC and they’ve never done that. That would be a massive first step.”

That kind of educational process could help fighters like Jones, who might be the greatest mixed martial artist in history, understand if in fact it was his takedown that allowed him to retain his title with a razor-thin decision. If someone with the experience of Jones is wrong in his assumption of how the judges scored it, as McCarthy states, how can any fighter’s camp be certain about strategizing takedowns?


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0:55

Dana White explains to Brett Okamoto why Justin Gaethje presents a lot of problems for Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Angela Hill was at the postfight news conference following her UFC Fight Night main event loss Sept. 12 to Michelle Waterson. It was Hill’s second consecutive split decision defeat and the second straight time she felt strongly that she really had won.

When asked by a reporter about the decision, Hill said she believes she needs to start going for more takedowns. The takedowns and takedown attempts, Hill said, were what earned Waterson the win in the eyes of the judges.

“I don’t think damage matters when there’s a takedown in the round,” Hill told ESPN. “If you look at the damage done, all the damage was done by me on the feet until I got taken down. It’s a weird one.”

According to UFC Stats data, Waterson landed only one takedown in the fight, in the third round that all three judges had Waterson winning. D’Amato and judge Derek Cleary had the bout for Waterson, while Lee scored it for Hill. It really came down to the fifth round, when Hill seemed to do more damage, but Waterson had more “control.”

McCarthy, watching at home, scored the bout for Hill. He thinks she might be extrapolating the wrong information about how judges score takedowns from the loss to Waterson.

“Perception is reality,” McCarthy said. “So when someone perceives it to be real, it’s real to them. They’re not saying something … that they believe is wrong. Even though it’s wrong.”

Therein lies another big issue with judging in MMA. Many fighters and coaches are aware of what is written in the criteria. But, like Jones and Hill, they have firsthand experience with conflicting decisions and what leads to them. And many in MMA believe what is written and what regulators say doesn’t always happen in practice.

New England Cartel coach Tyson Chartier tells his fighters, such as UFC featherweight contender Calvin Kattar, that what wins rounds and fights is “control” — that word that regulators and judges hate. Chartier is aware of what the criteria say, but he also goes by what he sees in person and on tape.

“You’ve gotta control the cage,” Chartier said. “How many 10-10 rounds have you seen? They’re gonna pick someone [as the round winner]. If that guy is just running around like a dachshund and he’s not throwing punches, as long as you’re in the middle, you’re winning unless he takes the cage back. See how many guys win rounds when they’re going backwards all of the time. Even if they are winning the round, the optics are you’re losing.”

Chartier and Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick both said they tell their fighters to go for takedowns at the end of close rounds. Nicksick said he and UFC featherweight Dan Ige even have a code word Nicksick will yell when he wants Ige to shoot for that last-minute takedown. It’s a psychological principle, Nicksick said. People tend to remember what happens most recently more than what happens in the middle of a five-minute round.

“The round might have been very close the whole way,” Nicksick said. “How do you seal a round or how do you steal a round? Something aesthetically pleasing to the judges.”

How judges score fights is unpopular in MMA. Hill joked that it seems judges determine winners via “flipping a coin” or “I like the cut of his jib.” Chartier and Nicksick say they believe there should be more public accountability, perhaps the judge having to explain why he or she scored the rounds the way they did. Nurmagomedov agrees.

“Even not all fights,” Nurmagomedov said. “Maybe co-main and main event. After every event, maybe if they explained in public why they scored like this or something like this, it’s gonna be interesting for people. Why not?”

UFC play-by-play man Jon Anik said he sat down with McCarthy in early 2016 following a pair of controversial UFC title-fight decisions, but despite that and several other talks with officials, Anik still believes changes need to be made. That could mean adding more judges, open scoring where everyone can see the scores between rounds, or a half-point system rather than judges being forced to score rounds mostly just 10-9 or 10-8.

“I do think that if we all [broadcasters] went to a class, like if you put [UFC color commentator Joe] Rogan and all of us in one of these classes, I’m hopeful that maybe we’d all be able to benefit from it,” Anik said. “But I don’t know. I really feel like the language needs a serious overhaul. And what’s discouraging is that it was just rewritten.”

McCarthy, who has been instrumental in creating and altering the scoring criteria since the origin of the sport, also believes change is needed.

The ongoing discussion about judges and scoring could continue at UFC 254. Nurmagomedov has never lost a fight in his career and rarely been damaged by strikes. Half of his 12 UFC fights have been decided by decisions. Gaethje, meanwhile, has not gone the full distance in six years. It’s the only foolproof way, he said, to avoid heartbreaking results.

“It’s really impossible to figure out the rhyme or reason [why] some of these decisions go a certain way,” Gaethje said. “I really haven’t figured it out. … For me, the surest way past that is to knock them out or get knocked out.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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