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Is Tonight’s Presidential Debate Too Late To Shake Up The Race?

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Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): This is it — the last presidential debate — and, as we’ve said in our presidential forecast for a while now, President Trump is running out of time. Joe Biden has a double-digit lead in national polls and has gotten a number of good state polls in the past few days.

We still expect the race to tighten here in the home stretch, and a debate is a great way for that to happen. But it’s also true that the last two weeks before an election don’t necessarily change the race all that much.

The final two weeks usually don’t change much

How much the national polling margin changed between 15 days before the presidential election and Election Day, since 1972

Leader in FiveThirtyEight national polling average
Year 15 days before ELECTION Election Day Change
2016 Clinton +6.9 Clinton +3.8 3.1
2012 Romney +1.2 Obama +0.4 1.6
2008 Obama +6.8 Obama +7.1 0.3
2004 Bush +2.4 Bush +1.6 0.8
2000 Bush +2.7 Bush +3.5 0.8
1996 Clinton +14.9 Clinton +12.8 2.1
1992 Clinton +14.1 Clinton +7.1 7.0
1988 Bush +11.8 Bush +10.4 1.4
1984 Reagan +16.7 Reagan +18.0 1.3
1980 Reagan +2.3 Reagan +2.1 0.2
1976 Carter +2.0 Carter +0.8 1.2
1972 Nixon +25.5 Nixon +24.1 1.4

The averages listed are calculated retroactively based on FiveThirtyEight’s current polling average methodology.

So, let’s start there. How big are the stakes going into tonight?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): The stakes are kind of big but also kind of not?

On the one hand, it’s the last obvious opportunity for Trump to win voters over and for Biden to screw up. On the other hand, I think the writing is on the wall for Trump.

Granted, our presidential forecast still gives him a 13-in-100 chance of staging a comeback. But Trump just hasn’t shown any inclination to change his base-first strategy. He’s also been behind Biden for a while now in our forecast:

I guess I’m just not counting on seeing a different Trump tonight from the one who bombed in the first debate.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): It’s rare for debates to have large, lasting impacts on the polls at the best of times, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this debate upends things in a dramatic way.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Given how rare live events are in the COVID-19 era, though, it’s not impossible that something could come out that reflects poorly on Biden. So, in that sense, it is a big deal.

At the same time, a national poll from The Economist/YouGov found this week that Biden led 52 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, and that only 4 percent of those voters said they might change their minds. So, unless Trump can win over the incredibly small number of voters who genuinely are unsure — there are a lot fewer undecided voters this year — it’s going to be tough to win the election. And I’m not sure much can happen that’s going to shift public opinion sharply.

kaleigh: Like Nathaniel, I’m curious to see whether Trump changes his strategy at all. Obviously, the muted mics will limit how much he can talk over Biden, but arguably, that tactic didn’t work so well. At least one poll found the majority of respondents disapproved of Trump’s behavior in the last debate, and even some Republicans said it made them support him less afterward.

nrakich: I’m not so sure the muted mics will make a big difference, Kaleigh. Maybe we won’t be able to hear Trump’s interruptions, but Biden will. And that could trip Biden up or stop him mid-answer.

sarah: Saying Trump bombed is a bit harsh, though, Nathaniel. After all, Clinton “won” the 2016 debates, and we saw how that turned out.

It’s easy to get obsessed with comparisons to 2016, and as we’ve written, you shouldn’t make too much of one election — after all, it’s a sample size of one. That said, there are some pretty big differences from 2016, yes?

kaleigh: Well, there’s the pandemic. That’s a pretty stark contrast. It has changed how we vote, how candidates campaign, how the economy is doing and so much more.

I wonder how different this election would be compared with 2016’s if COVID-19 hadn’t happened.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, as that Economist/YouGov survey and others have shown, this election has far fewer undecided or third-party voters, which makes it harder for the debates to move mountains.

In FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, Biden and Trump’s combined support adds up to about 94 percent. But at the same point in 2016, Trump and Clinton totaled just about 86 percent — a lot more voters were in play even in the late stages of the campaign. The same is true in state-level polls as well. For example, around 95 percent of voters in Wisconsin are backing Biden or Trump in our polling average, whereas 86 percent of voters there said they supported Trump or Clinton at this point in 2016.

nrakich: Not to mention, Biden’s lead is simply bigger than Clinton’s was at this stage of the 2016 campaign.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Biden led by 9.9 points in our national polling average; 13 days before Election Day in 2016, Clinton would have led by an average of 6.4 points, using the same methodology.

Something else that I think makes tonight’s debate less important: At least a quarter of voters have probably already cast their ballots. According to statistics collected by political scientist Michael McDonald, more than 41 million early or absentee votes have already been cast, or 30 percent of 2016 turnout (although 2020 turnout could be much higher if voter enthusiasm is any indication). So, even if something big happens tonight, a lot of people will have already voted.

geoffrey.skelley: That’s true, Nathaniel, but it could be that those early voters would have voted already anyway, as studies have shown that voters who vote early are more likely to be very partisan. Or, put another way, maybe those people weren’t going to change their minds anyway.

sarah: Those are all really good points — especially Kaleigh’s, about what this election would have looked like if COVID-19 hadn’t happened. What could we be missing, though? (And one big reason why comparisons to 2016 have their limitations!)

nrakich: Well, it’s always possible there will be a polling error.

So, if the debate budges the polls just enough — say, to where Biden has a 4-point national lead instead of a 10-point one — that makes it significantly more likely that Trump could win.

If Biden stays at +10 nationally, though, it would take a truly bonkers polling error to save Trump.

kaleigh: There are also more conventional differences. For example, this election has an incumbent candidate.

geoffrey.skelley: Speaking of polling error — and whether we could have a “Dewey Defeats Truman” on our hands — pollsters have tried to account for some of the things that led to problems with state polls in 2016. For example, some are weighting their samples by education, or even education and race, to avoid underrepresenting white voters without a college degree, voters who went so strongly for Trump in 2016.

So, some state polls could be better this time — although, of course, it’s impossible to predict the direction of a polling error before an election.

Polling bias is not very consistent from cycle to cycle

Weighted-average statistical bias of polls in final 21 days of the election, among polls in FiveThirtyEight’s Pollster Ratings database

Cycle Governor U.S. Senate U.S. House Pres. General Combined
1998 R+5.7 R+4.8 R+1.5 R+4.2
1999-2000 D+0.6 R+2.9 D+0.9 R+2.6 R+1.8
2001-2002 D+3.0 D+1.4 D+1.3 D+2.2
2003-2004 R+4.2 D+1.7 D+2.5 D+1.1 D+0.9
2005-2006 D+0.3 R+1.3 D+0.2 R+0.1
2007-2008 D+0.5 D+0.8 D+1.0 D+1.1 D+1.0
2009-2010 R+0.7 D+1.7 D+0.6
2011-2012 R+1.3 R+3.3 R+2.6 R+2.5 R+2.6
2013-2014 D+2.3 D+2.5 D+3.7 D+2.7
2015-2016 D+3.3 D+2.8 D+3.7 D+3.1 D+3.0
2017-2019 R+0.9 D+0.1 R+0.3 R+0.3
All years D+0.3 D+0.1 D+0.7 D+0.2 D+0.3

Bias is calculated only for elections where the top two finishers were a Republican and Democrat. Therefore, it is not calculated for presidential primaries. Averages are weighted by the square root of the number of polls that a particular pollster conducted for that particular type of election in that particular cycle. Polls that are banned by FiveThirtyEight because we know or suspect they faked data are excluded from the analysis.

sarah: OK, back to the debate. The rules have changed, as Kaleigh and Nathaniel were mentioning earlier, and now the moderator can mute the candidates if they speak out of turn. Here’s a snapshot of the six issues they are expected to stick to:

  1. Fighting COVID-19
  2. American families
  3. Race in America
  4. Climate change
  5. National security
  6. Leadership

What do we think might be covered by these issues? What plays to Biden’s strengths? And Trump’s?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “fighting COVID-19” is not going to go well for Trump because Americans generally think he’s done a poor job handling the pandemic. That leaves Biden with a lot of material to work with.

nrakich: Yeah — according to our poll with Ipsos before the last debate, respondents said 78 percent to 20 percent that Biden was better on the issue of COVID-19. And that was before Trump announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.

More people trust Biden to handle COVID-19

Share of people who named each issue as the most important one facing the U.S., and whether they think Trump or Biden would handle that issue better, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Who’s better on the issue…
issue share TRUMP biden
COVID-19 31.9% 20.1% 78.0%
The economy 22.0 79.1 19.2
Health care 9.6 27.9 71.8
Racial inequality 7.4 6.0 90.9
Climate change 4.9 4.7 95.3
The Supreme Court 4.5 61.1 38.4
Violent crime 4.2 80.6 18.1
Economic inequality 2.9 14.3 85.7
Immigration 2.8 61.3 38.7
Abortion 2.8 93.5 6.5
Other 1.7 55.3 41.8
Education 1.5 44.7 44.1
Gun policy 1.4 69.6 30.4

Respondents who didn’t name a top issue are not shown.

Data comes from polling done by Ipsos for FiveThirtyEight, using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, a probability-based online panel that is recruited to be representative of the U.S. population. The poll was conducted Sept. 30 – Oct. 6 among a general population sample of adults, with 2,994 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 2.0 percentage points.

kaleigh: Trump has already been trying to positively spin his bout with the coronavirus — he’s been through it! He survived! But it will be pretty easy for Biden to point out that Trump didn’t take the virus seriously since he actually caught it. Not to mention, many Americans don’t think Trump took enough COVID-19 precautions, and there are signs that this hurt him electorally.

nrakich: I’m curious what the “American families” segment will touch on … does anyone have any inkling what that means?

geoffrey.skelley: 🤷‍♂️ Perhaps it’s a roundabout way of saying the economy. Kitchen table issues. Of course, the economy touches almost every topic to some extent.

kaleigh: That’s my bet, Geoffrey, but it’s just vague enough to be uncertain.

sarah: My money is on the suburbs.

Or, at the very least, I can imagine suburban families being mentioned by both Biden and Trump. Trump won suburban voters in 2016, but he’s in real trouble here in 2020, as many white suburban women are continuing to move away from the Republican Party, as we saw in 2018.

But, yeah, given the economy ranked as voters’ first or second issue, according to our polling with Ipsos, I think that’s right, too, Geoffrey and Kaleigh.

The economy is one issue where Trump has always had an advantage.

nrakich: “Climate change” and “race in America” also seem like good issues for Biden. According to that Ipsos poll, more than 90 percent of Americans trust Biden more than Trump on both of those issues!

On the other hand, they also said they trust Trump more than Biden, about 81 percent to 18 percent, on “violent crime.” So Trump might try to reframe the segment on race in America into one about rioting and looting.

As for national security, I think it’s fair to say that segment will move the fewest votes. American elections generally aren’t decided on foreign-policy grounds.

kaleigh: Honestly, is there anything in that lineup that isn’t well-trodden territory at this point?

sarah: Yeah, it is hard to imagine that any of the issues discussed tonight will cover new ground in a way that sways voters. They do feel like well-trodden talking points at this stage, and the reality remains that Trump really does need the polls to tighten. Otherwise, his odds in our forecast will continue to fall. But, of course, even a 5 percent chance of something happening is something you should take seriously.

OK, the stakes are high. Trump needs some movement in the polls, and Biden isn’t a safe bet. What will you be watching for tonight, and in the last week of the election — knowing, of course, we’re all kind of flying blind?

nrakich: To me, the big question is, can Biden maintain his 10-point national lead after this debate? Or will tonight “reset” the race and bring the polling average down to Biden +7 or so, which is where it has been for most of the year?

Even if that were to happen, Biden would still have a good chance of winning, but the size of his margin could determine things like whether Democrats win the Senate or the number of state legislatures Democrats flip.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s true that incumbent presidents have had a habit of struggling in first debates, only to come back stronger in later ones. This was true of Barack Obama in 2012 and Ronald Reagan in 1984. So don’t count out a much better showing from Trump tonight.

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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.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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.”

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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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