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Thoughts and Prayers, Part 251

Why part 251? That's the number of mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. in 2019. The two most recent ones occurred in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, this past weekend. Is this news? Only barely, since something that happens essentially every day (251 times in 217 days) is more "dog bites man" than "man bites dog." As usual, we get calls for "thoughts and prayers," although God must be a bit hard of hearing, having missed all the prayers from the first 249 mass shootings this year alone, not to mention the 323 in 2018, and those in earlier years. Perhaps someone could organize a campaign on to buy Him some good hearing aids.

The political aspect to these events is how the politicians reacted to them, to wit:

  • Donald Trump: "Melania and I send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the great people of Texas."
  • Mike Pence: "Praying for the injured and the families."
  • Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY): "We stand with law enforcement as they continue working to keep Americans safe and bring justice."
  • Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX): "Prayers for the victims and their families."
  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-TX): "I see a video game industry that teaches young people to kill."
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH): "No law can correct some of the more fundamental cultural problems we face."
  • Joe Biden: "It's past time we take action and end our gun violence epidemic."
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): "We need to end this national nightmare."
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend): "How many more must grieve before we act?"
  • Julián Castro: "The answer is to make sure those guns never get in the hands of people like that in the first place."
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA): "We have to agree we can't tolerate this kind of gun violence anymore."
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN): "The question to ask: 'Whose side are you on? The NRA's or the people's?'"
  • Beto O'Rourke: "[Trump] is a racist and he stokes racism in this country."
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): "Sadly, after each of these tragedies the Senate does nothing. That has got to change."
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): "We must act now to end our country's gun violence epidemic."

There is a none-too-subtle pattern here. The Republicans generally offer empty platitudes, or else point the finger at something that is neither guns nor permissive gun laws (mental illness, video games, "cultural problems"). The Democrats want action, typically calling for background checks and banning the sales of military assault weapons to civilians.

The motive of the Dayton shooter is not yet known, and may never be known, as he was killed on the scene. On the other hand, the El Paso shooter (we are deliberately excluding their names) appears to have posted a racist screed to the site 8chan. If the document is indeed his handiwork, it would make him the third person this year to post a hateful "manifesto" to the site, and then go on a shooting rampage (the other two were the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter and the Chabad of Poway, California, shooter).

Naturally, a lot of people are pointing the finger at Donald Trump, both for his lack of action on gun control, but also for his regular use of incendiary language. The (acting) White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, appeared on ABC News' "This Week," and disagreed vehemently with that assessment. "I don't think it's fair to try and lay this at the feet of the president," he said, while also noting that Trump's first phone call after the news of the El Paso shooting broke was to AG Bill Barr "to find out what we could do to prevent this type of thing from happening, what we could do to send a message to the sick people who would do this type of thing."

The last part of that sounds like empty spin to us. This is, as noted above, far from the first mass shooting of the Trump presidency. And every time there's a high-profile incident, members of the administration suggest that action is coming, and yet virtually nothing is done (the exception: banning bump stocks). There is an argument to be made that nothing short of a wholesale re-imagining of the Second Amendment (or, a new amendment canceling the Second Amendment) will prevent these mass shootings. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not, though it's hard to see what the downside to banning AK-47-style assault rifles (like the one used in El Paso) or high-capacity magazines (like the ones used in Dayton) would be. In any event, though, pretending that substantive action is coming when you have no actual plan for that action, or intent to undertake it, is an insult to those who were injured or killed.

As to the first part of Mulvaney's assertion, namely that Trump is not to blame for what happened this weekend, well, the El Paso shooter's (alleged) screed said much about the evils of Mexican immigrants. Anticipating that the President would take the blame, he also wrote this:

My ideology has not changed for several years. My opinions on automation, immigration, and the rest predate Trump and his campaign for president. I putting this here because some people will blame the President or certain presidential candidates for the attack. This is not the case. I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump's rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news.

Deploying one of Trump's catchphrases (i.e., "fake news") is an interesting way to make the point that one is not influenced by Trump. It is also the case that the shooter's Twitter account "liked" this image about a year ago:

'Trump' spelled out with guns'

So, was he influenced by Trump or not? We report, you decide.

Congress is not in session right now, nor is it scheduled to be for several weeks. The current session of the House has already passed several bills on this subject; one would require universal background checks, another would ban the manufacture of assault-style weapons for sale to civilians. What that means is that the Senate is in a position to act quickly, if McConnell calls it back into session. In fact, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has encouraged him to do just that. Don't hold your breath, though, as the Kentucky Senator has steadfastly buried all gun-control-related legislation that came before him (and that's before we consider the fact that he took a serious fall this weekend and fractured his shoulder).

Is there any hope that any meaningful change comes out of this weekend's tragedies, then? Maybe a sliver. The President is feeling so much pressure right now that, late Sunday, he acknowledged that "Perhaps more has to be done." Meanwhile, the precipitous decline of the NRA (which usually steps in and puts a stop to any talk of gun control) has been well documented. The smart money says that there will be another couple of days of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, and then all of this will be in the rearview mirror. But, we shall see. (V & Z)

Another Trump Nominee Goes Down in Flames

Stop us if you have heard this before. Donald Trump needed to fill a high-profile position in his administration, and he picked someone based on their performance on TV, and on his "gut" feel. Then, it turned out that the person had no real qualifications for that appointment, but did have some skeletons in the closet, and they were compelled to withdraw.

The latest to travel the trail already blazed by would-be Secretary of Veterans' Affairs Ronny Jackson, would-be Fed governor Stephen Moore, and would-be U.N. ambassador Heather Nauert, among others, is Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX). After Ratcliffe's aggressive questioning of Robert Mueller, Trump tapped him to fill the vacant post of Director of National Intelligence. Problem one: the Congressman has no experience in this field. Problem two: he has grossly embellished what record he does have, including putting an outright lie on his website, claiming that when he was a U.S. Attorney, his office arrested 300 undocumented immigrants. In fact, it was fewer than 50, and several of those proved to be American citizens. Oops.

And so, on Friday, Ratcliffe's nomination was canceled, giving Trump a(nother) black eye. Rather than blame his own poor-to-nonexistent vetting process, the President blamed the media:

Not long thereafter, though, Trump did a 180 and claimed that he welcomes the media attention directed at his nominees: "I give out a name to the press and you vet for me, we save a lot of money that way." The President also said that the media treatment of Ratcliffe was "unfair," so it's unclear which of his failed nominations he was thanking the media for torpedoing. Presumably, Trump will announce the name of the next DNI nominee sometime this...year? (Z)

New Poll: Debate Changed Nothing

A new Morning Consult poll released late Friday, which was taken after both nights of the second Democratic debate, shows that the debate didn't move the needle at all. The 2,419 Democrats interviewed pretty much now support the same candidates as did the respondents in earlier (pre-debate) polls. Joe Biden is still comfortably on top. Here are the numbers for the folks who don't belong to the (bottom) 1%.

Candidate Pct.
Joe Biden 32%
Bernie Sanders 18%
Elizabeth Warren 15%
Kamala Harris 10%
Pete Buttigieg 6%
Cory Booker 3%
Beto O'Rourke 3%
Andrew Yang 2%

Nobody moved much and the order of the top eight candidates is the same as it was before the debates. The main takeaway here is the media can go "ooh" and "aah" about some clever quip (like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY's, plan to Clorox the Oval Office), but voters don't care and don't change their voting preferences based on a funny remark or even a performance that the pundits regard as near-fatal (see Joe Biden's inability in the first debate to defend his position on forced busing 40 years ago). In this case, the voters like Uncle Joe for what he is and has been all along. He has decades of experience in government, was Barack Obama's sidekick, and looks like a president. In the same vein, many people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 can't stand him and think he is gross and incompetent, but they hated Hillary Clinton even more. Pundits and debate moderators think the campaign should be about the issues, but in reality, issues are only a part of what voters consider. (V)

Another Texas House Republican Hangs Up His Cowboy Hat

The New York Times is reporting that yet another Texas congressman, Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX), is not going to run for reelection. He is the fourth Texas Republican to call it quits in the past month.

His district is R+9, but that is not the entire story because the PVI is based on presidential election results, not House results. In 2014, Marchant was reelected by 33 points. In 2016, he won by 17 points. Last year it was only 3 points. You don't have to be an expert on linear regression to see where this is headed, and the 68-year-old congressman clearly sees that this is going to be his last rodeo.

His problem, and that of quite a few other Texas Republicans, is, to be blunt, Donald Trump. As Trump throws out red meat to his base every day, it not only galvanizes the base, but it also drives suburban women out of the Republican Party. Marchant's district is in suburban Dallas.

In 2018, Democrats focused on California's Orange County, long a Republican stronghold, and picked off four Republican seats in the House, turning the county solid blue. In 2020, their focus is going to be Texas. Several (but not all) of the open seats are going to be targets. In addition, Democrats are going to go after a number of Texas incumbents including John Carter (R+10), Mike McCaul (R+9), and Chip Roy (R+10). Normally districts like these would not be in play, but the current realignment is making them competitive. Carter and McCaul are in suburban Austin districts and Roy has a sprawling district that includes suburbs from both Austin and San Antonio. Also a factor for Roy is that his TX-21 district is 31% Latino.

Another congressman who should be watching his back is Dan Crenshaw (R), a first termer in TX-02. This is one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, stretching almost from Egypt in the north to Pasadena in the southeast and Missouri City in the southwest. Here is the map:


Crenshaw's problem is not the district's shape, it's the demographics. It is majority minority, with only 49% of the population being white. If Crenshaw loses 90+% of the minorities and most of the suburban women, he's in deep doodoo. (V)

Are Immigrants Useful?

At least one politician (who shall not be named here) has called immigrants criminals and rapists. Are they? Statistics show that on the whole, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens. But another relevant question is: "Do immigrants contribute anything of value to their new home countries?" Here is one small data point to add to that discussion.

M.I.T. publishes a magazine called Technology Review, with dozens of articles in each issue about innovations in science and technology. One annual feature is a list of 35 innovators worldwide who are under 35 years old and who have real potential to change the world. They are chosen out of about 600 nominations by a panel of 32 experts in many fields. So what does this have to do with politics? Bear with us and take a look at the 2019 list:

Name Gender Born in Now in Employer Field Immigrant?
Jinxing Li Male China US Stanford U. Tiny medical robots Yes
Rediet Abebe Female Ethiopia US Cornell U. Combining AI & search Yes
Cesar de la Fuente Male Spain US U. of Pennsylvania Antibiotics Yes
Nicole Gaudelli Female US US Beam therapeutics DNA editing to cure disease No
Grace Gu Female US US U. of California Making stronger materials No
Song Han Male China US M.I.T. Better artificial intelligence Yes
Mariana Popescu Female Romania Switz. ETHZ Making textile molds Yes
Wojciech Zaremba Male Poland US OpenAI Robotics Yes
Azalia Mirhoseini Female Iran US Google Brain Computer chip design Yes
Noam Brown Male Israel US Facebook Self-learning software Yes
Camille Francois Female France US Graphika Automatically detecting disinformation Yes
Guosong Hong Male China US Stanford U. Injectable brain sensors Yes
Kimberly Stachenfeld Female US UK Deepmind Neuroscience No
Raluca Ada Popa Female Romania US U. of California Secure computing Yes
Patrick Hsu Male Taiwan US Salk Institute Mitigating Alzheimer's disease Yes
Liang Xu Male China China Ping An Technology Smart cities No
Himbindu Lakkaraju Female India US Harvard U. Applying AI to law Yes
Ida Pavlichenko Female Azerbaijan US Harvard U. Treating ear diseases Yes
John Porter Male US US U. of Washington Helping people with disabilities No
Abhinav Kandala Male India US IBM Quantum computing Yes
Jason Buenrostro Male US US Harvard U. Understanding gene regulation No
Ritu Raman Female India US M.I.T. 3D printing of cellular robots Yes
Olga Dudchenko Female Ukraine US Rice U. High-speed gene sequencing Yes
Marc Lajoie Male US US Lyell Immunipharma Programming cells to fight cancer No
Dawei Di Male China China Zhejian U. Environmentally friendly LEDs No
Silvia Caballero Female Peru US Vedanta Biosciences Training bacteria to fight diseases Yes
Brandon Sorbom Male US US Fusion Systems High-temperature superconductors No
Isaac Sesi Male Ghana Ghana Sesi Technologies Detecting too-moist grains No
Archana Venkataraman Female US US Johns Hopkins U. Modeling epilepsy No
Rianna Lynn Female US US Journey Foods Improving prepackaged foods No
Vivian Chu Female US US Diligent Robotics Hospital robots No
Kathy Hannun Female US US Dandelion Energy Geothermal energy No
Tim Ellis Male US US Relativity Space Enormous 3D printing No
Qichao Hu Male China US SolidEnergy Systems High-tech batteries Yes
Anurag Bajpayee Male India US Gradiant Decontaminating wastewater Yes

What we find is that 20 of the 35 are immigrants, all but two to the United States. The immigrants are shown in purple. Half of them are women. And judging by some of the surnames of the American-born ones (e.g., Chu, Gu, Xu, and Venkataraman) some of the native born innovators are likely to have immigrant parents or grandparents, and not from Norway.

The immigrants are working in fields as disparate as medical robots, better batteries, and fighting water pollution. The large number of immigrants doing innovative work is hardly surprising. Anyone who has been to a computer-science conference recently knows that the vast majority of speakers are immigrants. The same is true in many other technical fields. Will these people contribute anything of value to the U.S. and the world? Time will tell, but all of them got on the list for having developed something that is very promising, and across a wide variety of fields. (V)

Trump Plans to Woo Black Voters

Despite a month of racially divisive language that included taunting four women of color in the House of Representatives and attacks on Government Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Donald Trump's campaign has announced that it is going to try to convince black voters to support him in 2020. The pitch is simple: The economy is in good shape and unemployment among black folks is down from 7.7% when he took office to 6% now.

Good luck with that. A recent poll showed that 80% of black voters consider Trump to be a racist (although that does give him a lot of room to grow from the 8% of the black vote he got in 2016). The best any Republican has done among black voters in recent years is the 11% George W. Bush got in 2004. He did so "well," in part, because as an evangelical himself, he appealed to some black evangelicals. Also, he rarely talked about race and his closest adviser, Condi Rice, is black. Trump has none of these things going for him, so even getting 8% again could be a challenge. Not even replacing Mike Pence with Ben Carson on the ticket would likely help. (V)

Buttigieg's Fundraising Secret: New Bundlers

Federal law allows donors to give a maximum of $2,800 to a candidate in the primary and another $2,800 in the general election, although they can give more to the national committees and independent super PACs. Still, candidates crave direct contributions because (1) they have complete control over how it is spent, and (2) candidates can buy television time cheaper than super PACs, so the money goes further. With such low limits in an era of multimillion-dollar campaigns, some of the most important people a candidate can have on his or her team are bundlers. These are people who know (or can find) like-minded people who will give the maximum $2,800 for each election. A bundler who has 10 friends he or she can call on is effectively worth $30,800 for each round of voting. All candidates have special perks for big bundlers.

Pete Buttigieg has done extremely well at fundraising, taking everyone by surprise with his performance. In Q2 2019, he raised $24.8 million, more than any other Democrat. His secret is the 94 bundlers who have each brought in at least $25,000. What is especially noteworthy is that two-thirds of them are not old Democratic war horses who also raised money for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but people new to the game.

Buttigieg's strategy of heavily depending on bundlers has paid off so far, but is in stark contrast to some of the other candidates, who are betting the farm on small donors who are contributing online. Few, if any, give $2,800. Typically their donations are in the $30 to $50 range, which means a candidate may need 1,000 small donors to match one half-way decent bundler.

Some of Buttgieg's bundlers are gay, but some of the blue team's biggest gay donors, including Tim Gill and David Bohnett, who helped propel the same-sex marriage movement, are on team Biden.

One of the problems with depending on bundlers is that once they have gotten all their friends to give $2,800 for an election, they are used up. For candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who depend entirely on small donors, they can go back to their existing donors time and time again asking for another $30 or $50. That makes the small donors like a renewable resource—you can keep using it over and over. In contrast, a bundler is like a fossil fuel. Once it is used up, it is gone. (V)

Colorado Republicans Are Fighting a Rear-Guard Action against the NPV Compact

Colorado has become the most recent state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If states with 270 electoral votes sign up, then each of those states will award all of its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, irrespective of who won each of the states. Effectively, this is an end run around the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution. Currently it has been joined by 15 states and D.C. Together they have 196 electoral votes, 74 short of the number to cause it to take effect. However, legislation is pending in states with 108 electoral votes, namely Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and New Hampshire. Democrats generally favor it and Republicans oppose it, because it has twice happened since 2000 that a Democrat won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, and that could easily happen again. The reverse (i.e., a Republican winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College) seems very unlikely.

Aware that the NPV Compact could cost the Republicans the presidency in the future, some Republicans in Colorado are trying to leave the Compact. In particular, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), and Rose Pugliese, a Mesa County commissioner, are leading the fight to withdraw. Their argument is that with the Electoral College, Colorado is a swing state and thus will get lots of attention. If the NPV Compact goes into effect, Colorado will be just another low-population Western state. Former governor and current Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper hasn't taken a position on the matter, although he did praise the Founding Fathers for writing a great Constitution. (V)

Gravel Meets the Dirt

Former Alaska senator Mike Gravel (D), who is 89, has decided he's had it with this president thing and has quit the race. His campaign was run by two teenagers who liked to issue snarky tweets. Gravel didn't qualify for the first two debates and was basically going nowhere. So his whole campaign can be summarized by a philosophical question: "If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?" (V)

Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows--and Enemies

While we are on the subject of people who have no business running for public office, let alone the Big One, let's consider the strange case of Marianne Williamson. She is running on a platform of love conquers all. One could make a nice movie about that. In fact, a few thousand have already been made. Meg Ryan made a whole career out of it. Williamson believes if you just think you can do it, you can do it. It's up to you. Sounds good, right?

Well, actually, no. Groups representing people with disabilities oppose her—and strongly. Activist Sarah Blahovec recently said about her: "It's not cute, it's terrifying." The point is that Williamson is skeptical, at best, about vaccines, big pharma, and science generally. Bernie Sanders is also against big pharma, but his gripe is that they charge exorbitant prices for some life-saving medicines, not that the medicines themselves are unnecessary.

Implicitly, Williamson seems to be saying that if people with diabetes, epilepsy, blindness, muscular dystrophy, and other diseases would just have a more positive attitude, their problems will go away. Activists for the disabled see this as extremely harmful bunk. Their attitude is more to forget all this love stuff and spend more money on medical research. So, Williamson can pretty much forget getting the votes of the disabled community.

The article linked to above also makes another point about who's your bedfellow and who's your enemy. The Obama administration passed a regulation restricting people with certain kinds of mental illnesses from buying guns. The Trump administration repealed the regulation. In light of the shootings in Texas and Ohio this past weekend, some Democrats are calling for them to be reinstated.

However, activists for the disabled are against Obama and with Trump on this one because they feel that disabled people have the same rights as everyone else. If the government can forbid people with mental disabilities from exercising their Second Amendment rights, can it also forbid blind people, deaf people, people in wheelchairs, or people suffering from celebral palsy, dwarfism, or HIV from exercising all of their constitutional rights? "Where does it end?" is their (slippery-slope) argument. (V)

Monday Q&A

Sometimes, it's easy to guess what kinds of questions we'll get. Other times, it's something of a surprise. This week, it was definitely the latter, as we would never have predicted the item that produced the largest number of questions.

In your item "Bettors Are Betting on Biden," you joke that the bookies don't seem to know numbers over 100, since the lowest odds they give for any candidate (that they are accepting bets on) is 100 to 1, implying a 1% chance. While somewhat flip, and certainly not a good predictor of the relative chances of the low-probability candidates, I'd say this is more about the betting markets not wanting to lose their shirts if the unlikely were to come to pass. Wouldn't this tend to inflate (and level out) the odds at the low end? N.R., Berlin, MA

You're right, the ultra-high odds are not very precise, for a number of reasons (including one or two that you point out). Among them:

  • Casinos don't want to lose their metaphorical shirts, should something strange happen
  • Odds that high don't leave room for much nuance; there is no 93-to-1 or 106-to-1
  • All it takes is one or two longshot bettors to drive a big number down
  • Once bettors start making longshot bets, they become somewhat price-insensitive, drawing little distinction between, say, 100-to-1 and 125-to-1. Casinos know this, and generally choose the less generous numbers, knowing that they won't cost the book much business.

That said, some books are offering greater than 100-to-1 odds on really absurd choices, like George Clooney, Martin O'Malley, and Chelsea Clinton (all 250-to-1), as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), Susan Sarandon, Kanye West, Jon Stewart, and Katy Perry (all 500-to-1). Anyone who places those bets is providing an object lesson in the old line about a fool and his money.

In your post "Bettors Are Betting on Biden," you mention that Marianne Williamson's odds at winning the nomination should be 10,000/1. While I hope that you're correct, I am a little troubled by the response to her latest debate performance and the parallels that may be emerging.

Initially, Donald Trump wasn't viewed as a serious candidate, and even my Republican friends mocked him. He was a reality show host with an obnoxious ego, string of high-profile bankruptcies, and a graveyard full of skeletons in his closet. Despite all of that, with the help of Russia and the online meme community, eventually there was a turning point when Trump's ironic support became serious support and he became a real candidate. Once that seemed to sink in with voters, many republicans grudgingly fell in line with supporting him, especially when the alternative in their minds was a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Marianne Williamson isn't viewed as a serious candidate and my Democratic friends mock her. She is a self-help author and "guru" who has proposed some wacky ideas about the voice of Jesus, the nature of reality, sickness, and other meta-physical concepts. Despite all of that, It seems like many on social media have recently taken to ironically supporting her. Is there a decent chance that someone like Williamson could eventually take a similar turn to Trump and go from being a joke to actually being taken seriously? In this world where we have a former reality show host as president of the United States, couldn't Williamson be the next candidate to go from meme to president? Especially when the alternative is four more years of a Donald Trump presidency?

With social media trends, unpredictable foreign influence, insecure elections, fickle young voters, and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo doesn't this seem much more plausible than ever before?
M.W., Tewksbury, MA

We agree that Williamson is, in many ways, the yin to Trump's yang. Both are uninterested in governance or policy, both are guided primarily by emotion, and both are disdainful of various "establishments" (the media, science, the political system). The difference is that one appeals to the emotion of fear, and the other appeals to the emotion of love.

With that said, there is no chance that she claims the Democratic nomination. Although it seems like Donald Trump came out of nowhere, that's not entirely true. He announced his run on June 16, 2015. The very first poll conducted entirely after his announcement (an Economist/YouGov poll, conducted June 22-25, 2015) produced these numbers in response to the question "If you had to choose one, which one of these individuals would you want to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016?":

Early polling

You will notice that, right out of the gate, Trump had a base of support that would rank him fourth among this year's Democratic field. He was also tied for the most popular candidate among Republicans, he was the outright favorite of Independents, and he was the second-favorite candidate among Democrats (though maybe some of those were wishing for him in hopes he would bring down the GOP). In aggregate, among all groups, he was the most popular candidate in the Republican field, and the only one to enjoy double-digit support. And this was within a week of his announcement. Note also that the Economist/YouGov poll was not an outlier; other polls taken around that time produced similar results.

The assumption with Trump (which we bought into wholeheartedly) is that he would not be able to grow his base much beyond that 10% or 11%, and that he'd eventually be taken down by one of the "serious" candidates. For our part, we were very skeptical about Jeb!, and thought Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), would be the ultimate winner.

Williamson, by contrast, is averaging 0.3% across all polls of the Democratic field, and has never done better than 1%, despite having announced her campaign more than six months ago (January 28). In American political history, there are lots of cases of a candidate starting with high single-digit or low double-digit support six months or so before primary season, and ultimately taking their party's nomination. There is no precedent for someone growing their support from 0.3% to 50% or more in six months, social media or no.

I have read with some interest the recent New York Times article that shows where the donations to Democratic candidates come from. For example, Amy Klochobar wins most of her donations from in and around Minnesota from whence she hails, as does Beto O'Rourke in and around Texas. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have donations from across the country, as does Joe Biden (but to a lesser extent). The polls are showing that Biden is ahead, but I believe that polls are only taken from a small portion of the voting population. Since Sanders is ahead, with more donations than Biden on a national basis, wouldn't that be a more accurate reflection of how the Democrats are thinking? R.H., Sydney, Australia

It is true that polls are taken only from a small portion of the electorate, but that does not make them non-representative, as long as the correct models of the electorate and the correct math are used. It's true that the models a pollster comes up with could be wrong (for example, they might assume that 7% of voters will be Latino, and it could turn out to be 10%), but that problem would not go away unless you polled a hundred times as many people, which is cost-prohibitive.

Your real question, though, is whether looking at the donations would give us a more accurate portrayal of the electorate. And the answer, in short, is "no." At the moment, anyone and everyone who does polling is trying to develop a better mousetrap, given the challenges that things like cell phones pose for traditional polling methods. And if HarrisX, or Ann Selzer, or Gallup thought they could toddle over to, download some data, crunch the numbers, and then fire all of their (expensive) staff, you can bet they would do it.

Here is a list of some of the problems that would come from trying to use donations in this way:

  • Fundraising numbers are only submitted intermittently, and would not allow us to measure day-to-day or week-to-week changes in sentiment.

  • Similarly, if fundraising numbers were used as a proxy for polling, it would be pretty easy for candidates to game the system, depending on what measure is being used.

  • Taking note of our item above about bundlers, a candidate who is raising their money through small donations could appear to be wildly more popular that one who has a more traditional approach to their fundraising (which generally entails bundling first, then building a network of small donors second)

  • Recall, also, that a wildly enthusiastic vote counts exactly the same as a begrudging vote. Donations tend to come, primarily, from very enthusiastic supporters. And so, judging support by using donation numbers would tend to overweight candidates who have a smaller-but-very-loyal base over those whose base is holding their collective noses while voting. In particular, such an approach would certainly undercount voters who aren't heavily invested in politics, and only think about voting in the month or two before the election.

  • Consistent with that, such an approach would specifically tend to overstate Bernie Sanders' chances, as he entered the election season with a very loyal base, and a pre-built fundraising network.

In short, Sanders' fundraising is very impressive, as is Pete Buttigieg's. But that does not mean that they are secretly the frontrunners.

I think that all the concern over election security is a red herring. All the talk is about how systems have been hacked, but vote totals weren't changed. To me, this seems to be a distraction. I believe the real danger in election meddling is the Internet Research Agency and other troll farms that unquestionably changed votes by appealing to people's baser instincts with the creation of memes that ginned up Trump's base and convinced the Reagan Democrat/Obama/Trump voters that Hillary would be worse than Satan and Darth Vader's love child. To me, this is the greater danger and not only is nothing being done about it, it isn't even being discussed outside of Al Franken's podcast, which only about 113 people are listening to. What are your thoughts on the matter? R.L., Alameda, CA

We agree that all the propagandizing via Facebook and other platforms had a significant, and possibly decisive, effect on the 2016 election. As to hacked voting systems, it's true that the story that the public has been told is "no effect!" But, it is possible the Russians did their job so well that there was no evidence of their malfeasance. It is also possible that the truth was discovered, but hidden. Do you imagine, for example, that the Republican governor of Florida (who was then Rick Scott) would announce that the votes that elected Marco Rubio or the votes that gave the state to Donald Trump were not legitimate? We are not saying that Russia messed with the vote totals, we're just saying that we cannot be 100% certain they didn't.

As to 2020, it's hard to say what the relative impact of these two things will be. Now that everyone knows what the Russians did, and that Facebook, et al., are scared witless of being regulated by the government, and countries that hate Trump (e.g., China) might launch their own efforts at influencing the election, it's very possible that the effect of social media propaganda could be much reduced. Meanwhile, even if the Russians did not take advantage of the voting machines in 2016 (which, again, is not a sure thing), they might make a move in 2020, particularly if the Internet Research Agency's trolling work is less effective than it was four years ago.

So while we agree with part of your assessment, no, we don't think election security is a red herring.

A.G. from Santa Clara asked about Joe Biden's practice of ending his responses when his time was up. You suggested that he either had canned answers and nothing else or that he has a cognitive issue. What about the likelihood that he is simply following the rules of a formal debate, including not interrupting other speakers and sticking to the time limits allowed by previously agreed upon rules? We have a President that doesn't follow any rules. I would rather have one that respects them. L.H., Middleburg, PA

It is possible he was just following the rules and trying to present himself as a man of honor. It's also the case that many Americans, and nearly all Democrats, long for someone who behaves better than Donald Trump does. However, most of the field was pretty respectful of the rules (with Kamala Harris being the notable exception). And Biden did not give off the impression that he had more to say, and that he was merely refraining from saying it. He gave the impression that he was out of steam, and out of thoughts. Sometimes he cut himself off at the 50-second mark, or the 55-second mark, which contributed to that impression.

When the Democrats next take the presidency, is there anything that would prevent them from obtaining Trump's tax returns (via a request from the House Ways and Means Committee)? I am assuming that, once a Democrat is president, his or her Treasury Secretary and Attorney General wouldn't resist their release as we're seeing today. If there's nothing that would prevent them from obtaining his tax returns, then it does seem that he's just fighting a battle that he will eventually lose when he's voted out of office (if they don't obtain them sooner than that). D.B., Kirkland, WA

Since the Department of the Treasury reports to the president, the president may obtain copies of anyone's tax returns at any time. This, in fact, was why Congress passed the law that grants three members of Congress the same privilege—so that the legislative and executive branches would be on equal footing in this regard.

The blue team may very well take advantage of that authority when they next take the White House, if the returns haven't already been made public. However, they may not, since it might appear that they were abusing their powers and engaging in a form of victor's justice. And even if they do, that doesn't necessarily mean Trump would be in legal trouble. It's very possible that whatever it is that he is hiding is not something illegal, but instead something that would be politically embarrassing, like that he's not really rich at all. In fact, the interest he deducts on loans (to Russian banks, no less) may imply a level of indebtedness that exceeds his assets, so the tax returns could even show that he is technically broke.

I really hate California's new "you must submit your tax returns to be on the ballot" rule, and I am sorry this Pandora's box has been opened. Couldn't a state with a Republican legislature and some hope being won by the Democrats (like Georgia) pass a law that says that knowledge of economics is really important for being president, so you can't be on their ballot unless you hold a degree in economics or a business degree? Oh, Donald Trump has a business degree and Joe Biden doesn't? Too bad. J.G., San Diego, CA

Certainly, the GOP has been very...creative at stretching the rules related to voting, ballot access, poll access, etc., to their breaking point in the past 10-20 years. However, we don't think you should be concerned.

This is actually one of those issues that has been explored pretty fully by the courts. Notable cases include Bullock v. Carter (1972), Lubin v. Panish (1974), Storer v. Brown (1974), Illinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party (1979), Anderson v. Celebrezze (1982), Norman v. Reed (1992), and U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton (1995). The basic findings of all of this jurisprudence: States are allowed to establish rules for ballot qualifications, as long as the rules: (1) serve a compelling public interest, and (2) do not discriminate. For example, requiring a small filing fee or a reasonable number of signatures is ok, because it serves a compelling public interest to keep the ballot from getting too crowded and unmanageable. On the other hand, requiring a large filing fee (without offering a cost-free alternative) or an unreasonable number of signatures (defined by the courts as more than 5% of the electorate) is discriminatory, because those policies would favor those who are wealthy and well-connected.

California's new law almost certainly passes both tests. There is a compelling public interest in voters knowing about a candidate's finances, and in particular, whose debt they might be in. The attorneys that California assigns to the case will support this position by pointing out how commonplace it has become for candidates to share their returns. And the rule is not discriminatory, as it does not place an undue burden on, well, anyone. By contrast, a Georgia law that says "you have to have a degree in economics to be on the ballot," or "you can't be on the ballot if you are named Joe," or "you must have graduated from an Ivy League university" would surely fail both tests. Those rules do not serve a clear public interest, as there have been plenty of politicians and presidents who did just fine regardless of their degrees, first names, and alma maters. Meanwhile, such rules would also be discriminatory.

There's also a Machiavellian argument to be made here. Even if you believe California is playing fast and loose with the rules, that may be a useful strategy for countering Republicans' recent history of playing fast and loose with the rules. It's a lot easier to push things to the limit and play hardball if you are convinced the other side is only willing to play wiffle ball.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug02 Debate Postmortem
Aug02 Bettors Are Betting on Biden
Aug02 More than Half of House Democrats Now Support Impeachment
Aug02 Trump Will Impose New Tariffs on China
Aug02 Trump Rallies in Cincinnati
Aug02 Soros Creates a Democratic Super PAC
Aug02 Kelly Craft Is Confirmed as Ambassador to the United Nations
Aug02 Hearing Set in Fight over Trump's New York State Tax Returns
Aug02 Lewandowski May Run for the Senate in New Hampshire
Aug02 Hurd Joins the Herd Heading for the Doors
Aug02 Friday Q&A
Aug01 10 More Democrats Debate in Detroit
Aug01 Fed Cuts Interest Rates
Aug01 Today's Racism News, Part I
Aug01 Today's Racism News, Part II
Aug01 Yet Another GOP House Retirement
Jul31 Democrats Debate in Detroit
Jul31 Second Debate Figures to Be Different From the First
Jul31 Trump Gets Another Court Victory
Jul31 California Will Require Presidential Candidates to Provide Tax Returns
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part I: Trump's Speech
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part II: McConnell's Donors
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part III: Tax Cuts
Jul30 Trump Feels Threatened...
Jul30 ...And So Does McConnell
Jul30 Time for Democratic Debates, Round Two
Jul30 Polls Are Mostly Good News for Biden
Jul30 Another Republican Is Leaving the House
Jul30 DCCC a Mess Right Now
Jul29 Trump's Attacks on the Squad and Cummings Are No Accident
Jul29 Good Economy May Help the Democrats in the Midwest
Jul29 Black Democrats Want a Public Option
Jul29 Nadler: No Deadline for Impeachment
Jul29 Government Shutdown in the Fall is Still Possible
Jul29 Axios: Trump Will Nominate Texas Representative as DNI
Jul29 Trump and Johnson Are Working on a Trade Deal
Jul29 Mueller's Testimony Didn't Increase Demand for Impeachment
Jul29 Monday Q&A
Jul27 Trump Can Start Building His Wall
Jul27 This Weekend in Trump Racism
Jul27 America Will Get Less Safe This Week
Jul27 Democrats Aren't Giving Up on Impeachment
Jul27 Another GOP Representative Throws in the Towel
Jul27 Democratic Presidential Candidate Update: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Jul27 Saturday Q&A
Jul26 Who Needs Election Security?
Jul26 Judge Blocks Asylum Rule
Jul26 Federal Government to Resume Executions
Jul26 Governor of Puerto Rico Resigns
Jul26 Today in Schadenfreude