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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Takes on Google
      •  Trump Takes on the Media
      •  Trump Takes on the Fed
      •  Trump Takes on Gun Laws...Er, Never Mind
      •  Luján Backs Impeachment
      •  Warren Apologizes to Native Americans
      •  Tuesday Q&A

Trump Takes on Google

Yesterday, we pointed out that generals are always refighting the last war. They're not the only ones, as it turns out, since Donald Trump continues to find ways to argue that he actually won the popular vote in 2016. Here's the latest, tweeted out on Monday:

It will not surprise you to learn that this tweet came about five minutes after Fox Business Channel did a report on the study (which is actually a couple of years old).

This is, in a number of ways, an interesting case study in how one needs to be very careful, even with "academic" research. For that reason, we're going to get into the weeds a little bit. If you don't want to read all the gory details, however, then here's Hillary Clinton's takedown of Trump's tweet:

In other words, the "study" (and we put that word in quotes for a reason, which we will elaborate on below) was based on a very small sample size. One should never draw conclusions from a single study, and that is doubly or triply true when the sample size is not large enough to be mathematically sound. So, on that basis alone, Trump's tweet can be dismissed.

But now let's dig a little deeper, for those who care to keep going. To start, the scholar whose work is in question here is Robert Epstein, who took his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1981. Although he has a relationship with the University of California, San Diego, and has taught courses there as a lecturer, he is not a member of the university's faculty. His primary affiliation is with the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT), which he co-founded. He's penned articles for lots of popular magazines (like Reader's Digest and Good Housekeeping), is a big fan of online quizzes (he got some attention for a "test your maturity" quiz he put together), and he's written a sizable number of mass-market books, like Creativity Games for Trainers, The Big Book of Stress-Relief Games, Pure Fitness: Body Meets Mind, and Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence. In short, he is what is sometimes known as a "pop" psychologist.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with not being a faculty member at a university, nor with trying to bridge the gap between the halls of the academy and the general public. However, Epstein's career profile does raise some concerns that one should keep in mind. The first is that there is particular pressure on him to produce work that gets attention and grabs headlines. This can be an issue for university-employed folks, too, but it's especially likely for scholars who need to sell books and/or attract donations/grant money to pay the bills.

The second concern is that Epstein might have a little less oversight (or a lot less oversight) than someone with a formal university appointment. To take but one example, if someone working under the auspices of a university wants to do any work that involves human subjects, they are required to go before an institutional review board to make certain that their work is safe and is ethical. Such safeguards were put in place after a string of notorious experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, most obviously Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Epstein's work, at least on some occasions, has not been subject to such oversight. In fact, he's generated some controversy by using himself as a research subject, which is a no-no (and which is something that Zimbardo was guilty of as well). Oh, and incidentally, if you take a look at the members of AIBRT's advisory board, the list includes...Philip Zimbardo.

At this point, hopefully it is clear why we might want to handle any research produced by Epstein very carefully. That doesn't mean it's inherently invalid, but it does mean particular scrutiny is warranted. A potential counter-argument to our skepticism, in this case, is Trump's assertion that Epstein is a Clinton supporter. The notion here is that information unfriendly to the person producing it is more likely to be true. That basic precept has been a part of scholarly analysis for at least a millennium (first applied to the Gospels); the technical term that is sometimes used to describe this is the "criterion of embarrassment."

Anyhow, it is true that Epstein claims to be a Clinton supporter, and it's also true that he declared in March of this year that conservatives' use of his research on Google searches "is driving me crazy." So maybe that gives his conclusions greater credence. However, he said very similar things in 2007, when he published research under the title "Do Gays Have a Choice?," asserting that some people are pushed toward homosexuality by societal influences, and that some people change their orientation during their adult lives. Naturally, "conversion" advocates quickly seized upon this, which supposedly shocked and angered Epstein.

We are reminded, at this point, of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," in which a son is accused of murdering his father. The son says he understands why he has been accused, given all the evidence that points in his direction, but then protests his innocence. Dr. Watson, always a bit thick, interprets that as ironclad evidence of guilt. Holmes, however, takes the case, believing (correctly) that a truly guilty man would not acknowledge how bad the evidence against him looks. The point here is that the appropriation of Epstein's Google study by Trump supporters, and of his gay fluidity study by gay conversion advocates, was entirely foreseeable. In fact, the research almost looks custom-designed to generate that outcome. And if the psychologist's response had been something more along the lines of "I understand why people are using my research in the way they are, and I may wish that wasn't the case, but as a scholar, I am bound to report what I found," that would be a credible response. But his general failure to acknowledge the likely appropriation of his work by high-profile (and high-publicity) outlets like Fox News, along with his strongly emotional response, rings a little false. Something along the lines of, "He doth protest too much, methinks." This is not to say that Epstein is a secret GOP operative, because he's probably not. However, it does suggest that his loyalty to Clinton, the Democratic Party, liberal politics, etc. is secondary to his desire to attract publicity for his work.

And now, let's turn our attention to the "study" that is the basis for Trump's tweet. The reason we've put that word in quotes multiple times...well, there are actually a couple of reasons. The first is that it's not really one study, it's sorta two studies. Or maybe a study and a half. The first part was peer-reviewed and published by PNAS, which is a well-known and entirely reputable repository of scientific research. The PNAS piece is, by every definition of the term, a proper scholarly study. However, as it was published in 2015, it contains nary a mention of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Nor, for that matter, does it talk about how millions of votes might have changed hands. In fact, the 2015 piece focuses on elections in Australia and India, and how there might have been bias in search results for those two elections, from Epstein's vantage point in San Diego.

Epstein did not apply the findings from the PNAS piece to the U.S. until 2017, when he co-wrote a paper entitled "A Method for Detecting Bias in Search Rankings, with Evidence of Systematic Bias Related to the 2016 Presidential Election." The reason that we are calling this half a study is that it wasn't actually published in a peer-reviewed journal (or anywhere else, other than AIBRT's website, as far as we can tell). It was presented at a conference and, as any academic knows, the bar you need to clear in order to be able to present at a conference is way, way, lower than the bar you need to clear to actually get published. This was also the piece, incidentally, where conclusions were reached based on a very small sample size (per Hillary Clinton's tweet).

So what is being called a "study," then, is actually two different articles being commingled together. While that's not inherently problematic, it's worrisome when one has been subjected to a much more rigorous process and is based on far more extensive data than the other. And that leads us to the second significant problem that should be pointed out here, namely that Epstein—whether deliberately or inadvertently—has given his work considerably more scholarly "gravitas" then it should really have. Consider this passage from the peer-reviewed PNAS piece:

Given our procedures, however, we cannot rule out the possibility that [the search engine manipulation effect] produces only a transient effect, which would limit its value in election manipulation. Laboratory manipulations of preferences and attitudes often impact subjects for only a short time, sometimes just hours.

In short, and because peer reviewers insist that authors' claims be in line with their evidence, the first study is pretty conservative in its findings. It acknowledges that the effect being studied may not actually exist. And certainly, Epstein makes no claims here about millions of votes changing hands.

In the second, non-peer-reviewed article, by contrast, Epstein goes considerably further. The final paragraph of that piece reads thusly:

Could the pro-Clinton bias in search results have shifted votes to Mrs. Clinton? A comprehensive study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that biased search rankings can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more—up to 80% in some demographic groups. Extrapolating from the mathematics introduced in this report, in articles published in February 2016 and thereafter, the lead author of the PNAS study predicted that a pro-Clinton bias in Google's search results would, over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton. She won the popular vote in the November election by 2,864,974 votes. Without the pro-Clinton bias in Google's search results, her win margin in the popular vote might have been negligible.

This paragraph is undoubtedly the basis for the Fox Business News report. However, note the presence of a sizable number of "weasel" words like "could," "might," "extrapolating," and "predicting." Epstein has given himself cover here, inasmuch as he never actually declares that: (1) Google deliberately manipulated their search results to help Clinton, or (2) that the manipulated results added 2.6 million votes to her tally. However, he most certainly sets it up so that others, particularly those with a partisan agenda, might draw that conclusion themselves. On top of that, there is a small but meaningful indication suggesting, once again, that Epstein is not being entirely honest about his intentions. Notice that he refers to "the lead author of the PNAS study," which strongly implies that his research is echoing and building upon what others have found. Well, the lead author of that study was...Robert Epstein. You can check our work: click on the links and confirm it for yourself, if you wish. It is not inherently problematic or unethical for a scholar to cite their own work. However, using verbiage that implies those self-citations are actually citing someone else's work is very dubious.

Now, we told you we were going to get into the weeds, so if you're still reading, you have nobody to blame but yourself. In any case, the executive summary is this: Epstein produced valid data showing that search engine results might influence voters. He then added a little more (shaky) data, and possibly manipulated the scholarly process, to suggest there was strong and valid evidence that Google search engine results handed 2 or 3 million votes to Hillary Clinton. Entirely predictably, the Fox Newses and Donald Trumps of the world picked up on that, declared it was a certainty that the vote transfer happened, insisted that Google acted deliberately to make it happen, and grew the number to as many as 16 million votes. To what extent is Epstein responsible for this obvious, publicity-generating misrepresentation of his research? Obviously, we think he's considerably more responsible than he lets on, based on the information at hand. In any event, as we said, it's a good example of why you should be very careful about the results of scholarly studies, particularly those that produce shocking and unexpected results that nobody else has found. (Z)

Trump Takes on the Media

Google was hardly Donald Trump's only target these days. He's also furious with the media. He says, for example, that if the U.S. economy goes downhill, it's their fault:

If the media really did have the power to change the course of the economy, there would be better ways to use that power than what Trump is suggesting.

Of course, Trump attacking the media is pretty much in "dog bites man" territory these days. However, things did get a little more interesting when the President moved into "man bites Fox" territory, slamming his (one-time?) favorite network over their most recent poll results, which had him losing by 6 to 12 points to the four leading Democratic contenders, and also had his approval rating at 43%. None of this is out of line with other recent polls, from other networks, given that Fox uses legitimate pollsters (Beacon Research and Shaw & Company) to produce their polls. Still, Trump was predictably furious, and told reporters that "There's something going on at Fox [News], I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it. Fox has changed. My worst polls have always been from Fox." He also added a thinly veiled threat: "I think Fox is making a big mistake. Because, you know, I'm the one that calls the shots on that—on the really big debates."

As you can imagine, it is not remotely true that Fox has always given Trump his lowest numbers. In case you're interested, here's the President's average ratings from every polling house that's surveyed his approval at least 10 times, organized from lowest average approval to highest:

PollsterAverage ApprovalAverage Disapproval
CBS News38.954.2
Pew Research39.655.9
ABC News/Washington Post41.155.2
Politico/Morning Consult41.754.4
NBC News/WSJ42.953.3
USA Today/Suffolk43.052.5
FOX News44.252.2
The Hill/HarrisX45.254.8
Rasmussen Reports46.452.5

As you can see, and as expected, Fox tends to give Trump some of his best numbers, about 2.5 points above the average. If he really wants to be angry with someone, he should focus on the six different houses that have a sub-40 average for him.

In any event, despite his protestations, Trump clearly isn't that angry with Fox. After all, the Google bias story (see above), which he tweeted well after accusing the cable network of being unfair, came from Fox Business News. Still, his swipe at Fox is of interest for at least a couple of reasons. First, Trump is clearly considering, and even laying the groundwork for, the cancellation of one or more presidential debates. That would clearly do some damage to him, but he may have concluded that debating would do even more damage. It's one thing, for example, for a presidential candidate to have no idea what the nuclear triad is. It's another thing entirely if the president doesn't know.

The other interesting thing about this story comes when we consider it in conjunction with (yet another) Trump tweet from Monday:

It is often the case that internal polls are more favorable to a candidate than external polls. It is also entirely possible that Trump's pollsters are cooking the books, either by manipulating the data, or by showing the President only those numbers that will make him happy. As a short-term strategy for surviving in the Trump White House, that might be a smart move. But if the Donald really is getting a skewed perception of the electorate as he runs his 2020 campaign, well, there's nothing smart about that at all. (Z)

Trump Takes on the Fed

Donald Trump undoubtedly knows that blaming the media for any future recession (see above) is not likely to fly. And so, he pretty quickly set his sights on a new target, namely Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell. The President ripped the Chair a couple of times over the weekend, and continued on Monday:

As we pointed out yesterday, this is a shaky line of attack, since Trump handpicked Powell as part of the process of hiring "the best people." Further, the average voter is considerably more likely to perceive that a trade war brought the economy down than they are to perceive that Federal Reserve policy (which is pretty hazy to most people) did the job.

Despite all the attempts at buck passing, the White House staff knows just as well as Harry S. Truman did where the buck tends to stop, and they are much more concerned than they would like to let on. On Monday, in fact, they trial-ballooned a proposal to cut payroll taxes in an effort to goose the economy, before walking that back late in the afternoon. Many of the President's advisors would also like to dial back the tariffs, and in fact they essentially used Christmas to manipulate him into delaying them. However, Trump remains committed to them long-term, and his underlings may run out of cards to play once Santa concludes his business. Unless he can be convinced that a trade war would just ruin all the Arbor Day sales.

Meanwhile, Trump spent so much time lashing out and finger-pointing in the past few days, despite the lack of serious adverse news, that one wonders what's going on. Maybe he's in full 2020 campaign mode, and all of this is for the benefit of the base. On the other hand, claiming he won (or nearly won) the popular vote in 2016 does not seem to help him get votes in 2020, and may even hurt him by convincing supporters they don't really need to get out to vote. There's really only one audience who makes sense for all three of Trump's lines of attack, namely (1) Hillary Clinton got 2 million or more unfair votes, (2) The media and Fox News are being unfair, and (3) The Fed is the one who is destroying the economy. That audience is...Donald Trump. He's always created his own reality to exist in, and maybe the writing on the wall that suggests big-time trouble for him in 2020 has grown so noticeable that he has to up his delusion game. (Z)

Trump Takes on Gun Laws...Er, Never Mind

Last week, after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Donald Trump said that he supports more extensive background checks for gun buyers, and confidently declared that the NRA would "get there," eventually. Then, NRA leadership got Trump on the phone and read him the riot act. On Sunday, in a development roughly as foreseeable as the sun coming up in the morning, Trump backed off of his pro-background-check stance:

So, Congress is working on that. They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we'll see. I don't want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. I don't want them to forget that, because it is. It's a mental health problem. And as I say—and I said the other night in New Hampshire; we had an incredible evening—I said: It's the people that pull the trigger. It's not the gun that pulls the trigger.

In short, a list of NRA talking points, namely "guns don't kill, people do;" "we already have background checks;" and "this is a mental health issue." So, nothing is going to be done on gun control (or on mental health, for that matter).

There has been much coverage lately of the turmoil in which the NRA finds itself due to infighting among its leaders and to potential misappropriation of funds. And while they may never be able to spend as lavishly again as they did in 2016 ($340 million), that's not really the secret of their success. The secret of their success is that whether they purchase commercial time or not, they command a lot of influence with gun-owning single-issue voters. They can send out lots of e-mails hammering on the importance of voting for (and donating to) Trump, or they can not send out those e-mails. And without the NRA's enthusiastic support, the President could lose hundreds of thousands of votes he badly needs. As long as that is the case, the NRA will command much influence in Washington, empty bank account or no. Of course, failure to do anything on guns will give the Democrats something to run on, and could very well add more votes to their tally than Trump saves by taking no action. However, the President rarely thinks several moves ahead like that. (Z)

Luján Backs Impeachment

On Monday, the impeachment of Donald Trump got a new, high-profile backer. It's Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), who explained that he was very bothered by the Mueller Report, and declared:

I support moving forward with an impeachment inquiry, which will continue to uncover the facts for the American people and hold this president accountable. What is evident is that President Trump is abdicating his responsibility to defend our nation from Russian attacks and is putting his own personal and political interests ahead of the American people.

Luján is the Assistant Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, making him the fourth-highest-ranking member of the Democratic caucus, and the highest-ranked member to come out for impeachment thus far. His announcement brings the total to 127 House Democrats in support versus 108 who have taken no position or who oppose impeachment.

It is difficult to know what this all means. For those who desire impeachment, it could be a sign that momentum is building, and possibly even that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is carefully managing a political theatrical production in order to make the decision appear cautious and reasoned. On the other hand, it's not entirely clear what "support for impeachment" actually means. Some, including Luján, have used the phrase "impeachment inquiry." In theory, if you believe House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), that inquiry is already underway. So, are some or all of those 127 merely signaling their support for what Nadler is already doing? Or, do they want something more, like an inquiry undertaken by the entire House? Or do they mean they want formal impeachment proceedings? The answer probably varies quite a bit from member to member, and day to day. However, it is certain that the statement "54% of House Democrats (i.e., 127/235) favor impeachment" overstates the case, probably by quite a bit.

In terms of Luján, specifically, one cannot read too much into his announcement. Yes, he is one of Pelosi's closest lieutenants, and so his "defection" (if she did not approve of it) could be evidence she's losing the "no impeachment" battle. On the other hand, Luján is done in the House after this term, and needs to win a statewide Senate election, as he hopes to replace retiring Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). So, it's entirely possible that even if Luján's announcement was not coordinated with Pelosi, it's much more about New Mexico politics than it is about the current dynamics of the House. (Z)

Warren Apologizes to Native Americans

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) appeared at a presidential candidates' forum staged for the benefit of a Native American audience. She took the opportunity to apologize for responding to Donald Trump's "Pocahontas" slur by publishing proof that she has Native American DNA:

Now, before I go any further in this I want to say this: Like anyone who's been honest with themselves, I know that I have made mistakes. I am sorry for harm I have caused. I have listened and I have learned a lot. And I am grateful for the many conversations that we've had together.

The crowd was pretty happy with what she had to say, particularly given that she also embraced some bread-and-butter issues for Native Americans, like canceling the Dakota XL pipeline. It would seem, then, that most of the damage she did with her misstep six months ago has been erased.

This story also speaks to a difference in style that pretty cleanly divides the leading Democratic candidates into two groups. Like Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) tend to avoid apologies, presumably because they feel it projects weakness. On the other hand, Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) tend to be comfortable apologizing. Each approach presumably has its benefits, but it is a distinct difference in style, in any case. (Z)

Tuesday Q&A

It was necessary to delay the usual Monday Q&A for a day, which turns out to be fortuitous, because we got a lot of questions that were undoubtedly a product of our Monday item on Joe Biden.

I'm wondering if Joe Biden's low rate of online fundraising might be related to the age of his supporters. I'd assume that he's not the favorite of younger voters, who may be more comfortable using the Internet for financial transactions, compared to other candidates who have big support from younger voters like Bernie Sanders. J.T., Philadelphia, PA

That is surely a part of the equation, though it's hard to say how large a part. After all, online transactions now have a decade-long history, and it's hard to believe there are that many people who are unwilling or unable to send money online. Heck, 60% of American adults have an Amazon Prime account.

Biden's low fundraising totals are probably due to two other, more significant phenomena: (1) His team is focused on more traditional fundraising (i.e., bundlers and big donors), and (2) a lack of high-enthusiasm supporters. It's true that a non-enthusiastic vote is worth just as much as an enthusiastic vote, but it's also true that high-enthusiasm folks are the type to make donations more than a year before the election. More on this point in two answers.

I sent an earlier missive that called you guys out last year for using "Tricky Dick" a little too randomly. Well, I'm an equal opportunity corrector—it's just as offensive when nicknames like "Uncle Joe" are used with a Democrat. It's one thing to report on the use of nicknames, but another for EV itself to resort to sophomoric, Trumpian name calling. Are there any plans to begin using "Pocahontas"? L.K., San Francisco, CA

Well, broadly speaking, there are three "rules" that apply to our use of nicknames:

  • We deploy them when we need another referent, and we've already over-used the other possibilities (usually last name and office held). For example, in a story on Joe Biden, you can say "Biden" "the former VP," and "the Democratic frontrunner" only so many times in a short space before it gets to be too much.

  • We deploy them when they are contextually apropos. For example, we might use "Tricky Dick" when talking about Watergate, but we would not use it when talking about Nixon's visit to China. We might use "the Donald" when referring to his salesmanship skills, but not when discussing his trip to El Paso. We might use "Uncle Joe" when describing the candidate's friendly interaction with a group of voters, but not when he's discussing his nuclear policy.

  • We avoid them when they would constitute an unwarranted, or racist, personal attack. Richard Nixon earned "Tricky Dick" through his words and actions. On the other hand, "Sleepy Joe" is an unwarranted personal attack, while "Pocahontas" is borderline racist.

The two nicknames we get the most complaints about are definitely "the Donald" and "Uncle Joe." However, we didn't choose those nicknames, the people themselves did. Trump has been presenting himself as "the Donald" for decades, at least as early as his Howard Stern appearances in the early 1990s, and it was essentially his character name on "The Apprentice." Biden has been using "Uncle Joe" for an equally long time, though he hates "Crazy Uncle Joe" or "Creepy Uncle Joe."

Why do you hate Joe Biden? I read your site nearly every day and have always trusted your perspective. But your anti-Biden bias is basically saying "nominate Elizabeth Warren, so Trump can win the Midwest again!" C.L., Fremont, OH

We got quite a few e-mails like this one, undoubtedly in response to the item about Biden's fundraising, which we attributed to his enthusiasm gap compared to other Democratic frontrunners.

It's possible that piece could have been more artful, but the basic point stands, namely that Biden outperforms the entire Democratic field when it comes to voters who like him, but he underperforms his rivals (as well as Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016) when it comes to voters who really like him. To put that another way, many Democrats in 1948 backed Harry Truman because he was their best chance to hold the White House, but they weren't particularly enthusiastic about it, giving rise to the slogan "I'm just mild about Harry." That might be adapted to 2020 as "I'm just so-so on Joe."

Just yesterday, Biden's wife made an overt "electability" argument, posting a video to Twitter in which she acknowledged that other candidates may have more popular stands on the issues, but that "you've got to look at who's going to win this election." It has been a very long time since someone won the White House solely on the basis that, "Hey, I may be boring, but vote for me because I can win this thing." Maybe Jimmy Carter? Normally, a candidate has to light something of a fire under at least part of the base, and Biden not only does not seem to be doing so, he doesn't seem to be trying to do so. As we said above, there is no difference in value between an enthusiastic vote and an unenthusiastic one. However, it is also the case that an unenthusiastic vote turns into "Aw, I'm just gonna stay at home on Election Day" much more easily than an enthusiastic vote does. On the other hand, up against someone as unpopular as Donald Trump, mild enthusiasm may be all it takes to get people to the polls to vote for Biden.

As to us, we are regularly accused of being biased against [fill in candidate name here], and that includes both the left-wing candidates as well as the centrists. Some of the e-mails today were particularly pointed, wondering if we are secretly using the site to steer votes toward Warren or Bernie Sanders. This is not the case, and when it comes to Biden, we would observe several things. The first is that "frontrunner maintains frontrunner status" is not all that much of a story. On the other hand, "frontrunner could lose frontrunner status" is, which means that adverse developments for Biden are more likely to get attention from us (and everyone else). Beyond that, however, there aren't that many positive Biden-related things for us to talk about. He is basically trying to keep 'er steady, and to avoid making big statements or bold headlines. To the extent that there is positive Biden news, it is generally one of two things: He got a good poll, or he successfully counterpunched something Donald Trump said. We've done plenty of items of both sorts; here is the most recent about his good polls, and here is the most recent about him firing back at Trump.

Is it possible that Trump's desire to buy Greenland is an attempt to counter a potential move by the Democrats to admit Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia as states? It would be difficult to know how the people of Greenland would vote in American elections if eventually becoming a state, but maybe Trump is counting on them being grateful for him making them a part of the union and becoming GOP loyalists. A.W., Keyser, WV

We doubt that is his motivation, because he doesn't usually think that many steps down the road. If that is what he's thinking, then he's barking up the wrong tree. The 50,000 or so folks who live in Greenland profile as Democrats, if anything. Further, they prefer independence from Denmark, not acquisition by the United States. So, if Trump acquires the island, he and the GOP would promptly become the bad guys, not the good guys.

While the practice of paying cash for land has been an important one in the United States' deep history (e.g. Louisiana Purchase, Gadsden Purchase, Alaska, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.), the idea of President Trump "buying" Greenland from Denmark seems odd and anachronistic in the 21st Century, not only here, but abroad, where wars, invasions, and secessions have been the primary drivers for territorial change within the memories of anyone now living. Am I missing something? Have any other international borders changed in the past century or more as a result of a straight-up trans-national business transaction like the one he seems to be pondering here? J.E.S., Des Moines, IA

The last transaction of this sort, unless we are missing something, is when the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. That timing is not a coincidence; World War I ended the next year, and the postwar discussions were rooted in Woodrow Wilson's ideas about self-determination and the limits of national sovereignty. Those ideas, which became the basis of the postwar world order (and much international law), don't particularly leave room for the idea that a nation can sell off a piece of its territory and then inform the inhabitants that they're not, say, Canadians anymore, they're now Jordanians.

Consequently, the only vaguely parallel kinds of transactions we've seen in the last century or so are ones like this, where a state-run Chinese company bought 800,000 acres in Argentina. However, only ownership changed hands in that case, not sovereignty. With that said, it's possible that the sale of sovereign territory may become a thing again in the 21st century; some nations (e.g., Greece) are thinking about selling part of their territory to pay their debts, while others (e.g., Kiribati) are thinking about the possibility of acquiring new land to relocate to as the planet heats up and the seas rise.

I am aware of most of the legislation, judicial rulings, and political posturing around the issue of "gun control." Maybe I've missed this, but are there other ways to control the absurd proliferation of guns? Is there any reason that a state, city or even our federal government couldn't simply pass laws prohibiting the sale or possession of ammunition? And/or is there any reason that there couldn't be an enormous tax placed on guns and ammunition such that they become no longer affordable for many? I don't see how these methods would be covered by the second amendment, and it seems to me that it would accomplish much of the desired end result of meaningful gun control. D.B., Bowie, MD

The short answer is that this is a possible approach. In fact, it's not even a new approach; then-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was thinking along these lines in 1988. After all, the Second Amendment, if read literally, protects people's right to own guns, not their right to own bullets. Similarly, taxes, even on constitutionally protected property rights, are viable.

In practice, it's a little messier. First, as noted above, the NRA has much power. That's true at the state level in addition to the federal level. Second, the courts have become so politicized, and this whole area of jurisprudence has been thrown into such chaos by the Heller decision, that it's never easy to predict what will, and will not, survive a court challenge. For example, California is thus far getting away with a law that requires background checks for all ammunition purchases, but saw a judge strike down a law prohibiting high-capacity magazines.

Incidentally, if you would care to compare the wildly varying laws governing ammunition sales and purchases on a state-by-state basis, the Giffords Center has a list.

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