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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Goes on Racist Twitter Rant
      •  GOP Happy to Run on "We Killed Obamacare" in 2020
      •  Daily Mail Releases More Darroch Dirt
      •  Democrats to Argue Florida Ballots in Court Today
      •  Vulnerable Election Software Will be Used in 2020
      •  Sanders, Warren Voters Aren't All That Similar
      •  Monday Q&A

Trump Goes on Racist Twitter Rant

After the civil rights movement, politicians (mostly Republican) developed dog whistle politics, so that they could communicate racist messages to those who wanted to hear them, but could avoid offending those who no longer found such verbiage acceptable. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens," George H. W. Bush's Willie Horton ad, and questions about Barack Obama's "true" citizenship are the most notable examples, but there are many more.

Donald Trump does not seem to have gotten the message that, at least since the 1960s, one's racist messaging needs to be at least slightly encoded, because on Sunday he went on a Twitter tear that was utterly lacking in subtlety:

Trump is referring, most obviously, to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who was born in New York, and is of Puerto Rican descent. Puerto Rico is, of course, part of the United States. While he presumably doesn't realize it, that means that the President just announced that his administration is a "complete and total catastrophe." He's also referring to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI; of Palestinian descent, born in Detroit), Rep. Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN; of Somali descent, born in Somalia), and Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-MA; of African descent, born in Cincinnati). In other words, not only did Trump smear four American citizens; three have been citizens since the day they were born, and two come from families who have been American longer than the Trumps have. Of course, nobody ever claimed that xenophobes are logical or consistent.

All four of the Congresswomen have already responded, with Ocasio-Cortez declaring, "You are angry because you can't conceive of an America that includes us," Pressly adding, "THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like," Omar noting that Trump is, "stoking white nationalism," and Tlaib declaring that she will not back down before a "racist president," and that "together, we will fight back, speak truth to power, and become stronger for it."

Witnessing the backlash to his tweets, Trump eventually came to appreciate that he'd overstepped, and he backed down and apologized. Oops, wait, that's not what happened at all. No, after seeing the backlash, Trump doubled down:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the various Democrats running for President have all responded to the President and blasted him for his comments. Hillary Clinton also spoke up, making the same basic observation we made above:

Republicans have almost universally remained silent, though they better get their answers ready, because it's all that reporters are going to ask about today. And tomorrow. And Wednesday.

Will the President's words come back to haunt him? That is very hard to say. On one hand, he's been a racist his whole life. Not David Duke racist, of course, but Sunday's tweets come from the same place as his campaign announcement speech about "Mexican rapists," and his Obama birtherism, and his description of Haiti and African countries as "sh**holes," and his demand that the Central Park Five be executed. In other words, we didn't learn anything about Trump on Sunday that we didn't already know. And most of his base knows it too, and either agrees with what he's saying, or else excuses it as an acceptable price to pay for getting conservative judges and tax cuts.

On the other hand, there were a lot of voters in 2016 who felt they were choosing between two deeply flawed, fundamentally immoral candidates. And under those circumstances, a vote for the racist, uncouth, pu**y-grabbing Trump may have seemed more justifiable if "crooked Hillary" was the alternative. But whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020, it won't be someone that has been the target of a three-decade-long smear campaign, and so it won't be someone who seems "just as wicked" as Trump. In that scenario, a vote for Trump may not seem as justifiable.

There's one other issue that Trump's weekend tweets raise. As we noted last week, the President's campaign advisers believe that the base alone is not enough to win the 2020 election. They've been pushing him to be more statesmanlike and more centrist, and he played along, at least for a while. However, the racist tweets were not the only Twitter outburst this weekend. He also went on an anti-Mueller tear, and also preemptively defended his relationship with Deutsche Bank (as he knows full well that those records are going to see the light of day, sooner or later). In short, the President is feeling besieged, and is on the defensive. And, when that is the case, he reverts back to his instinctive, non-centrist, non-statesmanlike tendencies. In short, Trump 2020 is going to be no different from Trump 2016, with the President careening between what his advisors tell him to do, and what his instincts tell him to do. The question, again, is whether that will get it done in an election when he is not up against someone as widely disliked as Clinton. (Z)

GOP Happy to Run on "We Killed Obamacare" in 2020

Donald Trump may (or may not) be the only Republican to run an overtly nativist campaign in 2020. However, he and the entire GOP field are very possibly looking at running on the destruction of Obamacare, depending on what happens in the current court case filed by 19 red-state attorneys general and backed by the Trump administration. Remarkably, most Republicans officeholders are fine with it.

On its surface, this looks like political suicide. Healthcare was almost certainly the main issue that propelled the Democratic wave in 2018, and that was without any actual substantive changes taking place. If Obamacare were to actually be killed, it would trigger chaos. Millions of people would lose insurance outright, others would find that their benefits were now capped, and still others would be advised that their pre-existing conditions are no longer covered. And not only would it be a mess in the healthcare sector, it would be disruptive enough that it could help drag down the overall economy (especially if the U.K. has a messy Brexit later this year).

What could the GOP pooh-bahs be thinking? It appears that they believe the collapse of Obamacare, coupled with the pressures of an election year, will put them in a position to remake the healthcare system on their terms. If so, then their general goal would be to create cheaper insurance for the majority of Americans, and then to leave the oldest/sickest folks with coverage that is inadequate, unaffordable, or both. However, the Republicans had seven years to come up with an alternative that they could agree upon, including two where they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and they couldn't get it done. Why would that change now?

Further, if the GOP imagines that the Democratic-controlled House is going to play ball and pass a "solution" that sticks it to those that are poor and sick, then they are seriously mistaken. The blue team will run on "we're trying to save your healthcare," and if 2018 is any indication, it will be a big winner for them. At least some Republicans seem to see it this way; Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who faces a tough re-election campaign in 2020, said "I'm just hoping the court doesn't strike [Obamacare] down." The appeals court decision is expected in a few weeks, although that may be followed by an appeal to the entire Fifth Circuit en banc, and it will definitely be followed by an appeal to the Supreme Court. This will take enough time that, if Obamacare is indeed struck down, it may not even be possible to work on a compromise replacement before the election. (Z)

Daily Mail Releases More Darroch Dirt

If the Daily Mail knows anything, it's how to get mileage out of a story. They created a sensation by releasing some Trump-related messages from (former) U.K. Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch a couple of weeks ago. And once the firestorm had died down and Darroch was out of a job, they released some more.

The new messages specifically center on Donald Trump's Iran policy. To amateur diplomats, including us, it appeared that the President had no real plan, other than "undo Obama's work." Darroch's cables home confirm that perception, describing Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as "diplomatic vandalism" undertaken for "personality reasons." Darroch also said that there were significant divisions among the members of Trump's administrations, and that several of them urged him not to abandon the pact.

In the U.K., this story is big news, as it's put likely-prime-minister-to-be Boris Johnson in a tough position, and it's also got British authorities looking under stones for the leaker. In the U.S., the new revelations haven't gotten nearly as much attention, at least so far. Donald Trump sent 35 tweets on Sunday, after the news broke, and not one of them addressed Iran or Darroch. Maybe he's not aware of the news yet (it's not on Fox News' website, for what it's worth), or maybe he's decided not to give it more oxygen (not likely, but possible).

Right before Darroch left Washington, his fellow diplomats held a lunch for him:

In case the message was not clear enough, it is: "We stand with Kim and agree with him." And if that was not enough, some of them spoke to reporters off the record, and told them that any of them could have suffered the same fate if their reports home had been made public. So if there is any doubt that Darroch was an outlier, that doubt is now removed. (Z)

Democrats to Argue Florida Ballots in Court Today

No, not butterfly ballots. That was resolved, for better or worse, nearly 20 years ago. Today's question is about the order in which candidates' names appear on the ballot. Back in the 1950s, when Florida was dominated by the Democrats, the legislature passed a law that said that the presidential candidate of the party that controlled the governor's mansion would be listed first on general election ballots. Folks back then didn't have a term for it, but they still understood the benefits of position bias. Given that Florida elections tend to be razor-thin, and that the governor's mansion is currently occupied by Republican Ron DeSantis, the Democrats would like this law to be overturned as unconstitutional.

This is not the only iron the blue team has in the Florida fire, either. They are challenging a recently enacted law that limits early voting on college campuses, and another one that forces re-enfranchised felons to pay their court fees and costs before being allowed to vote again. As a reminder, the Sunshine State has 29 electoral votes; if you add them to Hillary Clinton's total from 2016, then the loss of any among Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, or North Carolina would send Donald Trump to defeat. This may just help explain why the Democrats have put together a legal team in Florida that dwarfs even the O.J. Simpson defense. (Z)

Vulnerable Election Software Will be Used in 2020

Almost all the software in voting machines, as well as in vote-counting machines, runs on Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system. When Windows 7 was released, Microsoft promised to support it and fix bugs and patch security holes for 10 years. The 10-year support period ends on Jan. 14, 2020, just before the first votes are cast in the 2020 elections. That means that if security vulnerabilities are reported after that date, Microsoft won't fix them. The consequence of this policy and the January 2020 end-of-life date (which has been known for a decade) is that if (Russian) hackers discover bugs in Windows 7 that allow them to compromise voting software, Microsoft won't repair them, since the company has long told everyone to switch to Windows 10, which came out in 2015 and will be supported for years to come.

A study by the AP has found multiple battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Arizona, and North Carolina, are using either voting machine or vote-counting software that runs on Windows 7. Three companies—Election Systems and Software, Hart Intercivic, and Dominion Voting Systems—dominate the election software industry, and the two former ones are based on Windows 7. Also, Dominion has some Windows 7 (and older) software on machines sold by companies it bought years ago. Together, the three of them comprise 92% of election systems nationwide. The companies are working on Windows 10 versions, but certification can take more than a year after the software is finished, and few counties have the funds to buy all new machines, even if they are more secure. The result of all this means that a great deal of the software involved in the voting process in 2020 will be on unsupported software that won't be patched when vulnerabilities are discovered.

The fault doesn't really lie with Microsoft, which can't be expected to support old products forever, and which gave notice of the 2020 end-of-life date for Windows 7 back in 2009. To a much greater extent, it lies with the three companies that sell election systems. They could have made new products using Windows 10 (or some version of UNIX or Linux) starting in 2015 and could have provided an upgrade path from older election software to newer software for existing machines, but they didn't think security was so important. Now it is probably too late to fix things on time. (V)

Sanders, Warren Voters Aren't All That Similar

Because they are both at the left end of the political spectrum, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tend to get lumped together, with the assumption being that they are chasing the same "progressive" voters. However, there are some pretty important differences between them. Sanders is further left than Warren is, is considerably more populist and, consistent with that populism, tends to think and speak much more in terms of social class. Warren is more pragmatic, and is more able to connect with voters who see the complexity of politics and of political issues.

Politico took a look at the cross-tabs of numerous national polls, and found that the differences between the two candidates are reflected in the demographics of their supporters. Sanders is doing better with voters who are low-education, working-class, young, and/or black, as well as those who don't pay close attention to politics. Warren is doing better with voters who are college graduates, middle- and upper-class, senior citizens, and/or women, as well as those who follow politics closely.

What this means is that, in theory, both candidates could remain viable for quite a while during primary season, divvying up the non-moderate vote. But if the moderate vote coalesces around a Joe Biden or a Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) or a Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), and Warren and Sanders are splitting what's left, then they and their supporters would effectively be rolling out the red carpet for that more centrist candidate to take the nomination. They may end up having a long, hard conversation after the first few primaries. (Z)

Monday Q&A

Lots of interest in ranked-choice voting, as it turns out.

With ranked-choice voting, do you have to rank all of the candidates? What if you find two or more candidates so distasteful that you'd rather your ballot be turned into an abstention rather than a vote for someone you don't want? M.F., Louisville, KY

You do not have to rank all the candidates since, as you observe, that could effectively put you in the position of being forced to vote for someone you don't want to vote for. So, if you leave one or more lines blank, your ballot becomes an abstention when and if your favored candidates are eliminated.

On the issue of ranked choice and third parties, I am surprised that your answer didn't use Australia as an example. There, third parties and independents got more than 25% of the vote this year—but a mere 6 out of 151 seats (and that includes independents that are about as independent as Bernie Sanders and Sen. Angus King, I-ME). C.S., Monmouthshire, Wales

When we put together the Q&A, we try to keep it from turning out too long. That day, we were already pushing our luck, so we skipped plans to include a paragraph or two about the weaknesses of ranked-choice voting.

Anyhow, as we pointed out generally, and as you point out with a specific example, ranked-choice voting does not generally allow for third-party candidates to win elections. This is predicted by Duverger's Law, which was formulated in the 1950s, and says that third-parties only have a real chance to win elections if: (1) the number of votes needed for election is pretty low, or (2) people can feel absolutely free to vote for their favorite choice.

The American system, of course, does not allow for candidates to be elected with a small number of votes, so condition #1 is not fulfilled. But what about condition #2; doesn't ranked choice allow for people to vote for their true favorites? Sometimes, but not always. Imagine a situation like what happened in the Louisiana governor's race in 1991, when polls had the corrupt Edwin Edwards at roughly 35%, the racist David Duke at 33%, and the ineffectual Buddy Roemer at 30%. If someone really wanted Roemer, but really, really did not want Duke, they might have to vote Edwards in first place, just to make sure they blocked Duke from winning.

There are other scenarios where ranked-choice voting breaks down a little (or a lot), but the point is that, consistent with theoretical predictions, it tends to keep the two-party system basically intact.

If ranked-choice voting did become widespread, and it became evident that third parties were pulling in a significant minority of the vote (either state- or nation-wide) but were nonetheless unable to capture legislative seats, do you think this could catalyze a move to a proportional representation system? S.K., Sunnyvale, CA

This would, of course, require a constitutional amendment. And the smart money always bets against a constitutional amendment happening, because the bar is so high. After all, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, and only 9 times in the last century. Oh, and very few of those amendments required the representatives, senators, and state legislators to support something that threatened to make it more difficult for them to win reelection, and thus required them to act against their own self-interest.

That said, the biggest overhauls in America's voting system happened in the early 20th century, when people concluded that allowing legislatures to pick U.S. Senators, and that stopping women from voting, were both generating problematic outcomes. Hence the adoption of the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators; 1912) and the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage; 1920). If ranked-choice becomes commonplace, and if it convinces large numbers of Americans that third-parties are getting short shrift, anything could happen.

As our federal system of government largely leaves it up to the states themselves to determine how their state governments are structured, is there anything that would prevent a state, such as my home state of Minnesota, from adopting a parliamentary system of government for itself? I'm keenly interested in this because parliamentary systems offer proportional representation, and the emergence of viable third parties (at the state level) would seem to be almost automatic, which I think would be good for democracy. I don't think I've ever heard anyone propose such a strategy but I find it very intriguing. B.N., Minneapolis, MN

Short answer: This is probably legal, should a state decide to try it.

Long answer: Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution is the so-called "guarantee clause," which says that "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." But what, exactly, does that mean? Well, the three fellows who wrote the Federalist Papers wrestled with that question in Federalist No. 39 (likely written by James Madison). What No. 39 says, in essence, is that direct democracy is a no-go, but beyond that, there are so many different kinds of republics, it's hard to define exactly what the guarantee clause actually guarantees. Since a parliamentary government is indeed a type of republic, and since Madison did not specifically put the kibosh on it, it implies that they would have been ok with that option.

There is also one particularly relevant court case, namely 1849's Luther v. Borden. In short, a bunch of non-rich people in Rhode Island felt (with justification) that they were not being properly represented in the state government (RI was the last state to adopt universal white male suffrage). So, the non-rich people rebelled and drew up their own constitution (this was called the Dorr Rebellion), and asked the Supreme Court to recognize it as the lawful constitution for the state. The Court said they were staying out of it, that this was a political question for Congress to resolve, and was non-justiciable.

So, if Minnesota tried to adopt a parliamentary system, the only entity that could theoretically stop them is Congress. And if Congress tried to stop them, that actually might be justiciable, since it would be a question about the meaning of the Guarantee Clause, as opposed to a political dispute between citizens of a state. In that scenario, Minnesota would probably prevail since, again, a parliamentary system is a form of republican government.

How likely is it that the Democratic candidates with almost no shot are staying in the primary race simply for the fundraising? One would assume that even a struggling presidential candidate would bring in much bigger national donation totals than a candidate running solely in a single state like Colorado, or Montana, or Texas? J.L., Los Angeles, CA

For fundraising? We would guess that is not the goal. Consider the following advertising pitches: (1) "Give me your hard-earned money so I can run a quixotic presidential campaign!" or (2) "Give me your hard-earned money so I can try to knock off one of the sitting GOP senators in hopes of getting Mitch McConnell out of power!" Which of those is more likely to cause people to get out their wallets? We would guess the latter.

That said, it is certainly the case that a presidential candidate gets more media coverage than a Senate/House candidate does, at least right now. So, if you theorized that one or more candidates was staying in the race for PR purposes, we could buy that.

If a tax is reduced to zero, is that not different from actually repealing it? So, if the Obamacare tax still exists, even though it is at an amount of $0.00, shouldn't I technically have to write a check for that amount and send it in, in order to be legally compliant with the current law? A bill for $0.00 is still an invoice, even though we do not write checks for it. But, for accounting purposes—we probably should. So, by my logic, just zeroing out a respective tax does not make it cease to exist. What are your views on this question? C.T.P., Lancaster, PA

We are in agreement with you. A tax bill of zero is not the same as "there is no tax."

If the various judges who consider the Obamacare case decide to strike it down, they are going to have to address that issue. We would suggest two others they will have to address, as well. The first is that, in theory, judges are supposed to consider the intent of Congress when interpreting laws. If Congress wanted to eliminate the tax, or to eliminate the law, they had the opportunity to do so, and (as we all recall from the dramatic John McCain thumbs down) they did not do it.

One could also argue that the concept of severability would apply here. This is the idea (consistent with the general preference for limited, instead of broad, rulings) that the courts should not strike down a whole law just because they find part of the law problematic. It is true that severability is itself open to interpretation, and that the court could determine that the tax is the foundation of Obamacare and is therefore inseverable. At very least, however, a ruling striking down Obamacare should explain the court's thinking on this issue.

Every year, another cohort of 18 year olds, who skew moderately Democratic, become eligible to vote and another cohort of older Americans, who skew moderately Republican, pass away. The conventional wisdom is that most people's political affiliations tend not to change as they get older. To what extent do these factors mean that the electorate will shift Democratic in coming years? Are there any data indicating that some people really do change their voting habits to become more conservative as they get older? How much should we look to the under 35 crowd to determine future trends? R.P., Brooklyn, NY

Quite a few folks have studied this, and the answer is...hazy. There is a rightward movement as people get older, but it's hard to tell if that is because they changed, or the parties did. It appears that if you take 500 20-year-old Democrats and 500 20-year-old Republicans, the latter faction will gain a net of one person per year, on average. That seems small, but over 50 years, it adds up.

With that said, several things are clear. The first is that the larger the number of young Democrats you start out with, the larger the number you end up with. And, by all indications, Donald Trump is creating young Democrats by the bushel. So, the effects of his presidency on the GOP will be felt for a long time. The second is that "the center" has drifted leftward over time; ideas that used to be radical (say, social security, or racial equality, or even a $15/hour minimum wage) are now mainstream. The third is that, in the last 30 years or so, the GOP has drifted pretty far rightward, as it played to rural whites and Christian evangelicals. This is not sustainable, long term, and is likely not sustainable for much more than another election cycle or two.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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