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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Some readers have asked for weekend postings, in general, while others have specifically asked that the Q&A be moved in order to give more time to read. So, we're going to try this out, and see how it works. One upside of doing it this way, at the very least, is that we can answer more questions. That is good, because we are getting a lot of good questions these days.

You have mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt a few times as an example of a Progressive who came to power when white nationalism was swelling in the face of hardship. I see Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as people who could take up FDR's torch and bring Progressive change to our country to affect very major changes that would help the average citizen. So, my questions: Did FDR campaign on all the programs he implemented, including all the picky details? Or did he campaign on vague descriptions of policy goals? How did he "sell" his ideas? Are the media environment and the electorate so different today that FDR's approach would not work? Or is there something that today's Progressives could learn from FDR's success? C.W., Haymarket, VA

FDR absolutely campaigned on specific policy ideas; there was no secret about what he and the Democratic Party represented in the election of 1932. For example, here is the text of the speech he gave in Detroit, MI on October 2, 1932. As with any campaign speech, he focused on the issues that mattered to that particular audience, and did not reiterate the entire Democratic platform. However, if you read through it, FDR lays out his broad philosophy of social justice and combating poverty, and also discusses specific initiatives he plans to pursue. For example, starting with the last paragraph on page 7, he talks at length about what would become the Social Security Act.

FDR also had a couple of other things going for him in that regard. The first is that he'd spent a couple of years as governor of New York, and had already implemented, on the state level, a number of the reforms that would eventually be part of the New Deal on the national level. The second is that there were a lot of activists back then who were rallying support for these sorts of programs. Social Security, for example, was straight from the advocacy of Francis Townsend, whose "Townsend Plan" essentially boiled down to: "Let's give money to old people every month." This led to the formation of over 3,000 Townsend Plan Clubs, which were a ready-made base of support for the Social Security Act.

If Warren and Sanders wanted to learn from FDR's example, we would suggest the following: FDR did not lie about what he planned to so, but he did know that change is hard for people. So, he did a very good job of explaining to the people what he planned to do, and why. Sanders and Warren are getting better on that front, but they need to be clearer, for example, about the fact that they would get rid of private insurance, but why that's not a bad thing because total health-care costs would go down.

Another thing that FDR was very good at was conveying a basic sense of pragmatism. He made clear that his ideas were evidence-based, famously describing the states as "laboratories of democracy." And he also proposed that if something didn't work out, it would be abandoned. That didn't often happen, but the fact that the possibility was on the table assuaged people's fears. It's also worth noting that the first wave of reforms that FDR implemented upon taking office, which we now call the First New Deal, were somewhat limited. Things like the bank holiday and the PWA (1 million jobs). He didn't really start to swing for the fences until late 1934 and 1935, with what we now call the Second New Deal. That's when the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act (labor unions are now legal!), the WPA (8 million jobs) and other far-reaching programs were implemented. It may not be practical to implement something like Medicare for All in steps, the way the New Deal was. However, Warren and Sanders could do a better job of communicating to voters that the changes they propose are not as big and scary as they seem, and that whatever they might do is a draft in progress, subject to revision when we learn what problems have presented themselves.

¡Hola! Why have you left off Puerto Rico from your calendar map? The outgoing governor moved the date of the primary from June to March 29th. With 59 delegates (more than many of the other states/territories), Puerto Rico is even more relevant than previously and may very well be the deciding factor. R.V., San Juan, Puerto Rico

The answer is probably what you suspect: The map is actually designed to reflect electoral votes, and we just hacked it to show primaries. While Puerto Rico could be drawn in somewhere near Florida, depicting Democrats Abroad, which represents the Democrats among the circa 10 million American citizens who live in other countries, and which gets to send 17 voting delegates to the DNC, would be tricky. We'll think about how to get Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariannas, and Democrats Abroad on the site somewhere.

Seeing that only 10 people qualified for the third debate, I feel that it might have been fair to include all 10 on the map that you just updated. Instead, you selected just 9 candidates, which resulted in me comparing your list to those who qualified. Julián Castro is not on my radar, but couldn't you have fit one more name on there? Or was it that spacing really was so very limited that he was dropped? V.L., Honolulu, HI

You've got the right of it. We've tried to design the site to accommodate many different kinds of readers, including those who use tablets and smartphones. There's a limit on how wide the page can get, which means that every name we add forces us to make the remaining names smaller. If we had added Castro, on the basis that he made the debate cut, then there would also be an argument for Tom Steyer, plus anyone else who makes it back on stage for debate four.

In view of this, we determined that nine was the upper limit, given the space constraints and the desire to keep fonts from becoming unreadably small. And then we went with the nine folks who are polling the best. Needless to say, if developments in the next few months demonstrate the error of our ways, we'll make adjustments. In particular, if Castro somehow gets delegates and, say, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) does not, then Booker will be jettisoned. That said, it has been a very long time since 8 or 9 or 10 different candidates got delegates. In fact, that might never have happened. Usually, Iowa and New Hampshire kind of clear out the chaff.

Is the point of political rallies mostly for the people who aren't there (watching on tv or reading about it later)? Speaking completely anecdotally, I know plenty of people that attend these events, but I've never known anyone that went who wasn't already in the bag for the person they were seeing. It seems unlikely that a ton of undecideds are going to a Donald Trump rally or Bernie event to learn new information. Is this just so candidates have a place talk about their ideas for the national audience? Or a way to keep supporters enthusiastic enough to keep opening their wallets? N.R., Boston, MA

To start, most rallies are not televised, beyond perhaps a brief clip. That even applies to Trump rallies these days, which do not get covered by any national outlet anymore (One America News Network does cover them all, from beginning to end, but is in less than 20% of American homes). They also don't get all that much coverage in print, since the similarity of rally after rally means there is not much to say.

So whatever is to be gained from rallies is to be gained from the people in attendance. And at this point, we would say there's a distinction to be drawn between a candidate who is making their first serious run for national office, and a candidate who is already nationally famous. In the former case, we believe that there are at least some folks in the crowd who are undecided, and want to see what the candidate is all about. In fact, we know that's true because (Z) went to several rallies for various candidates in 2016, in his capacity as a political writer, historian, and citizen, before deciding which candidate to back. And one major item of business at these rallies, besides the speakers, was collecting attendees' contact information. In short, there is a point in the process where the purpose of a rally really is to win people over and to build up a base of voters and donors (while also inspiring the true believers in attendance, of course).

However, once a candidate is well established, like Trump and Sanders are, these purposes surely shrink in significance or disappear entirely. Both of them have plenty of donors and plenty of contact info, and a few thousand more e-mail addresses or cell phone numbers are a drop in the bucket. With them, the purpose is almost entirely to fire up the true believers, so those folks remain motivated to evangelize the cause, to write the biggest possible donation checks, and to volunteer for the campaign. In Trump's case, in particular, the rallies also serve the purpose of feeding his ego. Indeed, the President seems to be such an unhappy man, overall, that the only two circumstances where we are certain he is actually happy are when he's rallying and when he's golfing.

You mentioned again that Joe Biden did poorly in the debate, and Warren much better. You've also mentioned a few times the potential issues of septuagenarian candidates. But considering the disparity in male and female actuarial tables, which also has an impact on cognitive decline, isn't it true that to the extent that age is an issue for Trump, Biden, and Sanders, Warren, being a woman, is better able to handle aging, and it's not as big of a deal that she's 70+? J.C., Haimen, China

Needless to say, any actuarial table or study of cognitive ability speaks to general trends. There are plenty of 90-year-olds who are razor sharp, and plenty of 50-year-olds where the cheese is already slipping off the cracker.

That said, your basic point is absolutely correct. Women do, in general, suffer cognitive decline later than men do. Given that, as well as the fact that Warren is six years younger than Biden is, then it is fair to say that age is less likely to be an issue for her than it is for him. That conclusion is also supported by the evidence. One does not see stories about Warren rambling, or grossly misstating facts, or otherwise seeming fuzzy-headed. With Biden, on the other hand, those stories are something of a regular occurrence, particularly after each debate. It's possible that there is some non-cognitive-decline-related reason for his verbal woes—he has a stuttering problem, he is suffering from some physical malady, he is not a night owl, he gets overheated under the lights, etc. Unfortunately for him, such excuses, don't fly with the voters. They want to be sure that when that dreaded 3 a.m. phone call from the NSA comes in, the president doesn't mumble: "Call me in the office at 9. Bye." He or she has to be sharp 24/7.

How are people actually contacted for polls? I've gotten SMSes and emails for political-looking polls, but the pollster hasn't been listed, even when clicking through to the survey site, so I've treated them like phishing messages and ignored them. Is there a chance that any of these have been legitimate polls, or are the legitimate ones going to identify themselves much more clearly? D.C., San Francisco, CA

Pollsters who work via phone make random phone calls, of course. Those who work via Internet, like YouGov, try to build up a stable of respondents (like the Nielsen TV folks do), and will also solicit people via e-mail message. They do not hide who they are, however, and you are right in thinking that any pollster who hides their identity is running some sort of scam (either they are push polling, or are ads in the guise of polls, or something like that).

In particular, it is inconceivable that a legit pollster would use text messages to recruit people. The subset of folks who understand, use, and respond to text messages would be so skewed as to be basically useless as a polling sample. For that reason (skewed demographics), as well as several others, even the best-run online polls should be treated with at least a little bit of caution. As an experiment, (Z) once answered an invite from a legitimate online pollster, but adopted the identity most likely to cause his votes to be overweighted (an 80-year-old black woman living in Denver). As part of the 100-or-so question process for signing up, they snuck in a few questions that were obviously designed to test that identity. For example: "Do you prefer the music of Aretha Franklin or John Lennon?" However, those were easy to answer "correctly." Undoubtedly, there must be a few outright liars in any sample used by one of those pollsters.

You have mentioned a few times how Chief Justice John Roberts is the "guardian" of the Supreme Court and wants to maintain its reputation. This made me wonder, how is the Chief Justice for the Supreme Court chosen? And what would make their term end? In the end, what I am wondering, is there any way Donald Trump would get to pick or have influence of who the next Chief Justice would be? R.A., Halifax, Canada

We'll answer your question out of order, because it works best that way. John Roberts will remain Chief Justice until he dies, resigns, or is impeached and convicted. Since no SCOTUS justice has ever been impeached and convicted, and since the Senate would definitely never do that right now, you can effectively reduce that list to two: Roberts has to resign or die.

There is no indication that the Chief Justice is in poor health. In fact, he appears to be an unusually fit 64 year old. There is also no indication that he plans to leave his job anytime soon. So, barring something very unexpected, Trump will have no influence over Roberts' replacement. When Roberts does step down, then whoever is in the White House at that point will nominate his replacement. Sometimes, the nominee is an associate justice who is "promoted." Such was the case with Roberts' predecessor, William Rehnquist, who was appointed as an associate justice by Richard Nixon and then as chief justice by Ronald Reagan. However, that only happens about one time in four. And given the present-day desire to influence the court for as long as possible with a justice who is as young as possible, it is likely that Roberts' eventual successor will be a judge from the lower courts with 5-10 years of experience.

Your item about Trump trying to tackle homelessness in California overlooked a significant political issue—federalism. Under what authority would the federal government be operating on the streets of Los Angeles or San Francisco? State and federal laws are quite distinct and there are a number of areas where there is no federal authority. For example, there is no federal loitering law; the only related authority on this issue is in the California Penal Code. As a Los Angeles County prosecutor, I have worked with federal law enforcement before, but they utilized California law and used the local county court in a criminal context. It may be possible Trump is ordering federal assistance in a non-criminal context, but it would still need to be coordinated with local authorities or relief agencies. What do you guys think? S.B., Los Angeles, CA

We appreciate the benefit of your experience, which is obviously more extensive than ours in this area. And we agree entirely with you: There are some enormous obstacles here. We may have dwelled on them a bit too briefly in the original item, so let's try to be a little more organized and comprehensive here:

  • Legal Issues: There is little in American law that allows the federal government to round people up merely on the basis of their being homeless. And to the extent that the laws can be made to serve that goal, they are state and local laws, not federal. Ergo, the administration has virtually no authority here, something you think they would have learned from the "sanctuary cities" issue.

  • Lack of Cooperation: As you note, sometimes a state will help the feds with what they're trying to accomplish. But there are few states, if any, that have as acrimonious a relationship with the Trump administration as California does. If the local politicians play ball with Team Trump on this, they will be crucified at the polls.

  • Where Do They Go?: Trump has spoken vaguely of building federal housing for the homeless. In fact, there's a theory floating around that this whole thing is an effort to drum up business for some of his real-estate-development buddies. Even if the administration gets that through Congress, however, building new housing for homeless people is politically fraught. As with prisons, there is a strong Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) dimension to all of this, as even the people who might like to see low-income housing built do not wish to see it built anywhere near where they themselves live. And if you put the housing where it will make the NIMBY folks happy (like, say, Bakersfield), then you're putting people in a place where they don't want to live, and where jobs will be hard to get.

  • The Homeless Themselves: As we noted in the original item, a lot of people are homeless because they have significant issues, like mental illness or drug addictions. Others are homeless because they prefer it. Undoubtedly, there are some folks who just need a place to stay while they get back on their feet. But anyone who thinks you can take 140,000 (the estimated number of homeless people in California) and multiply it by some amount of money, and "poof!" the problem is solved, has no idea what they are talking about.

At this point, we suspect that we (and you) have put more thought into this than the President has. This bears every sign of an idea he came up with and tossed out there, and that will go nowhere.

Other than him saying it, why should we believe Mitch McConnell is bothered by the moniker "Moscow Mitch"? He knows he has a terrible approval rating, he's proud of being the "grim reaper" of the do-nothing Senate, but he's supposedly bothered by name calling by people who wouldn't support him anyway? Seems like crocodile tears from a generally shrewd and unflappable politician—something for people to focus on while he continues to undo the "world's greatest deliberative body." M.W., Tucker, GA

On some level, this is a gut-instinct kind of call. We listened to the interview, and he really seemed salty about it. Beyond that, however, even if he's not actually upset about it, he should be. "Moscow Mitch" is simple and easy to remember (it's even alliterative!). And it squeezes a lot of the criticism of him—he's a traitor, he won't protect American elections, he's Donald Trump's lap dog—into a small space. There's every chance it could be as damaging for him as "flip-flopper" was for John Kerry, or "wimp" was for George H. W. Bush, or "Tricky Dick" was for Richard Nixon. After all, it's not just McConnell haters who hear the nickname being used, it's fence-sitting voters, as well.

I'm wondering about whether a state party cancelling its primary is actionable in any way. Say I'm a registered Republican from Arizona who dislikes Mr. Trump. Would that give me standing to sue? Y.D., Nantucket, MA

Obviously, a lot of lawyers make their money finding ways to sue when a lawsuit seems impossible. So, never say never. However, political parties have awfully wide latitude in deciding how they conduct their business, including how they nominate candidates. Indeed, a political party could get away with things that most other public entities could not. For example, if the Ku Klux Klan wanted to establish a party that nominated only white Christian men for office, that would probably pass muster, on the basis of First Amendment protections of free speech.

If someone was going to sue, and have a real chance of winning, they would have to argue that the party violated its own rules. And, as chance would have it, that may have happened in South Carolina. Per the terms of the document that governs the state party, the primary can only be cancelled by a vote of the state GOP convention, either one or two years prior to the election. However, in this case, no such vote took place, and the state executive committee assumed authority it does not have in canceling the primary. So, the courts may just get a say in this one.

I've noticed a pretty consistent talent Donald Trump possesses: the ability to distract the electorate ("Look, a squirrel!") whenever he wants/needs to. Last week, when it became apparent the NC-09 race was continuing to poll exceptionally closely, I figured The Donald would want something to distract from a possible GOP loss there. Presto! John Bolton is let go on election morning, guaranteeing that regardless of the NC-09 outcome, Bolton would lead Tuesday night's and Wednesday morning's newscasts. So my question: How close to 100% would you place the likelihood that Trump decided to Bolton quite some time ago, but held onto it until he needed his next major distraction? G.R., Clive, IA

Maybe 30%? You're right, Trump does sometimes keep distractions—including staff terminations—in his pocket, to be deployed at just the right time. However, while Bolton might be a warmonger, he's also a very smart guy. If he was about to get axed, he likely would have picked up on that and resigned, to save face. Further, the available evidence indicates that the former NSA was being included in everything he was supposed to be included in, until he had a big argument with the President about Iran, and then his head was promptly lopped off.

In short, this does not seem to fit the usual "distraction" pattern, which is why we set the percentage fairly low. That said, it is definitely possible that Trump got angry after the argument with Bolton, started to think about firing him, and the possibility of distracting from the election result cinched the decision. Only the Donald knows for sure.

The vote margin in NC-09 was almost 4,000 votes compared to just under 1,000 in the 2018 election. This seemed odd, given the vote tampering in the first election, so I inferred that this was a bad sign for Democratic enthusiasm in the district. But then I noticed that the total votes cast were almost 90,000 lower. Special elections are always quirky, with lower turnout, but are there any meaningful conclusions from the wider Republican margin? R.J., Nantucket, MA

Undoubtedly, there are meaningful conclusions to be drawn. The problem is, we won't know which were the correct ones until it was too late.

On one hand, it could be that Donald Trump's rally really had an effect. We're skeptical (see above), but there's no good way to know for sure. Similarly, it could be that the GOP is bouncing back in the suburbs (or the sun belt) a bit, and this election showed that. If either of these things is true, it is good news for the Republican Party.

On the other hand, it was a special election that, as you noted, drew far fewer people than a normal election would. Generally speaking, Republican true believers are more likely to show up for wonky elections than Democratic true believers are. Bishop campaigned like a machine, and he benefited from very high name recognition. He's also famously anti-LGBTQ in a state that has significant anti-LGBTQ sentiment. So, it could be that the factors that got Bishop elected will be all-but-irrelevant in 2020, particularly in districts that are not NC-09.

On the third hand, it's possible that Dan McCready, while he lost, actually overperformed. He did, after all, lose an R+8 district by two points. If he did overperform, is it because he was a good candidate who ran a good campaign? Or is it because national trends favor the Democratic Party? The election that this one resembles, in many ways, is the one that Democrat Jon Ossoff lost in GA-06 in 2017, despite enormous national interest and gobs of money. After the GOP held on to win that one by two points, party pooh-bahs breathed a sign of relief. Then, about a year later, a blue wave emerged, and GA-06 was flipped along with dozens of other districts. So, there could be a silver lining here for the blue team.

One of these three paragraphs is probably on target. And right around November 4, 2020, we'll be able to say which one it was. Until then, well, that's the problem with a data set of one (or two, if you count NC-03).

Will anyone televise debates for the 3 Republican challengers if Trump won't show up? Maybe some Democrats could debate them, too. B.P., Salt Lake City, UT

We are skeptical about Democratic participation, since that would look gimmicky for both the hosting network and the participating Democrats. The U.S. has virtually no history of cross-party presidential debates before the nominees are chosen.

However, we have no doubt that many networks would be interested in hosting a Republican candidates' debate, even sans Trump. In fact, they would be accused of bias if they refused to do so, since they're making time in their schedule for a dozen Democratic debates. And, obviously, the GOP candidates would show up, as they would welcome the exposure. So, we're betting it happens. If the moderators avoid the standard approach ("what is your stance on...") and instead treat the primary (and thus the debate) as a referendum on Donald Trump, then sparks could really fly. Can you imagine what the President would do, for example, if Fox News televised two hours of Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld taking potshots at him?

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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