Biden 330
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Trump 208
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Dem 47
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GOP 53
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  • Strongly Dem (204)
  • Likely Dem (47)
  • Barely Dem (79)
  • Exactly tied (0)
  • Barely GOP (22)
  • Likely GOP (69)
  • Strongly GOP (117)
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      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls

Saturday Q&A

Given that we switched over to the general election map this week, there were lots of questions it inspired. So, we're going to go with a bunch of those; we'll do some more behind-the-scenes questions next week.

Q: Now that we're getting into the thick of polling, I was wondering to what degree we can combine polls to decrease their effective margin of error. Most polls I see have a margin of error of 3-4%, which I understand is primarily an artifact of the sample size. It is hard to resist the temptation to count a two percentage point lead as an actual lead as opposed to a statistical tie. But what happens when a bunch of independent polls show a consistent small lead within the margin of error?

Hypothetically, if one candidate had five polls from different organizations conducted over a short time (a week or two) and the results came back with very consistent data (like 2%, 3%, 1%, 2%, 2% leads) is there a way that we could combine those different polls and say that we've gone from a statistical tie (2% lead with 3% margin of error) to a small but real lead (2% lead with a 1.5% margin of error)?
S.V.E., Seattle, WA

A: It is true that having four or five polls with a similar result affords more confidence than one poll. That is why our map is based on all the recent polls that we can find, as opposed to just the single most recent poll. In particular, averaging the numbers will help correct for wonkiness in a particular poll's sample, or for possible errors in a particular pollster's methodology.

To a first approximation, averaging two polls with 500 respondents each is like using one poll with 1,000 respondents. The larger sample size thus reduces the margin of error. However, the margin of error is inversely proportional to the square root of the sample size, so to cut it in half, you need to quadruple the sample size.

However, the real error in polling isn't the statistical one created by a small sample. It is modeling error. No actual sample will have the right number of black seniors earning >$100K, the right number of millennial Latinas with a 4-year college degree, or the right number of noncollege white churchgoers. So every pollster "corrects" the sample to weight each demographic group in the sample to fit the pollster's model of the electorate—something that inherently cannot be known until the exit polls are published after Election Day. Different pollsters have different models of the electorate. By averaging all the polls within a week of the most recent one, we effectively smooth out differences in the pollsters assumptions. That's the best anyone can do.

That said, there are some things that will be missed even with an average of many polls. For example, if there is a significant shift in turnout among some segment of the electorate—say, 18-to-29-year-old turnout shoots up 15%—it's pretty hard for any pollster to catch that. They also can't predict Election Day issues. If, for example, it's pouring rain in Detroit when people are supposed to vote, that can absolutely skew the results in Michigan. Further, if there is some systemic reason that voters are misrepresenting their intentions, that is going to affect every pollster. In 2016, for example, some segments of the voting public were not entirely honest about their plans to vote for Donald Trump. For all these reasons, a 2% lead in the polls is never unequivocally "real."

Q: I understand your reasons for not placing Puerto Rico on the map. If you were going to put it on the map, where could you put it without causing confusion? Also, how do you think the response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria would have been different if Puerto Rico had been a state when they hit the island? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: Maybe this will seem like a weenie answer, but we almost certainly wouldn't be the ones to make this decision. Professional cartographers would reach a consensus on how to handle the addition of Puerto Rico, and then we would just copy them, in much the same manner that we, along with everyone else, show Alaska much smaller than it really is to keep the map manageable.

As to the hurricanes, it surely would have been a little more difficult, politically speaking, for the administration to look the other way. On the other hand, California is a full-fledged state, and Donald Trump has mocked it and withheld aid as it burned (on multiple occasions), so maybe things would not have been so different after all.

Q: What's going on with New Mexico? Why is it the only state where Donald Trump has improved on his numbers from 2016 by more than 1%? Even though Joe Biden is still ahead, what has Trump done right in New Mexico such that he's actually picking up votes? What do they see that the rest of the country does not? Could it possibly be the stupid wall?

I also find it odd that Trump's numbers are exactly the same and yet New Hampshire is flipping for him. Why is Biden so badly under-performing there (vs Clinton's numbers from 4 years ago)?
K.J., Atlanta, GA

A: The first part of your question is much easier to answer. In 2016, native son Gary Johnson was on the ticket as the Libertarian candidate and took 9% of the vote. Now a chunk of his vote has migrated to Trump, since some voters think the President is the best non-Johnson option. If the LP puts up a serious candidate, like Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), then some of that vote might migrate right back into the Libertarian column.

As to New Hampshire, our map is relying on only one poll, because all the others that have been done there are pretty old and stale by now. However, those five old and stale polls all had Biden leading, so it's likely that the UNH one we're using is just an outlier. You will also note that 10% of voters in the UNH poll were uncommitted; it's possible that some percentage of the voters are big fans of neighboring son Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and aren't quite ready to climb on board the S.S. Biden.

Q: Why is New Hampshire, a small New England state, generally so much more conservative than its immediate neighbor, Vermont, also a small New England state? Is something in their respective histories radically different? G.A., Berkeley, CA

A: We think the distinction between the two may not be so great as it seems. They both are known for their moderate politics, as well as a palpable libertarian streak, and something of a "throw the bums out" mentality. In New Hampshire, for example, the state House was won by the Democrats in 2008, then flipped Republican in 2010, then went back to the Democrats in 2014, then flipped GOP again in 2016, and was won by the Democrats once again in 2018. In Vermont, the governor's mansion has gone R-D-R-D-R-D-R-D-R-D-R since 1960. In the presidential races since 1948, Vermont went Republican four times, then Democratic once (LBJ), then Republican six times, then Democratic seven times. The only time New Hampshire differed was in 2000, when they went for George W. Bush while Vermont was giving its support to Al Gore.

To the extent that the Granite State skews a little bit more rightward than the Green Mountain State (and we would say it does, just a little bit), we have two explanations: (1) New Hampshire just so happens to be home to a Republican dynasty, namely the Sununus, who have likely helped the GOP claim a bit more than their fair share of victories, and (2) a sizable number of wealthy Republicans from Boston have formed exurbs in southeastern New Hampshire, just across the Massachusetts border. That would not be particularly meaningful in a more populous state, but in a state with 1.3 million people, the addition of 50,000 or so Republicans matters.

Q: I was looking at your general election map and I saw that quite a few states don't have any polls yet, so you're relying on 2016 election results for now. That makes sense in deep red and deep blue states—why would anyone bother to commission a poll in West Virginia, Wyoming, Oregon or Illinois? But I'm puzzled about Minnesota, where Clinton won a real squeaker in 2016. Do you have any insight into why there aren't any polls of Minnesota yet? D.R., Yellow Springs, OH

A: To start, for a poll to exist, someone has to pay for it. Quite often, this is a local news station or newspaper. Minnesota is a little short on such entities, relative to an Ohio or a North Carolina or a Pennsylvania.

Beyond that, Minnesota isn't quite large enough or quite swingy enough to be of enormous presidential interest quite yet. It doesn't have a gubernatorial race this year, while the Senate race does not appear to be competitive. So, there's nothing all that compelling to measure six months out from the election. Undoubtedly, this will change, with some of the national pollsters taking a look starting in the next month or two.

Q: Today the live map is a stark visual reminder of not only how polarized the country has become, but how that polarization lines up geographically (not earthshattering news, merely a reminder). How close do you think we are to states talking about or acting on secession? W.S., Norfolk, VA

A: Talking? That's already happening, because it's always happening. There have been literally hundreds of state-level secession movements in U.S. history. At the moment, there are at least ten active secessionist or separatist movements in the United States, among them the Vermont Independence Party, the New Confederate Army, and the Texas Nationalist Movement.

Acting? Not going to happen. It's true that the Confederacy seceded 160 years ago. However, the federal government has many more tools than it had back then to compel obedience to the union. Further, the states of the Confederacy were much more politically cohesive than even the reddest (or bluest) states today. In Donald Trump's best states (WV and WY), he got about 2/3 of the votes. In Hillary Clinton's best states (HI, CA, MD, MA), she got about 60%. In many of the Confederate states, the percentage of Democrats got into the nineties. Much easier to secede when only 5%-10% of the population objects, as compared to 30% or 40%.

Q: In a 'typical' state (whatever that is) which typically allows vote by mail, let's assume that I cast my ballot at the earliest possible date and then go about whatever business I might be pursuing. Sometime between posting my mail-in ballot and polls closing on Election Day, I contract COVID-19 and die. Can my vote be legally counted? D.M., Burnsville, MN

A: It depends on state law, but there are three different approaches. Most common is that if someone manages to get that ballot taken care of before they die, it counts, and that's that. Next most common is that if the ballot of a deceased person is challenged within a particular time frame (usually 48 hours after the election), then it can be tossed, but otherwise it counts. Least common is that the ballot is automatically invalid if the person dies, and no challenge is necessary. Of course, in this scenario, it is rather difficult for the state to become aware of what has happened, so the ballot is likely to get counted anyhow.

Q: The evidence that Donald Trump has made many errors in handling the COVID-19 crisis keeps piling up. This includes his daily public lying about what has happened. Is it possible that some group of injured people or lawyers could sue Trump for his incompetence, neglect and dishonesty? Is there some way someone can bring this man to justice when people are dying because of him? D.K., Iowa City, IA

A: In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that a president cannot be sued civilly for actions taken while in office and performing official acts. Criminal suits, civil suits involving unofficial acts committed while in office (say, sexual harassment), and civil suits involving acts committed before or after being in office, are all fair game.

So, if someone wants to try to sue Trump, they basically have three options. The first would be to sue him civilly for his actions as president, and to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider Nixon v. Fitzgerald. It was a 5-4 decision, so maybe they'd overturn it, but with this particular court (which favors a pretty expansive idea of presidential power) it seems unlikely. The second option would be to argue that since the President is not a physician or scientist, his proffering of medical advice is an unofficial act and so is subject to legal proceedings. That would be a hard sell, but it's an argument. The third option would be to convince a DA or grand jury to bring criminal charges against Trump, perhaps something along the lines of involuntary manslaughter for the man who took chloroquine phosphate and died after listening to the President. We all know, from Ukrainepot Dome, about the challenges of bringing criminal charges against a sitting president. If it waits until after he leaves office, then it would still be a tough legal hill to climb, but maybe an ambitious and skilled prosecutor could make it fly.

Q: Whatever happened to Rudy Giuliani? I bring it up because you wrote that "As you may have noticed, neither Joe or Hunter Biden holds a political office right now, which means that they have no role in the government's management (or mismanagement) of the pandemic." But with respect to Giuliani, he didn't hold a political office yet was VERY involved in the government's response to...Joe Biden in Ukraine. E.W., Ann Arbor, MI

A: Well, like any White House, this administration does not openly announce when someone has become too much of a liability, and that they're being put out to pasture. However that is surely what happened with Rudy. Given his habit of running his mouth, and his sometimes hazy mental state, he embarrassed the administration numerous times. Further, despite massive Republican protestations to the contrary, he was a very visible reminder of Donald Trump's biggest fiasco prior to COVID-19. And so, he's been sent back to New York, where he does his little podcast, and that's that. Maybe after he's cooled his jets for a few months, he might be sent out on the campaign trail, but we doubt it.

Q: I may be missing some big pieces here, since I don't follow social media, don't watch much TV, and get my news generally from a few trusted mainstream sources, but I have to wonder...where the hell is Joe Biden? Where the hell are Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), and Pete Buttigieg? Where the hell are Mike Bloomberg and his millions of TV dollars? Donald Trump gets two hours to blather on national TV every day, and I haven't seen even a peep from anyone on the other team for two weeks. Obviously Biden can't hold a press conference from his front porch every day (or could he?). Why isn't the DNC making grandiose ads about how we're all in this together, featuring clips of all the former candidates and lots of good-for-image ordinary Americans? It seems to me that they are ceding the entire media landscape to DJT and letting him write the narrative, whichever narrative pops into his head at any given moment. Why do you think the blue team would be dithering so much and not doing anything productive? M.B., Cleveland, OH

A: There are probably a few minor considerations here. While Biden, for example, can command a national platform anytime he wants, someone like Buttigieg or Klobuchar probably can't, unless they are doing something newsworthy like holding a major rally (which they obviously can't do right now). Further, there is a risk of appearing gauche and trying to cash in on a national tragedy. It is also the case that ads or television hits in September are more impactful than those in April.

However, our guess is that the paramount reason the Democrats are being pretty quiet right now is that they think Trump is doing himself a lot more harm than good, and they are staying out of the way to let him shoot himself in the foot as many times as is possible. The best Democratic strategy now may be to record all of his public statements, capture all of his tweets, and put every document that comes out of the White House in a database so ads can be crafted for September using his own words. It's not just the blue team that thinks this, by the way. Even Trump's aides and allies are pleading with him to stop his daily briefings because he keeps embarrassing himself and providing ammo for the other side.

Q: I was intrigued by your suggestion that Michelle Obama might agree to run for VP just to help get rid of Trump, even though she doesn't want the job. Is it possible she could run on Biden's ticket, get elected, then resign a week or so later? In that case, invoking the 25th Amendment, Biden could nominate a new VP subject to majority-vote confirmations by both Houses of Congress. The Democrats would be criticized for pulling a "trick" like that, but Republicans have done far worse things and gotten away with them. (The name "McConnell" comes to mind.) What is your opinion? J.C., Swampscott, MA

A: We thought about including this possibility in that piece. Our opinion is that Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, would simply not be comfortable with this kind of obvious abuse of the system. Remember that her best-known quote is: "When they go low, we go high." The only version of this we can even conceive of is that she serves some sizable chunk of time (1-2 years) and then resigns.

Q: After reading your piece regarding Tara Reade, I decided to watch the full, nearly-twenty-minute interview with her that is available on YouTube. And I have to admit, she seemed extremely credible.

This doesn't change how I'll vote. I'm all about electing women. Not dealing with sexual assaulters will just be one more reason we'll all be better off with everyone getting equal representation, with a particular focus on women. But the question here, mired at the end of these comments as it may be is: Can either of you watch this interview and actually continue to doubt Tara Reade's credibility?
D.L., Cary, NC

A: We do not love taking a side that appears to be anti-Tara Reade, but we got a lot of questions of this sort this week, referencing either this interview Reade did with Democracy Now! or this lengthy video from Current Affairs entitled "Debunking The Criticisms of Joe Biden Accuser Tara Reade," or this piece from The Intercept, where they have located a clip from the show "Larry King Live" where an unnamed woman whom Reade has identified as her mother called in and asked some fairly broad questions about a "prominent senator" and sexual harassment.

In any event, we say again that it is certainly possible that Reade is telling the truth. And we pass along all these links so people can investigate for themselves, if they wish. However, it remains entirely reasonable to still have doubts about the veracity of her story. There are two broad sets of reasons this is the case, one general and one specific. We will start with the general one, which is the inherently unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. Some people are extremely good liars. Others are good at self-deception, which means that they have convinced themselves that they are speaking the truth, even if they are not.

Perhaps most importantly, human memory is notoriously fallible, particularly after 30 years have elapsed. As we have pointed out several times, it may be that Reade and Biden have wildly different accounts of events, and yet both of them believe firmly that they are being 100% truthful. This happens all the time. All of these problems (and others) are why lie detector tests are not reliable enough to be admitted in court (in most cases). More importantly, this is why just about any court case involves hearing from multiple witnesses, as it is unlikely there is a single, objective truth (and even if there is, there's no foolproof way to know who's telling it).

Meanwhile, the specific reasons have to do with the peculiarities of Reade's journey. It is the case that her story has changed a number of times. It is also the case that she's been erratic in other areas of life. She's shown behaviors inconsistent with her claims, up to and including going on Twitter to celebrate Biden's work on combating sexual harassment. There are also questions about how this could have happened in a public space with nobody noticing, as well as questions about why there have been no other charges leveled against Biden (since sexual predators never commit a single act and leave it at that).

Again, none of this definitively disproves what Reade is saying. But there are certainly enough red flags, both of a general and a specific nature, that one can remain cautious about the veracity of what she's saying. We will say also that (Z) did watch the interview and thought that Reade seemed a little rehearsed, and that a few moments struck a false note. Sometimes that happens because someone is nervous, and sometimes it happens because they are fudging things. Your mileage obviously varies, but that was his subjective response.

And finally, given that all the sites that continue to emphasize this story were (and are) outspoken in their support of Bernie Sanders, we wonder what the goal is here. It certainly looks like an attempt to destroy Biden, force the Democratic Party to dump him, and thus clear the way for the Vermont Senator to rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but if there is, we've missed it. In any event, there is zero chance this is actually going to happen, for a number of reasons. Among them, lest we forget, is that the Senator also has some baggage in this area.

Q: I read Adam Liptak's article about the Supreme Court's decision in Ramos v. Louisiana and could not figure out the following: "The case, Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18-5924, was in one sense mere constitutional housekeeping. The Supreme Court has long held that non-unanimous verdicts are forbidden under the Sixth Amendment in federal criminal trials."

How does the sixth amendment require unanimous verdicts? I don't see it in the actual text. I would love to hear your opinions on the rest of this matter. The ruling on this case has many twists and turns, including overturning a precedent that will likely come up again.
M.M., Gaston, OR

A: This is the result of the Court's ruling in Patton v. United States (1930). Making the sort of ruling that SCOTUS has made many, many times, the Court decided in that case that the meaning of the Sixth Amendment was rooted in the contemporaneous understanding of English common law when the Amendment was adopted. Since English common law requires unanimous juries, the conclusion was that the Founding Parents intended federal jury verdicts to be unanimous.

You're right that Ramos was a little unusual, particularly given how the 6-3 vote came down. In the majority were Neil Gorsuch, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas, which is a grouping you won't often see. They argued, in brief, that holding states to the federal standard (jury verdicts must be unanimous) was the correct way to read the law. In the minority were John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan, who argued that existing precedent (namely Apodaca v. Oregon, 1972, which allowed non-unanimous state-level convictions) should be upheld.

We are not so sure this is going to come up again, though. When Evangelisto Ramos was convicted, only Louisiana and Oregon allowed non-unanimous criminal convictions. Since then, Louisiana has changed its constitution. So, to a large extent, the ruling applied only to your home state of Oregon.

Q: This question is for (Z). Since you teach a college course in conspiracy theories, do you find a lot of students take the course believing in these things? If so, what argument do you find the most effective to prove how insane most of the CTs are?

On the flip side, what do you think was the biggest secret that the government has tried unsuccessfully to hide from us? Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers? Agent Orange? My Lai? Gulf of Tonkin? Watergate? Or one I've missed?
D.E., Lititz, PA

A: Most students do not openly express their belief in conspiracy theories, though they could be keeping things to themselves for fear of making a bad impression on their professor or their fellow students. In any case, broadly speaking, the most compelling argument—students or no—is the observation that a conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest link, and that something like the moon landing conspiracies would require many hundreds or thousands of people to remain silent for the rest of their lives, foregoing the massive riches and attention that could be theirs if they spilled the beans. There are also arguments that work well for specific conspiracies. For example, most folks who engage in 9/11 trutherism have been persuaded by one of the series of YouTube films entitled "Loose Change." These folks rarely have a good answer for this question: "Do you imagine the federal government has the means to pull off something like 9/11, while at the same time being utterly powerless to remove an incriminating video from YouTube?"

You've got a pretty good list of things the government unsuccessfully tried to hide, though many of those things were spilled as a result of the Pentagon Papers. Outside of the Vietnam stuff, we might say the Bay of Pigs, or perhaps Operation Ajax or Operation Condor.

Q: No political party lasts forever. The 19th century saw two major political parties—the Federalists and the Whigs—disappear entirely, with both demises occurring fairly rapidly. Do you see any parallels between those disappearances and the Republican party today? If there are parallels, what are they, and what would replace the Republican party? If there are not parallels, why not? M.W., Richmond, VA

A: We're going to start the answer with the illustration that (Z) often uses with students. Imagine that a politician announced a run for office tomorrow, and said that his main campaign planks are: (1) reining in big business, (2) preserving our natural environment, and (3) strong protections for American consumers. That person sounds like an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders clone, right? And yet, those were the core elements of the Square Deal, which Republican Theodore Roosevelt ran on (successfully) in 1904.

The collapse of the Federalist Party came because it was not well suited to a country with universal white male suffrage, and because people of that era were suspicious of parties anyhow. The collapse of the Whigs came because they could not cope with slavery, but by then the two-party system was so established that it was quickly replaced by a different national party, namely the Republicans.

Where this leaves us, and the point of our opening illustration, is that major parties no longer collapse and disappear, they merely evolve. Lincoln's Republican Party was not the same as Theodore Roosevelt's, which was not the same as Dwight D. Eisenhower's, which was not the same as Donald Trump's. Same for the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson versus that of Grover Cleveland versus that of Franklin D. Roosevelt versus that of Bill Clinton. That is why most scholars say the U.S. is on its sixth party system (Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans, Democrats vs. Whigs, and then four different configurations of Democrats vs. Republicans). Some, and (Z) is among this number, believe that the Seventh Party System is now commencing.

So, if you could climb in your DeLorean and jump 50 years into the future, would you learn that one of the two major parties of 2020 no longer exists? Almost certainly not. But would the Republicans and Democrats of 2070 be noticeably different from today? Yes. In the end, it's really the same process that took place with the Federalists and Whigs, sans name change.

Q: Had the Civil War ended in the South winning, is there any chance that slavery would still be legal?

I just finished a book called The Underground Airlines which imagines that the Crittenden Compromise was adopted to avoid the war, and a group of Southern states (the "Hard Four") remain slave states to this day. Is this alternative plausible alternative reality for a country that would elect Trump?
R.J., Hong Kong

A: First of all, allow us to point out that slavery remains legal in the United States, in the specific (and sole) case of incarcerated prisoners. Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

That said, we understand you're referring to the more general institution of slavery, involving people who have committed no crime. The standard answer to your question is that the last country in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate slavery was Brazil in 1888, and that slavery was therefore simply unable to survive in the west much beyond the 1860s. The problem is that Brazil ended slavery in a world that was without its most prominent slave power, namely the United States. If slavery had survived the 1860s in the United States, maybe it would have survived the 1890s in Brazil, and lingered on into the 20th century in both places.

With that said, we very seriously doubt the institution could have survived in the U.S. into the present. First of all the events of the early 20th century undermined most forms of feudal relationships, and probably would have struck a mortal blow to slavery by the end of World War I, if it still existed. Further, it is likely that Southerners would have figured out that sharecropping is a much less difficult way of accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish, namely tying black folks to the land and extracting most of the value of their labor.

Today's Presidential Polls

Trump is right back at his 2016 number in New Mexico, according to the latest poll of the state, so maybe—in contrast to our answer above—he hasn't attracted any of Gary Johnson's former support at all.

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Florida 46% 43% Apr 18 Apr 21 Fox News
New Mexico 52% 40% Apr 20 Apr 21 PPP
Texas 44% 49% Apr 10 Apr 19 YouGov

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