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• Saturday Q&A
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Programming Note: We'll profile both Stacey Abrams and Susan Rice tomorrow.
The New York Times is leading today with a story about possible misuse of the USPS to suppress the November vote and help Donald Trump's reelection. Trump has long complained about the Postal Service because he falsely believes that it is undercharging Amazon, thus boosting Amazon's profits and thus the value of the stock owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns his nemesis, The Washington Post. Actually, package delivery is one of the few areas where the USPS makes a profit. If Trump were really concerned about it operating more like a business, he would demand that it drastically raise postage rates for letters in big rural states like Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, where the USPS loses millions of dollars. Of course that is where his voters live, so that wouldn't be so popular.
Nevertheless, Trump is cunning enough to turn a lemon into lemonade. The new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, is a major campaign donor. In fact, he gave so much money that he is entitled to a twofer: In addition to the PG appointment, his wife, Aldona Wos, has been nominated to be ambassador to Canada. No, make that is a threefer: DeJoy used to be CEO of a company, XPO, that provides extensive transport services to the Postal Service and he still owns somewhere between $25 million and $50 million in XPO stock, putting him in a position to do some lucrative self dealing, making him a smart businessman in Trump's eyes.
DeJoy is working to make the USPS more efficient by eliminating overtime pay for postal workers. The effect of this move is to slow mail delivery. In the past, workers would continue working past the end of their shifts to get mail delivered on time. Now the mail will just sit there for a day or two extra. But if there is a flood of mail in, say, October, the mail (specifically, absentee ballots) may sit around for many days before it is delivered. Just coincidentally, in many states, ballots received after Election Day are not counted. That is the law there, so when (not if) there are lawsuits, the courts will rule that those ballots may not be counted because the state law is perfectly clear. Those laws might be changed in the states where Democrats have trifectas, but they don't have them in any swing state. In fact, Republicans have a trifecta in two swing states (Arizona and Florida).
Kim Wyman (R), the secretary of state in Washington, where the election is entirely by mail, said: "election officials are very concerned, if the post office is reducing service, that we will be able to get ballots to people in time." Wendy Fields, the executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of voting and civil rights groups, said that Trump was "deliberately orchestrating suppression and using the post office as a tool to do it." In his eulogy for John Lewis, Barack Obama said that Trump was continuing to attack voting rights "with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don't get sick." So, Trump's plan is not much of a secret.
Another thing that is very small but could become a big issue is postmarks. Many states have laws saying that absentee ballots may be counted only if they are postmarked on or before Election Day. Some states are using business reply envelopes to allow voters to return their ballots for free. However, these envelopes are generally not postmarked at all, meaning states with "postmark" laws are free to throw them out (maybe even are required to throw them out). And DeJoy could go a step further if he wants to. He could make an "innocent" announcement in October that due to his concern that ballots will not be delivered on time and his reverence for democracy, he is eliminating the postmark on all mail for a month to make sure ballots are delivered quickly. When some reporter points out that this move will invalidate millions of ballots, he will undoubtedly suggest that states change their laws to accept any ballot arriving within a week of Election Day. Of course, that won't happen in states where Republicans have the power to block it.
Democrats are not in a totally hopeless position, though. Congress has broad authority to regulate federal elections and when federal law and state law collide, federal law generally wins. The Democrats could put a provision in the next coronavirus relief bill that provides tens of billions of dollars for the USPS and possibly even mandates that mail must be delivered within, say, 3 days. It could also have a provision saying that any ballot for a federal election that was received within a week of Election Day is valid and must be counted. Needless to say, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would oppose this for all he is worth. He might even be willing to kill the relief bill over that, although the optics might not be so good. Of course, the Democrats might not be willing a risk having millions of people fall into poverty and become homeless, so they might not be willing to fight for a provision like this.
There are a few other ways this could plausibly rebound on Trump. First, as we've noted many times this year, it is not at all clear that Democrats will have a vote-by-mail advantage this year. Toying with the USPS could deprive lots of his voters of their vote, especially since a lot of them are older and/or live in remote settings without polling places. Second, engaging in obvious chicanery to deprive people of their vote can make them more determined to poke you in the eye and make sure their vote gets counted. Third, and probably most significantly, if Barack Obama and other prominent folks are on TV throughout the months of September and October saying "Get your ballot in the mail now to make sure it's counted," a lot of people will do it. At that point, their choices will be locked in, and there will be less potential for Trump to improve his standing. In other words, it may be bad news for a guy who needs every possible day in hopes the economy rebounds and/or progress is made on a COVID-19 vaccine. (V)
Donald Trump is certainly doing what he needs to do to keep us well supplied with questions; we'll give him that.
Q: Regarding the succession of the presidency in the event of the election not occurring, you
"If Senate elections are postponed, the remaining 65 senators not up this year could elect a new pro tem. Since 35 of
them are Democrats, following tradition, they would probably elect their most senior member. Welcome, President Pat
First, in this very peculiar situation, the senators would know that they were not just electing a ceremonial leader, but the person who would become the next president during a national crisis, so surely they would vote for someone they thought could handle it, rather than just relying on Buggins' Turn?
Does the Senate President Pro Tem need to be a Senator, or could they choose anyone they liked? If the latter, then would they not nominate Joe Biden as pro tem (with the 30 Republicans voting for Trump) to allow him to take over as acting President until an election could be held? J.H., London, UK
Q: On Friday, you mentioned my pet peeve that "the speaker doesn't have to be a member of the
House". I realize that this is not original with you--that every pundit in the country seems to have latched onto this
"truism" lately, but I don't understand where it comes from.
I get that the Constitution says that the House gets to "chuse" its Speaker without expressly specifying "from among its members," but does that not seem like a qualification that goes without saying? To me, it's the same thing as when a jury decides who its foreman is. In theory, they could select someone who is not in the room with them, but that is so impractical as to be nonsense. The jury selects its foreman from among its members. A baseball team selects its captain from among its members. A high school senior class selects a prom queen from among its members. Why does everyone suddenly seem to think the House choosing its Speaker is any different, especially in light of the fact that every speaker in history has in fact been a House member? L.H., Chicago, IL
A: Let's start with the question of "who is qualified" to be Speaker/President Pro Tem:
Article I, Sec. 2 says: "The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment."
Article I, Sec. 3 says: "The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States."
The wording is almost identical, and includes no limitations on who might serve in those positions. That means that if the speaker need not be a member of the House, then the president pro tem need not be a member of the Senate.
As to L.H.'s assertion that it is "a qualification that goes without saying," we disagree (and nearly all legal scholars are with us on this). We've all spent the last 3+ years learning that there is a wide gulf between "what the law actually says" and "how we expect people to behave, based on common sense, civility and tradition." If the law does not actually lay out rules that "go without saying," then those rules do not exist.
Further, there is a strong argument that the Framers did not wish to limit these positions solely to the membership of the chamber they serve. Two arguments, in fact. The first is that the Framers made a point of spelling out requirements for several offices (presidency, Senate, House); if they had requirements in mind for speaker/pro tem, they presumably would have done the same. The second is that the models they were looking at (most obviously the Speaker of the House of Commons in the U.K.) were largely not partisan, and were not always elected members of their chambers. It was (somewhat) expected that the speaker/pro tem in Congress would perform mostly functional roles, and not that they would acquire actual political power. It's worth noting that most other functional roles within the two chambers (parliamentarian, sergeant-at-arms, etc.) are performed by non-elected non-partisan individuals.
And as to Pat Leahy, yes, we were being a little tongue-in-cheek when we wrote that. If the presidency really hung in the balance, the senators would take their choice very seriously. And it is quite likely they would choose Biden since, again, the pro tem need not be a member of the Senate.
Q: You wrote: "Per the 20th Amendment, [Donald Trump's] term and that of Mike Pence end at noon on
Jan. 20, 2021. Period. No exceptions. And, unlike the date of the election, even Congress can't change it. If both the
presidency and vice presidency were vacant at noon, the Speaker of the House automatically becomes president—if
there is a speaker."
I would like to point out that federal law of IRS Code section 6103(f) requires anyone's tax returns be given to Congress if they request it. That's pretty black and white, yet that hasn't happened, and has even been pretty much ignored by SCOTUS. If Trump, et al., decide to fight in court, do you really think SCOTUS will rule against him, regardless of how clear the Constitution is? J.J., Des Moines, IA
A: Whenever any president pushes back against a law like this, their core argument is generally that the law is unconstitutional. Then, the two parties head to court to let a judge (or many judges) decide.
However, there is no argument that the Constitution itself is unconstitutional. Consequently, SCOTUS would have no legal basis for setting aside the Jan. 20 date. And if they did, then now we are into coup territory. More on this in the answer to A.S. in New York, below.
Q: A scenario I have seen little discussed if Donald Trump does not concede and refuses to leave: impeachment. I believe the Senate indicated this week that they believe in the November election and will uphold it. This means that if Trump refuses to leave, he can be impeached by the House, and the Senate would likely remove him this time. Then VP Mike Pence would take over for a short period and leave. Your thoughts? B.K., Des Moines, IA
A: To start, keep in mind that "conceding" is merely a polite custom, and has no legal basis or meaning. If, on Nov. 4 or some date thereafter, it becomes clear that Joe Biden won the election, and yet Donald Trump sends 100 tweets saying he didn't, then that is not illegal, it's just petulant. And petulance is not a high crime and misdemeanor, so is not impeachable.
Eventually, in the event of a Biden victory, the electors will convene and cast their ballots, and then Congress will validate the results. Donald Trump can spend that whole time teaching us that denial isn't just a river in Egypt, and he will still be on the right side of the law. His behavior would not become illegal until the afternoon of Jan. 20, 2021, if he refused to vacate the White House. At that point, he would be trespassing. And there would be no need to impeach him; the Secret Service could just arrest him and toss him out.
Q: I wonder this morning if it might have made more sense, in terms of long-term party growth, for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Senate to have removed Trump when they had the chance? Not that they would have, but knowing how he has botched this year so far, maybe it might have been better to cut their losses? J.S., York, PA
A: Probably so. It certainly looks like we're seeing some buyers' remorse at this point, whether it's Liz Cheney (who aspires to much higher office one day) pushing back against Trump or McConnell telling his caucus, on Friday, that they should feel free to distance themselves from Trump if they think they need to in order to win reelection. The people who run the Republican Party know as well as anyone that their current coalition is not viable long-term, and that they are going to have to find a way to reinvent themselves at some point in the not-too-distant future (maybe as early as 2022).
That said, and as you suggest, politicians are not generally willing to suffer short-term pain in the service of long-term gain until they have no other choice. If the Republicans were to spend, say, 8 years in the wilderness, McConnell—to take one example—would be 86 when they came out on the other side. And if they had removed Trump, it would definitely have created a schism in the Party that would have lasted years.
Q: With Donald Trump recently tweeting he would consider delaying the November election (despite there being no legal way for him to do so), many of us feel a lot of anxiety about how bad this could get if he decides to take an authoritarian, Constitution-bending stance with the election, as he has already done so many times in office. You've written extensively on your site about how the electoral process will move forward, period, unless Trump attempts some kind of military coup, which the military would not back (you note they have pushed back against him many times before). It is sometimes helpful for me to remember that we have faced many election-related crises in our country's history, such as the Civil War and the very contentious close elections of 1876 and 2000. As a historian, can you offer me some peace of mind that as bad as this seems now, we have weathered storms before and can do so again? A.S., New York, NY
A: This is certainly the most important answer we will write today, so we hope we get it right. We are going to focus on two examples, and they're not the ones you raised. The first is the election of 1960, probably the closest in American history, when Richard Nixon lost the popular vote by just 0.17%, and there was credible evidence that, absent shenanigans in Illinois, Missouri, and New Jersey, Nixon would have won the electoral vote. There was much pressure on him to contest the election, but he refused. In part, that is because, for all his faults, he was a civic-minded fellow. It was also in part because he knew that a president who wins via loopholes and court decisions has no mandate, limited political capital, and will struggle to govern.
The second example is the election of 1860. In that case, the South did not wish to abide by the results of the presidential election, which put the free soiler Abraham Lincoln in the White House. So, they left and formed their own country.
Although these two examples are different in many ways, including very different outcomes, they point to the same important civic lesson: In a democratic republic like the United States, governance rests on the consent of the governed. The Constitution is not a buffet; Trump can't pick and choose which parts still matter and which parts don't. People accept his leadership right now because his election was within the bounds of the Constitution. They follow the laws passed by Congress and abide by the rulings of the Supreme Court because they accept the legitimacy of the Constitution. They pay their taxes, serve on juries, accept limits on commerce, and so forth because the Constitution says so.
Nixon wasn't willing to play games with this, even though he would have been within the bounds of the law (George W. Bush was willing to play games, obviously, but again, he was at least within the bounds of the law). If Trump tries to put aside one of the best-established and most important parts of the Constitution so as to stay in power, then that would be vastly more egregious than what Nixon pondered (or what Bush did), and at that point the whole document would become optional. People aren't going to say, "well, Trump ignored the election results, but the part about income taxes still counts!" And he's not the only one who derives his power and his legitimacy from the document; so too does every federal judge and every member of Congress. They aren't going to play along with him—even the Republicans—because then they too would become optional. Do you really think that, if he ignores the rules about elections, Trump would any longer feel constrained by what Congress says or does? Of course not, and Mitch McConnell & Co. know it.
The Southerners of the 1860s, though they chose a very different path from Nixon's, realized the same thing. The moment they rejected Lincoln's election and his right to rule, that implied a Constitution that was irretrievably broken. They could not hang on for four years and then hope to install another pro-slavery president in the White House, because why would anyone in the North accept the legitimacy of that election? Either they're all legitimate, or none of them are. And so, having rejected Lincoln, they realized their only option was to leave and form a new country with a new constitution.
Trump and his supporters may try to manipulate the election results to give him another Electoral College victory, like having the USPS slow mail delivery to be more "efficient" (see above), or closing polling stations precisely at the moment prescribed by law, even if thousands of voters are in line to vote. Things like that would probably pass legal scrutiny if it came to that. But if these tricks fail, then that's it. He won't be able to retain the presidency by fiat, and he won't be able to stage a military coup. He's out, and the country will move on, as it has so many times before.
Q: Donald Trump is replaying his "rigged election" mantra from 2016 and, in the immortal words of
Elton John and Bernie Taupin, "I've Seen That Movie Too." In 2016, he ran this playbook for the same reason he is
running it now: He thinks he is going to lose. Lo and behold, he likely surprised even himself when he won in 2016 and,
even so, he still tried to excuse his popular vote loss with false theories of illegal voting by immigrants.
My question is for our resident historian (Z). Have there been instances in the past where a sitting president acted in a similar manner to delegitimize an upcoming election, or even a presidential candidate who did so while running for president? D.R., Thousand Oaks, CA
A: No president or major-party candidate has ever made this a part of their pitch (third-party candidates, particularly from the far left and far right, have, on occasion). There are two reasons for this. The first is that, before Trump, every president and major-party candidate was fundamentally a civic-minded individual who respected the Constitution. That even includes the ones with a propensity toward corruption and shadiness, like Richard Nixon (see above).
The second reason is that if a candidate casts doubt on the election results, and then wins, they have implicitly undermined their own legitimacy. Legitimacy translates into political capital and political capital is necessary for governance. Trump is unusual (though not unique) among presidents when it comes to the size and fragility of his ego. And he's unique among presidents when it comes to his lack of interest in governance. Only a president with no civic spirit, and whose need to prop up their sense of self worth far exceeds their interest in governing, would cast doubts on the legitimacy of an election where they were on the ballot. Trump is the only person, among the 100 or so who have been major-party candidates for the presidency, who checks all of those boxes.
Q: Donald Trump and company are raising a ruckus about the various ways that the blue team will cheat
in the coming election, making all manner of accusations without evidence. But what we do have is indisputable evidence
of Republican success in suppressing the votes of expected Democratic voters, and Russian efforts to influence and
interfere in our elections to help Trump.
There are also all sorts of ways that officials in the red states (AZ, GA, NC, TX) could put their thumbs on the scale for Trump. In particular, there is Florida, where elections are always razor thin, but always, somehow, the Republican candidate gets the win. Your thoughts? J.M., Norco, CA
A: We share your concern about possible election shenanigans, and can't say for certain this won't happen. Short of winning the old fashioned way (namely, earning it), then shenanigans are pretty much all Trump has got. That said, it is not easy to steal victory in a close election. And it's nearly impossible to steal victory in a landslide.
Let us start by talking about outright chicanery, in which ballots are altered, or magically disappear, or something like that. Imagine, for example, that Trump wins Arizona by 3 points, and yet Mark Kelly defeats Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) by 10. That would be rather fishy. Or, suppose Trump and McSally both win by 3 points. That would be fishy, too, given the polling of the Senate race. Either approach would require the involvement of co-conspirators willing to risk a prison sentence (and the end of their political careers, if they are elected officials), and would also leave behind tell-tale red flags. And that's just one state; every additional state you add to the list makes it tougher to pull off.
There's also the possibility of things that are surely unethical and undemocratic, but may not be demonstrably illegal, like voter ID rules, or closure of polling places, or rejection of mail-in ballots, or denying felons the right to vote. This is the likeliest path, if Team Trump tries to steal the election, but it's also tricky. If your opponents think you are trying to deny them the right to vote, that could generate a backlash that actually hurts you. People who would have skipped the election may suddenly be willing to brave a snowstorm, or wait in line for 3 hours, or drive 25 miles to deposit their ballot. Trump would also need assistance from state officials, and while he might get it in Florida or Georgia, there are enough states where Joe Biden is ahead, and where there is Democratic leadership, that GOP governors cannot rescue Trump. Similarly, if some sort of voter suppression was attempted, there are going to be plenty of judges on call, and the majority of them are not Trump appointees. You can't draw Neomi Rao or Reed O'Connor every time.
Again, we can't say it's impossible. But it would be difficult, especially since the Trump operation has not...impressed with its competence, shall we say. And the greater Biden's lead, the harder it gets.
Q: If Donald Trump wins again this fall, I worry this becomes the American equivalent of 1933 Germany. Can you quell my fears? Why should I not leave the country if my family has the means and will? A.L., Cambridge, MA
A: Adolf Hitler was a very evil man, but he was also a brilliant political tactician and someone who had no hesitation when it came to doing what he decided was necessary (like, say, ordering a purge of people who had been allies, but who he perceived as a threat to his power). The same is true of other notorious tyrants, from Joseph Stalin to Francisco Franco to Mao Zedong.
Trump is not brilliant, and he's too lacking in fortitude to fire someone, much less order them rounded up, executed, etc. Sometimes he finds a toady who's willing to do nasty things (like, say, AG Bill Barr), and that toady manages to follow through on his basest instincts, at least to a limited extent (like, say, what happened in Portland). But the vast gap between the 200 or so federal officers who participated in Operation Legend and, say, the tens of thousands of brutal bastards in the Schutzstaffel (SS) speaks to the practical limits on how far Trump can and will take this, even if reelected.
Q: You have raised the possibility of a post-election Trump seeking asylum in Russia. How much hypothetical damage could that do to the United States, given his four years of presidential knowledge and experiences? J.K., New York, New York
A: Needless to say, a precise answer to that question requires information that we don't have. However, we think it is safe to suppose that: (1) the intelligence community is careful to avoid telling him too much, given his already demonstrated tendency to run his mouth, (2) he doesn't pay attention, anyhow, and (3) he doesn't remember much, even of the parts that he does listen to. These things being the case, we doubt that Trump could tell Putin much that Putin does not already know from other sources.
Q: Do you think that you will miss anything if Donald Trump is not reelected? F.S., Cologne, Germany
A: Doubtful. If so, we can't think of what it might be. It's true that he provides us with an awful lot of content. However, it is also true that what we want to write about is the chess game of American politics. It can get wearisome to write the 10th item of the week that boils down to: "Trump did this outrageous thing, which is reprehensible, and which makes no strategic sense."
Q: It is my understanding that on Inauguration Day, the outgoing president invites the
president-elect to the White House and they travel together or at the same time to the inauguration ceremony. It is also
my understanding that the outgoing president is one of those in attendance at the inauguration ceremony of his
How long have these traditions been going on? And should Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump this November, do you believe Donald Trump and his wife will be there at the White House to welcome Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, on the next Inauguration Day? Do you believe Trump will also attend Biden's inauguration swearing in ceremony? S.L.J., Mount Pleasant, SC
A: That tradition dates back centuries, and has been observed by all but three outgoing presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Johnson. All three of those men were unseated after bitter elections and controversial single terms. That said, some presidents, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, managed to put their hurt feelings aside for a couple of hours for the good of the country.
When it comes down to: (1) temper tantrum or (2) suck it up for a couple of hours, surely you don't need us to tell you which side Trump is likely to come down on. Assuming he's not, you know, in Dubai by then.
Q: Given that so many Donald Trump nominees for positions that are supposed to last between administrations are clearly in the bag for Trump or are just plain outright unqualified, how much ruckus will it cause for any new administration to wipe the board clean? Do you think in this hyperpartisan climate that will just become the new normal? R.S., Virginia Beach, VA
A: We hate to break it to you, but the tradition of packing appointed positions with loyalists dates back at least as far as Andrew Jackson. And so, Congress tends to protect jobs where they think stability and insulation from changing political winds is important. Most civil servants can't easily be fired, of course, and a lot of appointed jobs (FCC, governors of the federal reserve, FEC, etc.) have set terms that the president is allowed to extend, but generally isn't allowed to shorten. There are a few exceptions; the directors of the FBI and CIA serve at the pleasure of the president, for example, and so can be cashiered (but usually they aren't).
Biden can, of course, clear the decks of the political appointees who form Trump's management team (cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, ambassadors, managers of various parts of the federal bureaucracy), but that won't be necessary because, by custom, they will all resign on Jan. 20, 2021 (unless asked before that to stay on).
Q: Let's say that Joe Biden has decided already that he is only going to serve one term as president if he is elected this November. What is the best and worst time to announce this to the public? R.M., Pensacola, FL
A: The main downside to announcing this plan is that he would be a lame duck from that point forward, and that would encourage pushback from the bureaucracy and the Congress. And so, while there might be some nominal electoral benefit to announcing that plan right now (people might say "well, it's only four years, so it's low-risk"), he'd never do it because he doesn't want to be a wall-to-wall lame duck. Though watch for him to be asked (probably during the debates) if he plans to serve only one term, and then see if he gives a Full Sherman answer, or he dances around.
As to your question, the worst time for him to announce would be Nov. 4 of this year. This would deny him whatever electoral benefit would come from the promise, and would maximize the amount of time spent as a lame duck. The best time for him to announce would be sometime in winter or spring of 2024. That would allow him to steer the Oval Office toward his VP (or whatever other person he prefers as successor) and would minimize his lame-duck period.
Q: Why in the world would Joe Biden give John Kasich, a likely 2024 Republican Presidential
candidate, a high-profile opportunity to introduce himself to voters with a speech at the Democratic National
Convention? Seems incredibly shortsighted to me.
Do you have any other Republicans to suggest to Biden who you think would be willing to show their support with a speech at the Convention and who would be just as effective as John Kasich, but are not going to be trying to take his job in 2024? S.S., West Hollywood, CA
A: You may be overstating the extent to which Kasich is a future presidential candidate (clearly, Republicans are not buying what he's selling) and understating the extent to which he has his eye on a plum Cabinet job.
That said, the very best option would be George W. Bush. He's not a future presidential candidate, since he can't legally run, and his endorsement would be big, big news. Failing that, a very prominent member of the Bush administration (Dick Cheney?), or a prominent member of the Bush family (probably Jeb!). Another possibility is a longtime Senate colleague of Biden, like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) or Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) or—hold onto your hat—Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). If Collins concludes that she's in trouble, she could announce that she's concerned about the direction of the Republican Party and upset about how Brett Kavanaugh has behaved, that she's reregistering as an Independent like her junior colleague Sen. Angus King (I-ME), and that she's endorsing Biden. Not likely, but possible, and it would certainly make some waves.
Q: Would it be possible for the Democratic Party to recuse itself from ever prosecuting or investigating Donald Trump after he leaves office, in order to avoid real or perceived political persecution? M.A., Montreal, Canada
A: Keep in mind that the Democratic Party is a private organization that is in the business of winning elections, and has virtually no formal or legal authority outside that sphere.
We suppose it is possible that every individual Democrat who might plausibly pursue such action, from Cy Vance and Letitia James in New York, to Joe Biden and the congressional Democrats in Washington, could publicly announce a pledge like this, but they would never do that. Politically, Democratic voters want to see Trump and his family prosecuted for any crimes they may have committed, and would be furious if Biden, et al., made such a promise. Ethically, it would be inappropriate for someone like Vance, if he believes a crime has taken place, to drop the matter for political reasons. So, this isn't going to happen.
Q: If the Democrats get back the House, Senate, and the White House, what are the chances of changes to the Electoral College? R.K.P., Chicago, IL
A: Since the Electoral College is in the Constitution, any changes would require an amendment, which means two-thirds of the members of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures (or, alternatively, the thus-far-never-attempted option of two-thirds of Congress calling for a new constitutional convention). It's not impossible, but would require an overwhelming majority of voters to conclude that the current system is not in their best interests. It is unlikely that the voters in the large and swing-y states of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc., feel that way, but you never know.
Q: You've mentioned the legal conflict in Georgia where Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D-Atlanta) ordered a mandatory mask requirement, and Governor Brian Kemp (R) sued her, arguing that his state order overrides all local orders. I was wondering, what laws or other precedent exist to determine the balance between state vs. local powers? Are local governments totally at the mercy of state-level governments? C.A., Tucker, GA
A: There are two competing legal doctrines here. The first, named after the judge who ruled in the relevant 1868 case, is Dillon's Rule, which says that local governments derive all their authority from their states, and so are entirely at their mercy. This is roughly equivalent to the relationship between the American colonies and the monarchy. The second, named after the judge who ruled in the relevant 1871 case, is the Cooley Doctrine, also known as "home rule," which says that the citizens of localities are broadly entitled to the right of self-government, and the power of the state government is limited. This is roughly equivalent to the relationship between the federal government and the state governments.
Exactly which model each state follows is determined by the terms of their state constitution. There are currently 31 Dillon's Rule states, 10 home rule states (mostly in the South), and 9 with a mixture (you can see a list here, if you want). Georgia, being Southern, is definitely a home rule state, which means Kemp is going to lose his suit.
Q: Just who are the "suburban housewives" everyone keeps writing about? If this was 1960 again, I would easily understand, but in an era when most women work for actual money outside the home (at least, before the pandemic), who are these women? I'm nearly 70 and I have never considered myself a housewife, even though I live in the suburbs. Is this term now code for "white women of a certain class"? M.S., Lowell, MA
A: There are two major constituencies that Donald Trump appears to be losing for the Republican Party: suburbanites and women. That makes suburban women a source of dual interest to both parties this cycle.
Normally, when referring to these folks, the phrase "suburban women" is used. When someone uses "suburban housewives," as Donald Trump often does, it's a pretty big clue that they are recalling an allegedly idyllic time (i.e., the 1950s) when "suburban women" and "suburban housewives" were essentially synonymous.
Q: How will exit polls be conducted this year, given the pandemic? E.K., Brignoles, France
A: We wish we had a more exciting answer, but: mostly by phone. They will call people and ask: (1) Who did you vote for?, or (2) Who are you going to vote for?, or (3) Can we call you back at this number on Election Day and find out who you voted for?
Q: How do pollsters and poll interpreters account for anticipated voter suppression? M.A.M., Pleasanton, CA
A: There is no way to do this with any precision, because they cannot know what will be attempted, and how successful it will be, if it is successful at all. That said, they do base their numbers, in part, on 2016. And in 2016, there were some of the same shenanigans we might anticipate in 2020. So, the pollsters' numbers are, at very least, corrected in that manner.
Q: It has become fashionable for pundits to declare that the polls in 2016 were not wrong.
Although the national popular vote polling was accurate, the state-level polling was way off.
According to your model,
for example, the available state-level polling data on the eve of the election in 2016 underestimated Trump's final
total by 89 EVs across 6 states.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the major pollsters have overcorrected for the perceived errors in their sampling models from 2016 and thus may be overestimating Trump's support this year? R.H., Decatur, GA
A: "Fashionable" implies that there's some sort of social pressure or posturing going on. The reason that we, and others, say that the polls were not far off in 2016 is because they weren't, outside of a couple of Midwestern states that were underpolled in the late days of the campaign. If you go back and look at the linked page, you'll see the only state that Wisconsin was the only state we had as Democratic and outside the margin of error. Our numbers said Hillary Clinton would win the Badger State by 5%, but in the end, Donald Trump won it by about half a percentage point. Even that error, a miss by 5.5%, is not all that big.
Given that Trump is doing worse pretty much everywhere relative to 2016, there's no evidence that his support is being overstated. If, for example, the pollsters had him doing better in Delaware this year relative to 2016, that would be fishy, since Joe Biden is a native and Hillary Clinton is not. But outside of anomalies like that, the only way we'll know if Trump's support is being oversampled is by comparing the final polls to the final election results.
Q: I've noticed a new Senate poll in Georgia showing that Senator David Perdue (R) is ahead 45%-42% over Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff. That means that there are 13% of voters who have not made up their mind. How is it possible in such a polarized environment that such a big number of voters is undecided at this point? Is it realistic to have that many undecideds, or it just a poll fluke? A.D., Kiev, Ukraine
A: The 13% that are "undecided" are really three distinct groups: low-information voters who honestly don't know which they prefer, high-information voters who don't much like either and are waiting for further information to help make up their minds, and people who intend to vote third party. Sometimes that third group is excluded from polls, sometimes not. In any event, that's not an unusual number for this point in the cycle. Much more unusual, in fact, are the polls (particularly the presidential polls) that suggest that 90-plus percent of voters have already made up their minds.
Q: I keep getting Facebook ads from Amy McGrath's campaign saying she has a slim lead over McConnell (and asking for money, of course). But you have her down by 20 points in the race. Is this a case of her campaign cherry-picking an old poll and holding on to it for dear life? Is it extremely optimistic internal polling (making some generous assumptions to justify a close race)? Is it actually good internal polling that the public polling firms haven't caught up with? Is it something else entirely? S.V.E., Renton, WA
A: All candidates make their races look close, because people don't throw money away on blowouts. So, you can bet that McConnell is also sending out polls that make the race look competitive.
Sometimes, the campaign will pick a legitimate third-party poll that looks good for them, sometimes they will pick an internal poll that's favorable. While they might cook the books, that's not generally necessary since there are enough internal polls to find at least one good one (even if it's an outlier). A pretty good tell is whether or not the pollster is named. If McGrath announces "YouGov says..." or "Civiqs says..." or "Monmouth says...," then obviously you know it's an external poll. If the pollster is not named, or is partisan, then that tells you it should probably be taken with a few grains of salt.
Q: How can I help turn the Senate Blue? If I want to contribute money to 10 campaigns to turn the Senate blue, which ones would you think are the best investments? How important is it to "concentrate" the money? Is it more effective to give 10 races $50 or 20 races $25? R.H., Austin, TX
A: Well, the biggest bang for the buck would be in races that are: (1) close, and (2) in states where advertising and other expenses are low. The current sweet spot is surely Montana, though there's a case to be made for Maine, Iowa, and maybe South Carolina. Generally speaking, we would say a smaller number of donations is more efficacious; if you spread it out over 10 races, you're going to end up investing in some that are nominally competitive but are far outside the sweet spot, like Texas or Arizona.
That said, most people who invest in the stock market these days put their money in mutual funds, since they are run by professionals who are in the loop and who have insight into the most effective ways to invest the money. Similarly, you might want to consider just giving your money to political professionals, who are likely to know better than you where it will do the most good. That would mean giving money to the DSCC or, alternatively, to a PAC that pursues some particular goal you find worthy, like Emily's List (which works to elect women candidates). The Democratic fundraising portal, ActBlue, has all sorts of options like this.
Q: When looking at your poll roundups over the last few weeks, I noticed what was, to me, a very
new name in poll-takers: Redfield and Wilton. Not only did this outfit suddenly start to show up, but it has suddenly
also published a lot of state-level polls in the last month.
Who are Redfield and Wilton and what is their track record in conducting polls? (I checked FiveThirtyEight's pollster ratings, and they have no entry there at all.) K.L., Richmond, VA
A: They are new, having been founded in the last year (and, apparently, in the last six months). That is why you haven't heard of them, and why they don't have a grade at FiveThirtyEight (since that site bases its grades on comparing week-before-the-election polls with actual results, and so doesn't have the necessary data for Redfield and Wilton yet).
That said, we do have good news: Redfield and Wilton is a British firm. That means that they probably don't have a partisan axe to grind, and it also means that they are bound by the ethical rules of the British Polling Council, which is basically a guild for pollsters. It is possible that they are doing the polls for free just to get lots of free publicity so they will be able to sell themselves to American companies and media outlets in the future as a respected, established, and well-known firm.
Q: At what point in the news cycles of past landslide presidential elections (e.g., Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984) did the news organizations realize that, barring a miracle, one candidate was going to win in an electoral landslide and that the "horse race" was essentially over? Or did that point never occur, with the news organizations treating it as "anybody's race" right up until Election Day? J.F., Fort Worth, TX
A: Let us start by noting that, even as late as 1984, most people got their news from a local newspaper and/or from the newscasts of one of the "Big Three" networks. That means there wasn't quite as much competition, and quite as much need to find horse-race drama with which to fill column inches, talk radio programs, blogs, and the like.
It is also the case that these elections were, largely speaking, never all that close. So, there really wasn't a moment at which the media declared the horse race to be over because, to a large extent, it never really started. That was particularly true in 1964, when LBJ consistently led Barry Goldwater by 30-40 points. And so, in that election, the main focus of the coverage was on the latest wacky thing that the Arizona Senator had said. The election of 1972 was similar; because Nixon largely stayed in the White House and off the campaign trail the focus was mostly on gaffes by George McGovern, most obviously the disastrous selection of Thomas Eagleton as a running mate. There was little coverage of Watergate, on the other hand; that story that did not truly explode until 1973. In 1984, the election was a bit closer than the other two, at least for a while, and so there were a fair number of "Did Reagan hurt himself with [X]?" stories, where X was something that might plausibly have made the race closer but didn't, like the Gipper's shaky performance at the first presidential debate.
Presumably, you are wondering if there will be a time in September or October of this year when the media calls the election for Biden. That will not happen. First, in the current-day media environment, they would be bitterly attacked for being biased. Second, the egg-on-the-face election of 2016, not to mention all the known unknowns (voter suppression, Russian interference, the impact of COVID-19), and probably some number of unknown unknowns, all argue against confidently declaring a winner. There's an argument to be made that Joe Biden might just be in the best position possible: A big lead, but with supporters who fear the worst, and so will prioritize getting to the polls as they would in a very close election.
Q: I have been following your site since at least 2004, and I do not recall seeing the electoral vote total estimates as lopsided at any previous point. Was there any point over the past several cycles that one party had what seemed like such an insurmountable lead in the Electoral College estimates? What would have been, in your opinion, the biggest collapse in an electoral vote lead? S.O., Woodstock, GA
A: We doubt there's been a lead this big during the lifetime of this site. At very least, we can't find one, and if it did exist, it was only for a few days. And, as we pointed out earlier this week, there is no resource for looking up the projected EVs on some random date before 2004.
That said, we can draw your attention to two recent elections. The first is 1992 when, very early in the cycle, George H.W. Bush looked to be headed for a repeat of Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide, and then was wrecked by the economy. If we had actual numbers, he probably suffered a 200+ EV collapse. The second is 1980 when, in the middle of the year, Jimmy Carter benefited from a "rally round the flag effect" due to the Iran hostage crisis. Unfortunately for the peanut farmer, he did not resolve the crisis, and he arguably botched it. He probably suffered something close to a 200+ EV collapse, too.
You probably noticed that, in both cases, it was an incumbent president who suffered a severe downturn. If you want a case of a challenger who blew a huge lead, well, we can only guess due to the lack of hard data, but the last one was probably 1948 (a.k.a. the "Dewey Defeats Truman" election). The gap between them probably wasn't 200+ EVs, but we'd buy 150 EVs.
Q: Surely we can agree that Donald Trump is a shameless self-promoter. Who are the other presidents who most closely resemble that description? The presidential nominee who first comes to mind fitting that description is William Jennings Bryan. Given that, is this a bug (or a feature) of populism? D.D., New Hope, PA
A: Nearly all presidents, with only a small handful of exceptions (William Howard Taft?) are shameless self-promoters, or they wouldn't get to be president. Some are just more obvious about it than others.
Populism is often, and perhaps always, organized around charismatic figures, so there is probably something to your observation. Beyond Trump/Bryan, the shamelessly self-promoting president who really leaves all the others in the dust is Theodore Roosevelt. The joke "The most dangerous place in Washington is in between [politician X] and a camera" has been told about hundreds of politicians, but was invented for him. When he wrote his memoirs of the Spanish-American war, a popular joke held that the printer had to order a special supply of the letter "I". Roosevelt's daughter Alice observed that "My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening."
Other pretty ham-fisted self-promoters include Andrew Jackson (also a populist, albeit before the term existed), Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. But, among presidents, they're all competing for the bronze behind Trump and TR.
Q: There has been much said and written about the mental faculties of our "stable genius" President who, in my opinion, is the dumbest man to serve that office in modern history. Who would you say were the smartest presidents in the last century? Were there any geniuses? W.W., Jacksonville, FL
A: Genius is both an objective term requiring IQ test results that we do not have and that largely do not exist, as well as a subjective term that is used way too loosely. There are also different kinds of mental acuity, including what is now called emotional intelligence. EI (or sometimes EQ) is not even a part of IQ, and yet may be even more important to success in life and in politics.
Point is, any answer here is going to be very squishy. That said, we will say that most presidents are of above-average intelligence, and usually well-above-average intelligence. We will also say that, among the last century's worth of presidents, there is ample evidence that Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were very, very sharp. If you want to call those men geniuses, you can, but again, that's a pretty empty descriptor these days.
Q: Among the people you listed last week for the reverse Mount Rushmore, you omitted Donald Trump? Why? V.G.D., Perrysburg, OH
A: As we noted, we thought it was more instructive to make some less obvious choices. Whether Trump belongs there or not, there is nothing we can say that readers don't already know. Other options we considered, and that one or more readers sent in on Sunday: Benedict Arnold, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe Arpaio, and Aldrich Ames. The two options we considered, but that nobody sent in: Andrew Jackson and Curtis LeMay.
Q: When you shared your proposed reverse Mount Rushmore, I was unsurprised that it contained four white men. After all, you run into the same problem as you do with the more positive version: women and POCs have historically been excluded from many of our power structures, and for much of our nation's history the contributions they nevertheless made have been systematically erased from our history books. But I was a little surprised that in the responses you printed, no non-white names were suggested, and only one woman was mentioned (Sarah Palin, and even there in the limited sense of "describing what's wrong with the modern Republican party" rather than "encapsulating all the worst America has to offer"). If you wanted to build a more diverse reverse Mount Rushmore, can you suggest some names we might include? C.R., Rochester, MN
A: Not easy, but we'll give it a try:
- Hannah Duston: You can never have total confidence
in the sources when they are 300 years old, but there is general consensus that the Massachusetts Puritan, during the colonial-native
conflict known as King William's War, took a hatchet and killed nine Native Americans (including six children) in cold blood.
- Pharoah: Little is known about him, except that he was the slave who betrayed
As a result, 26 men, including Gabriel, were executed. In addition, countless hundreds (or thousands) of Black Southerners were
subjected to violent suppression/punishment.
- Phyllis Schlafly: She had a lengthy public career
traveling around telling women (and men) that women should stay at home. Beyond torpedoing the ERA, she made safe and legal abortions
more difficult, fanned the flames of homophobia, and helped cultivate some of the worst impulses of the modern far right.
- Stanley "Tookie" Williams: He was convicted of murdering four people. As the co-founder and first leader of the Crips, he was directly or indirectly responsible for hundreds (if not thousands) of additional murders.
If readers have additional suggestions, we'll be happy to publish some tomorrow.
Q: I am just curious...why have you been using the term "Black" (with a capital B) in the past week or so when describing persons of that particular ethnicity? Isn't the agreed settled-on term "African American"? P.M., Currituck, NC
A: We switched from "black" to "Black" because the lower-case implies something that is merely descriptive, whereas the capital implies a shared culture or identity (think "American," "Jewish," "Latino," "Quebecois," etc.). Several outlets, most notably The New York Times, have also made this change recently.
Like many outlets, we do not use African American because it's more narrow, can be difficult to verify, and may put us in the position of making an inappropriate error. For example, is an enslaved Black person an African American? Many scholars say "no," because that glosses over and excuses the fact that slaves were not eligible for citizenship. Is Bob Marley, who was born in Jamaica, but lived much of his (too short) life in the U.S. an African American? He is if he chose to so identify, but that can be difficult to ascertain, especially since he died just as that term was coming into use. How about W.E.B. DuBois, who was most certainly Black and American, but who lived his final years in Ghana, and in response to endemic racism, turned his back on the United States? Finally, the movement for racial justice is called "Black Lives Matter." It is not called "African American lives matter." The people in that movement apparently have no problem with the term "Black."
Q: My brother, who also reads your site daily, and I were recently discussing which state has the "best" and "worst" pair of senators. Disregarding political leanings, which states' senators do you think are "best" and "worst"? Kentucky, with the dynamic duo of Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) seems like a shoo-in for worst. Interested to know your thoughts. J.O., Freehold, NJ
A: We will start by saying that this question imposes, almost by definition, a partisan slant. Generally speaking, small states are represented by Republicans, who can thus afford to be more provincial and extreme. And large states tend to be represented by Democrats, who generally have to be more statesmanlike and less outlandish because they represent more diverse constituencies.
Anyhow, we tried to think about which current senators, 100 years from now, might plausibly appear on a list of, say, the 100 best senators in U.S. history. And, similarly, which might appear on a list of the 100 worst. As to the latter, we think you're right that history will not judge McConnell and Paul kindly, the former for putting the vulgar pursuit of power above all else, and the latter for grandstanding and pursuing a rather self-involved agenda. We suspect the duo of Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (both R-SC) will not age well, either.
As to good pairings, that's a little harder. There are some states that have one very distinguished member, and one that is less so. For example, Iowa, with Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst (both R). Even if you don't like Grassley, he is clearly a name for the history books, whereas Ernst looks more and more like a flash in the pan. The two duos we see where both members have a good chance of being fondly remembered 100 years hence, are the two senators from Vermont (Bernie Sanders, I, and Pat Leahy, D) and the two from Illinois (Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both D).
Q: As a faithful daily reader of your site going back to the 2004 election, I got a chuckle out of
the "hefty" caution for last Sunday's Mailbag. Also, as someone who self-identifies as something of a
grammar-"authoritarian" (Google's first suggested synonym of the usual four-letter word starting with "N" and ending
with "zi" often used for this expression, which I agree should only be used with great care), I've been enjoying the
ongoing debate about the balance between consistently "correct" grammar/spelling and the need to process large volumes
of content on short timelines (I'm solidly on your side of that debate). However, I had to wonder when I got to the
double-copy rendering of the contribution from T.P. in Rochester: was that a deliberate troll to see if anyone actually
read through the entire "hefty" trove of posted mail (and was paying attention)? Or, was it a genuine mistake in the
vein as the other occasional typo/punctuation/grammar oversight? Even if the latter, I don't think the grammar-checking
tools of either MS Word or Google Docs would have caught that one.
Q: As a faithful daily reader of your site going back to the 2004 election, I got a chuckle out of the "hefty" caution for last Sunday's Mailbag. Also, as someone who self-identifies as something of a grammar-"authoritarian" (Google's first suggested synonym of the usual four-letter word starting with "N" and ending with "zi" often used for this expression, which I agree should only be used with great care), I've been enjoying the ongoing debate about the balance between consistently "correct" grammar/spelling and the need to process large volumes of content on short time lines (I'm solidly on your side of that debate). However, I had to wonder when I got to the double-copy rendering of the contribution from T.P. in Rochester: was that a deliberate troll to see if anyone actually read through the entire "hefty" trove of posted mail (and was paying attention)? Or, was it a genuine mistake in the vein as the other occasional typo/punctuation/grammar oversight? Even if the latter, I don't think the grammar-checking tools of either MS Word or Google Docs would have caught that one.
P.S. I ran this through both MS Word and Google Docs, and neither had an issue with the repeated paragraph. Also, both were equally fine with both "timelines" and "time lines". R.P., Kaneohe, HI
A: We wish that had been deliberate, because it would have been pretty meta, but it wasn't. We talked recently about the challenge of organizing stories in the proper order. Well, creating an order and a flow to Saturday's questions and to Sunday's letters is even trickier, and that error was a byproduct of that process, and the copying and pasting that takes place as we move things around in an attempt to find the best fit.
That said, we did consciously make certain to print your letter faithfully.
Another comfortable lead in Minnesota for Joe Biden. We suspected that tight poll earlier in the week was a fluke, and it looks like we were right. We really should go into the business of writing political analysis. (Z)
|Minnesota||52%||42%||Jul 22||Jul 23||PPP|
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Jul31 Economy Has Its Worst Quarter in 145 Years
Jul31 Ginsburg Is Back in the Hospital
Jul31 John Lewis Is Honored and Laid to Rest
Jul31 Herman Cain is Dead of COVID-19
Jul31 The Coronavirus Is Spreading Rapidly in Key Swing States
Jul31 Why the Portland Strategy Is Not Working
Jul31 Cohen Can Publish His Book
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Jul31 Today's Senate Polls
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Jul30 100 Days
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Jul30 Today's Senate Polls
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Jul28 COVID-19 News, Part II: Presidential Debate Moved
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Jul28 VP Candidate Profile: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)
Jul28 Today's Presidential Polls
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Jul27 The Bill Is Due
Jul27 Poll: The Pandemic is Not Over and the Worst Is Yet to Come
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Jul27 John Lewis Crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the Last Time
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