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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

An unusually broad range of questions arrived in the inbox this week.

Q: Daily Kos says the Chief Justice can disqualify senators who plan on not living up to their oath to be impartial. They are sponsoring a petition to John Roberts to disqualify Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Ron Johnson (R-WI). What do you think? J.R., Pittsburgh, PA

A: In last week's mailbag, we noted that we don't like to rely on hyper-partisan websites, whether right- or left-wing. The Daily Kos definitely fits into that category, which is why we rarely link to them. The only exception, generally speaking, is in cases where we are trying to showcase a range of opinions on a particular subject, like "How are people reacting to the presidential debate?" That said, this particular piece was written by Gregory Diskant, who is a legal heavy-hitter. He is currently at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, one of the biggest firms in New York City, and previously served as an assistant U.S. Attorney and as a clerk for Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall.

So, this particular Kos piece should not be dismissed out of hand. That said, as with much of that site's "analysis," it's more aspirational than it is realistic. While the incredibly hazy nature of impeachment, and the general lack of constitutional guidance, means that Roberts certainly could announce that he was disqualifying some of the senators, there is virtually no chance he will actually do it (especially when one of those senators is the Senate Majority Leader). This is simply not consistent with Roberts' generally passive character, nor his right-wing politics. And even if he did try it, 51 GOP Senators would undoubtedly join together to overrule him. Roberts knows this, and as someone mindful of his own image and his own legitimacy, would not set himself up to be embarrassed like this.

Oh, and the day that Roberts starts paying any attention whatsoever to online politicians is the day that we shut this site down and turn it into an online store selling chess sets where Donald Trump is a king; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and McConnell are knights; Roberts, RBG, and Brett Kavanaugh are all bishops and George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden are all rooks. Yes, that is a real thing; undoubtedly Mike Pence is delighted to be a queen. Among other things, that technically means he can't eat dinner by himself.

Q: There's been speculation, here and elsewhere, that four or more Republican senators might vote against the wishes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and approve the subpoenaing of witnesses and documents in the trial. (The names mentioned most often seem to be Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, Susan Collins, R-ME, Cory Gardner, R-CO, and Mitt Romney, R-UT). You also had a nice list, with more names on it.

What leverage, if any, does Mitch McConnell have over them in terms of committee assignments, office locations, etc.? What would be the long-term consequence if he attempted to use such leverage and they resisted anyway?

Does the National Republican Senatorial Committee (currently chaired by Senator Todd Young, R-IN) also have leverage over them in terms of fundraising and other support?
S.C., Mountain View, CA

A: You have identified most of the major things that are in McConnell's hands. He (with an assist from Young) can steer money toward or away from his colleagues, he has control over committee assignments, and he has control over small niceties like office space and desk assignments in the Senate chamber.

However, you did overlook the thing that—in our view—is most important of all: McConnell controls what legislation does and does not see the floor. If, for example, Collins wants her bill expanding diabetes benefits for Medicare patients to see the Senate floor, she needs McConnell's support. This is particularly important when it comes to amendments, since amendments are the primary way pork is added to the budget. If, for example, Murkowski wants $400 million for a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island (a.k.a. nowhere), McConnell has to be on board.

That said, this is a two-way street. McConnell also needs the support of his caucus, both to maintain his leadership position, and to get bills passed and judges approved. So, if he whips his caucus too hard, it could come back to bite him in the rear. Further, if someone like Gardner comes to McConnell and says, "Mr. Majority Leader, I'm sure you prefer a Republican who votes with you most of the time to a Democrat who you would have no control over, and if I don't vote with the Democrats on some impeachment-related stuff, I'm going to be voted out of office," McConnell has to honor that. After all, Gardner undoubtedly has his finger on the pulse of Colorado more than McConnell does.

In short, the Majority Leader has extensive means for strong-arming his fellow Republicans, particularly those who hope to continue their careers beyond 2020, but he's also got to be at least a little bit flexible. It's unlikely that anything will happen that permanently damages the Majority Leader's relationship with one or more of his centrist colleagues.

Q: During the Senate impeachment trial, what happens to the Supreme Court cases? Do they continue with 8 justices, get postponed, or does Chief Justice John Roberts work double time and jump back and forth between the two buildings through the underground tunnels (via the Library of Congress)? N.G., Millbury, MA

A: First of all, for those who did not know this, there is indeed a network of tunnels underneath the major government buildings in Washington; there is a very good article here about them and how they developed over time. Their primary purpose is to allow government muckety-mucks to avoid exposure to summer humidity and winter precipitation, and the single-largest expansion was carried out during the New Deal era, as the government searched for projects they could put people to work doing.

Anyhow, the Supreme Court most certainly has procedures for when the Chief Justice is unavailable, either due to illness, or death, or recusal. In short, the next-most-senior justice (right now, Clarence Thomas) presides, and if the vote ends up in a 4-4 tie, then the lower court decision is allowed to stand, but applies only to its own circuit.

That said, even when SCOTUS is in session (which it will be this month and next), it generally only hears arguments three days a week (usually Monday-Wednesday), with another day set aside for conferencing (usually Friday). The Chief Justice is really only needed for the three days of arguments, while the impeachment trial will be scheduled for six days a week. So there would only be a conflict for half of the impeachment days, at most.

For any insight beyond that—since Roberts has not announced his plans, as nobody yet knows when the trial will commence—we are left to look to the Clinton impeachment trial to hazard a guess as to what might happen. As the SCOTUS docket for 1998-99 shows, the justices worked pretty hard to keep Chief Justice William Rehnquist's schedule clear. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21, they only heard arguments in 11 cases. Further, there were arguments on only one day when the impeachment trial was actually in session (Jan. 19, when they heard two cases). Rehnquist was there for those two cases, and in fact wrote the majority opinion in one of them, so on that day he probably did use the tunnels and wear two hats. Other than that, however, he had no scheduling conflicts.

Our guess, then, is that SCOTUS will work around the impeachment trial, and that Roberts will miss very few (or no) sessions.

Q: Should Republicans be careful of what they wish for? If Joe Biden testifies in the impeachment trial, will it not give him a lot of exposure? Will he have a chance to swing at Republicans? M.M., Plano, TX

A: It's a fair point. He's very charismatic, and he's not too likely to be intimidated by sitting in the Senate chamber, since he did so for the better part of four decades (or more if you count his years as VPOTUS/President of the Senate). He could very well defuse the attacks against him and his son, and at the same time engender some sympathy and get some excellent (and free) PR. This assumes that he can keep the gaffes to a minimum, of course.

The Republicans aren't stupid. Well, most of them aren't, though there's probably a reason that a Google search for "America's dumbest congressman" returns, almost exclusively, results that feature Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Anyhow, they presumably know that actually calling Biden would be playing with fire, and what they really want is to whine and moan about him not testifying, so they can create the appearance of impropriety.

Q: I thought it was illegal under U.S. law to assassinate a person. This was in response to the CIA's bungled attempts on Fidel Castro, etc. I know you're not lawyers, but where is the line? Can the president just kill anyone he wants and the military will go and do it? Is there now any conceivable moral justification against any other country doing the same to any U.S. person? E.S., Maine, NY

A: This is a question that many Democratic members of Congress have raised in the last 24 hours. The short answer to your question is: The law is much more on Donald Trump's side here than in many other matters (like the Ukraine-Contra Affair), if only because there is so much gray area in this particular case.

To start, it's not a federal law that prohibits assassinations, it's an executive order. Actually, it's three executive orders, promulgated by Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, respectively. It is Reagan's Executive Order 12333 that currently sets U.S. policy in this area; it says "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."

If Trump wanted to, then, he could just issue a new executive order countermanding XO 12333, and that would be that. However, it is likely that he (and all the lawyers he consulted) will argue that this is not an assassination, either because the targets were terrorists, or because they were soldiers, or both. This is a defensible position, though it's worth noting that it's not a point of view that Trump's most recent predecessors were willing to embrace. In fact, the last time the United States specifically targeted a high-ranking officer for death was in World War II. During 1943's Operation Vengeance, the airplane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor) was singled out and shot down. Similarly, just because the Trump administration will argue for the existence of a bright red line between men like Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and "civilians" does not mean that the Iranians will see things in the same way.

There is also some question about the legality of a military strike against Iran that has not been approved by Congress. However, Trump is almost certainly on safe ground here, as he can claim authority under the 1973 War Powers Resolution or the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

Q: I'm surprised you didn't mention Donald Trump's possible (probable?) motivation for assassinating Iran's top general. Right before Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, Trump predicted over and over that Obama would start a war with Iran in order to get re-elected. See here, for examples.

It would appear that Trump is hoping that a war or possible war with Iran will bring the country together to view him as a leader against evil. Maybe he's hoping the media will fear speaking out against a war, at risk of being seen as unpatriotic. Either way, it seems clear that he was looking for something to get people to stop talking about impeachment and start talking about how "in charge" he is.
A.K., Houston, TX

A: You're right, the evidence that he's executing the same playbook he proposed for Obama and/or that this is a wag the dog situation designed to distract from impeachment is pretty substantive.

The reason that we didn't mention it is that the Iran story broke pretty late, and our "gut feel" at that moment was that raising the possibility of a conspiracy was a little over the top. In part because of a lack of firm evidence, and in part because Trump's MO (consistent with being a bully) has always been bluster, not action. So, our conclusion on Friday night was that this was most likely a decision undertaken in the national interest, and not in Trump's personal interest.

Now, though, on rereading those tweets, we're thinking twice about our initial response. That's not to say that we believe Trump did this primarily in service of his personal political goals, merely that we can't confidently rule it out.

Q: How much of the softening evangelical support for Trump is really a hidden preference for a Pence presidency (assuming he emerges from Ukrainegate unscathed) who would surely be the most evangelical president in history? C.R., Montgomery, AL

A: We cannot claim to have much insight into the evangelical mindset, but our guess is that this is not much of a consideration. Pence is certainly less outspoken than Trump is, and that politically incorrect outspokenness is one of the things the base (including the evangelicals) loves most about the President. Beyond that, what is Pence going to do that Trump isn't already doing? Already, there are all kinds of right-wingers occupying appointed positions, most obviously judgeships, and Trump has done whatever can be accomplished via executive order, like reduce funding for Planned Parenthood and kick transgender soldiers out of the armed forces. Meanwhile, there's no way the House is going to pass any laws that advance evangelical goals, like outlawing abortion or getting rid of gay marriage.

Incidentally, we are also going to disagree with you that Mike Pence would be the most evangelical president ever. That title belongs to Jimmy Carter, who really and truly embraces evangelical teachings, up to and including the fact that he's still teaching Sunday school at the age of 95. Just because Carter separates his religious life from his political life, and because he does not embrace the views of far-right folks like Jerry Falwell, does not make him any less of an evangelical. In Pence's case, we're not even sure how much of an evangelical he really is, because his political career and his religion are so intertwined, we don't know where the politics stops and the religion starts. Certainly, he's adopted some positions that appeared to be "religious" but were actually about politics, like declaring that kneeling for the national anthem is an act against God. Further, his grasp of theology is, shall we say, not terribly sophisticated.

Q: Stephen L. Carter's prediction about an Electoral College vote tie got me thinking. Let's say the vote really was tied, and the Presidential choice went to the House of Representatives. Let's further say that the Republicans control 24 states, the Democrats control 24 states, and there are 2 states with an equal number of Republican and Democratic representatives. How do these 2 states come to a decision? (I suppose ballot after ballot, and much arm-twisting and pork-promising as we've ever seen!) What if one state votes Republican and one votes Democratic? Now we're at 25 states for each candidate. How does that deadlock get settled? Are there Congressional or Constitutional rules for this? R.L., Palatine, IL

Q: Stephen Carter of Bloomberg predicted that the 2020 election would result in a tie in the Electoral College. Could you please explain how states with multiple members in the House decide how their single vote is cast, and provide a map showing the likely choices you see for each state's vote, red and blue? Totals for each side would also be useful. G.M., Acton, MA

A: Let us start with the caveat that Carter's prediction is very improbable. More probable than Stu Varney's guess that Michael Bloomberg will be the Democratic nominee, but very improbable nonetheless.

Anyhow, the procedure itself is fairly simple. Each member of Congress would cast a vote for president. The senior-most member of each state's delegation, or the clerk of the House, would tally the votes, and award 1 vote per state (a tie would result in a state casting a blank ballot). This means that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who represents 577,000 people, would have exactly as much say in the next president as the 52 representatives from California, who represent 39.5 million people. Seems fair.

If there is indeed a tie, there is no "official" means of resolving that. After the election of 1800 resulted in an Electoral College tie, the House went through 35 ballots before they finally tapped Thomas Jefferson on February 17, 1801, just weeks before the inauguration. Learning from that, in 1824, there was much arm-twisting and horse trading prior to the House's vote, such that they anointed John Quincy Adams on the first ballot. These are the only two presidential elections to be decided by the House.

If there was to be a tie in 2020, then it is likely that the matter would be resolved as it was in 1824, with things getting figured out prior to the actual vote. If a 25-25 tie appeared to be imminent, that would leave something like a dozen members of the House in a position to decide the presidency all by themselves. Those members could ask for the moon, and would likely get it. You want $10 billion for a new road? Done. Appointment as Secretary of State? Sure. The renaming of Wyoming as Cheneyland? We'll get right on that. On one hand, the representative that flipped would become an apostate within their own party, which would undoubtedly give many of them pause. On the other hand, the moon would only be available to one of them, which would give them motivation to grab it before someone else did. Also, what would likely happen is that the person in question would not vote for the other party's candidate, they would merely withhold their vote for their own party's candidate. That affords at least a little political cover, and is what (eventually) happened in 1800.

As to G.M.'s questions, the vote (in this highly unlikely scenario) would be the responsibility of the next Congress, and nobody knows exactly what the breakdown of the House will be after this year's elections. Here's a map of what it looks like now:

26 Republican states, 
22 Democratic states, and Michigan and Pennsylvania are evenly split.

As you can see, the map has Michigan as a "divided" state, which means counting Rep. Justin Amash (I) as a Republican. Hard to do otherwise, since he's retiring from a very red district, and is likely to be replaced by a Republican.

In terms of the current delegations, here is how things stand:

State GOP Reps Dem Reps Ind Reps State GOP Reps Dem Reps Ind Reps
Alabama 6 1 0 Montana 1 0 0
Alaska 1 0 0 Nebraska 3 0 0
Arizona 4 5 0 Nevada 1 3 0
Arkansas 4 0 0 New Hampshire 0 2 0
California 7 45 0 New Jersey 2 10 0
Colorado 3 4 0 New Mexico 0 3 0
Connecticut 0 5 0 New York 5 21 0
Delaware 0 1 0 North Carolina 10 3 0
Florida 14 13 0 North Dakota 1 0 0
Georgia 9 5 0 Ohio 12 4 0
Hawaii 0 2 0 Oklahoma 4 1 0
Idaho 2 0 0 Oregon 1 4 0
Illinois 5 13 0 Pennsylvania 9 9 0
Indiana 7 2 0 Rhode Island 0 2 0
Iowa 1 3 0 South Carolina 5 2 0
Kansas 3 1 0 South Dakota 1 0 0
Kentucky 5 1 0 Tennessee 7 2 0
Louisiana 5 1 0 Texas 23 13 0
Maine 0 2 0 Utah 3 1 0
Maryland 1 6 0 Vermont 0 1 0
Massachusetts 0 9 0 Virginia 4 7 0
Michigan 6 7 1 Washington 3 7 0
Minnesota 3 5 0 West Virginia 3 0 0
Mississippi 3 1 0 Wisconsin 4 3 0
Missouri 6 2 0 Wyoming 1 0 0

In terms of states that could plausibly switch columns by 2021:

  • Democrats could lose: IA*, MN*, NV*, NH*, AZ, CO, MN*, ME*

  • Democrats could gain: FL, WI, UT*, GA*, NC, TX*

Asterisks indicate states with delegations that could end up evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Obviously, the two states that are currently split (MI and PA) could go either direction, or could remain split.

Q: In your item on gerrymandering and prisoners, you wrote:

This is uncomfortably close to the situation under the three-fifths compromise of the Constitution, which effectively appropriated the franchise of people of color for the benefit of white conservatives. Needless to say, the three-fifths compromise is one of the darkest parts of U.S. history, so it follows that any circumstance that parallels the compromise is probably pretty odious.

How did the three-fifths compromise benefit conservatives? I guess you're relying on some implicit equivalence between slave owners and conservatives? That seems like a rather dangerous or disingenuous insinuation.

Yes, I'm sure there were conservative elements of the political movement for continued slave ownership in the slave era. By definition they were defending the status quo. But there are also many conservative elements of the nascent Republican platform under Abraham Lincoln, despite being abolitionist. Lincoln was a former Whig, who appealed to the intent of the founding fathers.

Is there a clean mapping between conservatism and its opposition and slave-ownership interests versus abolitionism? If so, I wish you would expound on it explicitly. Or are you just trying to insinuate that today's Trump conservatives are the modern day equivalents of slave owners because of their slightly racist bent? That seems uncharacteristically sloppy.
J.H., Boston, MA

A: To start, we must point out that Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Abolitionism was a radical left-wing position; adherents argued that slavery was inherently immoral and should be outlawed immediately on that basis. Only a small minority of voters in the antebellum era (less than 5%) felt this way, and being elected to the White House, or to any statewide office in Lincoln's home state of Illinois, as an abolitionist was an impossibility. What Lincoln was, instead, was a Free Soiler. He was personally opposed to slavery, but felt it was protected by the Constitution where it already existed. So, he did not support abolition. He also opposed slavery as an economic institution, feeling that it harmed free, white laborers, and that it was also counter-productive in terms of the growth of the national economy. For that reason, he supported limits on slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1849, reasoning that the Constitution did not protect slavery there. The closest modern parallel would be Americans who want all guns rounded up and destroyed versus those who just want stronger limits on the types of guns available and on who can get them going forward.

In any case, by the time that Lincoln became a national figure in the mid-1850s, there were five distinct political factions in the United States. From most liberal to most conservative:

  • The Radical Republicans: These folks are the abolitionists, and were the Northerners most eager for a civil war. The most famous politician in this faction was probably Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA), the most famous Radical Republican of any sort was John Brown.

  • The Moderate Republicans: This is the faction that included most of the Free Soilers, as well as a lot of farmers (who wanted the government to hand out free land), and a lot of former Whigs (who wanted the government to build a transcontinental railroad). The most famous politician in this faction was Lincoln.

  • The Conservative Republicans: This faction was largely agnostic on slavery, and while they supported the Civil War when it happened, they only did so because of their support for the union and for democracy. The most famous politician in this faction was Lincoln's first AG, Edward Bates.

  • The Northern Democrats: These folks were actively hostile to abolition, in part because they believed it would lead to a war, but primarily because this was the political home of immigrants and blue-collar laborers who feared the prospect of competing against free, black labor. The most famous politician in this faction was either President James Buchanan or Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-IL).

  • The Southern Democrats: This was the most staunchly pro-slavery faction, because it included the slaveowners, as well as the working- and middle-class Southerners who derived their social status from being white (and, thus, above black slaves on the social ladder). The most famous politician in this faction was either Sen. John C. Calhoun (D-SC) or Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

There is no question that Southern Democrats (and, therefore, Southern slaveowners) were the most conservative political faction in antebellum America. They fully embodied the classic elements of conservatism: emphasis on tradition, embrace of hierarchy, staunch support of property rights, suspicion of government power, resistance to change. It is also instructive that when slavery ended, and the franchise was extended to the former slaves, they almost universally joined the Republican Party. So, we stand by the parallel we drew—that in the case of the three-fifths compromise and the prison gerrymanders, you have conservative white folks stealing the political power of (predominantly) people of color with very different concerns and very different political viewpoints.

Q: Would you explain the appeal of Stacey Abrams?

I've seen her name come up frequently when discussing Democratic VP candidates—such that she seems to be a de facto first choice—and your post this morning reinforces that perception. Beyond the obvious demographic bona fides to shore up the ticket (especially a Biden-fronted ticket), I fail to see why she seems to draw so much attention.

Looking at her profile, the most notable info on her political résumé seems to be that she ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 (losing to obvious GOP vote suppression and other chicanery). Yes, she is a capable lawmaker and politician, but I don't see how she has otherwise set herself out from the rest of the potential VP candidate crowd.
R.K., Denver, CO

A: Here is her appeal, in a nutshell:

  • Demographics: As you pointed out, she has a demographic profile that is very attractive. Specifically, she is young, black, and female. That seems, to many Democrats, to be a pretty good yin to any of the frontrunners' yang (no pun intended), but appears especially to be a good match for frontrunner among frontrunners Joe Biden.

  • Southern: Given that she nearly won in Georgia, despite the shenanigans, there is some hope that she might help flip that state, or else neighboring Florida.

  • Charisma: She's an excellent public speaker and, in particular, got rave reviews for her response to the State of the Union address last year. Given that other promising politicians (Bobby Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL) have botched that particular assignment, it means something that she hit it out of the park.

  • Voter Suppression: Fighting back against voter suppression is her current project, and Democrats may hope that picking her will direct more attention to the issue.

Note that we do not accept some of these notions. For example, we have consistently pushed back against the (somewhat paternalistic) idea that all that black voters care about is a candidate's skin color. Similarly, we've written several times that a VP candidate rarely moves the needle in their home state (with LBJ in Texas being the main exception in the last 80 years).

Most political analysts think that 2020 will be a "base" election, that is, whichever party is better at turning out its base will win. Winning over large numbers of voters from the other side is not going to happen. The Democrats' biggest problem is that many of its young voters are very idealistic and have a tendency to say "I'm not voting for the lesser of two evils" (meaning Biden). If Abrams is on the ticket, some clever person will start selling "Abrams 2024" bumper stickers and give these young voters something to hope for and maybe even vote in 2020. From an electoral vote standpoint, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) makes more sense as veep, but they won't excite young voters the wy Abrams will.

Both (V) and (Z) think that Abrams is currently the favorite to be the Democratic VP candi if Biden is the nominee. Even if we don't agree with all of the reasoning above, we know how the decision-makers think. Further, there is the little matter of the semi-secret meeting that Abrams had with Joe Biden back in March, which was followed by her announcing that she would not run for the Senate or for president. It sure looks like they have a deal in place.

Q: You've said several times now that Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) is the most unpopular governor in the country; I'm curious as to why she's so unpopular. R.N., Tucson, AZ

A: Neither one of us lives within 2,500 miles of Rhode Island, so we can't speak from direct experience (though we're happy to hear from anyone who can). However, part of the issue is that Rhode Island is pretty blue (a PVI of D+10; only six states are bluer), and Raimondo is pretty centrist, having pushed back against labor unions and embraced corporations. This makes some sense, as she has a background as a venture capitalist.

On top of that, the economy and the state budget of Rhode Island are something of a mess, as industrial concerns have fled, and an effort to lure tech companies to replace them failed. The result is that the government had more liabilities than it had income. In particular, the state's pension fund was headed for bankruptcy within a couple of decades. The Governor successfully cut the costs of the pensions, primarily by eliminating cost-of-living increases. She argued that "This is math, not politics." Maybe so, but, as you can imagine, folks whose retirement plans are now subject to the ravages of inflation have never forgiven her.

Q: One of the letters you you ran sounded suspiciously like a Russian troll or someone who has been reading output from Russian trolls and bought it. How much of your mail in a given week would you guess is from trolls, Russian or otherwise? J.O., Raleigh, NC

A: It's rather unlikely that any of the e-mails come from actual Russian trolls, as there would be little point in that. We would probably recognize those for what they are and, beyond that, we tend to run letters that reflect a perspective expressed by number of correspondents. Were a member of Team Putin to make an attempt to troll us, they'd almost certainly be reaching an audience of two, and that's it. Hardly worth the rubles.

In terms of "trolls" in a broader sense, it's not all that common. Maybe 1% of the messages come from people whose sole purpose is to advise us that they hate our guts. Another 5% or so are from folks who raise a useful point of view (which we may or may not agree with), but do so in a way that is deliberately provocative and confrontational. We are, of course, willing to run letters in the latter category. And if those letters contain no falsehoods or dubious assertions, we let them run without comment. However, if the writer says something that seems to us to be a distortion of fact, we do add a note.

Q: Why has the number of delegates needed gone up over the last few weeks? When you first created the primary delegate counter the number under "needed" was 1885 and has now increased to 2026? B.G.M., Newton, MA

A: The Democrats have extremely complex rules for determining how many pledged delegates each of the 50 states, D.C., the five U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), plus Democrats Abroad gets. The formula for the base number of pledged delegates takes into account the popular vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, 2012, and 2016, the number of electoral votes the jurisdiction has, and more. Then there are a bunch of rules for getting bonuses of 10%, 15%, 20%, 25%, and 35%, depending on various factors, including the date of the primary or caucus. If you want to see the whole story, including allocation factors and (intermediate) base votes and the difference between TGP base votes and DNC base votes, check out the the Green Papers. They come up with 3979 pledged delegates (1990 to win). But even that has a footnote. If the number of delegates turns out to be an even number, the DNC can pick another delegate to avoid a potential tie. However, Ballotpedia comes up with 3836 pledged delegates (1919 to win). Other sources have other numbers. We are a bit unsure who to believe at this point, but for the time being we will go with the Green Papers. All this complexity is due to, well, politics and the horse trading that goes with it. It brings to mind Will Rogers' answer to the question: "Do you belong to an organized political party?" His reply: "No, I am a Democrat."

Q: You wrote: "In 2016, the Russians probably didn't get into the voting (or vote counting) machines to change any votes (at least as far as we know)." What leads you to that conclusion? I don't think I've seen anyone seriously address the question as to why the Russians would've stopped at voter registration systems and refrained from hacking the voting machines themselves. Has anyone done some hard statistical analysis of the results, district-by-district? I've given up waiting on Congress to address this matter in any substantive way. I'm wondering why you've moved this into the "probably didn't" category. J.F., Fort Worth, TX

A: There is every reason to be concerned that we haven't heard the whole story here, since we currently have a major political party that's consistently and aggressively stood against honest and fair elections, and since any politician of any party would be loath to announce that the election that put them into office was less-than-legitimate.

That said, the weight of the evidence suggests that the Russians did not directly change any votes. This would be pretty risky, because there's a very good chance such behavior might be uncovered (by a scholarly or private analysis, even if government officials look the other way). It's pretty hard to hack something without leaving behind tell-tale traces, which is why we know about the various incursions that the Russians did pull off. Furthermore, it's somewhat difficult to create fake vote totals without leaving behind patterns that can be identified as non-natural by statisticians. Quite a few folks have done analyses of various sorts, and none has found evidence of vote-changing. If you care to pick up a book on the subject, the definitive work is Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We Don't, Can't, and Do Know, authored by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who teaches in the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.

The other reason to think that the Russians didn't directly change any vote totals (and this is a major argument of Jamieson's book) is that they did not need to. The propaganda campaign they waged on Facebook and other social media platforms, the chaos they sowed by stealing Democratic e-mails, the money they funneled into the United States—all of that was enough to achieve their goals with much less risk of a "smoking gun" being found.

It's certainly possible that the Russians become more aggressive in 2020, and that they do change vote totals. First, because it may be necessary, now that folks are on to some of their other tricks. Second, they may be in competition with other nations, like China and Iran. And third because Vladimir Putin now knows that any level of interference, even if discovered, is not too likely to be a problem. Imagine that on November 4, 2020, the FBI announced the discovery of indisputable evidence that Russia hacked Florida's ballot-counting machines, and gave the state and the presidency to Donald Trump. Would Trump's base believe it? Nope. Would the Senate, assuming it remains in GOP control, do anything in response to this news? Very unlikely. Would Trump sanction Russia? No, again.

Q: Reading your update on cybersecurity, I can't help but wonder if democracy is over for the United States. I want to be optimistic, but 2016 only highlighted how bad things are, and now we know nothing has been done to keep 2020 from being even worse. The Republican Party has, at best, turned a blind eye to Russia's interference, and at worse is actively supporting it by preventing any attempts at voting security and who knows what else behind the scenes. Democrats have done little to address this in any meaningful way. They've neither made it a campaign issue nor tried to grow public support to demand voting security and honest elections.

We know what damage voter ID laws and gerrymandering has done. We know Republicans are removing voters from voter rolls as fast as they can. We know votes can be changed and have no reason to think that they haven't already been. Nobody we trust has investigated this. However, we do know that Trump's victories in six swing states, with razor thin results in three of them, seems statistically unlikely. Based on the actions already taken by Republicans and Russia, it's hard to believe they wouldn't delete or change votes if they could which we know they can. Especially since no one is investigating or will hold them accountable.

Logic concludes that votes will be changed if necessary to once again hand those swing states to Trump. Probably for the second time. It doesn't seem like Democratic leaders and/or anyone else is doing anything to prevent this. It seems Trump's second term is a foregone conclusion. (As well as many Republican senators and governors from those same swing states who once again can win without the inconvenience of fair elections.)

I hate sounding like a conspiracist, but the facts are clear. Putting our heads in the sand and pretending otherwise changes nothing. Am I wrong? A few swing states with completely corrupt voting are going to keep the White House and Senate in Republican control. That then leads to hundreds of more extreme right wing judges who will further damage whatever democracy we have left. (Please tell me I'm wrong and give me something hopeful to grab onto!)
S.S., West Hollywood, CA

Q: Will the United States still be the United States in 2100? J.K., Boston, MA

A: There can be no question, at this point, that we are in the midst of one of the most polarized and most divisive times in American history. There's an idea that's been floating around for the last year or so that this is a "Cold Civil War." That is to say, we have the bitter geographical divide of the Civil War (in this case, the South and the middle of the country vs. the coastal states), and the war-through-means-beyond-military-combat approach of the Cold War. There is something to be said for that way of looking at things.

That said, this is hardly the first time the U.S. has been in crisis. The country nearly fell apart in 1812 (disagreements over the War of 1812), and again in 1820 (disagreements over the future of slavery). It actually did fall apart in 1861, faced issues very similar to our own era in the late 19th century, and of course coped with the original Cold War from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. Even though these issues seemed insurmountable to many citizens living during those time periods, the country eventually overcame them all.

Excepting the two cases involving foreign adversaries, where circumstances were not entirely in Americans' control, the general pattern has been very similar: Eventually, the folks who agree that there are problems to be solved reach critical mass, and something gets done. That's how we ended up with, for example, the Emancipation Proclamation, civil service reform, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, direct election of senators, and women's suffrage. Or, if you prefer an example in more recent memory, a lot of people resisted the idea that the ozone layer was in trouble, but eventually the great majority decided it was, and meaningful steps were taken to reverse the damage.

If you want some good news that is specifically relevant to our current era, let us point out a key parallel to a the original Civil War. That war was inflicted on the country by a small minority; the 5 million white Southerners of that era were only about 16% of the national population. For a couple of decades in the 1840s and 1850s, they used various loopholes and shenanigans to grant themselves disproportionate power. When the war came, they managed to keep the Southern war machine viable for several years. But, in the end, the situation became unsustainable. That is to say, 16% is just too small compared to 84%.

The modern Republican Party, which is responsible for most of the most egregious abuses of the Constitution (bottlenecking legislation, packing the federal courts, voter ID laws, pre-determining the outcome of the impeachment trial, etc.) is also in the minority, and is reliant upon demographic groups whose numbers are shrinking. Pretty soon, and almost certainly within the next decade, they will either be forced to change course, or they will become so small that even the advantages that come from dominating the sparsely populated rural states will not be enough to hold onto power.

In short, we are confident that there will be a United States in 2100, and that—even though it may not seem this way right now—the "Cold Civil War" will come to an end. To end on an optimistic note, if the country could survive after a bitter Civil War (in which 620,000 Americans were killed, vs. 407,000 in WW II), followed by the assassination of the president, followed by the impeachment and near-conviction of the next president, it can survive Donald Trump.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan03 Iranian General Killed on Trump's Orders
Jan03 Evidence Against Trump Continues to Mount
Jan03 More Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are In
Jan03 Bloomberg Makes His Strategy Official
Jan03 Castro Gives Up
Jan03 Williamson Campaign Enters Its Death Throes
Jan03 Why Do Young Voters Hate Pete Buttigieg?
Jan03 Unions Are Cool on Sanders This Time
Jan03 Five Fights to Expect in Congress
Jan03 Over 200 Members of Congress Ask Supreme Court to Revisit Roe v. Wade
Jan02 Trump Says He Will Sign China Trade Deal on January 15
Jan02 Trump-Critical Pieces by Christians Are Piling Up
Jan02 An Under-the-radar Sort of Gerrymander
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Polling
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Power Rankings
Jan02 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Trickling In
Jan02 Elections to Watch in 2020
Jan01 Do as I Say, Not as I Do
Jan01 Collins "Open to Witnesses" in Impeachment Trial
Jan01 Lewandowski Is Out
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part I: The Worst Weeks
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part II: The Lows
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part III: The Highs
Jan01 Back to the Future, Part II: 2020 Predictions
Dec31 Shadowy Diplomacy
Dec31 Two Judges, Two Punts
Dec31 U.S. Army Bans Use of TikTok by Soldiers
Dec31 Biden Says He'd Consider a Republican Running Mate
Dec31 Sanders' Doctors Give Him a Clean Bill of Health
Dec31 Black Voters Energized Heading into 2020
Dec31 Back to the Future, Part I: 2019 Predictions
Dec30 Trump Starts to Assemble His Defense Team
Dec30 Biden Waffles on Subpoena
Dec30 Who's Ahead in Iowa?
Dec30 The Gender Gap in 2020 Could Be Unprecedented
Dec30 Bloomberg Hires 200 Staffers in March and April Primary States
Dec30 Florida is Too Important to Ignore
Dec30 Cybersecurity Threats Loom in 2020
Dec30 James Lankford Doesn't See Trump as a Role Model
Dec29 Sunday Mailbag
Dec28 Saturday Q&A
Dec27 North Korean "Christmas Gift" Is Belated
Dec27 Trump-only Ballot Triggers Lawsuit in Minnesota
Dec27 Democrats Getting Ready to Run on Healthcare
Dec27 What Does a Promising Presidential Résumé Look Like?, Part I
Dec27 The Not-so-Young and Restless
Dec27 Who Are the Snowflakes, Again?
Dec27 Netanyahu Will Keep on Keepin' On
Dec26 House Is Open to More Articles of Impeachment
Dec26 DNC Tightens the Screws Again