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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Not too many sites manage to squeeze impeachment, McDonald's, Osama bin Laden, Satan worship, ranked-choice voting, and 1970s neckties into a single page.

Q: Is there a requirement that all of the House managers in an impeachment trial be members of the House of Representatives? Could, say, former NSA John Bolton, be appointed as a manager and then be asked to deliver the opening statement (in lieu of the testimony that he is unlikely to get the chance to deliver during the trial)? I realize there are probably a bunch of reasons that the House Democrats might not want to do that, but could they? J.D., Columbia, MD

A: The impeachment managers will be named with the passage of a House resolution that must be approved by a majority of the House (i.e., 216 Democrats, at the moment). So, any list that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) can get (most of) her caucus to vote for is possible.

There is, as you note, no way that Pelosi would actually do this, as it would play right into the hands of Republicans, and their claims that the whole thing is just a sham being staged for theatrical purposes. To the extent that there are any possible "stunts" on tap, there is some pressure on Pelosi from some members of her caucus to appoint Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), though she's reportedly not keen on that.

Q: Lots of talking heads on the news channels are saying that they're not sure what Nancy Pelosi's game is in holding the articles of impeachment, since she can't really force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to do anything in particular. You've already pointed out that, by holding them, she's waited long enough for several important things to happen (new e-mails to emerge via FOIA, Bolton offering to testify). But I'm wondering whether there's an angle here that no one has really mentioned: postponing the Senate trial, and extending it, long enough that some GOP Senators get beyond the filing dates for primary challengers. Obviously, once filing deadlines pass for those currently seeking reelection, they have nothing to fear from Trump. They'll be elected to six-year terms that will outlast his time in office, even if he's reelected.

Since the real danger for most GOP Senators, if they were to buck Trump, isn't losing a general election but rather being primaried from the right, is it possible that this is an exceptionally shrewd part of her political calculus? And if so, what are the filing deadlines in the states that will hold Senate elections this year?
S.G., Rochester, NY

A: Pelosi and McConnell are probably the two shrewdest political operators in Washington, so one should never discount the possibility that there is a 3-D chess game going on here that none of us is privy to. We may even learn exactly what Pelosi is thinking right now, though that may have to wait until she retires and writes her memoirs.

We do not think, however, that she's trying to give Republican senators who are fearful of being primaried an opening to rebel. First of all, there is no particular reason to believe any of them are open to turning apostate; even Republicans who really have nothing to fear from voters (e.g., Mitt Romney, Pat Roberts, Mike Enzi) have remained in lockstep with McConnell. Further, and in answer to your second question, the calendar doesn't really line up. Two primary deadlines arrived yesterday—Kentucky and Mississippi—and it is very unlikely that McConnell or Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) is available to turn against Trump now that they know for sure no primary challenge is forthcoming. The only other primary deadlines that arrive before March 1 are Maryland (Jan. 24), West Virginia (Jan. 25), Indiana (Feb. 7), and Pennsylvania (Feb. 18). Only West Virginia has a Senate election this year, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is not much more likely than Hyde-Smith to rebel.

Q: Is there a historical precedent for the press, in the eyes of the public, losing their status as a trusted source of facts? Has this ever happened before? What was the outcome? I know the Spanish-American War is often touted as the best example of the press behaving badly, but I'm not sure it is a good parallel for what is going on today.

A lot of time has been spent lately talking about ideological bias within the press, but I think the bigger problem is that journalists are more and more biased towards covering a specific interpretation of a story over other plausible interpretations. I think the switch in focus of news organizations from fact- to opinion-based reporting (i.e. pundits, opinion piece writing, overly reporting social media, etc.) is the primary culprit here. It has produced a lot of junk news pieces such as dubious use of statistics, selective use of data, generally un-self-critical opinion pieces, and treating unverified predictions like they are gospel. Doing most of these things will lose you credibility in any academic field and, in fact-based reporting, are intolerable as well. The press used to be tasked with dispelling narrative fallacy; confirmation bias was absolutely anathema to journalism. Now news organizations are all in on it. What does this mean for the continued relevance of the press? While much of the critique of journalism of late has focused on the polarization of news organizations along ideological lines and the use of unverified sources on social media, it is rare that anyone in the press discusses the fundamental shift in journalistic practices that has occurred over the last few decades.
S.O.F., New York, NY

A: Let us begin our answer to the first part of your question by comparing McDonald's to The French Laundry (widely regarded as the best restaurant in the United States). Both of these businesses are in the food service industry, but they obviously have wildly different business models. McDonald's makes a small profit from a vast number of customers. In order to do so, they must offer dishes that appeal to a broad variety of tastes, and that do not push the envelope in any meaningful way (not too spicy, nor too unusual, nor too expensive). The French Laundry makes a generous profit from a much smaller number of customers. This means they can put together a menu that is much more unorthodox and edgy, and is tailored to the tastes of its customer base (basically, wealthy foodies).

In terms of the media, there is a similar sort of spectrum. When an outlet makes its money by appealing to a very broad consumer base, they generally have to be fairly neutral, for fear of alienating some sizable percentage of the people they are doing business with. The most obvious example of this is probably the network news, particularly before cable television emerged in the 1970s, or maybe the newspaper USA Today. Alternatively, when an outlet makes its money by appealing to a narrower base (but collecting more money per person), they can tailor themselves more obviously to the demands of that base. The obvious modern example is either cable news or the Wall Street Journal.

Historically, the circumstance that most paralleled the current cable news situation is the one you pointed out, namely newspapers in large cities. For more than a century, most big cities had at least one newspaper that appealed to Republican sensibilities, and one that appealed to Democratic sensibilities. Think Los Angeles Times/Los Angeles Examiner, Chicago Tribune/Chicago Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News, and so forth. In each of those cases, the first paper listed was the "Republican" paper 100 years ago, though many of them eventually flipped, as the parties realigned. New York City, being especially large, sustained an even more complex media landscape, with as many as five or six newspapers at any given time, each speaking for a different constituency.

You're also right that the newspapers of the late 19th century often played fast and loose with the facts. There are a number of reasons for this. One of these, as noted, is that they were in the business of appealing to specific political factions. A second is that many newspaper publishers were themselves politicians, or at least aspiring politicians. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were the preeminent newspaper publishers at the turn of the century; both were members of Congress while the latter also ran for president in 1904. And a third reason for playing fast and loose with the facts is that the style of the day allowed for it. That is to say that it was entirely legitimate for "muckrakers" to do real research and then to write a fictionalized work based on that research. You thus have a genre that quite consciously blends fact with fiction, and objective reality with subjective opinion. Among the famous works that were written in exactly this way are Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Mark Twain's The Gilded Age, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In each case, the author did real on-the-ground research about a legitimate social problem and then produced a work of fiction that encapsulated the issue, as they understood it.

If you want a time when the news media was even worse than in the late 19th century, then we would direct your attention to the Civil War. As we note above, the papers of the late 19th century were geared toward specific factions, were run by politicians, and had an ethical sense somewhat different from that of later journalists. All of those things are true of Civil War journalists, except that they really had no ethical sense at all. Prior to the Civil War, newspapers were almost entirely party organs, and propagandizing was the order of the day. The front pages were opinion only; news was brief and was relegated to the back pages, something like obituaries today. During the War, news moved to the front page, but the idea that such information was important and valuable and should be handled carefully had not yet taken hold. Further, as is so often the case today, the money was in being the first to publish a story. And on top of all this, there were no bylines, and thus no accountability. Add it all up, and it was not uncommon for the reporters of the Civil War era to just make things up out of whole cloth. That was particularly true of battle reports, where readers on one side or the other would be told their army had "won" a battle, only to learn eventually that they had in fact lost.

As to your critique of the modern media, we'll make a number of observations about what is, and what is not, going on, in our view:

  • Interpretation: Your proposal that the media should cover multiple interpretations of a story sounds good in theory, but is often problematic in practice. First of all, writing that tries to covers too many sides and too many facets of a particular story is often clunky and hard to read. Second, for many platforms, time/column space is at a premium. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the idea that all perspectives/interpretations deserve attention is often problematic, and can become an empty crutch to lean on to protect against charges of bias. For example, let us imagine that there is a rally with 500 Black Lives Matter protesters and 5 white supremacist counter-protesters. Do we really need to hear from one of the white supremacists (1% of the turnout), so that all viewpoints are represented? No, but many outlets will talk to one of those folks nonetheless in the interest of so-called "balance." Similarly, what if a common "interpretation" is obviously incorrect and is not based on fact? Does an outlet need to mention that? For example, in a story about Michelle Obama, is it necessary to mention that some sizable percentage of the population (5% or so) thinks she is actually a man?

  • Opinion vs. News: There is a line between what is allowed in news pieces and what is allowed in opinion pieces. Many modern readers are not aware of that line, and so interpret left-leaning or right-leaning opinion content as a reflection on an outlet's editorial content. It does not help that some outlets (ahem, Fox News) do not do the best job of reminding viewers where that line is.

  • Thin Budgets: With the rise of the Internet, the media landscape has gotten more competitive and, generally, less profitable. That means that newsrooms are forced to do more, but with less money. There was a time when a proper newsroom at a major newspaper would have specialists in things like science, the city council, higher education, polling, military policy, and so forth, and those folks would develop the necessary expertise to cover those beats properly. Now, reporters are often asked to cover subjects about which they have only passing knowledge. That is the primary reason for some of the sloppy stuff you note in your question.

  • Time Is Money: On a similar note, the news media used to have more room to work at a leisurely pace, in order to make sure that a story was covered appropriately. Now, competition is so fierce, that an outlet that drags its feet is at risk of being scooped. Further, there isn't the money for, say, a three-month study of parking ticket enforcement in poor vs. rich areas.

  • Man Bites Dog: This has always been the biggest bias in the media, even more than political slant. Whether it was 150 years ago or yesterday, that which is shocking and sensational attracts eyeballs, sells newspapers, and (today) generates clicks. This necessarily skews coverage, both in terms of what stories are covered, and how they are covered.

  • Nostalgia: Although we would like to think that the news media was once completely neutral, that's not any more true than the notion that the Supreme Court was once completely neutral. Yes, some outlets in some time periods did a fair job of walking the middle of the road, but there is no decade in U.S. history where hyper-partisan media outlets of some sort (magazines, newspapers, cable TV stations, radio stations, etc.) did not exist and have a broad audience.

In short, we agree with some of the concerns you've raised. But we think the story is considerably more complex than you've presented it.

Q: On your "welcome" page, you write: "We have bent over backwards to be scrupulously honest about all the numbers, carefully write the main page to be strictly nonpartisan."

Can you say/write this with a straight face anymore? Not the first half obviously. Perhaps the second half may have been true at one point in time, but I think you need to revise it to say something like "...and carefully write the main page based on information from across the political spectrum." Even a political neophyte would peg you at center-left at the least.
B.P., Tokyo, Japan

A: We address this issue roughly every six months, and we're due for a refresher, so here goes.

To start, and consistent with the answer above, "nonpartisan" is not a synonym for "non-judgmental." As we have said before, and as we will say again, we try to call balls and strikes. If a Republican swings and misses, in our view, we will say so. The same is true for a Democrat. We continue to work very hard to try to consider all possible interpretations before we reach our conclusions, and we also try to provide evidence in support of our assessments. At the same time, we assiduously try to avoid any sort of partisan advocacy. For example, some readers have written in and suggested we should do "endorsements," just as newspapers have done for generations. The problem is that we don't have an opinion/op-ed section, and so we have no clean way of drawing the very important line between opinion and analysis we describe in the previous answer. So, we do not (and will not) do endorsements. The only advocacy we are comfortable with is the politically neutral sort, like encouraging people to register and/or to vote.

If you perceive a change in tone or coverage, we would suggest—as we have before—that is a result of changes in context, not changes in our editorial philosophy. What we have right now is a major political party that is unusually willing to transgress the norms of constitutional government, unusually willing to engage in conspiratorial thinking and/or counterfactual interpretations, and unusually willing to make up "facts" out of whole cloth. We are both trained academics, and if there is one thing that is at the heart of every scholarly discipline, whether physics (V's Ph.D. degree) or history (Z's Ph.D. degree), it is that one must be true to the evidence to the best of one's ability. It goes against our training and our ethical code to pretend that something is true when we believe it is not, whether that's claims about global warming, or about "the most transparent presidency ever," or that peace with North Korea is imminent, or that impeachment is just a witch hunt, or that "I did not have sex with that woman."

There is one thing somewhat distinctive about this site that could be read as bias, and that is that we tend to work some sarcasm into our postings. This is part of our editorial voice and, we flatter ourselves, part of our appeal. We try to avoid gratuitous snark, and similarly we keep some topics off-limits (no remarks about someone's weight, for example). Perhaps it seems that most of our jokes are at the expense of Republicans. That is probably true, at least at the moment, but—as with Saturday Night Live—you may be certain that if we see a chance to make a good joke at a Democrat's expense, we will take it.

Q: How is killing Gen. Qasem Soleimani different (constitutionally) from having invaded Panama and captured Manuel Noriega? Did Congress authorize the invasion of Panama? R.P., Redmond, WA

A: You're right that there are a lot of similarities. As with Donald Trump and Soleimani, the George H. W. Bush administration invoked vague "threats against Americans" and argued that Noriega had created a de facto state of war between the United States and Panama. To the extent that Team Bush stands on firmer legal/moral ground than Team Trump, it is because they did consult with some members of Congress (though there was no formal authorization), they had a little bit more specific legal basis for the invasion (specifically, the terms of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties), and they merely captured Noriega instead of killing him.

That said, the general consensus of post-invasion analyses was that Operation Just Cause (as it was known) was a violation of international law, and that the Bush administration was primarily motivated by domestic political concerns (i.e., firing up the base) and not by a legitimate threat to U.S. national security. It is possible a similar consensus may emerge surrounding the killing of Soleimani.

Q: Did President Obama inform Congress before killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan? If not, then why was that different from Trump killing Qasem Soleimani in Iraq? S.B., Arvada, CO

A: Obama was also operating in a gray area, and one that bears much similarity to what happened with Soleimani. In particular, though the U.S. had permission to be in Pakistan, just as it had permission to be in Iraq, the respective presidential administrations did not get permission from the respective national governments, for fear of leaks. Nor did they seek Congressional approval, for the same reason.

In any event, we've taken the position that Trump was on firm enough ground, legally speaking (as was Obama), and that the things that the President deserves to be criticized for are: (1) allowing things to get to this point by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal without an alternate option in mind, and (2) ordering the attack based on instinct and emotion, and (apparently) not thinking through all the implications.

If you did want to draw a distinction between Obama/bin Laden and Trump/Soleimani, however, we would say there are three things you might point out. The first is that the Congressional authorization they both relied on, particularly Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, was specifically written in response to the September 11 attacks. There is no question that it was intended to cover bin Laden, whereas you have to work a little harder to argue it covered Soleimani. The second is that Obama appears to have been concerned almost entirely with eliminating a potential threat to the United States, and not with helping himself politically. With Trump, the story is still being written, but it's certainly possible that he was strongly motivated by a desire to please the base, or to distract from impeachment, or to tar the Democrats as "terrorist sympathizers," or all of the above. The third is that the man Obama targeted was not a uniformed representative of any national government, while the man that Trump targeted was.

Q: What do you think a second term by Trump would look like? I can see two possibilities: (1) Trump would be all-in, having beaten impeachment and won re-election. He would feel invincible and full-steam ahead to advance his agenda. Or (2) The issue he really cares about is getting re-elected. All, or most, other policy positions are primarily taken to help him get re-elected. So he sees being re-elected as a "stay-out-of-prison for 4 more years" card, plays even more golf, and lets others take care of governing. J.D., Rutland, VT

A: Option 2 is not a possibility that anyone's really talking about right now, and it certainly could happen. That said, we doubt it. Trump isn't particularly willing to delegate, the way that a Ronald Reagan or a Dwight D. Eisenhower was. He always wants to have his hand on the steering wheel. Further, every president who gets elected to a second term thinks about their legacy and how history will remember them, and Trump is not likely to be different. And finally, he is obsessed with ratings in a way we haven't seen in a long time, if ever. So, our guess is that he does many things, and probably more outlandish things, designed to win the hearts of voters, even once reelection is no longer a concern.

Q: You noted that Tom Steyer received two polls that qualified him for the next debate, just ahead of the cut-off. Both polls were from Fox News and showed surprisingly high support for Steyer. Any reason to think that Fox is intentionally playing games with the Democratic debate roster? M.H., Boston, MA

A: We doubt this is the case. Even if Fox was willing to risk their (admittedly shaky) reputation like this, the pollsters they use (who are legitimate) probably wouldn't be willing to play along. Further, Steyer invariably gets less speaking time than anyone else at the debates. Is the risk involved with this scheme worth whatever benefit comes from him having 10 more minutes in the spotlight?

It is more likely that this is a product of Fox News' model, which appears to give particular weight to low-information voters (i.e., the ones likely to make decisions based on what they see on TV). Further, Steyer seems—probably aided by his own internal polling—to be emphasizing issues that are likely to peel off a few voters from each part of the spectrum. For example, he's got an ad in heavy rotation right now that talks about how we "obviously" need term limits, and another one talking about how he will "take on" all the Washington insiders. These are things that make some progressives, some centrists, and some conservatives nod knowingly. It's plausible he could find an audience among 5-7% of the electorate.

Q: Suppose Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) stick it out until just before the convention, before Warren (presumably still in third place) drops out and endorses Sanders. Her delegates are then likely to effectively become Sanders delegates, correct? If the combined total still exceeds the necessary 1,990-delegate threshold needed to claim the nomination, would that then still trigger a "brokered convention?" J.M.B., Oakland, CA

A: Generally speaking, this is correct. However, when we get into nuts and bolts, there are two complicating factors.

The first of these is exactly how many delegates we're talking about. If Warren, for example, releases her delegates, she can ask them to transfer their support to Sanders but she cannot command them. If Sanders needs 200 more delegates, and Warren releases 350 delegates, that will undoubtedly push him over the top. On the other hand, if Sanders needs 200 more delegates, and Warren releases 205, that may not do it. On those occasions since 1960 when a brokered convention seemed possible, the leading candidate only needed a small number of delegates (fewer than 100) to claim a majority.

The second of these is what state the delegates come from. Some states have no laws regarding their delegates' votes, meaning that those folks are essentially free to do as they see fit. Others have laws that give delegates freedom of choice, but only if the candidate to which they are pledged drops out. And some require delegates to stick to their pledged candidate regardless of what happens, for one (or more) ballots. For example, Oklahoma requires pledged delegates to stick with their candidate even if that person drops out, dies, turns out to be a Satan-worshiping puppy kicker, and fails to win the nomination after 200 ballots. New Mexico, Oregon, and Tennessee are among the other states that constrain their delegates in some way (a complete list of rules, state-by-state, is here). All of this is to say that there are at least some delegates (albeit not too many) that a candidate cannot release.

Q: In the event of a brokered convention, do you see Joe Biden trying to compromise and saying he will serve only one term as a "return to normalcy" and then to give the Sanders/Warren wing influence over the VP pick? Not picking either Sanders or Warren, per se (that would put the both slots of the ticket to two candidates over 70 years old and from the same general region of the country), but a younger progressive from swing states, as a way to unify the ticket? D.R., Massapequa Park, NY

A: If the convention is brokered, and if Joe Biden is the nominee, then he will certainly end up with a running mate that is at least somewhat young and somewhat progressive. Maybe even very young and/or very progressive. But that is likely to be true even if the convention is not brokered.

It is also possible that there will be a tacit understanding that Biden will serve only one term. Maybe only party movers and shakers will know that; maybe the voting public will know that. However, the understanding will never go beyond "tacit." If Biden openly declares that he's a one-termer, then he spends his entire presidency as a lame duck, which is not conducive for getting things done.

Q: My question is about the item on brokered conventions. As I try to better understand the complexities of elections, gerrymandering, popular versus electoral voting, and the dismaying idea that just a few states decide our whole election (or in a state's case, a few communities in a district), it seems like an obvious piece of the solution would be ranked-choice voting. Why isn't ranked voting more popular or taken more seriously? It seems like it could work to the benefit of all involved, including the candidates and the voters. What am I missing? N.G., Schenectady, NY

A: We can think of five reasons why ranked-choice voting hasn't caught fire yet, some of them good and some of them not so good:

  • Change Is Hard: People in general, and Americans in particular, tend to be leery of anything that is new or different. Ranked-choice voting is definitely new and different.

  • Legality: While ranked-choice voting is probably legal, under the terms of the Constitution, the matter has not been fully addressed by the courts.

  • Polarization: Most of the places that have adopted ranked-choice voting are either blue, or very blue. As we know, in today's environment, anything Democrats like is reflexively "bad" to many Republicans (the same is true in the other direction, of course).

  • Expense: Ranked-choice voting will require more labor and thus more cost. The government is already not thrilled to spend money on things like election security, so they are definitely not thrilled about substantially increasing their Election Day labor costs.

  • Downsides: There are some potential issues with ranked-choice voting, like a greater potential for errors, and the possibility of picking the "least disliked" candidate instead of the "most liked." Some folks oppose the idea on the basis of these downsides.

In short, it's possible that ranked-choice voting will eventually catch on, but if it does it will likely be a slow process.

Q: Do you think that if the Democrats adopted a form of ranked choice voting in the primary it could help prevent the hurt feelings that may keep some voters away during the general election? How could such a system be structured, since the primaries are like a bunch of little elections instead of just one big pool of votes? D.M., McLean, VA

A: Our view is that this would be a lot of pain for not a lot of gain.

First of all, caucuses are a form of ranked-choice voting, so we're only talking about primaries here. And in the primaries, most of the candidates on the ballot (or, at very least, the leading candidates) are somewhat viable (or else they would have dropped out). Someone in, say, New Hampshire can vote for Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), and there's a good chance their vote would count.

The only purposes of ranked-choice voting in the primaries would be to allow some people to express support for a second-tier candidate before having their vote counted for a first-tier candidate. We're mostly talking votes for an Andrew Yang or a Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) or a Tom Steyer. It would take a lot of tricky ballot-counting to allow for this, would apply only to the relatively small minority of voters who support a candidate unable to make the 15% cutoff, and would probably only be relevant in a few early states (after which the non-first-tier candidates will have dropped out). It just doesn't seem worth it, and is not likely to soothe a sizable number of irritated partisans.

In the general election, by contrast, ranked-choice allows folks to register discontent with their party's nominee without throwing away their vote. One can vote Jill Stein without de facto helping Donald Trump, or can vote Gary Johnson without de facto helping Hillary Clinton. This probably would soothe at least some hurt feelings, as people would at least feel heard.

Q: Would ranked-choice voting have kept Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee? K.H., Maryville, TN

A: Probably not. The data here is necessarily scant, since only a few pollsters ask about voters' second/third choices, and since none ask that question once the field is narrowed to one. If ranked-choice voting had been in use, the available data suggests it might have flipped a couple of states—with Virginia possibly going to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Arkansas possibly going to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). And maybe, with those victories under their belts, one of those candidates or the other would have remained viable for a longer time, and would even have surged to the point of securing the nomination. But it's doubtful.

Q: Your readers brought up concerns about the survival of democracy. Do you see a parallel between the evolution of political forms and the fashion industry or computer science? With the change of human taste, what was "out" could become "in" decades later. With the development of technology, ideas to design operating systems appear and vanish. Will democracy undergo the same cycle, due to some unknown underlying force? L.M.S., Harbin, China

A: We will suggest one strong parallel, in each case. To start, in fashion (and in many other areas where aesthetics matter), the general trend is to be very different from what came immediately before. See, for example, the narrow neckties that were fashionable in the 1960s, followed by the wide ties that were fashionable in the 1970s, followed by the narrow ties that were fashionable in the 1980s. This has not always been the case in American politics; there are runs of presidents who were pretty darn similar to one another (say, Jefferson-Madison-Monroe, or even Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy), but these days the voters seem to veer between stark contrasts. It would be hard to think of two men much more different than George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example. Well, unless it's Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, you're right that change is constant in computer science. However, unlike fashion, it's also constrained by certain realities. It is not practical to re-invent the wheel every few years. Further, computer scientists are significantly constrained by what the hardware is capable of doing, and also by what other computer scientists are doing. Inventing, for example, the USB port is not useful unless computer manufacturers are willing to use it.

What we're trying to argue here is that politics is somewhat in between these two extremes. There is a fair amount of desire, at least these days, to try something different (as with fashion). But there are also constraints on what is possible (as with computer science), imposed by the Constitution, the law, the electorate's resistance to radical change, and so forth. So, there is no doubt that the American political system of, say, the 2040s will be different from the one we have today. But it is unlikely it will change so much as to be unrecognizable.

Q: You've talked many times of the difficulties and limitations of polling in the modern era, from laws limiting calling to cell phones to difficulties building a good model of likely voters. We're going to see a lot more polling over the next year, and there's one topic I've never seen you address: If you could take the rails off, and imagine the perfect polling scenario, what would it look like? P.N., Austin, TX

A: We begin with the caveat that there is much about polling that cannot be "fixed," per se. For example, a very important factor is trying to judge what the electorate will look like, and then filtering the polling data based on that. Short of inventing a time machine, there is no way to be certain exactly who will (and won't) turn out on Election Day, and so there is necessarily a significant amount of imprecision/guesswork baked into the whole process.

That said, if we had unlimited resources for polling, there are two things we would do. The first is rely on tracking polls, where the same voters are queried, over and over, as to their preferences. This tends to be a more accurate way of gauging shifts in the electorate. It's also far more expensive, which is why it's not generally done.

The second thing we would do is poll more broadly. Usually, there are a lot of "national" polls, which are actually kind of misleading because—of course—the presidency is not awarded by popular vote. There also tend to be a lot of polls of (perceived) swing states. Both of these things are because polling is not cheap, and national and/or swing-state polls give the most bang for the buck. However, there is a significant risk (as we learned in 2016) that states could slip into swing-state territory without anyone noticing, and so important developments (like "the blue wall is crumbling") can get missed. If every state was polled on a regular basis, it would be expensive and time consuming, but would also reduce the risk of missing any important and unexpected developments.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan10 Iran Drama Has Not Yet Subsided...
Jan10 ...Nor Has Impeachment Drama
Jan10 A Brokered Convention?
Jan10 The Hawk-Why? State
Jan10 Steyer Makes the Cut
Jan10 Trump Goes 0-for-2 This Week in New York Defamation Lawsuits
Jan10 Loeffler Takes Her Seat
Jan09 Trump Backs Down
Jan09 Progressive Groups Are All Taking Aim at Biden
Jan09 Democratic Unity Will Determine Trump's Fate
Jan09 Congressional Democrats Aren't Taking Sides in the Primaries
Jan09 Trump's Pitbulls in the House Will Not Be Unleashed in the Impeachment Trial
Jan09 Can Democracy Survive 2020?
Jan09 Kansas Democratic Candidate for the Senate Raises $1 Million
Jan09 Massachusetts Senate Primary Is Very Strange
Jan09 Trump Defamation Case Heads to New York's Highest Court
Jan08 Iran Makes Its Move...
Jan08 ...And So Does McConnell
Jan08 Democrats May Postpone Next Debate
Jan08 Flynn Looking at 6 Months
Jan08 Hunter Finally Resigns
Jan08 The Law of Unintended Consequences
Jan08 Trump Jr. Continues to Run the Trump Sr. Playbook
Jan07 Iran Situation Gets Messier and Messier for Trump Administration
Jan07 Bolton Says He's Willing to Testify
Jan07 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Almost Complete
Jan07 Yang Can't Figure Out Where to Spend His Money
Jan07 Castro Endorses Warren
Jan07 Pompeo Says He Won't Run for the Senate
Jan07 Chelsea Clinton Collected $9 Million for Board of Directors Work
Jan06 War with Iran?
Jan06 Congress May Clash with Trump over War Powers
Jan06 Will the Iran Situation Help Buttigieg?
Jan06 Sanders Soars
Jan06 Appeals Court Hears Arguments in McGahn Case
Jan06 A Report from Trumpland
Jan06 Who's Ahead? 2024 Edition
Jan06 Another House Republican Retires
Jan05 Sunday Mailbag
Jan04 Saturday Q&A
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