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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

You honestly never know who's going to write in to the Q&A.

Q: It seems as though Joe Biden's current strategy of stepping back and let Donald Trump fall on his face over and over seems to be working for him. But, given the Democrats' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, my question to you is: How can Biden realistically screw this up and let Trump win re-election? R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: The odds are that, if there is a game-changer that shifts the election dramatically in Trump's favor, it will be something that was not in Biden's personal control. For example, if an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is developed and Trump is somehow able to take credit, or the economy really does come roaring back, or some currently unknown skeleton from Biden's closet emerges, or AG Bill Barr manages to cook up an effective "October Surprise."

But in terms of things that Biden himself might do in order to derail his campaign? Well, if he was caught on microphone saying something sexist or racist, that might be a dealbreaker for the progressives currently planning to hold their noses and vote for him. And if he committed to some sort of very lefty policy initiative, like "we're going to do everything we can to raise taxes on anyone making $40,000 or more, so we can fund the Green New Deal and free-of-cost abortions for anyone who wants one, up to the third trimester" that might lose him enough centrist support to cost him the election. It is, of course, unlikely that someone as savvy as Biden would say any of these things.

Oh, and note that both parties have shown some talent for losing seemingly un-losable elections. We direct your attention, for example, to the Democratic senator who currently represents ruby-red Alabama because the GOP decided to nominate a credibly accused child molester. Or the long-standing Republican candidates' tradition of saying unwise things about the crime of rape.

Q: If Joe Biden should be elected President will he effectively be obliged to nominate Merrick Garland for a seat on the Supreme Court at the first opportunity, since if he did otherwise Republicans would say "See, we were right to block him. Even Biden doesn't think he is worthy of a SCOTUS seat?" C.L., Durham, UK

A: "I certainly understand why my good friend Barack Obama made the choice he did, as I was a part of those discussions. However, the events of the past year have made clear that we need a more diverse array of voices on the Court, and that is why it is incumbent upon me to make a different choice. I have spoken with Barack, and he agrees with me."

Q: If Joe Biden would simply choose the most qualified woman as his VP, whom would he choose? Do you think he will choose her? F.S., Cologne Germany

A: Well, there is a prominent Democratic woman who has well over a decade of West Wing experience, including four years in the most important position in the Cabinet. She also has significant legislative experience, as both a negotiator and a sitting member of Congress. If that is not enough, she is also a walking encyclopedia of public policy, and may know more about U.S. foreign policy than any other person currently walking the face of the planet. She's even an experienced debater, and would wipe the floor with Mike Pence. But there is no way that Joe Biden is going to pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate, of course.

Q: You noted that the second presidential debate has been moved because the hosts of the original venue no longer wanted it due to health reasons. We have the means to conduct a virtual debate, with Trump in the White House, Biden in his basement, and the moderators in their homes. Why is the Commission on Presidential Debates even considering in-person debates in the middle of a pandemic? M.R., New Brighton, MN

A: That's a very good question. Even before the Internet Age, it was possible to conduct "remote" debates; the second Nixon-Kennedy debate, for example, had Nixon in California and Kennedy in New York. As to 2020, there is certainly a strong argument for virtual debates. We have no inside information, of course, but we can think of a few reasons the Commission might be reluctant to do that:

  • Allowing Trump to debate from some notable location in the White House (say, the Oval Office) would give him something of a psychological advantage. The Commission (and the Biden campaign) might be sensitive to that, and might be worried that trying to negotiate a compromise with Trump would lead to a public hissy-fit.

  • Tradition (at least, recent tradition)

  • Although commentators always complain when the audience gets loud or rowdy, the folks who organize the debates clearly see some value in having that insta-response, which would be difficult to achieve with a virtual debate. Not impossible, although anyone who watched Weekend Update during the first installment of "Saturday Night Live at Home" knows that having a virtual audience can fall flat.

  • The more technically complicated things are, the greater the chance of a fatal technical problem. Like, what happens if the major Internet hubs in Washington are hit with a denial of service attack, so as to shut Trump's feed down?

We're not suggesting these are all good reasons, just that they are the things that might be influencing the Commission.

Q: You defined a Republican "Restoration Crew" as wanting "to continue the policies of Jeb! after his successful two-term presidency." Were you being tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well that his brother W. was president for two terms, not Jeb!; or are you just confused? T.B., Tallahassee, FL

A: It's true that we do sometimes mix up similar sorts of commodities. For example, it's really easy to inadvertently put R-AL next to Sen. Doug Jones' name or D-CA next to Rep. Devin Nunes' name, for obvious reasons. However, we would never mix up George and Jeb, and we would definitely never mix up George and Jeb! That line was a nod to sci-fi franchises like "Star Trek," which often explore alternate timelines. What we meant to suggest is that the restorationists (in much the same manner as their French predecessors) will behave as if Trumpism never happened, and that there has been continuity from Ronald Reagan through the "three" Bush presidencies, up to the present day.

Q: If Donald Trump decides to drop out before the election, what chance would his replacement have of winning (if any)? D.K., Miami, FL

A: That depends very substantially on the circumstances. If Trump were to drop out because his health took a dramatic turn for the worse, or because he died, then the party would probably unify around the candidate chosen to succeed him, and would probably get some number of "sympathy" votes. In that case, the candidate (Mike Pence? Ivanka Trump?) would likely have a better chance of winning than Trump himself has right now.

On the other hand, if Trump quits in a fit of pique, or so he can flee the country, or for some other self-centered reason, then many Republicans (especially his base) will be disheartened. There would likely be an ugly struggle for the right to replace him, and whoever was chosen would be unsatisfactory to a segment of the Party and would struggle to unify the Republican vote. In that circumstance, the replacement candidate would be unelectable.

Q: What happens if January 19, 2021, rolls around, and Donald Trump loads himself and the immediate family onto Air Force One and orders the pilot to fly to Moscow or Abu Dhabi? I assume the pilot/crew would still be obliged to follow those orders, and I also assume that if Putin got his hands on Air Force One there's no way he would let go of it, or any other tech/footballs that might be aboard. J.B.C., St. Louis, MO

A: He's still the president until January 20, 2021, around noon, so his orders would indeed be followed. However, the value of what he took with him would probably be fairly nominal. First of all, the officer who carries the nuclear football would refuse to surrender it. And even if he did, all it has is codes that would be changed as soon as Trump turned traitor. There's nothing else in there that Vladimir Putin does not already know. Similarly, the loss of Air Force One would result in a financial loss for the United States, since it would have to be replaced (though it's already scheduled for replacement, and there are two of them, so it wouldn't need replacing instantly). However, there isn't much in the way of intelligence that could be gleaned; to the extent that Air Force One has "secrets," those secrets are security measures that are already pretty well known. The only way that Trump could really do harm on this front is if he spilled things he knows (although he doesn't pay attention and doesn't have a great memory, so that might not be a big deal), or if he took steps to carry classified information with him (say, an iPad loaded with the last 200 President's Daily Briefings). That does not seem his style, though.

It's worth noting that if Trump were to defect like this, it would be a massive blow to the Republican Party. Trump would have made clear, in a way Democrats never could, that he's a criminal and a traitor. For years, if not decades, people would recall how the evidence of this was right in front of folks like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, and they looked the other way. That might actually be enough to kill the Party, in the same way that opposition to the War of 1812 was the final blow to the Federalist Party.

Q: Suppose the new Senate is split 50-50, and you are Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a Democrat in name only. Do you continue to caucus with the Democrats? If he doesn't switch, he can vote against the more liberal ideas of the leadership. But if he switches to the Republicans, he can avoid uncomfortable votes in the first place? B.H., Greenbelt, MD

A: To start, it's not fair to characterize Manchin as a Democrat in name only. He is fairly conservative on fiscal issues, but pretty liberal on social issues, and he is generally a loyal soldier for Team Blue.

In any event, there are two considerations when switching parties mid-term. The first is whether the benefit of having the "right" letter next to your name outweighs the cost of being seen as inauthentic and a flip-flopping opportunist. Sometimes, that math does work out (e.g., Strom Thurmond, Richard Shelby). Sometimes, it does not (e.g., Arlen Specter). Since West Virginia has been red for Manchin's whole career, and yet he's won six statewide elections as a Democrat, there isn't much upside to him switching, as far as we can see. Further, the thing that generally makes votes "difficult" is how his constituents will react, not so much how his fellow senators will react. In other words, whether he's a Democrat or a Republican, he's making the same calculation when he decides to vote for or against, say, Obamacare. There are a few exceptions to this, like his vote on Brett Kavanaugh, but not many.

The second consideration is power within the Senate. Sometimes, when a party switch will benefit a senator's new party significantly, they are willing to allow that senator to retain his or her seniority. This happened with Thurmond, for example. Surely, Manchin could negotiate a similar deal. However, we think his power would be much greater as the gatekeeper in the Democratic caucus. If his vote is needed for any legislation to become law, and his vote is the hardest to get, he would have enormous influence, and could bring home enormous amounts of pork to West Virginia.

Q: Could Mary Trump publish her book in another country without consequences for her in the U.S.? A.K., Alexandria, CA

A: Well, keep in mind that NDAs are a civil matter, and that the "consequences" Trump is worried about are possible forfeiture of assets covered by the NDA, or royalties from the book.

In any event, once NDA violations become international, things certainly do get hairier. It is plausible that she or her publisher could arrange for, say, a publisher in Dubai to print and distribute a few thousand copies of the book. Then, she could turn around and argue that since that made the contents of the book "public knowledge," the NDA is nullified in the United States. An American judge is not likely to go for such an obvious dodge, but it's not impossible.

This is surely a moot point, though. Simon & Schuster, as they were not a party to the NDA, is going to be able to publish the book in the United States. And Mary Trump is either confident her lawyers will allow her to squirm out of the NDA, or she's willing to accept the financial consequences of her decision.

Q: You have pointed out quite a few devastating anti-Trump ads made by the Lincoln Project. I understand that the Lincoln Project is mainly Never Trump Republicans. I've seen relatively few anti-Trump ads by Democrats, and none so effective. Why is this? Are Republicans just better at making attack ads? S.S., Lynchburg, VA

A: Let us begin by observing that the Democrats aren't running many ads of any sort right now, presumably saving their money and ammunition for months closer to the election. They might as well cool their jets, since the Lincoln Project is toting so much anti-Trump water for them.

Anyhow, it may be that Republicans are better at making attack ads, although the greatest attack ad of them all (Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy" commercial) was from a Democrat. Anyhow, we suspect that the main dynamic is that the Lincoln Project folks have greater latitude because they are Republicans. Consider, for example, the Russia-themed anti-Trump ad we talked about yesterday. If that had come from the Biden campaign, it would have come off as cheesy and over the top. But coming from Republicans, particularly Republicans who have established a reputation for producing edgy ads, it came off as clever and well-executed.

Q: I live in what is locally called "the most Mexican city in the United States." That may or may not be true, but it is true that I am the only white guy in this neighborhood. Don't see a lot of yard signs for Republicans here, anyway.

Donald Trump has been advertising for weeks on the Rachel Maddow show here. Why would he do that? He has a better shot at winning the Tour de France than he has of winning California's electoral votes, and he has a better shot at winning California's electoral votes than he has of winning the votes of OC Mexicans watching Rachel Maddow.
R.H., Santa Ana, CA

A: First, because campaign ads have two implicit messages: (1) vote for me, and (2) donate money to me. Trump may not get any EVs out of those ads, but he may get some money out of them. Second, because broadcast ads are generally purchased on a station-by-station basis, but cable ads are generally purchased on a national or regional basis. So, it may be that if the Trump campaign wants its ads on MSNBC in Nevada and Arizona, it also has to have them on the air in Southern California.

Q: My sister and mother are convinced Trump will figure out a way to steal the election. You've already answered why this isn't possible describing the safeguards in multiple scenarios. My sister just forwarded this article. In your opinion, is this a reasonable scenario? M.B., Melrose, MA

A: We got more questions about this article this week than we got about any other single subject, so we are going to address it, even though we think the authors who are contributing to this growing genre are doing more harm than good by helping to encourage needless anxiety.

Anyhow, the short answer to your question is "No. It is not reasonable." While we cannot say with 100% certainty that Trump won't try some shenanigans, we are going to raise four objections to this particular "analysis":

  • It's really complicated: Those who read the piece, or who have already read the piece, will notice that the scenario involves twelve different parts, and that for many of those parts, things have to break just the right way. For example, it requires that Joe Biden win only a particular set of swing states, and that he win them by only nominal margins. The odds of so many things unfolding in just the right way are very, very small.

  • It's predicated on factual inaccuracies: For example, step number 6 is "All four swing states have Republican control of both their upper and lower houses of their state legislatures. Those state legislatures refuse to allow any Electoral College slate to be certified until [a] 'national security' investigation is complete." The problem here is that state legislatures in those four states don't have power to decide whether or not election results are certified. In the four states the authors mention, that power is vested in the governor (PA), the state elections commission (WI), the secretary of state (MI), and the secretary of state in the presence of the governor and state AG (AZ). The AG of Arizona is a Republican, and three of the six election commissioners in Wisconsin are Republicans, but all of the other folks named here are Democrats, and would not be influenced by dubious "investigations." The four Republicans named probably wouldn't be either.

    Maybe the legislatures of all four states could convene in late November and give themselves this power, but that would not be easy to pull off, and is yet another thing that would have to go just right for the 12-step scenario to come true.

  • It's predicated on the assumption of one-way actions: The authors' presumption is that dishonest Republicans would do all sorts of shady things, and that the Democrats and the court system would apparently sit on their hands and watch it unfold. But, of course, that's not what would actually happen. For example, if Biden won Wisconsin, but the state refused to certify the results while "investigating," an army of lawyers working for the Democratic Party would go to the Supreme Court, would point to Bush v. Gore, and would insist that SCOTUS require the states to certify the results immediately. Chief Justice John Roberts might not like helping Joe Biden out, but he would like the damage that would be done to SCOTUS' reputation even less if they tried to dance around the Bush ruling to help Trump steal an election.

  • Implausible endgame: Recall that Trump does not like being president. Recall also that many Republican officeholders don't like having him as president. Meanwhile, stealing an election would, at very least, utterly undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and the Republican Party. At worst, it would be the beginning of the end for the Party, and perhaps for the American democracy. We just don't see how all of the players that would have to get on the same page to make this happen would believe that the cost-benefit analysis adds up. Maybe Bill Barr would. Maybe even Trump. But a sizable number of senators, representatives, state legislators, etc.? Dubious.

In short, it is really hard to steal a presidential election. This article does nothing to move us off that position.

Q: Who is Helmut Norpoth and should I be concerned that his polling shows Trump winning in a landslide? T.T., Vancouver, WA

A: Helmut Norpoth is one of these political scientists who is somewhat on the fringes of the profession and who has gotten some attention because he claims to have correctly predicted the results of the last six presidential elections. According to his website, he sees a smashing victory for Donald Trump this year, 362 electoral votes to 176.

Here are some excellent reasons not to take him seriously:

  • Transparency: We examined his site, and can find no specifics about how his model works, what data he is using as the basis for his predictions, or his past results. Compare that to, for example, our site. Our algorithm is fairly simple (last week's worth of polling data, or most recent poll if there have been no polls in the last week), but we don't keep it a secret or make it hard to discern. We make all of our data available for download, from a link that is prominently featured at the very top of the page. And if you want to assess our track record, it is not hard to figure out how we had it heading into the elections of 2016, 2012, 2008, or 2004.

  • Stale data: The last time Norpoth updated his projection was in early March. That's before COVID-19, before George Floyd, before the Russian bounties. Those things might just have affected the electorate, don't you think?

  • Track record: Norpoth claims an impressive track record, but we largely have to take his word for it, due to the lack of transparency. Further, if he predicted Trump 304, Clinton 227 in 2016, that's a feather in his cap. If he predicted Trump 404, Clinton 127, then he just got lucky, and his prediction and model aren't actually all that good. But again, we can't tell because he does not document his past predictions.

  • Awful website: Norpoth's website is ten times more hacky and amateurish than 43 Alumni for Biden, which we made fun of earlier this week. This may seem a little petty, but if someone can't be bothered to put in the (fairly nominal) time needed to make a decent-looking, well-organized website, one is forced to wonder how careful he's being with his scholarship.

  • The smell test: "Trump is likely to win" is a little hard to swallow, given everything we know about 2020. "Trump is going to crush Biden in a landslide" is impossible to swallow. Because Norpoth is fuzzy about his methods and his data, it's not clear which 2016 states he expects to flip, or what his basis for those conclusions is. For Trump to get to 362, he would have to flip: California, or Virginia/New York/Maryland/New Hampshire, or Illinois/Minnesota/New Jersey/Colorado/New Mexico/Nevada/Oregon, or some other combination involving at least one big, blue state. Does this really seem plausible, particularly when Trump is trailing in so many purple and light red states?

In short, you should not only disregard Norpoth, we generally advise ignoring people who say they have some unique, guaranteed-not-to-fail formula for predicting presidential elections.

Q: Given that Donald Trump's polls are now in George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter territory, would it be useful to compare the effect of Bush's and Carter's defeats on their downballot races to guess what we might expect from a similar Trump defeat? A.A., Branchport, NY

A: We don't think so. In the cases of Bush and Carter, the things that hurt them would also have hurt others in their party, like "I'm unhappy with the Democrats" or "I'm angry about the economy" or "We need change in this country." In Trump's case, it is clear that many votes against him will be the product of personal enmity toward him, which may not extend to the rest of the races downballot.

Q: My friend asked me to donate to Tom Palzewicz, a Democrat running for Congress in WI-05, an R+13 district. I checked the Cook Political Report (of course), and this district is in the Solid Republican, non-competitive category. I had given it up as a lost cause. But wait—yesterday, I read that in 2018, Democrat Ben McAdams won in UT-04, another R+13 district. Is there hope for WI-05, and how would we know? H.R., Cudahy, WI

A: There is something to be said for donating to candidates you believe in, and letting the cards fall where they may. That said, we would offer the following observations. The first is that Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato and Nathan L. Gonzales are all pretty good at what they do, but they are also cautious. So, it tends to take a while for them to catch up, even once there's been real movement in a race. The second is that you can look at statewide polls and if they are moving in a particular direction relative to 2016. Trump won the state by about a point in 2016, now Joe Biden is up by about 6. That suggests (admittedly tenuously) that R+13 is down to something like R+6, and maybe less since there's no Republican incumbent this time in WI-05. And finally, there eventually will be polling of the districts, as we get closer to Novemeber. So you could wait until then, and use that data to help decide whether or not to donate.

Q: Today there is a poll of Arizona showing Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) ahead of Mark Kelly by 4 in the Senate race and Donald Trump ahead of Joe Biden by 4. It is a Gravis poll. On Monday, there was a Trafalgar poll of Wisconsin that showed Trump up by 1 over Biden. This is the first time I've seen polls showing Trump leading Biden in any of this year's swing states. Should we start to be concerned? M.G., Seattle, WA

A: Don't put too much stock into any one poll. Recall that most polls have a 95% confidence interval, meaning there is a 5% chance they are completely off. Or, to put it another way, one poll in 20 will be way off the mark. There have been, conveniently, 20 polls of Trump vs. Biden in Arizona. 19 of them had it in the range of Trump +1 to Biden +9. The only poll outside that range is...this one, which is also the only one to be more than six points off the average of all polls of the state (the average is Biden +3.5). Similarly, there have been 25 polls of Michigan, and only two had Biden up by only one point. The average there is Biden +7.5. In other words, both of these polls appear to be outliers.

It is also useful to look at the specifics of any one poll to see if anything's screwy. Trafalgar is a Republican house that uses some...unorthodox techniques, like asking people who they think their neighbors are voting for. People notice when they are unexpectedly right (like predicting a Trump victory in 2016) but tend to forget when they blow it (like predicting a Mitt Romney victory in 2012).

Gravis is not inherently partisan, but they are among the weaker pollsters. There are also a couple of red flags with this particular poll. The first is that they used an unusual combination of "interactive voice responses and an online panel of cell phone users." That could certainly skew the results. Further, the poll was paid for by the ultra-right-wing One America News. We doubt that Gravis would be willing to conduct a propaganda poll, but OAN may have given instructions they knew would produce a right-leaning result, like "only talk to people who say they are very excited about their preferred presidential candidate." In any case, whether by design or by mistake, the poll was clearly not representative of the Arizona populace. For the poll, 47% of respondents said they voted for Donald Trump, only 33% for Hillary Clinton. In the actual election, it was 48% to 46% for Trump.

Q: Often, but not always, polls originate from a tandem of organizations, e.g., NY Times/Siena, Reuters/Ipsos, Economist/YouGov, etc. Is there any formula into how these pairings are made? Is one generally a media outlet and the other a data driven research entity? Who reaches out to whom? A.M., Pleasanton, CA

A: It is because media outlets are in the business of publishing news, but not conducting polls. Pollsters are in the business of conducting polls, but not publishing news. So, a partnership between one of each is called for. Quite often, a media outlet will have a contract with a pollster, or a long-term relationship, or both (as is the case, for example, with The Economist and YouGov). It would not be unusual for pollsters to reach out to media outlets to ask to be able to make a presentation about their services, in hopes of landing such contracts. It would also not be unusual for a media outlet to reach out to multiple pollsters, and to ask them to make presentations. The same thing happens with software, paper suppliers, and other vendors, as well. Point is, the first contact might be made in either direction.

Q: As I debate current events with a family member who has a different world view than me, I am curious to know more about the Fairness Doctrine. If you haven't covered this before, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the history of it. Do you think that the polarized state of American politics can be attributed to its demise? J.A., Raleigh, NC

A: First of all, let us make sure that nobody is confusing the Fairness Doctrine with the Equal-time rule, which is still in effect, and which requires broadcast stations to offer equal on-air time to (viable) candidates for political office. In other words, if "Saturday Night Live" lets Joe Biden host, they have to offer Donald Trump an opportunity to host, too.

The Fairness Doctrine, by contrast, is no longer current, having been in effect from 1949 until 1987. It required that over-the-air broadcasters cover issues of public interest, and that they present competing viewpoints about those issues. What made this legal, and not a violation of the First Amendment, is that over-the-air broadcasters are using a publicly-owned commodity (the broadcast spectrum), and so had to agree to certain constraints in order to be granted a license.

Anyhow, when it comes to today's polarized media environment, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine is largely a red herring. To start with, the policy was full of loopholes. The FCC was not required to enforce it, they were merely allowed to do so, if they wished. Further, the meaning of "present competing viewpoints" was squishy, and was explicitly not defined in terms of equal time. So, for example, a radio station could run 23-3/4 hours of Rush Limbaugh each day, and 15 minutes of Rachel Maddow each day, and they would be in full compliance. Finally, and as we've noted multiple times already, it only applied to broadcast stations, specifically because they were using a publicly-owned commodity. It did not apply, and would not apply, to cable stations (like Fox or MSNBC), websites (like Breitbart or The Daily Kos), social media platforms, magazines, newspapers, or any other entity that does not utilize public airwaves.

Q: As Republicans don't have 60 Senate seats now, have the Democrats been filibustering? If not, then why not? J.D., Menlo Park, CA

A: They have filibustered some legislation, which is why the Republicans were able to achieve their tax cut only through budget reconciliation (which requires a majority, and not 60 votes). However, former Majority Leader Harry Reid and current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) combined to eliminate the filibuster for all federal judges, so the Democrats haven't been able to filibuster those.

Q: Can presidential campaigns use their funds to support down-ballot races? S.A., Orlando, FL

A: They can directly donate $2,000 to other campaigns, but that's the limit. They can also, of course, engage in joint campaigning, with the bills charged to the presidential committee. For example, a commercial like this: "It's me, Joe Biden, running for president. I'm here to tell you how much it would mean to me, presidential candidate Joe Biden, if you would vote for Joanna T. Politician for Congress, so she can help me to combat global warming, rebuild our infrastructure, and improve Obamacare."

Q: If Donald Trump decides not to go through with the campaign and election and just resigns, could he take the accumulated Trump campaign funds with him out the door? Maybe think of it as a little golden parachute retirement incentive gift? H.C., Santa Cruz, CA

A: It would be illegal for Presidential candidate Trump to transfer $300 million to private citizen Trump. This is the exact offense Richard Nixon got in trouble for, necessitating the "Checkers" speech (though it was less than $300 million, of course). On the other hand, Trump has been pretty good when it comes to finding ways to conduct "official" business at his properties, such that he ends up with money in his private hands. A $10-million-a-plate "thank you" dinner at Trump Doral for the President and 29 of his closest friends? Maybe.

Q: If Joe Biden wins, and the Democrats take control of the Senate and keep the House and pass the DC statehood bill, what happens next? P.C., Boston, MA

A: Well, let us first note that by passing a statehood bill, the Democrats put the cart before the horse. They did this because they were sending a message and knew the bill would die upon reaching the Senate.

The actual procedure, which is spelled out very clearly in American law, is that a territory desiring statehood draws up a state constitution, and then holds an election in which the voters approve that constitution and elect their future officeholders (state-level officeholders, like the governor and AG, but also representatives to Congress). Then, the state constitution is presented to Congress for approval. If they are ok with it, then both houses pass a bill granting statehood. The moment the president signs that bill (or vetoes it and is overridden, though that's only happened once, with Nebraska), then the state immediately has the same rights and privileges as any other state, with their chosen officeholders taking their seats the moment the bill is signed.

A state cannot have two U.S. Senators from the same class, so sometimes it is made clear during the territorial election which senator will be getting the longer term and which will be getting the shorter. Sometimes, the two senators draw straws or flip a coin to figure it out. D.C.'s two new senators, should statehood come to pass, would be in Class 1 and Class 2, which means their terms would end in January 2025 and January 2027, respectively.

Q: Can you provide some details into candidates conceding in elections? Does it really matter if a losing candidate does not concede in an election? What if a candidate concedes, then when the vote is done, they actually are the winner...does the concession matter? R.M.S., Seattle, WA

A: Concessions are merely a polite custom, and have no legal basis or significance. They are not required, nor are they binding. Famously, Al Gore conceded in 2000, then un-conceded, and then conceded again after Bush v. Gore.

Q: Can a former two-term president be vice president? Asking for a friend... J.C., San Antonio, TX

A: We get this question almost every week, and although we've answered it before, it's worthwhile to reiterate the answer once in a while. And the answer is: Nobody knows (except maybe Chief Justice John Roberts).

The reason for the fuzziness is key passages from two amendments. First, from the 12th Amendment:

But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

And then from the 22nd amendment:

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.

There is no question that Barack Obama is ineligible to be elected president again. But is he ineligible to serve? That is the rub, and there are good arguments in each direction. Until the Supreme Court weighs in, however, we will not know which arguments carry the day. And anyone who says there is an ironclad correct answer to this question is being overconfident.

Q: Given that it's the Fourth of July, and that Donald Trump appeared there this weekend, it seems an opportune time to ask this question: If there was going to be a fifth face added to Mount Rushmore, who should it be? Obviously, the first four choices—especially the one on the far right side—were inspired. A.L., Springfield, IL

A: Always good to get an honest question. Anyhow, the most consequential president who is missing from Rushmore is undoubtedly Franklin D. Roosevelt. That said, when sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose the four presidents, he wasn't necessarily picking a top four. He was picking presidents whom he saw as trailblazers, in various ways (specifically, from left to right, creating the new nation, expanding Westward, making the U.S. into a world power, and reinventing the American democracy).

So, we would say the best candidate for the fifth face would be...Barack Obama. His "trailblazer" status is beyond question. Further, his inclusion would help make up for the fact that the monument was constructed on Sioux lands without their permission, as well as for the fact that Borglum was a white supremacist and an enthusiastic member of the KKK.

Q: Last week, when you discussed the least and most racist presidents, wouldn't John Adams and John Quincy Adams rank an honorable mention? John Adams fought strongly to keep Jefferson's condemnation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, and "Old Man Eloquent" John Quincy Adams declared that even slaves possessed the right to petition (making him way ahead of his time, relative to his colleagues), and he argued and won the freedom of enslaved Africans in the Amistad case, making sure they got home safely after being freed. Further, the Adamses were among the few antebellum presidents who were not slaveholders. T.W., Wellsville, OH

A: You're absolutely right, and we can't believe we overlooked JQA, in particular. If we had it to do over, John Quincy would replace Harry S. Truman.

Q: I presume "tea party" was a historic reference to the legendary Boston Tea Party. If, as you wrote, a group of "fire-breathing" liberal Democrats chose to rally around the name of a significant event in our nation's history, what might they choose? S.B., New Castle, DE

A: Yes, it was a reference to the Boston Tea Party. The tea party movement began primarily as an anti-tax movement, and the Boston Tea Party was an anti-tax protest, so the name made a lot of sense (despite the fact that the Bostonians were not political conservatives).

Anyhow, the progressive movement is about challenging the status quo, particularly the racism in American society. If we want to harken back to centuries past, that brings to mind the abolition movement. The two most prominent abolitionists were Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Since we've already suggested Douglass as the name of the 51st state, how about we call the left-wing tea party...the John Brown Society? That's memorable, can be reduced to JBS when efficiency is wanted, and would be an obvious mockery of the far-right-wing John Birch Society.

Alternatively, since the movement is anti-acquisition and pro-environment, they could also christen themselves the neo-transcendentalists, or Thoreau's Hammer.

Q: How did elections work before the age of mass communication, or even the telegraph? What was the process for voting, counting the votes, figuring out the winner and communicating that to the various states? Also, how did the candidates even campaign and spread their ideas? If I lived in small town New York, how long before I knew who actually won? D.M., Massapequa Park, NY

A: Well, the primary tools of electioneering were the newspapers of the day (which were more like magazines, given their less-than-daily publication schedule and orientation towards long-form and opinion-based articles), as well as surrogates who would travel to cities, towns, and villages in person to shill for their candidate. In fact, the William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840, which featured Whig operatives visiting towns with a huge Papier-mâché ball painted with slogans, and handing out free shots of hard cider (supplied by the E.C. Booz distillery), gave us two idioms that linger to the present day: "Get/Keep the ball rolling" and "booze."

As to the process for voting, you know how ticket-splitting is getting rare today? Well, it was even rarer back then because it generally wasn't possible. In most cases, a voter would present himself at his polling place (no women voters back then, of course), and ask for a ballot for his party in front of all his friends. It would be pre-filled with all of his party's nominees, and he would take the ballot and walk it over to the ballot box and deposit it. Easy peasy. Here's a ballot from New Hampshire in 1817, for example:

The candidate for governor, U.S. senator, AG, treasurer, recorded, and the House of Representatives are all listed

This made it pretty easy to count up the votes, since precincts were small, and each ballot needed to be counted only one time. Once the counting was done, an appointed person (often, but not always, connected to local law enforcement) would report the results to the county committee, and then county committees would report to the state. It would generally take several days for the results to be complete, and then several more days (or weeks) for the news to propagate to more rural areas. The South was particularly out of the loop in this regard, as that region was far from the country's news centers (Washington, New York, Boston, Philadelphia) and was particularly rural.

Q: You wrote, regarding Junípero Serra: "in contrast to someone like Christopher Columbus, he did his best to prevent some of the damage being done" Could you please expand on this? I understand the symbolic antipathy towards Columbus, but what did he actually do (or allow to be done)? Was he abusive toward the indigenous when he arrived, or allow his men to commit abuses? L.O.R., San Francisco, CA

A: Sometimes, Columbus is accused of perpetrating genocide against the native peoples. This is a misuse of the term, as it was understood by the man who coined it, the lawyer and scholar Raphael Lemkin. It is not enough to take actions that ultimately result in many deaths; to be guilty of genocide, one has to undertake conscious action with a view toward exterminating an entire race, religion, culture, or nationality.

But just because Columbus was not guilty of genocide does not mean he did not commit crimes against humanity. During his initial visits to the Americas, he forcibly enslaved dozens of natives and sent them back to Europe. During his fourth and final visit, when he served as governor of the Indies, he enslaved thousands more. He responded to any form of resistance with great brutality; one of his favorite techniques was to kill a "rebel," dismember them, and then parade their dead body through the streets as a warning to others. Alternatively, sometimes he would only remove the person's hands, keeping them alive, and then would put the removed appendages on a string and force the victim to wear them as a gruesome necklace. He led his men on a pogrom in an effort to learn the secret location of "treasure" that the Spaniards thought the natives had. When information was not forthcoming, in large part because there was no treasure, Columbus' forces killed thousands of natives in brutal fashion, often using prisoners of war for decapitation practice. He was so brutal and so incompetent that he was eventually removed from office, recalled to Spain, and imprisoned. Do you know how cruel you have to be to run afoul of the folks who launched the Spanish Inquisition?

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