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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Pardon Me?
      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls
      •  Today's Senate Polls

Pardon Me?

It turns out that July 14 won't be Bastille Day for Roger Stone after all. Like clockwork, Donald Trump waited until late Friday, when he likes to try and bury these sorts of things, and then commuted Stone's prison sentence. "Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency," explained White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. "Roger Stone has already suffered greatly." She forgot to ask everyone to let his people go.

And so, Trump gets to feel powerful once again. That's one upside, though there must also be something more to this. After all, Paul Manafort didn't sing, and yet he didn't get a pardon, either. The answer to this riddle that most readily suggests itself is that Stone has serious dirt on Trump, and threatened to spill that dirt if sent to the hoosegow. In particular, if Trump is in the debt of the Russians in some way (or many ways), Stone is as likely to know the details as anyone.

And therein lies the rub. Trump is clearly willing to live with the political downsides, but he's got at least two problems here that a commutation does not erase (in fact, it probably exacerbates them). The first, as we pointed out yesterday, is that this could expose Trump to conspiracy and/or obstruction of justice charges, depending on what is happening here, and whether or not it is ongoing.

The second issue is that Stone is insistent on clearing his name. And so, although there is no longer a penalty for his conviction, he's going to continue to appeal in hopes of getting it overturned. Consequently, this will remain in the headlines for the foreseeable future, and some evidence that is none-too-friendly to the President might end up on display in open court. A full pardon would have forestalled that, but would also have canceled Stone's ability to plead the Fifth Amendment, so Trump was basically choosing his poison here.

On top of all this, Stone clearly still has information that might be of interest to law enforcement. That won't matter for the next five months, since he has presidential protection. But if Trump is defeated in November, there may be a whole bunch of people who want to chat with Stone, including members of Congress, federal judges, and possibly even state-level authorities in New York. If Stone ignores subpoenas, or if he refuses to testify, then he would be right back where he started: Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Even if he retains his Fifth Amendment rights, they protect him only against self-incrimination, and may not allow him to wriggle out of answering questions about Trump (depending on exactly what the questions are).

Maybe, if it comes to that, Stone will take the bullet for Trump, and will spend a few years as a guest of Club Fed. But given how hard he fought back against going to prison this time, that is hard to believe. In any event, once again, the President has purchased some short-term gain at the possible cost of long-term pain. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

Lots of Supreme Court questions, as one might expect.

Q: For high visibility cases, the Roberts court seems to "punt" a lot of decisions. As you pointed out in Trump Has a Bad Day on the Tax Front: "They could have cut out the middle man and just ruled right now, but they didn't." They seem to take this route a lot (i.e. make the narrowest as possible ruling and send back to the lower court). Historically, is this how the Supreme Court has operated? Has it always been this hesitant to make a thorough ruling on high visibility cases? Does it happen as frequently with lower visibility cases? Finally, does the 7-2 ruling mean that all 7 justices felt that it should be sent back to the lower court rather than making the complete ruling now? M.B., Melrose, MA

A: The general idea these days (and, indeed, for the last century or so) is that the time of the Supreme Court is so precious that it really can't be spent hearing the same case multiple times unless absolutely necessary. And so, they often try to weigh in with whatever decision/finding that only SCOTUS can make, and then leave it to the lower courts to hold the additional hearings that will need to be held to actually reach a final resolution, and to consider the additional briefs that will be filed by the various interested parties. In Trump v. Vance, for example, Vance will be filing a new brief arguing that his need clears the bar set by the Supreme Court, and Donald Trump's lawyers will be filing a new brief arguing that no, it doesn't. This is relatively basic stuff, and does not justify the investment of multiple hours of the Supremes' time, in the same way that it's the neurosurgeon who repairs an injured brain, but it's nurses and orderlies who change the bedpans and give the sponge baths and so forth.

This has been a common time-saving maneuver for many years, at least as far back as the early 20th century. Prior to that, it was much less of a time-saver, since Supreme Court Justices "rode circuit" (heard lower-level cases outside of Washington), and so might well be remanding cases back to...themselves. As you note, at least by implication, this also allows the Court to pass the potato in cases where it's particularly hot. It would be hard to put this on a statistical basis, since the distinction between "major case" and "not major case" is subjective, but it surely makes sense that major cases are at least slightly more likely to be remanded to a lower court.

And when a justice votes with the majority, they are signalling that they agree substantively with the majority opinion, including the resolution. If they write a concurrence (which describes two of the seven justices in the tax cases), then in the concurrence they lay out the specific elements they aren't wholly in agreement with. That definitely can include disagreements over the final disposition of the case (e.g., "send it back to the lower courts"), but it didn't in this case. Note also that the concurrences are merely advisory, and are not binding the way the majority opinion is.

Q: I've read no commentary on the dissents of Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito with respect to Donald Trump's tax returns. What does this say about them and their legal reasoning? Do their dissents hold water or were they acts of pure partisanship? D.C., Portland, OR

A: In the Vance case, Thomas and Alito merely took a more aggressive anti-presidential oversight position, writing (in so many words) that a president's time is really, really important, and should almost never be infringed upon by things like criminal investigations. This certainly reflects, if not their partisanship, their preference for the notion of a unitary (king-like) executive. Still, they are on the same basic spectrum as the other seven justices, so it's not like their ideas are in an entirely different universe.

In the Mazars case, by contrast, Thomas wrote that if Congress wants to subpoena a president's documents, they have to impeach him first. We're not attorneys, but this assertion would seem to overlook: (1) the fact that many subpoenas are issued in ordinary cases without charges being brought, and (2) impeachment didn't exactly work as it's supposed to, in terms of getting to the bottom of the questions it was ostensibly trying to answer. So, his dissent seems kinda shaky to us. Alito's dissent in the Mazars case was similar to his dissent in the Vance case; he argued that Congressional subpoenas of presidential documents may occasionally be valid, but the bar is very high, and it hasn't been cleared in this instance.

Q: The Supreme Court just finished a nice, lively term, with some rulings that prompted no small measure of Trumpian rage. I am curious about how the Court works. Do the nine justices deliberate over cases as a jury would, or do they reach their opinions independently and in a vacuum? Or is it some combination thereof, where Justice X might sit down informally over dinner or a beer with Justice Y, and the two of them talk about a case? I am wondering, for instance, if Brett Kavanaugh might have known how Chief Justice Roberts was going to vote on Trump v. Vance. If so, might Kavanaugh have thus felt encouraged to vote as he did, knowing that a Trumpian hissy fit would ensue but that he would be less subject to future accusations that he always votes to uphold Trump's wishes? B.L., Hudson, NY

A: As a general rule, the first thing the justices do is read over the briefs submitted by the various interested parties in the case. Then they hear arguments in open court. And then they usually discuss things with their law clerks, to get a range of opinions.

When the Court is in session, they generally hear cases on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesdays. Then, on Wednesday afternoons, the nine justices and nobody else (no clerks, no sergeants at arms, nobody) gather in conference to discuss Monday's cases. On Fridays, they gather in conference to discuss Tuesday's and Wednesday's cases. During these discussions, they generally cast their votes (though they are not set in stone), and it falls upon the senior justice in the majority to choose the author of the majority opinion. The justices then spend much time writing and honing the opinions they have been assigned, with significant input from their law clerks and from the other justices.

During the writing and revising part of the process, the justices do try to influence each other—possibly to switch votes, and definitely to affect their choice of verbiage, particularly in the majority opinion. Antonin Scalia was particularly famous for putting on the full press, especially when he was in the minority (which was often). And yes, there is some strategic voting, but it's not usually geared toward conveying the "right" impression, and instead is more along the lines of horse trading (i.e., "I'll vote with you in this case, if you'll vote with me in this other case.") The most common exception to this is the chief justice, whoever they may be at any given time, who is generally interested in creating as much a consensus as possible, and so may twist some arms in search of that end.

In other words, Kavanaugh knew what the vote would be but, as an associate justice, it is unlikely that he was voting with the majority solely to convey the impression that he's not a partisan hack. Of course, even when the justices do vote strategically, they generally don't admit it, so we'll probably never know for sure.

Q: How is it that with nine justices and all of their clerks, there has never been a decision leaked prior to the June announcements? J.R., San Francisco, CA

A: Well, never say never. Decisions do leak sometimes, though the most recent notable example was more than three decades ago. In 1986, ABC News had not only the decision, but also the final vote in Bowsher v. Synar before it was made public.

That said, there are several reasons that decisions rarely leak. The first is that the folks who are part of the Supreme Court (from the justices on down) take the sanctity of their jobs and the secrecy of their work very seriously. After all, most of them are lawyers, and lawyers learn to control their loose lips early in their careers, at risk of disbarment. The second is that there aren't actually that many people who know the outcome of any particular case, beyond the nine justices, and so anyone who did leak would be at serious risk of being found out. The third is that most leaks are the result of relationships between reporters and insiders that are cultivated over years, or even decades. However, there aren't that many reporters who are on the Supreme Court beat full time (only about 10 of them). And since clerks come and go every six months, the potential to cultivate inside sources isn't really there.

Q: I see nothing in the Constitution which requires that the Chief Justice retain that position throughout his service. Could Congress pass a law stating that, upon nominating a new Justice to the Supreme Court, the President could exercise the option of making that person the new Chief Justice, and reducing the current Chief to associate status? F.F., Berkeley, CA

A: There is nothing in the Constitution about the structure of the Court; that is something that is set by the various Federal Judiciary Acts, starting with the first one in 1789. What the Constitution does say, however, is that a judge cannot be removed from office, except by impeachment. And therein lies the rub.

There are actually two theories here. The first says that the Judiciary Acts create one job called "chief justice," and additional jobs called "associate justice," and that the chief is appointed to the former job. If so, then they cannot be removed simply because a new president comes along and wants someone new in the job.

The second theory says that the Judiciary Acts created one job called "Justice of the Supreme Court," and that the chief serves in that role because the other justices defer to their authority. If this theory is the correct one, then it means that the other justices might be able to shuffle the seats on the Court, but the president still would be unable to do so.

In short, then, it could be that John Roberts—assuming he does not commit an impeachable offense—is subject to demotion by his colleagues on the Court, or it could be that he is not subject to demotion by anyone. In either case, the president has no say in the matter.

Q: A state is in a particular time zone because of state law, yes? What determines the time zone of the District of Columbia? Is it frozen into law, or is an agency in the Executive Branch responsible for determining this? Would that agency be under the control of President Trump?

Imagine January 20, 2021, rolls around. It's 10:00 a.m. EST. This agency says, "We're switching time zones." Now it's 9:00 EST. After an hour, it's 10:00 EST. This agency says, "We're switching time zones." Lather, rinse, repeat. The District of Columbia starts out UTC-05. Then it becomes UTC-04. Then UTC-03. On and on, until it becomes UTC+35035, and Trump has gotten his extra four years. No reason not to continue even beyond that.

Impossibly outrageous, sure. But when that has ever stopped President Trump?
W.J.E., Mariposa, CA

Q: If Joe Biden wins and the Democrats take the Senate in November, what's to stop Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from simply holding onto control by adding 10 blatantly partisan Supreme Court justices (e.g., Trump campaign staff, RNC leadership without legal backgrounds), and then disputing the results of the election? If the Supreme Court were to rule 10-9 (or, sadly, maybe 11-8 or 12-7) in favor of Trump, then he could legally remain president regardless of the election's outcome.

While this type of move would be deeply disturbing, it would also be entirely constitutional. Military and law enforcement officers take an oath to defend the Constitution, so it's hard to see those leaders taking action to remove a legally elected president, even if he were only legally elected due to a series of bad faith actions.
B.B., Richmond, VA

A: Every week, we get at least a dozen e-mails with outlandish schemes by which Donald Trump might remain in power. We understand why people have concerns, but we urge everyone to stop reading silly clickbait op-eds, and to stop worrying so much. There are huge obstacles that make these schemes implausible to the point of being impossible. Here are the big ones:

  • Elections are run by states, not the federal government: Trump and AG Bill Barr can claim fraud all they want but, in the end, they would have to go before a court (multiple courts, actually) and make evidence-based cases for their arguments. They can't say "We just know it!" and expect that to carry the day. How many legal cases has the President already lost, even before friendly judges, because he could not dot the i's and cross the t's? He can't draw Trevor McFadden every time.

  • The winner is chosen by the Electoral College, on a tight timeline: The timeline for the election process is strict, is spelled out in great detail, and is not especially subject to court involvement. Now that 20 years have passed, a lot of folks seem to be left with the impression that the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the president of the United States by fiat. They did no such thing. What they actually did was tell Florida that their recount technique was not kosher, that there was not time to implement a new technique, and so the state was stuck with its initial result, which was a narrow Bush win.

    In 2020, the states are going to count their ballots. And then the individuals legally entitled to do so (secretaries of state and/or governors, usually) are going to certify the results and activate the slate of electors that won. Remember, people aren't going to be voting for Trump or Biden, but for a slate of electors pledged to one of them. Those electors will vote Dec. 14 and their votes are final unless some elector goes rogue and the state has a law allowing that elector to be replaced, as Colorado did in 2016. Without some compelling basis for getting involved, there is little that the courts can do, whether they be state courts or a post-court-packing Supreme Court. When Congress counts and certifies the electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, it is really, really, over (unless nobody gets 270, in which case the House votes by state).

  • Governance rests on the consent of the government: At noon on Jan. 20, 2021, a large number of federal government employees are going to look at their watches, and are going to have to decide who is legally entitled to be the President of the United States. Screwing around with time zones (which is the province of the Dept. of Transportation, by the way) won't have any effect. The Pentagon will have to decide who is entitled to the nuclear codes. The Secret Service will have to decide whom they are supposed to be protecting. The bureaucracy will have to decide whose orders they will follow. These folks are not stupid, will recognize an obvious subversion of the Constitution if they see it, and won't play along. We cannot emphasize this enough: It is not enough for Donald Trump and a handful of toadies to decide he's still president; a coup would require buy-in from tens of thousands of government officials, most of whom despise Trump.

  • Governance rests on the consent of the governed: Lots of people have spent the last 3-1/2 years grumbling about Russian interference, and the Electoral College, and the like, but nobody significantly doubts that Trump is the current, legal President of the United States. And yet, he still struggles to govern, as blue states push back against his policies in various ways, people ignore his dictums on COVID-19, there is unrest in the streets, he can't get legislation through the Congress, he's basically unwelcome at events like the Kennedy Center Honors, and so forth. His inability to govern would grow geometrically if he used some sort of shenanigans to stay in power.

And so, we circle back to where these discussions always end up: He's got to win the election. That's his only option. He might try to cheat to do it (say, encouraging more Russian interference), but that's very different from stealing an election after the fact.

Q: If Donald Trump loses in November, then after the election he might pardon huge numbers of co-conspirators, resign, and allow Mike Pence to step in as president and then pardon Trump and all of his family members, thereby bypassing the issue of a president pardoning himself. Pence could do it in the way Ford did declaring that he was bringing a long "national nightmare" caused by endless liberal investigations to an end. On some level this has to be an exit strategy for the criminal-in-chief. D.M., Lincoln, NE

A: If that is his exit strategy, it's not a very good one. First, the pardon power has barely been scrutinized by the courts. But if Trump were to so obviously abuse it, that would change. Second, as we've pointed out, use of the pardon power in this way might constitute obstruction of justice by Trump and/or Pence. Third, Pence aspires to a future in politics (and in the White House). He is not likely to play along with a scheme that would permanently tar him with a scarlet C (for "crook"). Fourth, whoever is president, he or she cannot pardon state-level crimes. And it is state-level crimes that are likely to land Trump in prison.

Q: Is it conceivable that Joe Biden could pledge to step down after 2 years of "righting" the ship of state to let his VP (Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA/Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA) step in, with the understanding that the other (Harris/Warren) would then be chosen as VP? Seems like this could unite all elements of the Democratic Party, and defeat Trump. Also, sets up continuity for 2024 and beyond. Looks like a win/win/win. What am I missing? B.S., Springfield, IL

A: This is not going to happen. We doubt that Biden is interested in stepping down mid-term at all; you don't work your whole life for something just to toss it away after a year or two. Until presented with evidence to the contrary, it's rather ageist to assume he's not up to the job, especially since he can adopt a delegation-heavy management style, like Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, should he need to do so.

If Biden is willing to step down partway through his term, he would never announce that, and he would never, ever give a specific timeline. First of all, doing so would make him a lame duck from day one. Second, what if he says he's leaving on Jan. 20, 2023, and then on Jan. 15, 2023, a second Cuban Missile Crisis begins? Or Kim Jong-Un launches a nuke at the Sea of Japan? Or there's another George Floyd-type killing? No, if Biden steps down, he will keep his plans to himself until sometime shortly before his departure date.

Oh, and we think you are also underestimating the extent to which voters might be unhappy with an obvious attempt to game the Constitution.

Q: Tammy Duckworth was born outside the United States to a Thai mother and an American father; how does that affect her eligibility for the vice presidency? T.L., Prescott Valley, AZ

A: The Supreme Court has not issued a clear ruling on this question. They have ruled on the mirror image situation, namely born on American soil, to non-citizen parents. That was United States v. Wong Kim Ark, and the finding was that Wong was indeed a natural-born citizen.

U.S. law specifically addresses the citizenship of a child born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and an alien. When Duckworth was born, the law said that if the U.S. parent had lived in the U.S. for 10 years, five of which were when the parent was at least 14, then the baby is a U.S. citizen from birth. Period. (It has since been changed to five and two years). Additionally, although that doesn't matter, she's served in an office that requires citizenship (i.e., U.S. senator), and yet has never been naturalized. That implies, ipso facto, that she is a natural-born citizen.

Q: I see lots of references—on this website and elsewhere—to Joe Biden "campaigning from/holed up in/hiding in/etc. his basement." Does Biden actually have a basement, and does it serve as his campaign headquarters? D.A., Ada, MI

A: Yes, he actually has a basement, although that might (falsely) conjure up images of hot water heaters and leaky pipes and boxes of old clothes. It would also be accurate to call it a home office, one that just so happens to be located on the lowest level of his home. It's set up for him to make phone calls, and to do camera hits as needed. Here's a picture:

On the left wall is a bookcase, a desk
is placed at an angle to that, and then on the other side of the desk is a black drape that blocks light. Pointed at the desk,
with the bookcase as backdrop, is a camera and a couple of professional photographers' lights

This is not his campaign headquarters, though. The HQ is located in nearby Philadelphia.

Q: Given the contention in Mary Trump's book that the President paid someone to take the SAT for him, would it be possible for the commission that sets up the debates to have at least one debate where the moderators just ask each candidate questions from the SAT to see who gets the most correct answers? If not, who chooses the questions and do the candidates know them in advance? D.E., San Diego, CA

A: That would certainly be entertaining, but the hissy fit the commentariat and the right-wing media would throw would be frightening to behold.

Anyhow, the debate questions are chosen by the moderators, who are supposed to be respected members of the news media. The candidates are not supposed to know what the moderators will ask. Some things are pretty guessable, though, and given the various outlets' habit of hiring former party officials as commentators (Donna Brazile, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, etc.), the occasional question does leak, as happened to the benefit of Hillary Clinton (courtesy of Brazile) prior to one of her debates against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Q: There's a lot of noise about the Lincoln Project ads. They are cutting, direct, and in some circumstances would be devastating. But are they really changing opinions of Trump supporters? No matter how good they are, what effect do they have if they're actually getting millions of clicks from Democrats? How are political ads determined to be effective, particularly in today's media market? J.W., Los Angeles, CA

A: There are ways to collect some data on this. For example, one might conduct a focus group in which attitudes about candidates are measured, and then a few ads are shown, and then attitudes are measured again to see if there has been a change. Similarly, one could call people, ask if they've seen the ads, and then ask who they plan to vote for. Comparing the responses of those who have seen the ads with those who haven't would give some indication of their impact. That said, translating that kind of squishy information into "how many votes were changed?" is pretty close to impossible.

So, the Lincoln Project is doing what all political advertisers do: Coming up with the best ads they can, and hoping for the best. Oh, and you can bet that if an ad is viewed 10 million times, at least some of those views are Republicans/Trump supporters. Also, they are running ads on Fox News, and will broaden their coverage when the election gets nearer.

Q: As a lover of maps I like to plot routes from one place to another.

Since nothing would get me in a sealed pressurized flying petri dish at the moment, what do you think the chances are that I'd be able to plot a route by road from the Pacific to the Atlantic without having to set foot (or wheel) in a 'red' state?

Based on the current state of the map, it seems to me that Joe Biden would need to flip Texas, Arkansas and either Missouri or Tennessee to find a route that wouldn't take in a 'red' state. Is it doable?
T.W., Norfolk, UK

A: Not very, we think. It's hard to imagine that, at the moment, Biden has much better than a 15% chance in any one of those states. The odds of winning all three, even if we can expect them to partly correlate with one another? It's gotta be less than 10%. Probably less than 5%. Oh, and the one congressional district in Nebraska that might go blue does not stretch across entire state, so NE-02 plus Iowa, while plausible, won't get it done.

Q: You keep saying things like " 2016...Trump won by the skin of his teeth, and up against a historically unpopular opponent." which implies that in 2020 he will be likely to lose because he is facing a less "unpopular" candidate.

My memory is that Hillary Clinton was "unpopular" (relative to Trump) in 2016 for three reasons. First, she was a Democrat, which made her unpopular with people who get their information from places like Faux News Network. Second, she defeated Bernie Sanders for the nomination, which made her unpopular with people who preferred his socialist platform to that of the Democratic Party. Finally, she was smeared mercilessly by official and unofficial GOP sources and their supporters.

Don't you agree that Joe Biden will face similar opposition from the three sources of Hillary's unpopularity? As a matter of fact, can't we expect that for the foreseeable future the GOP will make any Democratic candidate "historically unpopular"?
S.Z., New Haven, CT

A: We would say you are one for three. Yes, the (D) next to their names is a strike that cuts against Clinton and Biden equally. However, Biden and the DNC—who had the benefit of seeing what happened in 2016—appear to have done a much better job of not stepping on the toes of Sanders and his supporters (plus, the Senator left the race much earlier this time, giving more time to heal). Further, and most important we would say, Clinton was the target of a relentless, decades-long propaganda campaign dating back to her days as First Lady. She also has a personality that some people find off-putting, and at the same time lacks a penis. None of these things describes Biden, and so while Donald Trump will try very hard to make Americans loathe Uncle Joe, he's likely to meet with much less success (in fact, Trump has already tried very hard, and has already met with less success).

Q: How can one have any confidence at all in the polls, given what happened in 2016? I see that as of today, 117 days before Election Day, you have Joe Biden leading Donald Trump, 368 to 170. This day 4 years ago was before the conventions, so I went to the earliest date in 2016 you had polling for just Hillary Clinton and Trump (July 25th) and that had her up, 312 to 197. The very next day, it was much closer, with Clinton leading Trump 288 to 221. 50 days to go, Sep. 19th, 2016, Clinton was up 274 to 258. A real nail biter! One day before Election Day, Clinton led 317 to 221. And we all know how the election actually turned out. I'm definitely not a statistician and don't pretend to be, but is there anything you can say to suggest 2020 won't be a repeat of 2016? P.S., Pittsburgh, PA

A: We get this question every single week, and though we've answered it before, it's worth revisiting. The polls in 2016 weren't really wrong. The national polls had Clinton up by 3 points. She won by 2 points, well within the ±4-point margin of error. To the extent a mistake was made, it was that analysts (us included) did not fully appreciate the extent to which the Rust Belt states had become swing states. Consequently, they were only lightly polled in the final weeks of the campaign. And that, in turn, caused nearly everyone to miss the fact that James Comey's October surprise (the "new" e-mails that were not so new) had put Clinton in a perilous position in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

If you look at the fourth graph on our Electoral-vote graphs page and note what happened after Comey's announcement, it is pretty clear in retrospect. The data were there, but nobody paid attention (us included).

It is unlikely there will be an October surprise quite so consequential as that one in 2020. And, more importantly, nobody will be sleeping on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They are likely to get ten times the October scrutiny they got in 2016.

Q: Why haven't there been any presidential polls in Nevada since February, or Maine since March? Every other potentially competitive state appears to have polls at least as recently as May. R.H., Arlington, VA

A: First of all, there actually was a poll of Maine last week. That said, polls are usually paid for by major or semi-major media outlets, or by local universities that dabble in the polling biz. Maine has few of the former, and even fewer of the latter. We suspect that the wonky business of awarding EVs by district also scares away some pollsters, since it means their results are inherently going to be imprecise.

Nevada has much the same problem that Maine does, in terms of a lack of media outlets and polling-interested universities. There is one big paper there, namely the Las Vegas Review-Journal, but we would not be surprised if owner Sheldon Adelson, a Republican megadonor, has imposed a moratorium, either because he doesn't want to pay for polls, or because he doesn't want to hear bad news that might also benefit the Democrats.

Q: Why are there generally no polls released for Sunday publication? Here in the UK, there are often polls released on Sundays, carried out for the Sunday newspapers such as the Sunday Times or Mail on Sunday (usually sister papers of the national dailies but with separate editorial staff). Is this a peculiarly British thing? P.L., Durham, UK

A: We think you have basically answered your own question. In the U.S., the mega-Sunday editions are put together by the same basic staff that puts together the rest of the week's issues. That means they have to finish nearly everything early (as in, Saturday morning/afternoon). Meanwhile, the weekend news shows are all on early Sunday morning. That means that if you want your poll to get attention, you need to put it out Saturday, so it can get into the Sunday editions, and so it can be discussed on "Meet the Press" and "State of the Union." If you release your poll on Sunday, you're dropping it into the deadest part of the political news cycle.

Q: For several years now, I have noticed that when you folks discuss betting odds, you mention a ratio and a percentage (likelihood of victory?). I'm not really sure I follow how this works. Can you give a quick primer on betting odds, vigorish, and how they correspond to chance of winning? J.K., Boston, MA

A: We are going to use fractional odds here, just because it's easier. Proper American odds, which are presented in the form of a three or four-digit positive or negative number (e.g., -300) would add another level of complexity.

Anyhow, when odds are presented fractionally, the second number indicates how much you bet, and the first indicates how much you get back in addition to your original bet, if you win. Obviously, your reward is supposed to be commensurate with your risk. If something happens exactly half the time (say, a coin flip coming up heads), then you should double your money when you win, to balance out the zero you get when you lose, for an average 50% return. And so, the betting odds on a coin flip would be 1/1—you get one dollar back (plus your original bet) for every dollar you bet. Flipping it around, that tells you that anything that has 1/1 odds has a 50% chance of happening. If something is only going to happen one time in six (16.67%), then you should get five times your money back (plus your original bet, as always) every time you are correct. That would mean that over the course of six bets, you should win 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, and 6. So, that would be 5/1 odds, and again—flipping that around—something with 5/1 odds has a 16.67% chance of happening.

The vigorish makes things a little trickier. The sports books make their money by taking all of the bets, keeping a small percentage (that's the vig), and then paying out the remainder. In order to make that work, they actually pay you a slightly lesser return than you would be entitled to if the risk you're assuming was the sole factor. For example, if you were betting a coin flip, they might give you 10/11 odds as opposed to 1/1. Odds of 10/11 imply a 52.4% chance of that particular outcome, even though we know the real chance is 50%. The other side of that bet would also get 10/11, also implying a 52.4% chance of that particular outcome, even though we know, once again, that the real chance is 50%. And 52.4% + 52.4% adds up to 104.8%. The 100% is the actual likelihood that the outcome will either be heads or tails, and the 4.8% is the vig.

Q: Why is the Cook PVI rating considered a useful metric when predicting outcomes of individual races? I recently realized that, despite reading your site for years, I was not correctly understanding what this number actually measured. PVI measures the partisan lean "compared to the nation as a whole." Previously I assumed it simply measured the difference between parties. Doesn't this value get skewed if the nation leans towards one party, regardless of outcomes, due to gerrymandering, the Electoral College, etc.? If, for example, there are 5% more Democratic voters than Republicans, would that mean, in the next election cycle, a PVI of "EVEN" actually indicates that the Democrat should be expected to win by 5%? D.T., San Jose, CA

Q: With realignment going on all around us, how accurate are the PVI numbers you are still citing and relying on? Wouldn't the realignment of the suburbs imply that a suburban district with a PVI of say R+8 probably isn't really that anymore? S.R., Wyomissing, PA

A: Although it may appear that PVI directly predicts the outcome of Congressional races, that's not exactly what it's meant to do. Its real purpose is to place the seats in Congress (and also the states) along a spectrum, such that we know which seats are outliers at any given time, and so at greatest risk of flipping. For example, a seat that is R+5 should be assessed not based on that number, but on what's happening with all the other R+5 (and R+4 and R+6) seats. If most or all seats that are R+3 or redder are held by Republicans, then an R+5 seat can generally be considered "safe Republican." If most of the R+3 and R+4 seats, along with some of the R+6's and R+7's and R+10's, have fallen to Democrats, then an R+5 seat occupied by a Republican is likely in danger. It is sort of like our tipping-point chart for president and for Senate, actually.

The PVI ratings are based on a comparison of the Congressional/statewide elections to the national average in 2012 and 2016. If a district was exactly the same as the national average in 2012 and 4 points more Democratic in 2016, it be judged D+2. Normally, the rolling, two-election average allows the PVI to evolve at the pace necessary to keep it accurate. However, it is very possible that Donald Trump has realigned the parties so rapidly that the numbers are indeed out of sync. So, yes, take the PVIs with a grain of salt.

Q: In your item on the New Jersey primary results, your reporting matches what The New York Times had as of 9 a.m. ET on Wednesday: The Democratic and Republican races for NJ-02 had been called, and the Republican race for NJ-03 had not. But the numbers in the races, in terms of the size of the leader's lead, and the percentage of precincts reporting, were nearly identical. What factors lead to a race being called? Why would the Times call one but not the other? You mention that absentee ballots can't be counted yet, but not why this should affect one race but not the other? P.A., Redwood City, CA

A: Actually, it's usually the AP that calls the races, and everyone else (including the Times) follows their lead. Anyhow, the AP knows two things: (1) the historical voting patterns of various towns, counties, etc., and (2) exactly which places have and have not reported their totals. To take a crude example, if a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate is up by 2 points over a Republican in California with 8% of the votes outstanding, and most of the outstanding ballots are from Los Angeles County, then it's over. To overcome that gap, the Republican would have to win 62.5% of the remaining ballots, something that isn't going to happen in L.A. County. On the other hand, if the 8% of votes that are outstanding are mostly in Riverside County, or San Diego County, then...maybe.

Q: Can the Biden campaign mass mail absentee ballot request forms to voters, complete with stamped return envelopes, or do they have to come from election offices directly? J.F., Denver, CO

A: This varies on a state-by-state basis, but the general answer is: Yes, that is legal.

Q: My question is about the claim that requiring people to wear masks treads on the individual's Constitutional rights. I have studied the U.S. Constitution and can't find any section that might apply. Could you please tell me what section of the Constitution and what individual rights are alleged to be impaired by a state order to wear masks? B.G., Hartford, CT

A: Let us imagine that you hired the best lawyer in America, and told them to build the best possible constitutional case against compulsory mask-wearing. They would probably build it around the Fifth Amendment (due process) and the First Amendment (freedom of speech/expression). But that lawyer, talented as they are, would know they were spinning a legal fantasy, and would be praying that they somehow ended up in front of Neomi Rao.

In truth, "the government ordering me to wear a mask is unconstitutional" is about as strong an argument as "the government ordering me to pay income taxes is unconstitutional." There are many passages in the Constitution that clearly give the government mask-requiring power, starting with the clause in the very first sentence that empowers it to "promote the general Welfare." The only plausible argument one could make is that mask requirements are a state-level prerogative rather than a federal prerogative, but even that would be shaky. There is also case law supporting this, most importantly Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which was about mandatory vaccines, but is functionally about the exact same exercise of government power.

Q: Of the people that this site regularly identifies as white supremacists, e.g. Steven Miller, what's the breakdown regarding whether their perspectives are closer to "white people are better because they are white" or closer to "because I'm white, I've got systemic privilege, and I don't want to give that up for me or my family"? Neither are good, but one type is full-on racism of the potentially genocidal type, and the other is racism motivated by basic selfishness. D.C., San Francisco, CA

A: The term "white supremacist" refers to the first description you gave. The term that matches the second description is "white nationalist."

Q: I recently came across an assertion that one of the large secondary issues behind the American Revolution was slavery; that while Britain didn't start banning the slave trade until 1807, such things were being discussed in the late 1760s, and were viewed as a huge threat to the colonial way of life, especially, but not just, in the Southern colonies. Can the resident historian comment? B.J., Boston, MA

A: With the caveat that the resident historian is not a specialist in colonial history, he does not think much of this argument. As we've pointed out before, slavery was already dying out in the Northern states by the 1770s. Further, its future in the Southern states appeared to be very limited, since the soil was exhausted and the tobacco economy was no longer profitable. In 1776, the largest anti-slavery society in the country was in...Virginia. It wasn't until the invention of the cotton gin (1793), which took a couple of decades to revitalize the slave economy, that the South truly became invested in the institution again.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to accept that the vague threat that the British might get rid of an institution that appeared to be dying anyway would motivate significant numbers of colonists to rebel against the King. It's also worth noting that the Declaration of Independence is basically just a list of complaints the rebels had, and there is nothing about abolishing slavery on the list. In fact, the document originally had an anti-slavery passage until Thomas Jefferson was compelled to remove it.

Q: Why did the slave states of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware not join the Confederacy in 1861? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: It really is as simple as this: They didn't depend on slavery nearly as much as their Southern neighbors. We've given this basic chart before, but:

State Pct. Enslaved Seceded
South Carolina 57.2% 1st
Mississippi 55.2% 2nd
Louisiana 46.9% 6th
Alabama 45.1% 4th
Florida 44.0% 3rd
Georgia 43.7% 5th
North Carolina 33.4% 10th
Virginia 30.8% 8th
Texas 30.2% 7th
Arkansas 25.5% 9th
Tennessee 24.8% 11th
Kentucky 19.5% -
Maryland 12.7% -
Missouri 9.7% -
Delaware 1.6% -

The states that relied on slavery the most went in the first wave (excepting Texas, which jumped the gun a little), the states that relied on slavery a bit less went in the second wave, and the states that relied on slavery not nearly as much simply did not have the critical mass of folks who were willing to assume the risks of rebelling against the federal government, and possibly fighting a war. So, those four states stayed.

Q: I was intrigued by your comment that after his third Atlantic crossing, Columbus had been jailed for his barbaric acts. A little digging showed that you are correct, but he (and two brothers) were actually released after just 6 weeks and all title and wealth restored to them, and that Spain actually sent him on a fourth journey. I have always been of the mind that Columbus was not a person to be revered, but I am bothered by you leaving us with the impression that he was ultimately punished by Spain for his misdeeds, when he clearly was not (other than taking away his title of Governor). Your thoughts? J.K., Las Vegas, NV

A: Well, he did get recalled, and he did get imprisoned. Then, he was allowed to plead his case directly to the King and Queen, who were not exactly the most enlightened folk in the world, and who only heard his side of the story. Even then, and even though they had enormous motivation to forgive him (because they wanted him to lead another voyage), they only pardoned him reluctantly, and forbade him from ever being governor again. In other words, Columbus was kind of like the Roger Stone of his day: he avoided serious punishment because he happened to know the right people, but anyone and everyone at that time knew he was guilty, including the people pardoning him.

Q: Americans seem to believe that the United States is the greatest country that ever existed or could exist. With the clear failure to address COVID-19 (I write this from New Zealand where we stamped it out through lockdowns and all our current cases are in border quarantine) and President Trump's disgusting, dangerous and foolish behavior, do you see this as likely to change? Will Americans start realizing that their country has serious limitations? What would the political implications of such a change in self-belief/delusion be? G.S., New Plymouth, New Zealand

A: A certain portion of Americans, often a very large portion of Americans, have seen themselves as truly exceptional for 400 years. Bostonians were bragging about how they lived in a "city on a hill" (a Biblical reference to hope and wisdom) in 1630, for goodness' sakes. So, that sentiment isn't going away anytime soon. That said, as was the case in the early 20th century, there are currently a lot of people questioning that exceptionalism, or at least questioning whether the U.S. is living up to the expectations that exceptionalism creates. And when lots of folks start to think in that way, it potentially lays the groundwork for meaningful social change, and for a sincere effort to become a better nation.

Q: Following up on your answer to Mr. Lincoln's question about who should be the 5th face on Mt. Rushmore, do the positioning and geology of the mountain make another face possible? Would the 5th face have to be looking away from the others (not a desirable feature, I wouldn't think)? J.F., Forth Worth, TX

A: You have the right of it. There isn't space for a fifth face, and there is some concern that the mountain couldn't handle the addition anyhow. It's not that delicate, but it's delicate enough that a bunch of drilling and dynamiting could create some real problems.

Q: I have a question about the Whig party ballot you showed last week, The word 'aristocracy' appeared on it 3 times in bold typeface. That seems an odd word for an American party to be using to promote itself. What was the reason? E.V., Derry, NH

A: Parties back then often embraced sarcasm. The Democratic-Republicans attacked the Whigs for being snobs, and for aspiring to become an aristocracy, and so the Whigs appropriated that charge and wore it as an ironic badge of honor. The modern-day equivalent would be a Trump supporter who wears a "deplorable" t-shirt.

Today's Presidential Polls

Looks like we've found at least one state where Donald Trump won't have to play defense. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Alabama 41% 55% Jul 02 Jul 09 Auburn U. at Montgomery

Today's Senate Polls

Maybe Tuberville's skeletons, plus his carpetbagger status, will allow Jones to make a race out of this. If the Senator somehow holds on, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will do cartwheels down the street on his way to FedEx Office, where he will be ordering his brand-new "Majority Leader" business cards. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Alabama Doug Jones* 36% Tommy Tuberville 44% Jul 02 Jul 09 Auburn U. at Montgomery

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul10 Trump Has a Bad Day on the Tax Front
Jul10 Stone, Meet Iron
Jul10 Time to Shift Gears on the Coronavirus?
Jul10 CDC Won't Play Ball, After All
Jul10 Maybe Jacksonville Won't Play Ball, Either
Jul10 Biden Speaks
Jul10 It Sure Looks Like the Democrats Are Unified
Jul10 Today's Presidential Polls
Jul10 Today's Senate Polls
Jul09 Supreme Court Ruling on Trump's Taxes Will Be Released Today
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Jul09 Republicans Are Split over the Convention
Jul09 What If It Really Gets Crazy?
Jul09 Trump Has a Problem in the Suburbs
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Jul09 Republicans Could Lose Almost Half of Their Female Senators
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Jul09 Bollier Raises $3.7 Million
Jul09 House Democrats Want to Fund Election Security
Jul08 New Jersey, Delaware Vote
Jul08 Mary Trump Book "Leaks"
Jul08 White House Again Searches for Leakers
Jul08 Republicans Underwhelmed by Trump Campaign
Jul08 Democratic Senate Candidates Are Raking It In
Jul08 Carlson Launches 2024 Campaign
Jul08 Roberts Was Briefly Hospitalized Last Month
Jul08 Bolsonaro Tests Positive for COVID-19
Jul08 Trump Administration Formally Begins WHO Withdrawal
Jul07 SCOTUS News, Part I: States Can Punish Faithless Electors
Jul07 SCOTUS News, Part II: No Robo-calls to Cell Phones
Jul07 Trump Doubles Down...
Jul07 Democrats Smell Blood in the Water
Jul07 Veepstakes Is in Full Swing
Jul07 Two More States Vote Today
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Jul07 Today's Presidential Polls
Jul07 Today's Senate Polls
Jul06 Trump's Shrinking Map
Jul06 Republicans Are Nervous about Being the Party of White Grievance
Jul06 Was the Faustian Bargain the Republicans Made Worth It?
Jul06 Biden Has Put Together a Large Legal Team to Deal with Election Trickery
Jul06 Biden Voters Are Afraid
Jul06 President West in the West Wing?
Jul06 Bookies Are Betting on Biden
Jul06 What Is the Next Big Threat?
Jul06 Tommy Tuberville Isn't Quite in the Senate Yet
Jul06 Crystal Ball: 14 House Races Are Toss-ups
Jul05 Sunday Mailbag
Jul04 Saturday Q&A
Jul03 Ghislaine Maxwell Arrested in New Hampshire