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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

The political history of the various states is certainly very interesting.

COVID-19, Life and Times

P.D. in Woodbridge, NJ, writes:

I would love to start writing about the new normal, it would also be fun to write about the politicization of COVID-19 or comment on the idiots who beat people up for wearing masks, but I think the priority right now is trying to save lives.

State of the bug: While cases in the U.S. continue to rise (except in the places already ravaged), the downward trend in the hotspots is now giving us hope. Whether it is herd immunity or that COVID-19 has just successfully wiped out the most vulnerable, is still an open question.

We know a lot more about this virus than we did a month ago:

  1. The mortality rate across the whole U.S. population is pretty low. 1% of those exposed may actually now be an upper bound of what we will ultimately experience. Mortality for healthy people under 40 is very low. However, this means that the risk to older, less healthy people is very high. Mortality for a male over 65 years of age in the U.S. might be 5% or even higher if they are not healthy.

  2. The trick is identifying who is at risk and doing everything we can to keep them from being exposed. Those particularly at risk are individuals with cardiovascular disease, diabetes (type 1 or 2), obesity, hypertension, chronic lung diseases, chronic renal disease, neurologic diseases or cancer. The at-risk groups are: (1) everyone over 65, (2) everyone over 50 who has 1 or more of the above conditions, (3) everyone over 40 who has 2 or more of the above conditions, and (4) everyone with an active serious chronic condition (type 1 diabetes, cancer, lupus, etc.).

  3. Part of the reason that flu season is not worse than it might be is that we mostly have all had the flu a few times in our lives. Even if we don't carry the antibodies to this exact strain of the flu, having antibodies to a strain that is "close" genetically to the one you catch is better than nothing. This would say that getting that flu shot is a good idea, even if the makers of the vaccine don't guess perfectly as to what strains will be. The COVID-19 virus is brand new; if it gets into you and takes hold, you have no defense.

  4. The amount of exposure counts. There are enough anecdotes of young, healthy, healthcare workers, police officers, bus drivers, etc. getting a face full of virus and then falling seriously ill, such that it appears that more exposure means more risk. If you get a small exposure, it may give your body time to adapt and give you some protection. Limiting exposure, wearing masks, avoiding close contact with others (the 6-foot rule) remain good ideas.

  5. The virus is very infectious. In practical terms, if you sit in a room and have conversation with a person who is a carrier and neither of you is wearing masks, there is a pretty good chance that you will get enough virus exposure to get infected. If someone in that room is coughing, expelling more virus-laden air, you are more likely to fall ill.

    The experience of a choir in Washington state helps to illustrate this. One or more of the members were carriers. Not visibly sick. Singing produced more air flow, expelling more virus as well as helping the whole choir to inhale more virus laden air. 45 out of the 60 members became COVID-19 positive, 3 hospitalized, 2 died.

In spite of all this, like it or not, the country is going to reopen. We should try to do it carefully. (Full disclosure, my company is consulting with a few organizations to help support reopening.) Full reopening plans for an organization to reopen can't be easily summarized, but here are a few tips to support a smart reopening:

  1. Maintain social distancing. Hand shaking is gone, no greeting with a hug. Avoid being close to people wherever possible. This has to be part of the culture.

  2. Wear protective equipment. Wear masks at all times around people, gloves in the grocery store. We will need public service announcements about how to use gloves and masks correctly.

  3. Companies should phase in coming back to work. Phase 1: Under 40 only, no underlying chronic conditions, then after a month, Phase 2: Under 50, no underlying conditions, then after a month, Phase 3: Under 65, no underlying conditions. After that, evaluate and see how things are going. We will know a lot more in 3 months. If you are "at-risk" don't come back to work for the rest of 2020, period. The danger is just too high.

  4. Be ready to adapt. Test as much as possible, monitor symptoms like crazy. If things start to go South, change the plan.

  5. Anyone with flu like symptoms or shortness of breath should stay home. Period.

  6. No restaurants, malls, or grocery stores or gatherings of any kind for anyone in the at-risk groups. Help your at-risk neighbors stay isolated.

  7. Our offices and public spaces have to be a lot cleaner. We need to be wiping things down all the time, clean doorknobs, bathrooms, etc.

  8. Think about limiting exposure. No conference room meetings, open cookie trays or buffets. No company kitchen.

  9. And finally, the most important of all. Every employee who can work from home, still should. This is key. It reduces the number of people in the building, making everything easier to reduce the spread of the virus.

Of course, the big hole in this plan is that we don't all live alone. We go home and interact with our families. There is no way we are going to be able to open the country and keep at-risk people safe from their family members who are venturing out. All we can do is improve their chances.

And no group is going to be more impacted by opening than the health care workers. Cases and hospitalizations are going to go up (and probably "bigly"). Opening could let every part of the country eventually be impacted as seriously as NY and NJ have been. Every time you interact with a health care worker, thank them for their service. They are putting their lives at risk to help you and the people you care about.

E.D. in Saddle Brook, NJ, writes: In P.D.'s last COVID-19 report, this bit stood out to me:

As social distancing behaviors are probably not very different in each area, how do we explain this? Clearly the disease started and spread earlier in the north than the south, but why are hospitalizations now going down? If we use the NY study to estimate that we have a 10-20% exposure rate, there are likely still plenty of people left to keep this growing for a while.

I can explain some of that. The virus first started spreading in New Jersey in Bergen County, which is the northeast corner of the state. It's densely populated and borders NYC. Bergen County began strict lockdowns and social distancing about a week earlier than the state took action. Our timeline for the virus is earlier than the rest of the state. If you look at the cases by county and compare it to a map, you can see that the spread has been going south/southwest from Bergen County. The further you get from there, the later the peaks are. And of course, the higher population density counties are getting hit harder. The more rural parts of the state toward the south and the northwest haven't been hit very hard.

Also, I very strongly suspect that the COVID-19 was spreading heavily in Bergen County in February, well before anyone was even considering the possibility that it could be here. There was a virus spreading around the schools and the symptoms seemed to match. Kids didn't get it that bad, but some of the parents got it worse. The parents who went to a doctor got a diagnosis that it was a virus, but it wasn't the flu. I realize this is anecdotal, but I saw it firsthand, and heard similar experiences from others. We thought nothing of it at the time, but looking back with what we know now, it fits perfectly.

R.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: This is perhaps a question for a scientist like P.D. from New Jersey, but my rough calculations suggest there will ultimately be over two million COVID-19 deaths, assuming we reach herd immunity (60-70%) before there is a vaccine. Most projections appear to consider the death rate as COVID-19-identified deaths divided by COVID-19 cases. But I think both the numerator and denominator are off. It should really be excess deaths (that is, deaths above the historical average, which picks up both direct and indirect deaths caused by COVID-19) divided by the estimated number of infections, as reflected by antibody tests. New York City's numbers from the last week of April show excess deaths at roughly 20,000, and an infection rate of 21% (NYC has 8.8 million people). If you do that math, mortality is roughly 1% of infections.

The U.S. population is 330 million, so herd immunity will be achieved when somewhere between 198 million and 231 million people have been infected. At that level, there would be roughly 2.0 to 2.3 million excess deaths. Moreover, that's the rosy picture that assumes recovered patients are immune; if not, or if antibody immunity abates over time, the sky's the limit on deaths.

I would love for a scientist to find a flaw in my analysis. Otherwise, we're looking at three 1918 Flus' worth of deaths.

L.W. in Singapore writes: While P.D. from Woodbridge, NJ, didn't necessarily bring up COVID-19 in Singapore, s/he did refer to the NYT article headlined "Singapore Seemed to Have Coronavirus Under Control, Until Cases Doubled." As an American expat in Singapore, it caused me to feel defensive as it is not the first article I have seen misrepresenting the "second wave" of infections here. These articles get the migrant worker source correct, but their argument that this is a clear example for why the U.S./Europe cannot open does not carry much weight because these countries, the U.S. in particular, do not test/trace/isolate at the level that Singapore does.

Regardless of the warnings from migrant worker advocacy groups, the lack of testing, tracing, and isolation of migrant workers earlier in the cycle is what has led to the current "circuit breaker" measures (the Singaporean government's phrase for quarantine from April 7 through June 1). The turning point was a cluster discovered towards the end of March at Mustafa Centre, a grocery/department store in Little India that is frequented by both Singaporeans and migrant workers, which the government realized through testing and tracing had the possibility of becoming the epicenter of the spread from migrant workers into the wider community. Hence, the circuit breaker. This, in theory, would prevent the jump into the larger community. Singapore has now ramped up its testing capabilities throughout the month of April, from approximately 2,900/day in early April to more than 8,000/day as of April 27. As a result, 93% of cases have now been traced to their origin.

All of this is to say the fear mongering, misinterpretation, explicit xenophobia, etc. I have seen in Western media—mostly Fox News, with articles and tweets about Singapore's rise in numbers, including inferences that this is because they allow wet markets to operate here—has been very frustrating as the U.S. does not seem to be acknowledging that the reason Singapore has been able to get this under control (and that numbers have increased) is because of testing, tracing, and isolation.

Anyway, because of this testing and tracing policy (which includes mandatory logging of entrance into public spaces via QR codes that link to your ID), Singapore is currently easing business restrictions and looking to resume to the normalcy we were experiencing in March (social distancing in restaurants/cafes, returning to schools) come June 1. This is a very different environment for opening the economy and community than in the U.S. precisely because Singapore has a better understanding of where the disease has been spreading.

J.C. in Charleston, IL, writes: In reference to differences between Sweden's and the United States' success against coronavirus using relatively weak social distancing policies, you wrote: "It should be noted, however, that Swedes are a healthy bunch and Americans are not. Forty percent of Americans are clinically obese and another 35% are overweight. Sweden is the 90th fattest country in the world with only about 15% of Swedes being obese and another 35% overweight." The comment is interesting for a number of reasons, not limited to its simplistic correlation of weight and health. I'm most interested in the ways that it illustrates a major flaw in U.S. pandemic reporting. The U.S. healthcare system prior to the pandemic was generally rated as significantly inferior compared to those of similarly situated nations, especially in terms of cost and access to care. It seems to me that this at least ought to be part of the conversation when we talk about how the U.S. is treating the pandemic. But it isn't. I would like to believe that we could emerge from the pandemic in a year or two having settled some of the silliest questions about how to build a functional health care system.

J.C. in Swampscott, MA, writes: As a Swedish-American, I'd like to add the relevant fact that Sweden also has an excellent free universal healthcare system.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: I saw an interview with a Swede described as the Swedish Andrew Fauci and I don't think you are accurately representing the Swedish model. It is not "throw the doors open and see what happens." As I understand it, the Swedish government placed a lot of restrictions on what people and businesses could do and told people what they needed to do to not pass on the virus. For the most part, the government has earned the trust of Swedes and so they followed the rules. Also, they did more testing and contact tracing. Since Sweden is a small country, they were able to keep the spread in control in much of the country.

In the U.S., the red state model is to make some loose rules that are optional for businesses, and let them decide what they actually need to do for worker/customer health. The purple state, and eventually blue state model, is to set more rigid rules the businesses must comply with, knowing that some businesses will go further to make workers/customers feel safer.

The biggest thing that separates the American model from the Swedish model is the Swedish government has earned the trust of the people and the U.S. government has not. Swedes do not reject science if it is inconvenient, while many Americans reject science on a regular basis.

A.F. in Hamburg, Germany, writes: You mentioned Germany, and specifically Angela Merkel. And you are absolutely right with your conclusion. She is respected across the aisle (and I haven't voted for her) and is guiding the country with modesty and a sober mind. Being a scientist herself, she engaged that branch early on and listened to their advice. Even though conclusions had to be revised and the measures have been also criticized here, there is an overwhelming trust in our politicians and government in this crisis.

Looking from little Germany to our big friend the U.S., it is unbearable to listen to and read about the current administration's handling of COVID-19. Your gut feeling and your own moral compass should tell you that your current president is not up to the job. I can't believe that 40-something percent of Americans have lost their gut feeling.

Writing that as a lifelong friend of your country, it saddens me to see that it will probably get worse. The curve is still ahead of you and unfortunately not already seen in the rear mirror.

A.D. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, writes: Regarding the item "Will We Ever Go Back to Normal?", I think people overestimate the effects of unprecedented events. For example, World War I was unprecedented in the level of its devastation. After the war, many people felt that wars would be a thing of the past because of the horrors. There were changes made, such as the establishment of the League of Nations, to avoid future wars. However, human nature did not change, and there have been many wars in the 100 years since. Another example, as you mentioned, is 9/11. Such an attack was unprecedented, and people were afraid that terrorist attacks would become common in our lives. Once again, there were changes made, as you mentioned in your news item. However, while there have been other terrorist attacks, the possibility of hijacking is not in the forefront of most airplane passengers' minds.

This is why I think it is irresponsible to make bleak forecasts such as the one Ms. Garrett made. She may have written a book, but she does not have a crystal ball, and just because she believes something will happen does not mean that it will. Ms. Garrett, just like the rest of us, does not know when a viable vaccine will be developed. She does not know how long the pandemic will last, or how many people will die, or what changes will come about as a result. I think therefore that it is irresponsible to present her thoughts as some sort of fact rather than the speculation that it is.

K.H. in Ypsilanti, MI, writes: Contrary to what some of your vegetarian commenters have suggested, merely switching to a plant-based diet would not alleviate the food shortage caused by closing meat plants. They may not like it, but meat accounts for a huge share of the calories provided to our population and plants can't simply make up the difference overnight, or even over a year. There just aren't enough fruits, grains and vegetables to go around, particularly with the shortage of farm labor also brought on by the virus.

COVID-19, Politics

D.E. in Lititz, PA, writes: I read today that Donald Trump's valet and Mike Pence's aide have both tested positive for COVID-19. While I'm pretty sure the President spends most of his waking moments dreaming death and destruction for people he perceives as his enemies, I personally hope the Fool doesn't get it. Can you imagine how many others he would spread it to, due to his arrogance?

But if he were to die from the virus, he could at least have the satisfaction that his death would echo a recent GOP talking point. As Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-TX) and many of the protesters about the stay-at-home orders say, the elderly and the weak should be willing to die for the economy. There is no doubt that Trump is elderly, so he should be happy to make that sacrifice. There is no doubt in my mind that his death would improve the economy greatly.

J.W.H. in Somerville, NJ, writes: Over the weekend, I received the letter Donald Trump signed dated 4/15 and headed "Your Economic Impact Payment Has Arrived." While the content of the letter was reasonable, it states that I am receiving this payment by direct deposit. As of 5/4, there has been no such direct deposit recorded to either my personal or business checking account. I wonder how many others have had this happen; it just adds to the impression of poor execution by the administration.

J.G. in Pristina, Kosovo, writes: I've been following the Rasmussen poll. I observed that Donald Trump's approval rating tanked a few weeks ago, but has returned to its more normal, Trump-biased levels in recent days. My theory is that it reflects the fortunes of the stock market. His approval dropped with the Dow, but both his approval and the Dow have stabilized in the past couple of weeks. The bias in Rasmussen must lean toward wealthier respondents who own stocks or mutual funds. I also notice that when Trump is under attack (such as during impeachment), he gets a boost up, maybe from people worrying about their portfolios.

V & Z respond: Another possibility is that Rasmussen did not like the results it was generating, and so it tweaked the model to be more Trump-friendly.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: In your item "Trump Is Just Making It Up As He Goes," you listed five potential reasons why the right-wing media vilifies responses to both COVID-19 and global warming. Missing from this list is the reason I believe is overriding: a steadfast alignment with moneyed interests. COVID-19 response, like global warming response, is expensive and disruptive to (big) business-as-usual. Remember, financial success is a virtue, and the only conceivable motivation for any action that impedes it is the spite of the unsuccessful. Any other justification you may hear (like changing climates or rampant plagues) is just fake news cooked up by the libtards so they can sell it to the sheeple.

E.C.R. in Helsinki, Finland, writes: You compared Republicans to ostriches, declaring that Republicans display "an ostrich-like instinct to cope with threats by burying [their] head in the sand." This comparison is most unfair to ostriches, who never bury their heads in the sand and have good reason to poke their heads into holes in the ground. Misinformed adults are referred to this excellent explanation which should be accessible even to politicians.

V & Z respond: We regularly face the problem of knowing that the idiom we need is not factually correct, but is the manner in which the point we are making is normally expressed. So, we know that ostriches don't actually bury their heads in the sand. We even know they can outrun nearly all predators and their kick can kill a lion. We also know that lightning most certainly does strike twice sometimes, that it is possible to make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and that the New York Yankees aren't actually Satan's representative on Earth. They are merely his representative for the Eastern U.S.

R.S.B. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: In your item "Trump Is Planning to Call the Number of COVID-19 Deaths Fake News," you end with a half-snarky comment: "Welcome to the post-fact world."

While I like the term post-fact, I think it is too cerebral in the context of the disgust implied in the article. You are discussing both lies and a narrative contrary to reality that benefits a government or a political leader. This is more properly termed propaganda, especially when it comes out of the mouth of a politician or as information published by a governmental agency, both of which are true. That Fox and OANN willingly disseminate untruthful information doesn't make it much different from—to choose one example—North Korea's KCNA.

Perhaps you might consider something like, "Welcome to the age of American governmental propaganda."

K.W. in Providence, RI, writes: You have mentioned many times that the Trump administration has (somewhat successfully) overturned many of the Obama administration's programs, something that many rightly see as motivated by petty vindictiveness and spite. No one, as far as I can see, has gone beyond that and looked at Grover Norquist's oft quoted 2001 dictum, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Trump's "deep state" Republicans (though I really hate the rhetorical trope of the "deep state", and in this case it is more like K-street) are following through on Norquist's wishes far over and above simply undoing Obama's legacy. There have been many analyses over the years that argue that the tactic is to cripple the federal government so much so that Americans, or at least low-information voters, when faced with disaster, will agree (in a self-fulfilling prophecy) that the federal government is incompetent and thus undermine any argument for progressive intervention.

Though I might appreciate George Conway and his ilk finally getting "woke," the truth is that the Republican Party, Conway included, has been the party of Norquist for over 20 years. Unless and until Republicans fully repudiate Norquist and acknowledge a positive role for the federal government (which, of course, entails a total repudiation of the Tea Party), they are worthless. Sorry George Conway, not buying your late-to-the-party gaslighting that suggests a redemption for the Republicans.

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: As I read your item "Republicans Go to Court to Fight COVID-19 Restrictions," I thought of this article in The Atlantic, headlined "We're Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders' Republic."

Although the author's focus is on the disproportionate, negative impact of COVID-19 on the communities of people of color, what also jumped out at me was how he so clearly articulates the difference in the definition of "freedom to" versus "freedom from." As in, freedom to tyrannize vs. freedom from tyranny; freedom to infect others vs. freedom from being infected.

This is, in my view, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Republicans want the "freedom to." Democrats believe in the "freedom from." I think this is why we see so many of the Trump Administration's fervent followers, supported by the leaders of the Republican party, front and center in this dispute, contrary to what public health and scientific evidence shows. Further, the blatant racism that we are seeing in their actions supports the author's premise, as expressed in the title of his article.

It is heartrending.

J.B. in Philadelphia, PA, writes: In your item "Republicans Go to Court to Fight COVID-19 Restrictions," one thing I think you're forgetting (or overlooking) in your analysis is that the Republican legislators bringing these lawsuits have little to lose politically. Because of the gerrymandering that took place in both Wisconsin and Michigan following the 2010 census, the vast majority of Republicans in both states' legislatures are in safely Republican districts. They have little to worry about from a Democrat, even if the pandemic blows up in their respective states again. On the other hand, the Democratic governors in both states (Evers in Wisconsin, Whitmer in Michigan) are now in a no-win situation. If the Republicans get their way with these court challenges and the economy bounces back without a significant resurgence of COVID-19, those Republicans will get the credit while those governors will get blamed for screwing things up in the first place. If the economy doesn't bounce back and/or the pandemic resurges, those Governors are the ones who will face a serious challenge from the other side come 2022, not the safely gerrymandered Republican legislators.

S.K. in Bethesda, MD, writes: J.K. from Short Hills argues, in defense of Donald Trump, that since there are different situations in different states, the problems should be attributed to governors rather than the President. I wonder if s/he would make the same argument about other things like economic growth (higher in blue coastal states), or in hypothetical cases like an invasion from a foreign invader (I'd bet New York and California would have a lot more damage than say Nebraska; is that because New York and California are governed by Democrats?).

But that's beside the point; let's focus on the specific argument. First, s/he asks why the pandemic has been so much worse in New York than in Washington and the San Francisco area and implies this is about how the leaders in those areas addressed the pandemic. Well, there are many theories about why transmission and death rates have varied so far, and it's too soon to have a complete answer. But it is worth considering that New York is considerably more densely populated and has a lot more travelers to and from Europe, which turns out to be the actual direct geographic source of most initial infections in the U.S. (not China). It also has subway ridership (crowded enclosed spaces being shown to be conducive to virus transmission) that is more than 10 times as high as either Seattle or San Francisco. There may also be factors related to climate, and yes, decisions made by the leaders in those states may have had an impact as well.

But as of May 4th, the US has 4% of the world's population and 25% of the deaths from coronavirus. This is despite the fact that it is the world's richest country, and that due to its geographic location across two large oceans from the epicenter of the pandemic, the US had anywhere from 2-5 weeks in which the danger was clear and we could have been taking actions to protect ourselves and limit the impact. And while limiting (not eliminating, as some like to claim) travel from China would have been a good part of an overall program, it was the only thing done between January and March. Many things could have been done, and were done in other countries, with the result that the U.S. is currently the seventh worst country in the world for deaths per 100,000, and is almost certain to end up in the top 3 (I would bet it ends up #1). If we could have done as good a job as Germany (which does not have oceans of space between itself and Italy), we would have a third of the deaths. If we matched Greece, which is literally next door to Italy, we would have less than a tenth of the deaths. And of course, if we matched South Korea, which had its first confirmed case the same day we did, we would have less than 3,000 deaths at this point.

So no, we would not have done the same under any President, presumably an even moderately competent President could have matched Germany, particularly given the lead time. Maybe a really skilled leader could have matched Greece (or maybe that's asking too much). Donald Trump will go down in history as having made the most costly mistake in U.S. history, and one of the more costly mistakes in world history. He and his enablers will be tarred with this forever. Maybe they think it was worth the judges and the embassy in Jerusalem. I suspect the voters (if they are allowed to vote) will show they feel differently.

S.B. in Hellevoetsluis, the Netherlands, writes: To J.K. in Short Hills, NJ: While many people have made mistakes during the Covid-19 crisis, one mistake does not excuse the others. Not to mention that I assume these people generally acted in good faith, something I have severe doubts about regarding Donald Trump. Now with that out of the way, there's plenty of criticism to be lobbed at the U.S. president since in situations like this, he is uniquely empowered to take action and act on advance warnings. When we examine the Trump administration's response, we see:

  • It ignored advance warnings on Covid-19. Though it appears to be more accurate to say that Trump himself chose to ignore these.

  • It abdicated all leadership in areas where it would normally play a large role. While plenty of areas are much more suited to be handled by state governors, procurement of PPE and medical equipment is not one of those. The federal government has many options available to stockpile, coordinate and use its purchasing power to provide required equipment to the states. Instead Trump left the states to fend for themselves, often competing with each other for supplies and driving up PPE prices massively.

  • Meanwhile when states do make deals, the federal government often swoops in to commandeer the supplies, seemingly in a scheme to redistribute them to favored political patrons.

  • There is plenty of documented evidence that the administration's handling of the emergency funds was disastrous. From funds going to the wrong companies (Congress and banks of course also deserving of some blame here) to delaying checks to include Trump's signature.

  • The administration's personnel policy appears to have been the usual mix of nepotism (Jared, Ivanka) and shooting messengers, rather than heeding their message.

  • It has failed to show leadership through a steady, consistent message. Trump is again the main culprit here, constantly changing his story and then going on Twitter to further undercut the official policies.

  • His briefings, which should be steadying and instructive, instead have featured lie after lie while pushing unsubstatiated and dangerous suggestions. (hydroxychloroquine, disinfectants).

In short, the criticisms lobbed at Trump are fully warranted.

2020 Election Talk

R.D. in Austin, TX, writes: It's pretty remarkable to see a Democrat polling so close to even with a Republican in Texas. I hope that Texas Democrats have realized that if they actually show up to vote, they might actually win. People say you shouldn't vote Third Party because it's a wasted vote on a candidate who can't possibly win. I hate that line of thinking because in Texas, at least in statewide races, that same argument also applies to the Democratic Party. I hope Beto O'Rourke's near miss against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has demonstrated that a Democratic win is not impossible.

On the other hand, we saw polls last cycle that showed Clinton getting within a few points of Trump even as late as October, so I'm not counting any chickens yet. I'm just encouraging everyone I talk to to get out and vote.

J.D. in Columbia, MD, writes: We have now seen several polls out of Texas that suggest that state is a toss-up between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. You often follow up with the point that, if Trump has to spend (scarce) campaign resources to win Texas, he isn't going to have that money to spend to win, say, Wisconsin or Arizona. While that's true, I think the Trump campaign would (and probably should) just continue to play as if Texas' electoral votes were in the bag, and trust that the partisan lean of the state will keep it in Trump's column. If losing Texas becomes a real danger for Trump, he's losing in a landslide no matter how much he spends.

V & Z respond: We agree with that assessment, but that's not usually how the campaigns play it.

R.F. in Waukegan, IL, writes: I don't agree with the suggestion that Indiana is in the bag for Trump.

At this early stage in the cycle, the only thing that is obvious at the state level is that Trump might be in serious trouble in Texas and Georgia, which are both statistical ties, and that all "five" swing states have Biden leading by 4-9 points on average. If Trump is in so much trouble in Texas that he's going to have to dump millions of dollars in there to shore it up, I think it's way too soon to say Indiana is safe.

The economy in Indiana is just as destroyed as it is anywhere else and opening church and the movie theaters this week isn't going to make COVID-19 any better. Despite the Governor trying to reopen the state, major employers are still firing people by the thousands. I'm from Indiana and lived there from birth (1984) to 2015, and I was there in 2008. Unemployment was not as bad as it is right now even in the worst hit parts of the state, and people were practically calling for George W. Bush's head.

I'd say Indiana is extremely conservative, but that they also notice when a Republican president has ruined things to the point that they're not working and they're sitting at home watching him lying and making a fool of himself on TV every day. Trump may win, but it'll be closer than you think either way, and he may still do incredible damage to Indiana Republicans down ballot.

S.J. in Santa Cruz, CA, writes: You have wondered if Iowa is in play this year. Isn't the correct answer to that: "Iowa is always in play"? When, in modern times, has Iowa not been in play? Though the state seems to like Republican senators and governors about as well as any other Midwestern state, Iowa voted for the Democratic presidential candidate six times out of seven between 1988 and 2012. Iowa even went for Michael Dukakis in 1988, when very few other states did. It's always a mistake, I think, to dismiss or underestimate Iowa—my late but very liberal father's home state.

S.F. in Minneapolis, MN, writes: Regarding your item on Joe Biden and the Latino vote, there are two things to note. If the breakdown is currently 49% Biden, 17% Trump, 34% undecided, we should assume 49% is Biden's baseline, and that to do as well as Obama or Clinton, he needs to convince at least 16%-21% of Latino voters to pick him, and turn out for him. (Rather than assume that he'll reach Obama or Clinton's level of Latino support by November).

More ominously than this, in the most recent Survey USA North Carolina poll, where Biden had an overall lead of 5%, Trump was actually beating him among Latino voters, 54% to 43%. Counting on the horrors of the Trump immigration policy to motivate Latinos to break 65%+ Biden, 26-30% for Trump, and to turn out seems inadequate. When Biden harkens back to the Obama days, he's harkening back to a time when 34,000 people were in detention every day as opposed to the 42,000-49,000 we have now. Biden needs to make stronger commitments to the Latino community, and even though the Latino vote isn't a monolith or a single issue bloc, stronger commitments on detention and deportation would help. Such commitments would be good policy and good politics (especially in the Southwest).

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: Regarding the somewhat-in-play Senate races, you wrote "In six other races, Democrats have at least a 5% chance. These are Georgia (2x), Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. If Republicans have a 0.95 chance in each of these races, the probability of them winning all of them is 0.95^6 or 0.74. This gives the Democrats about one chance in four of picking up one seat in this group."

This is not spinning six independent Wheels of Fortune, each with 20 equal segments, 19 of them red and one of them blue, and seeing how often the arrow lands on blue. This is spinning six somewhat coupled Wheels of Fortune (mounted on a common axle, if you will), where if one comes up blue, others are likely to come up blue as well. But the more likely outcome, higher than the 74% odds you calculate, is that none of them do.

R.M. in Aberdeen, WA, writes: I want to defend millennials and younger folks who have been told they're "cutting off their nose to spite their face" for saying they would vote for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. I taught remedial math for a couple of decades before switching professions in 2010. Those "remedial" students were very savvy, and were surprisingly good at logic and reasoning. I watched some of their blogs during the 2016 campaign. They were totally disgusted at the almost complete lack of discussion about climate change in the Democratic primary, and by Clinton in the general election.

At the time, there was a really big deal being made about Trump's cavalier statements regarding the use of nuclear weapons. People who are retired today may only see collapse of social security and Medicare as immediate threats to their survival. The younger generations who say they voted for Trump in 2016 may have been calculating that he would become so erratic with his nuclear war posturing that even seniors would begin to worry about him. By turning seniors against Trump and the GOP, it would give a much higher probability that politicians who really do care about climate change could get into office.

Seniors are now being alerted to immediate threats from Trump due to his cavalier attitude toward COVID-19 deaths, which disproportionately affect seniors. And so, seniors are turning against him, and cavalier nuclear war rhetoric was not even needed. This is a shrewd, but possibly necessary, calculation by younger voters. If Biden does not emphasize climate change a lot, he may lose them again.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: Regarding your item about Obamacare, and the fact that voters would not react well to a President trying to take healthcare away from people in the middle of a pandemic, I can't speak for Trump supporters because I do not understand how they think. But I can tell you as a transgender woman, I am outraged at Trump's finalization of a change to Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which now carves out a "religious exemption" for healthcare providers to be allowed to refuse care to LGBT people based on "sincerely held beliefs."

Ostensibly, this is because some doctors don't want to have to perform abortions or sex changes (gender-confirming surgeries). But this is a bogus argument, and here is why: In order to perform an abortion or a gender-confirming surgery, one must undergo specialized training. One does not undergo special training to do a thing to which one is morally opposed. And the practitioners who perform abortions and gender-confirming surgeries (such as yours truly had in 2002) tend to specialize in, and perform, only those procedures. What this carve-out is really for is to allow doctors to refuse care to LGBT people just because they are LGBT, even if withholding care from such a person might cost their life. And this has happened before. I refer you to Tyra Hunter and Robert Eads, to name as examples of cases where transgender people were refused treatment and allowed to die just because they were trans.

Trump once said he would be "the most pro-LGBTQ President ever." And now he is trying to take away the healthcare of people like me, and potentially condemn us to death, for being LGBTQ.

J.A. in New York, New York, writes: In response to the letter from D.A. in Brooklyn about not supporting Democratic groups anymore, I just have to say I can almost predict which demographic s/he falls into based on the tone and assumptions of their comment.

Some of us who are in double minority groups don't have the luxury of sitting out or not supporting the candidate who isn't openly fomenting racist attitudes towards every skin shade darker than eggshell. Some of us can't sit out supporting the candidate who wants to guarantee LGBTQ rights and who does not want to allow us to be fired or evicted just for being alive.

I wish I had the ability to not care about who is in the Oval Office. But I, and many other people in historically excluded groups, absolutely cannot just wait for a hero, we have to fight for our right to exist equally, even if that battle is just a small victory in the greater war.

B.B. in Bangor, ME, writes: What D.A. seems to have forgotten is that democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Democracy lends itself to good policy and to political stability because of the wisdom of crowds, because elected representatives protect their constituents' interests, because decentralizing power makes coup attempts less attractive, and because it makes people more willing to accept the results of the process as legitimate and authoritative. But the ultimate goal is always good policy and political stability, which, unlike casting votes, is what actually allows people to live pleasant and fulfilling lives. Supporting Donald Trump and by extension his policies, either actively or through inaction as D.A. is talking about doing, does not lead to good policy, nor to a more stable future for our country (if for no other reason than how polarizing Trump is). Has D.A. ever considered the possibility that the DNC might know better than s/he does what's good for the health of New Yorkers and the interests of the country in general?

J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: You responded to W.L. in Belgium's question about how s/he could be involved in a campaign as a foreign national, and advised them that in most cases it's not legally possible. As a U.S. citizen (ancestry going back to Jamestown) living overseas, it's also difficult. I donated to Hillary Clinton and had my donation returned after the campaign was over, because my address was overseas, though I was clear that I was a U.S. citizen, and checked all the boxes. It was so difficult to get that in, it kind of made me give up on the idea of donating entirely while I am overseas.

The Veepstakes (and Cabinetstakes)

N.F. in Brussels, Belgium, writes: I seem to remember a bit of presidential buzz about Oprah shortly after the election of Trump. Why not consider her for Joe Biden's VP? She has it all: she counters the non-politician, dynamism, and originality of Trump while also ticking the needed demographic boxes.

B.G. in West Hollywood, CA, writes: Am I the only one who is deeply concerned about all the kerfluffle concerning Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as Joe Biden's VP? I am deeply concerned that her divisiveness will significantly damage Biden's electoral reach. I think that Warren on the ticket will reset the electoral map to 2016 with maybe the possible exception of Michigan. My sense is that Warren would tickle the cockles of the Democrats who are going to crawl over glass to vote against Trump anyway, with the Republicans and independents who are sniffing around looking for a new home because they don't like Trump then fleeing back into Trump' waiting arms. Biden's choice of Warren might bring a sliver of the Democrats back and drive away hordes of potential voters. I just think it would be the boneheadedest move he could possibly make.

C.W. in Myrtle Beach, SC, writes: When it comes to Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) lack of support for Elizabeth Warren as VP, I think you left out the real answer: Bernie is just insufferable, short sighted, hard to get along with, and doesn't like most people and the Democrats (and the country) will be better off when he no longer has any influence.

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: In your item about what would happen if President Biden appointed sitting senators to his cabinet, you included this: "Three of those states have a Republican governor. They are Alabama, Ohio, and West Virginia. The Democratic senators in those states can forget it." However, one of those three senators is Doug Jones (AL), who has zero chance at re-election. So wouldn't he make sense as a Biden appointment? Given his strong record as a prosecutor, a role in the Justice Department would make sense. Maybe Attorney General, or if that's a lock for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), perhaps the head of the Civil Rights division, given his record in prosecuting the Birmingham church bombing perpetrators.

V & Z respond: You're right, Jones is in line for a plum job if Biden wins.

M.F. in Philadelphia, PA, writes: I've seen a couple mentions of Joe Biden picking Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) for a cabinet job. I live in Pennsylvania and I really don't see this happening. Toomey is an absolute dumpster fire of a human being. He is unwavering in his ability to ignore reality and shun anything progressive. He's a lost cause. It just seems inconceivable that Biden would see Toomey as anything other than the obstacle that he is.

J.P. in Horsham, PA, writes: Speaking as a somewhat liberal resident of Pennsylvania, I have to say that I really hope that Joe Biden does not choose Pat Toomey for HUD, despite the favorable implications for the Senate. Toomey's position on immigration, particularly with regard to sanctuary cities, is virtually identical to that of Donald Trump.

It is a rare occasion that he sends out an e-mail to his constituents in which he is silent on this issue. Normally, he misrepresents egregiously what it means to be a "Sanctuary city", and I can't tell if he's being willfully ignorant or is deliberately fear mongering.

No, if Toomey were to be pulled from the Senate for a position within a hypothetical Biden administration, it should be for something where he can be counted on to be honest. Maybe something to do with the Opioid epidemic?

J.G. in Tulsa, OK, writes: Several times you have mentioned Joe Biden wanting to possibly appoint a Republican to the Cabinet, and in the same sentence mention Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Either your memory is short, or you are just totally bereft of ideas. Johnson was up to his eyeballs in the Ukraine mess and was somewhat less than honorable. Maybe there is a Republican who could be in the Cabinet, but it should not be any Republican senator. They have shown themselves to be incapable of independent thought or action with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

V & Z respond: If the goal is to "steal" a Senate seat, there are only a small number of Republican senators in Democratic-controlled states.

J.P. in New York, New York, writes: You don't think Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will get a spot in Joe Biden's cabinet? With Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) being in office, she'll be replaced by a Democrat and it gives Cuomo the opportunity to pick someone from upstate. This would reduce the likelihood of losing a city like Buffalo, virtually ensuring his re-election.

Lots to Reade

D.R. in Omaha, NE, writes: I would like to believe Tara Reade, just as I would like to believe any woman (or man, actually) who reports sexual assault. I think of falsifying or even exaggerating such a claim as being so reprehensible that no woman (or man) could do such a thing. We instinctively assume such reports must be true, and if there is any doubt, we instinctively err on the side of belief.

Although I never identify with the term "sexual abuse survivor", there are times in my life when I was subjected to unwanted physical advances. I know firsthand what it's like to, literally, be backed up against a wall by someone who is all hands.

Whether Joe Biden is or is not factually guilty of Ms. Reade's most egregious recent claim will most likely remain unknown as of November, and will remain "he-said, she-said." Therefore we'll need to base our voting decisions on the information and the evidence we have at the time.

As you have written, there appears to be evidence that Ms. Reade's latest accusation is of recent origin. It also appears to me that said accusation has been evolving over time. There appears to be no evidence that Biden is, or has been, a serial molester or philanderer.

If Ms. Reade's assertions are indeed true in her specific case, does this dog (Biden) indeed get one bite? (I don't know, I'm asking.)

There are also some facts that indicate, to me, anyway, that even though Ms. Reade's story may not have political motives, those with political motives are indeed egging her on, such as two attorneys, with Trump and Russian connections, as reported by the AP on Friday.

I honestly do not know what to believe here. I want to believe any woman's report of sexual assault, and I want to believe someone for whom I hold in high regard when he says that nothing happened.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, writes: A political acquaintance of mine posted this article to a list that I'm on. Headlined "The Attacks on Tara Reade are Unbelievable Bull**it," it gives yet another analysis of the Tara Reade/Joe Biden story.

I don't know who to believe. And I'll be voting for Joe Biden in November because I don't want to see Donald Trump re-elected. But the article did remind me that, in 1988, Joe Biden plagiarized a speech by then British Labour Party leader Neal Kinnock, and told lies about his background. Not as many lies as the Current Occupant does on a weekly basis, of course, but lies nonetheless.

R.W.P. in Washington, DC, writes: I've been mulling over the Tara Reade situation, and one issue which keeps coming up in my mind is the effect that it will have on Biden's supposed base.

As you wrote, "Many voters are aware that Donald Trump's record on this front is far worse than Biden's, even if Reade is telling the truth." Fair. Except, among the two candidates' bases, response to allegations of sexual assault diverges wildly. For some reason, Trump supporters don't seem to mind the allegations against him, or perhaps they don't believe them to begin with. Would-be Biden supporters, on the other hand, are much more squeamish about this sort of thing (see the Al Franken situation).

This means that while Trump's base doesn't feel like its candidate owes them an explanation, Biden's base does, and will. Trump may indirectly weaponize this inequality, either through his surrogates or Trump-friendly media. Democrats will ask, "Well, what about Trump's allegations?" all they want, but nonetheless this will put Biden in a position where he will have to explain himself (which is already underway; see recent MSNBC interview) because unlike Trump's base, Biden's base cares about their candidate's history with women. The copious amount of footage that exists of Biden touching women's shoulders, sniffing their hair, and kissing their foreheads won't help. I see this as a major weakness for Biden (primarily in terms of base enthusiasm/turnout), and it's only a matter of time before the Trump camp uses this to its full effect.

M.B. in Olathe, KS, writes: Has anyone wondered if the new accusations against Joe Biden are a preemptive strike so that he can't hammer Donald Trump on these issues in the general campaign? "Accuse the other side of that of which you are guilty" has been the most-used trick in Trump's bag. Why not for this issue, too? The Republicans would obviously need a surrogate, and Trump's behavior has been a perfect reaction of calm, but tepid support for Biden. It's a perfect play.

Minnesota Blues

E.K. in Rochester, MN, writes: As a lifelong Minnesotan, I'll offer my two cents on why Minnesota is reliably more blue than its neighbors.

There may be some impact, as you described, from the higher proportion of Scandinavian immigrants, but I think the main reason in recent decades is simply that since 1950 the Twin Cities metro area has grown from 1.3 million to 3.4 million people. While in the same time the metro areas of the neighboring states (those that have metro areas) have grown far more slowly. Milwaukee metro in 1950 was 1 million and today is 1.6 million. Minnesota just has a higher proportion of people living in a large, rapidly growing metro environment.

Outside of the Twin Cities, Minnesota's rural areas are largely just as red-leaning as its neighboring rural areas, with the possible exceptions of the historically blue Iron Range (though trending more red recently) and of Rochester.

While Minnesota hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Nixon in 1972, the state actually tends to flip-flop regularly between one party or the other controlling the governorship and the state legislature. I believe at least part of the explanation for that is that the Twin Cities voters are less reliable about voting in midterm elections than their more conservative out-state neighbors.

J.S. in St. Paul, MN, writes: Nebraska had the Populists, North and South Dakota had the Non-Partisan League, and Wisconsin had the Progressives. Minnesota's radical left party was the Farmer Labor party, which grew out of the reaction against banking and seizure of the farm economy by the futures markets, and by a unionized urban population. The American Railway Union battled the Great Northern to a standstill (before getting crushed in the Pullman Strike in the next year) in the 1880s. The Grange and the Non Partisan League made inroads. In addition to urban unionism, the Iron Range north of Duluth was the site of many pitched labor battles—the Industrial Workers of the World was involved in the 19-teens—and while those strikes were not nearly as successful as the Great Northern strike, there was a Scandinavian hotbed. German Anarchists and Socialists met with Finnish Communists and kept alive a radical labor history and culture.

D.M. in Burnsville, MN, writes: I hope that mine is one of many responses from my fellow Minnesotans! And yes, I and my ancestors are Norwegian, Danish and German stock. I was raised as a Lutheran, as were half of my peers in high school and undergraduate school at a Land Grant college. You can reference just about anything that Garrison Keillor has written, and it probably applies to me as well.

Much of what I learned about our early political history was learned from my father, whose political leanings were never quite definite. He played it close to his vest, as Scandinavians are wont to do. My father graduated high school in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, and it scarred his entire generation. But it was clear that he was a great admirer of Floyd B. Olson. Olson was in office only a few years when he suffered from a fatal disease. I don't know what that disease was; it was never talked about in our household, but I suspect cirrhosis of the liver, because he was known as a 'heavy drinker'.

Olson was a radical, progressive populist who got things done. He was a founder of the Farmer-Labor party, merged later with the Democrats—which is why we see the party labeled as DFL.

The bulk of the power of the Democratic party in Minnesota was derived from the strength of the miners and unions on the Iron Range. Those were the votes that made the Democratic party, and kept it winning elections every two years for decades. Whenever you mention political power in Minnesota, you cannot ignore the Rangers. But all the iron mines are gone, and the political strength of St Louis, Lake and Cook counties has been dissipated year by year as new voters come on line and forget their grandparents' Democratic legacy. That's a primary reason why we see Minnesota moving from the Royal Blue of the Thirties and Forties to the Alice Blue of today. I fear that the movement is still occurring, but at a glacial pace.

Most Minnesotans I know still think that Gov. Tim Walz (D) is doing an excellent job during these troubled times. His background includes promotion to the highest US Army enlisted rank (E-8 or E-9), depending on your source and interpretation, followed by a long period of civilian service as a high school teacher. Both positions taught him how to deal with power politics, factionalism, and from them he learned how to practice the tact and skills he needs to deal with the demands of his office.

V & Z respond: For what it is worth, the linked Wikipedia article says Olson died of stomach cancer.

R.H.O. in Portland, ME, writes: As a person who grew up in Wisconsin, I think the comparison between Minnesota and Wisconsin is even more simple than you suggest. In fact, both states have sizable populations of Scandinavian descent and a history of progressive politics. (Never mind the fact that it was Wisconsin, not Minnesota, which was the birthplace of public sector unionism in the United States, Robert LaFollette, and the once liberal, progressive Republican Party.)

As I see it, the difference is 2010. That year marked the peak of white populist reactionary politics against perceived corporate bailouts and a recently elected black president. In Wisconsin, it delivered Scott Walker, who spent the ensuing years gutting public-sector unions, a traditional source of Democratic power in the state. Further, the state legislature and governor put on a clinic in gerrymandering to secure a share of power which far exceeded their popular support.

In Minnesota, Tom Emmer, a suburban, conservative, tea-partying Republican (one might say a close facsimile of Scott Walker) lost the gubernatorial election by a mere 9,000 votes. Conservative third-party candidate Tom Horner took 12% of the popular vote that year, delivering the election to Mark Dayton (D). In the same year, Republicans gained 16 seats in the Minnesota state senate and 25 seats in the Minnesota state assembly to take the majority in both houses. These new majorities, coupled with a Republican governor, would have almost certainly followed the same line of attack on unions as was followed throughout the upper-Midwest following the election of 2010.

I see a direct line between Scott Walker's eviscerating of unions in Wisconsin and Donald Trump's extremely narrow victory in the state in 2016. The difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin may be as slight as a 2010 third-party candidate for governor and a popular vote margin of 9,000 votes.

J.C. in Honolulu, HI, writes: I can tell you a little about Minnesota. I was born and raised in MN and have many family members still in the state from Moorhead to Harris to Sartell to Duluth.

The DFL stronghold, for generations, was the Twin Cities along with Duluth and the Iron Range. FDR brought the latter into the Democratic fold, and later politicians, notably Gov. Rudy Perpich (DFL), helped keep it there. Then something changed. In 1998, Jesse Ventura was elected. In 2000, George W. Bush made Minnesota competitive. He visited the Iron Range and closed the margins. In 2010, Rep. Jim Oberstar (DFL), whose district (MN-08) included Duluth, lost to an unknown, the first time the seat went Republican since the 1940s.

What you see now is rural against urban. The Iron Range went for Trump by a huge margin in 2016, the first time it went Republican since Herbert Hoover in 1928. The new Congressman from MN-08 is Pete Stauber (R), who won his seat in a Democratic year. Rural voters do not like the Democrats' stand on guns, nor their general resistance to more aggressive forms of mining.

J.D. in St. Paul, MN, writes: My wife (J.E.F. in St. Paul, MN) noted last week that Indiana is the middle finger of the South. As a Minnesotan, I wish I had such a clever encapsulation of the culture of the North Star State. I do not. Furthermore, Minnesota's record of support for political progressivism is more complicated than Indiana's conservatism. The standard myth has it that respect for government and for the common good comes from the state's Scandinavian heritage. You tentatively endorse the myth, which is fine. It contains a kernel of truth. But ethnicity is not destiny. Nor has Minnesota ever been more than half Nordic. Nor have the Nordics been uniformly progressive. Of the fifteen 20th century governors with Scandinavian surnames, eight were Republicans. The other seven were Democrats, Farmer-Laborites, and DFLers.

A better explanation for Minnesota's apparent progressivism is that the demography and socio-economic realities of the state have lined up, even through major political realignments, to favor, just barely, the liberal side. The liberal-conservative balance is not much greater in Minnesota than in Wisconsin or Michigan but in presidential politics since the 1950s, the Democrats in Minnesota have mostly lucked out.

Right after World War II, the Minnesota DFL had three dependable constituencies: the heavily unionized mining districts of the north (aka, the Iron Range); the working classes of Minneapolis and St. Paul; and, odd as it may now seem, farmers, who were still a considerable population and one that thanked God daily for FDR and rural electrification. The Republicans also had three strongholds: the white-collar business class in the Twin Cities and their developing suburbs; the merchant class in small cities and towns all over the state; and Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, where the American Medical Association shaped political culture indirectly.

Support for the two parties was about equal, partly because farmers were still numerous and the union vote on the Iron range was considerable and dependable. Support for the two parties is still pretty even, but the bases have shifted. Like everywhere else in the country, today in Minnesota if you live in a city or its nearer suburbs (Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Rochester), you're a Democrat. If you live in area that seems left behind, whether rural, small town, or exurban, you vote Republican. Republicans now can count on all of Minnesota's non-metropolitan counties except for a few sparsely populated ones in the northwoods where Native Americans and back-to-the-landers swing the balance the other way. Even the Iron Range is leaning Team Trump. Yet the Democrats maintain their slight advantage in presidential elections because their new base, like their old one, gives them a bare majority.

In short, when lots of farmers, miners, and workers meant progressivism, Minnesota leaned progressive because those people made up a slight majority. Now, when progressive victory depends on a dominant, vibrant metropolitan area, the Twin Cities are very much that. So the slight majority is still there, but it's a transformed subset of the population. I know the ethnic explanation is a lot more fun and emotionally satisfying than dull demography and class, but I think this explanation is better.

G.J. in Portland OR, writes: You have received and commented on several questions related to why a given state skews as it does compared to its neighbor. I would suggest you take a look at American Nations by Colin Woodard. His hypothesis is that there are 11 distinct ethnographic regions in North America, which follow the migratory patterns of the early settlers instead of state boundaries. It's an interesting idea and well written book.

C.R. in Kansas City, MO, writes: In his 2000 bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that social capital increases in colder climates, which helps to explain the prevalence of bluer areas in the more densely populated areas of northern latitudes. It makes sense—people who live where it gets down to 40 below become highly reliant on government, to clear roads and provide electricity, and their neighbors, lest a broken down car lead to freezing to death. People in warmer climates might feel more comfortable with their ability to go it alone. An interesting theory, for environmental historians.

V & Z respond: Thanks to everyone for your insight. We're glad to have it, dontcha know.

Too Judgmental?

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I write to respond to the item about the Justin Walker confirmation hearing, in which (V) wrote: The Founding Parents got a fair number of things wrong, and one of them is the idea that by giving judges lifetime appointments they could be neutral and fair. Oops. Not so much. All it does is allow them to legislate from the bench for 30, 40, or 50 years."

This is a common charge leveled at the judiciary, but one that is not supported by the overwhelming weight of the evidence. I agree that we have seen some egregious examples of partisan ideologically-driven rulings recently with the most blatant examples coming from the U.S. Supreme Court. But we've also gotten extreme partisan rulings from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and those judges are elected. Electing judges tends to only increase the likelihood of partisan rulings, since judges are human and if they know they have to face the voters, their rulings are more likely to serve political ends rather than legal ones. The value of a lifetime appointment is independence and the freedom to ignore political winds and look only at the facts and law in each case before the court. The problem is not the term of the appointment but how nominees are chosen and confirmed (and perhaps not enough means to remove judges for incompetence or corruption). We have seen Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) abuse the current system in unprecedented ways to pack the court with nakedly partisan ideologues who are rubber stamps for Trump's agenda. I would argue the solution is to have a commission similar to the redistricting commissions who are so successfully redrawing fairer district lines. This commission could vet potential nominees and exclude those who are unqualified ideologues; the president could only select a nominee from the pool approved by the commission.

I would also add that the majority of judges take their oath to uphold the rule of law seriously and are careful to put aside any conscious biases and rule on the cases before them based only on the facts and the law. Despite McConnell's efforts, that is even true of some of Trump's appointees, as some recent rulings show. The integrity of our legal system depends on the public's trust in the independence of its judiciary. Making such broad generalizations based only on anecdotal evidence undercuts that trust and plays into the hands of those whose agenda depends on cynicism of the notion of a fair and impartial judiciary. In the absence of evidence of a particular judge harboring a partisan, outcome-driven bent, the law assumes, and the public must also, that the judicial officer is capable of rendering a decision consistent with the law and one who is careful to interpret the law and not legislate it—much like the unanimous Supreme Court decision from Wednesday wherein all the justices agreed that the law did not criminalize what the defendants had done. That, they said, is up to Congress to fix, not the court.

R.F. in Waukegan, IL, writes: Illinois does not have lifetime appointments for judges. They're on the ballot for retention every so often and must receive 60% in favor of retention or they are removed from the bench. We still get all kinds of bad rulings, because on top of judges doing whatever they want anyway, many of them see appeasing the public as part of the job.

The Founders wrote lifetime appointments into the U.S. Constitution for a reason. They felt that judges that had to answer to the public would constantly be basing their decision on the next election rather than what was the correct ruling.

Would we have ever had marriage equality or upholding Obamacare (both of which were met by tepid approval by the overall public) in a retention system? There's a reason why marriage equality never would have happened in 2014 by law, and that's because the far-right has always been strong enough to prevent it.

J.W. in Indianapolis, IN, writes: You have a lot more confidence than I do in Mitch McConnell behaving as he should when it comes to handling Democratic Supreme Court nominees. I don't think that the Senate will ever again consider the opposing party's nominees for the federal courts in the second half of a presidential term (I know that I would be furious about it if a Democratic Senate did so, especially if it were for the Supreme Court). If it were prior to the midterms then maybe, but I think the Republicans know that their voters are, or at least historically have been, more motivated by the state of the courts than Democratic voters. I'm not at all confident that McConnell wouldn't try to argue that by electing a divided government the people sent an ambiguous message that must wait until the next election to be resolved, and I'm not at all confident that the Republicans would be thoroughly punished for doing so, particularly given their overwhelming structural advantage in the upper chamber.

Ghosts of Politicians Past

B.G. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I just couldn't help myself from responding to your answer about FDR and the Jews.

My family is Jewish and I have many fond memories of them discussing FDR and his presidency. At least in my family, the fact that FDR was fighting Hitler, and supporting anyone else who was also fighting against him, made him a saint or at least an angel. For much of the late 1930s, FDR had his eye on Germany and was no Trump in doing what he could to prevent catastrophes. I will also point out that many Republicans at the time were as isolationist and ostrich-like as they are today, and had they been in power, World War II would probably have gone differently.

Also, by the time of World War II, Father Coughlin and FDR were at odds with each other. Coughlin called him a "betrayer and liar" in the 1936 election. So too, the enemy (FDR) of their enemy (Coughlin) was their ally.

Then the icing on the cake was when Harry S. Truman gave his support to founding Israel. There was probably a bit of back-end love for FDR since FDR gave us Truman, and Truman gave us Israel.

R.M. in Lincoln City, OR, writes: I think the explanation for why American Jews largely supported and adored FDR can be found in your answer to the question about Minnesota. The large Jewish population, especially in New York City, came from that same socialist background in Central Europe. My grandfather was involved in the early days of the ILGWU (the ladies' garment workers' union). The reforms FDR managed to push through (Social Security, unemployment benefits, government-funded work projects, workers' rights) all aligned with that socialist approach. It was FDR's support for working people and a leveling of the playing field so that all the power was no longer in the hands of the wealthy few that garnered Jewish support.

D.L.M. in Spokane, WA, writes: Regarding Sam Rayburn, whom you included as one of the three top Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives, your résumé of Rayburn as both a leader of the House, and as a person, was both excellent and complimentary. A telling point of Rayburn's humanity was that he never became wealthy, despite his long tenure in Congress. He died with his estate consisting only of his small farm in North Texas, and a bank account with a few hundred dollars in it. This was in great contrast to his New Deal protégé Lyndon Johnson, who parleyed his public service into vast wealth, mostly held in such a way as to appear to belong to Lady Bird.

D.D. in Portland, OR, writes: Thank you for not risking breaking yourselves; your site is far too valuable. Since you had to include being a teetotaler to make a top 5, I figured you needed some help. Without further ado, here's enough to get a full list of 10 positive comparisons between Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump:

  1. Athletes as young men
  2. Tall—easier to see
  3. Able to speak extemporaneously in front of large audiences for hours on end
  4. Known for distinctive head covering—helps branding
  5. Effective use of repetition as a rhetorical device, e.g. "We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground" "Witch-hunt! Witch-hunt!! Witch-hunt!!

You're welcome!

The Phantom Menace

T.D. in Chicago, IL, writes: Your item on the Death Star reminded me of one of my favorite articles on the Empire and Republicans, headlined "Why Conservatives Love the Galactic Empire."

P.S. in Portland, ME, writes: I was so excited to read that Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale used the Death Star analogy for their impending campaign commercial blitz. This first hit me when I was watching Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) in the White House, sitting next to a gloating Trump right after Van Drew left the Democratic party over the impeachment vote. I said to myself, "This guy got seduced by the Dark Side of the Force." If the Democrats don't seize on the Star Wars analogy and use it wherever they can, they are nuts. Make the Democrat party full of Jedi Knights—perhaps like many of us—trying to save the Great Republic (yep, the blue team), while the Republican Party obviously becomes The Evil Galactic Empire (yep, the red team). The original Star Wars movie came out in 1977 and has impacted every generation since. Silly as it seems, and especially with the younger folks, it will have a greater impact to associate Trump with Emperor Palpatine rather than Adolf Hitler. Voting this year is indeed your contribution to destroying Evil and saving The Galaxy.

V & Z respond: Kylo Pence? Supreme Leader Mitch? Grand Moff Mnuchin? Darth Kushner?

Two Thumbs Up?

D.S. in Albuquerque, NM, writes: I learned a lot from this Saturday's Q&A, but did you show too many of your cards right at the end there? I had almost forgotten that Roger Ebert, famed film critic and thumb-possessor, was also a sleazy hack who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And what better time than our current mandatory lockdown to dig up and enjoy a copy of his immortal Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens? I never thought you'd stoop to his level, but I will be on the lookout for "questions" from people like, for example, J.F.K. from Brookline, MA.

D.C. in Portland, OR, writes: Presumably this week, you will receive some number of readers' letters, signed by the likes of "G.C., Buffalo, NY."

M.H. in Coralville, IA, writes: When I was in grad school, a professor I worked with realized he hadn't said much about a specific point that would come up on the next test. He wanted to make sure students who were paying attention in class would be prepared to answer that question, without "signposting" it so much that less-attentive students would also be clued-in. He always reserved the last few minutes of class time for Q&A. So, just before class, he privately said to one of the better students, "at Q&A time, please ask me the following question..."

K.W. in Richmond, VA, writes: Please don't use fake initials. Questions to yourselves are fine, and you can even include a jokey attribution in them in addition to this, but in the interest of transparency you should expressly label the questions as "V&Z ask themselves."

V & Z respond: When writing that, (Z) was also working on his Disneyland lecture, and was reminded that it was Walt Disney who pioneered the idea of incorporating "inside references" into his work as a tip of the cap to the most loyal customers. Hence the long list of easter eggs in Disney movies, and the Hidden Mickeys at Disney theme parks. We're inclined to think that sort of nod to our most loyal readers is a net positive, as compared to whatever amount of harm is done by a very slight tongue-in-cheek misrepresentation. In fact, now that we've announced the (never actually used) policy, we'll probably have to slip one in sometime in the next several weeks, to see how many people catch it.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May09 Saturday Q&A
May08 In Like Flynn
May08 Trump Is Just Making It Up As He Goes
May08 Lincoln Project Getting Plenty of Oxygen
May08 Trump Campaign Prepares to Launch "Death Star"
May08 Trump Campaign Also Investing in Suits over Voting Laws
May08 A Somewhat Good Poll for Trump
May08 Burr's Brother-in-Law Also Dumped Stock
May08 Today's Presidential Polls
May07 Amash May Hurt Biden More than Trump
May07 Trump Is Planning to Call the Number of COVID-19 Deaths Fake News
May07 Trump Doesn't See Eye to Eye with His Campaign
May07 Trump Doesn't See Eye to Eye with His Attorney General
May07 Trump Doesn't See Eye to Eye with Senate Republicans
May07 Private Payrolls Dropped 20 Million People in April
May07 Temporary Layoffs Are Becoming Permanent
May07 Walker Sails Through Confirmation Hearing
May07 Supreme Court Will Hear Arguments about Trump's Tax Returns Next Week
May07 The Streisand Effect, Part II
May07 Today's Presidential Polls
May06 White House Coronavirus Task Force to Shut Down
May06 Republicans Go to Court to Fight COVID-19 Restrictions
May06 Lucy Flores Says She Believes Tara Reade
May06 More Health Issues for Ginsburg
May06 New York Primary Is On, After All
May06 Bernie Just Mild About Liz
May06 For Republicans, Things Are Getting Rocky in the Rockies...
May06 ...and Things Are Getting Ugly in Maine
May06 Today's Presidential Polls
May05 Death Toll Will Shoot up as States Reopen
May05 Honest Abe vs. Not-so-honest Don
May05 New Poll Shows Overwhelming Support for Vote-by-Mail
May05 Democrats Working on Torrent of Voting-rights Lawsuits
May05 Biden Calls for Any Reade Paperwork to Be Released
May05 Does Biden Have a "Latino Problem"?
May05 Bolton Book Pushed Back Again
May05 Today's Presidential Polls
May04 Biden Crushes Sanders in Kansas Primary
May04 David Axelrod: We Vetted Biden in 2008 and Didn't Find Anything
May04 Why Did Trump Scream at Parscale?
May04 Bush Slams Trump?
May04 Why McConnell Wants the Senate to Meet Despite the Danger
May04 Scott Gottlieb: We Will Have 1,000 Deaths a Day All Summer
May04 Five Ways the Coronavirus Could Change Politics
May04 Will We Ever Go Back to Normal?
May04 Model Shows Democrats with a Slight Edge in Taking over the Senate
May04 Democrats Have Given Up on Doug Jones
May04 What Happens If a Senator Is Appointed to the Cabinet?
May03 Sunday Mailbag
May03 Today's Presidential Polls