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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Fires State Department Inspector General
      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls
      •  Today's Senate Polls

Trump Fires State Department Inspector General

Recently, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick launched an investigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo is among the most loyal of Donald Trump loyalists in the administration, and oversight of him is not to be tolerated. And so, Linick was fired by the President on Friday night.

It's not entirely clear what the nature of the Pompeo investigation was; it may have been due to the Secretary's improper use of department staff for personal errands. It's also not clear what the official reason for Linick's termination is, though the fact that he became yet another person to be canned right before the weekend is surely suggestive as to how legitimate the firing is. By all indications, he was a dedicated and non-partisan public servant; one who earned raves from Republicans back when he was investigating Hillary Clinton's e-mail server.

Linick's termination makes him the second inspector general to be fired by Trump in as many months, following former Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. The remaining inspectors general have surely received the message that anytime their gaze turns in the direction of the White House, their jobs are at risk. And as long as the Senate remains uninterested in such things, then Trump will continue to operate in a world with as little oversight and accountability as is possible. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

Today is heavy on the curveball VP questions.

Q: In response to a question from W.L. from Mol, Belgium, you explained how s/he can help a political campaign in the U.S., even as a foreigner. The first option you mention (give through an American) is illegal, while the second option (give to a social welfare organization that is little more than a front for a campaign or a party) is probably in the grey zone, if not for the donor, then for the social welfare organization.

I am also a foreigner, and I am more interested in what is considered moral or ethical than just what I can get away with. So, suppose I truly believe that Joe Biden would be a much better U.S. president than Donald Trump. I surely don't have to hide this when I talk to my American friends, right? Can I try to convince them to vote for Biden? What if I start a blog like yours and try to convince my hypothetical readerships in the tens of thousands to vote for him? What if I start a U.S. TV channel to advocate for him? What if it's not me, but the island nation of Tuvalu and they believe that the chances of their island's survival is better with a US president not hostile to environmentalism? Can they encourage the American public to elect an environmentally conscious president?
G.T., Budapest, Hungary

A: Some readers misunderstood our answer as encouraging people to engage in illegal activity when, in fact, we were just trying to give an overview of the ways that people work around the law. We went back and reworded the answer to be clearer.

Anyhow, there is no clear-cut legal and moral way for a foreign national to give their money to a presidential candidate. Not only are direct donations forbidden, indirect involvement in such transactions is also forbidden. For example, let us imagine that you were one of the board members of the multinational Fremulon, Inc., which has a subsidiary in Patridge, KS. Further imagine that the board of Fremulon was voting to give money to a pro-Biden PAC. Only U.S. citizens and green card holders on the board could legally participate in that vote.

On the other hand, if you want to knock on doors and campaign for Joe Biden, or urge your U.S.-citizen friends to vote Joe, or you want to create a pro-Biden blog, website, TV channel, cheer squad, or skywriting team, then have at it. In Bluman v. FEC, the courts found that U.S. law "does not restrain foreign nationals from speaking out about issues or spending money to advocate their views about issues. It restrains them only from a certain form of expressive activity closely tied to the voting process—providing money for a candidate or political party or spending money in order to expressly advocate for or against the election of a candidate."

Interestingly, you are also free to volunteer your time and talents to the Biden campaign directly, as long as there is no compensation involved, and as long as you're not involved in making decisions for the campaign. The FEC ruled thusly in Advisory Opinion 2014-20, since affirmed by several other decisions. This means you can help develop commercials and branding for the campaign (the subject of the original decision), you can appear and speak at events held by the campaign, and you can even work the phones raising money for the campaign.

Foreign nations are not subject to U.S. election law, in most cases, and instead are constrained by treaty obligations as well as the niceties of diplomacy. It would be very unusual for a foreign nation to engage in electioneering, as that is considered a huge breach of protocol. However, if Tuvalu decides that is what they need to do to keep their heads above water, so to speak, they can do it.

Q: My son-in-law is a progressive from the New New Left and I guess I am from the Old New Left. We have some great debates, almost always carried out in the realm of "violent agreement." Anyway, he wants to know in which elections a third party candidate definitively made a difference in the outcome. You have covered this before in many ways, but a synopsis would be helpful. P.S., Portland, ME

A: Any answer to this question necessarily requires some amount of guesswork, since there is no way to be 100% certain what would have happened if the third-party options were not available. Maybe those voters would have voted for the major party more aligned with their agenda (e.g., Green Party voters casting Democratic ballots). Maybe they would have chosen to write-in a name, and would have voted for Mickey Mouse, Pat Paulsen, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Maybe they would have left their ballot blank, or would have stayed home on Election Day. Who knows?

In any event, we will give you three different scenarios in which a third-party situation can influence an election, along with examples:

  • Close elections: This is the scenario that most people think of when they consider this particular question; a third-party candidate siphons votes from a major-party candidate, thus handing the election to the other major-party candidate. The clearest case of this is the election of 2000, where Ralph Nader's 92,000 votes in Florida almost certainly cost Al Gore the state (which George W. Bush won by 537 votes), and thus the election. If just 1% of Nader's supporters had voted for Gore, he would have become president. It's likely that 2016 is on the list, too, although it's not crystal-clear that Green Jill Stein siphoned more votes from Hillary Clinton than Libertarian Gary Johnson siphoned from Donald Trump. Interestingly, the election of 1960—widely considered the closest ever—is not an example. The third-party vote in that election unquestionably hurt the winner (John F. Kennedy) far more than the loser (Richard Nixon), as it cost JFK 14 Southern EVs that otherwise would have been his.

  • Splitting a party, to that party's detriment: If a party splits into two, and thus runs two candidates, it's pretty close to a guaranteed loss, so it doesn't happen very often. But it did happen in 1912, when Progressive Republican ex-president Theodore Roosevelt—unhappy with the performance of his protégé and more conservative successor William Howard Taft—decided to mount a campaign. Taft, as the sitting president, was in control of enough party machinery to deny TR the nomination, so the Rough Rider founded the "Bull Moose" Party and ran as its candidate. The Democrats were the minority party back then, but not so much a minority that they could not take advantage of the situation, and so Woodrow Wilson became only the second Democrat to win the White House since the Civil War, with Roosevelt finishing second, and Taft third.

    The election of 1860 was long-considered to be another example of this, since the Democrats split into two factions that year, but more recent analyses make clear that Abraham Lincoln's advantage in the Northern states was so great that he would have won the election even if the Democrats had remained unified. All Abe really needed to do in that election, relative to the previous election, was flip Pennsylvania. That situation may sound familiar.

  • Splitting a party, to that party's benefit: This is a particularly unusual circumstance, but it's happened, at least once. In 1948, Southerners who felt Harry S. Truman wasn't quite, well, racist enough for their tastes rallied to the banner of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. The general assumption, while the election was underway, was that the loss of Southern votes would be fatal for Truman. In the end, though, Thomas Dewey did not defeat Truman, no matter what you might have read in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Anyhow, as it turns out, the defection of the Dixiecrats helped affirm Harry S.'s bona fides as a moderate and non-bigot, and so paved the way for many moderates, independents, and black voters (at least in the North and West) to vote for him, when those folks might otherwise have pulled the lever for Dewey or else stayed home.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover the clearest examples. There are other third-party candidates that attracted sizable percentages of the vote, including Eugene V. Debs in 1908 and 1912, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992, but the general consensus is that they did not swing the result.

And, as a sidebar, (Z) once had a U.S. history teacher whose study guides were typed in ALL CAPS. And as a result, he once spent two hours in a library (pre-Internet era), going through reference works on the Supreme Court, trying to figure out what the case Eugene v. Debs was about. Undoubtedly, the information could have been found in the 900-page textbook, but that would have required knowing to check the index for Debs, Eugene V.

Q: Given Donald Trump's continued refusal to wear face masks, who do you think President Pence might pick as his vice president? A.M., Bradford, UK

A: It is abundantly clear that the "principles" Pence wears very visibly on his sleeve are just political theater, and that he's willing to put aside things like the Ten Commandments if it serves his political ends. So, we have to assume that his choice would be driven solely by political concerns, and his desire to get elected. And, at risk of being obvious, the candidate that would "balance" the ticket the best is Nikki Haley. A Southern woman of color with experience in governance, some foreign policy credentials, and some support among the base. As a runner-up, and this would particularly make sense as an "homage" to the dear, departed Donald: Ivanka Trump. This would have the added benefit of making sure the House never impeached Pence.

Q: Just for fun, who would be your top five male Democratic VP candidates, and why? B.H., Pittsburgh, PA

A: Since Biden has never said a word on this specific subject, these are pure guesses:

  • Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC): He's a little long in the tooth (79), but he's well respected by black voters, he's a good campaigner, and his endorsement did come at a crucial time.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL): Also long in the tooth (75), but Biden has known and worked with him for years, and he's a Midwesterner whose Senate seat would not be put in jeopardy if he resigned it.

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): He's young, he's dynamic, he's black, and he's been favorably compared to Barack Obama. Another case where the Senate seat would not be put in jeopardy.

  • Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL): He's going to need a job, anyhow. Because of his centrism, he might appeal to moderates and independents. Because of his role in prosecuting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case, he might appeal to black voters.

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY): He's surging in popularity right now, thanks to his handling of COVID-19, and would undoubtedly be ready to sit in the big chair should it come to that.

Needless to say, Biden would jump at making Barack Obama his running mate, but there is little chance Obama is interested, and even if he was, it's not clear it would be legal.

Q: You noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) probably doesn't want Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to become Biden's VP nominee. So if Biden asks Sanders who he should nominate, who do you think would be the Senator's top choice? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: To be honest, we think the only plausible answer is...Bernie Sanders. To borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the "taste" of the presidency is still in Sanders' mouth, and this is his only remaining path to that goal. Further, we don't think he's quite ready to hand over the baton and recede into the shadows, and this would be the best way to remain in the spotlight a little longer.

If Sanders himself is off the table, then he would probably prefer one of the members of "The Squad," the four outspoken progressive women in the House. Since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is too young to be eligible, and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is not natural-born, that leaves us with either Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13). It would likely be a coin flip between them; Pressley is probably more electable, but Tlaib is probably more left-wing.

Q: The third graders in my son Jayden's class have just begun studying how the U.S. government works, and yesterday it was time to learn about the executive branch. When my son got to the question about what the vice-president does and came over to ask me, I gave an answer you'd be proud of: "wake up, call the White House, and ask if the president is still alive." I also briefly touched on the "full Sherman," threw in Kennedy/Johnson, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden; and finished by explaining what will happen if the Senate is tied at 50-50 next year. That led to a question from my 9-year-old that I am proud to relay to you now: "If the Senate is tied 50-50, what happens if the vice-president votes 'whatever'"? I assume this means, what happens if the vice-president abstains or votes "present"? I realize this is the most unlikely of scenarios, but third graders are all about the ridiculous outcomes. Without a majority voting for or against, does a Senate deadlock mean the bill fails or passes? J.L., Los Angeles, CA

A: The vice president rarely gets to exercise this power; only 268 times in all of U.S. history, or a little more than once a year (see here for a complete list, and note that many Veeps, including Joe Biden, never got to do it). Given the desire to be relevant, at least for a few minutes, as well as the desire of the White House to influence legislation, a "whatever" vote is very, very unlikely. That said, the Senate is a majority-decision body. If there is a tie, and the VP doesn't break it, then the bill, or appointment, or whatever it is fails.

We don't believe this has ever happened. The closest we can find is an incident in 1925, when Calvin Coolidge nominated Charles B. Warren for AG. It was clear the vote would be close, and it was going to be held after debate, including a speech by the notoriously long-winded Sen. Albert B. Cummins (R-IA). VP Charles Dawes was bored of the debate and tired, and decided to head to the hotel where he was living for a nap, thinking he had plenty of time before the vote. To everyone's surprise, Cummins spoke for only a few minutes, and the vote commenced with Dawes snoozing away in his hotel room. Naturally, it was a tie (40-40). The pro-Warren faction hustled to get Dawes out of bed and back to the Capitol in time in order to save the nomination. While he did make it before time elapsed, a Southern senator changed his mind while waiting and switched to a "nay," sinking the nomination. Coolidge never forgave Dawes for this, since if he had been present, there wouldn't have been time for second thoughts. In any event, this story makes clear that a tie, coupled with a non-vote by the VP (whether due to principle, or politics, or...a nap) means an official thumbs down from the Senate.

Q: All the chatter about Joe Biden's veepstakes, and the somewhat unconventional way Stacey Abrams is campaigning for the role, combined with the exact wording of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's (D-MI) statement "You don't run for that," got me thinking: Is it possible to run for vice president? I mean, could a person secure ballot access (and, I assume, a slate of electors) solely for Vice President? C.H., Boise, ID

A: No. There are two problems here. The first, which you note, is ballot access. If an office is not on the ballot, it's not on the ballot. You can't get yourself on the ballot as "C.H, candidate for vice president" any more than you can get yourself on the ballot as "C.H, candidate for King of England" or "C.H, candidate for Supreme Leader of the Jedi council."

Now, you might fashion a clumsy workaround. You could run for some office that is on the ballot, as a member of a self-created third-party called something like "Candidate for the Democratic VP Nomination Party." So, people would cast ballots for, say, dogcatcher, and they could choose the Republican candidate, or the Democratic candidate, or the Candidate for the Democratic VP Nomination Party candidate. In that way, voters could ostensibly show their support for an aspiring VP.

However, even if an aspiring VP gets a bunch of votes in this way (and note, they would only be able to get on the ballot in some states, not all), then that person runs into a second problem. The selection of delegates, and their behavior at the convention, are dictated by a combination of state law and party rules. Exactly how those delegates' votes are handled is dictated by party rules. And so, the party would be under no obligation to do anything, regardless of how many votes were accrued.

Q: Is there any case where a vaccine did more harm than good, thus leaving the people with evidence that being injected is a dangerous matter, even more dangerous than the pandemic itself? L.M.S., Harbin, China

A: Yes, there are examples. In the late 1990s, RotaShield was approved as a means of combating chronic infant diarrhea. Then, evidence emerged that it was causing intussusception (bowel blockage), and so it was withdrawn. To give another, LYMErix was approved for use in combating Lyme Disease (a purpose for which it was proven quite effective). However, some recipients of the vaccine believed that it caused them to develop auto-immune disorders. Although the evidence was shaky and not subject to rigorous confirmation or analysis, patients began refusing the vaccine, and it was withdrawn due to, for lack of a better term, market pressure.

With that said, the review process for vaccines is usually pretty good, particularly when undertaken in many different nations according to different sets of rules. Put another way "a small handful of vaccines have proven problematic in the past" is not as strong an argument as "two dozen countries have tested this vaccine and approved it for use."

It is worth noting that the same folks who reject vaccines are, in general, more than happy to take prescription drugs. And guess what: some percentage of approved prescription drugs also had to be withdrawn when problems appeared. In fact, if you have to choose between a newly introduced vaccine, and a newly introduced prescription drug, the latter is more likely to be dangerous than the former (although both are almost certainly safe if they've gone through a proper approval process).

It is also worth noting that the arguments being used by anti-vaxxers against an as-yet-hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine are the same arguments used against vaccines whose efficacy and safety are well established. These arguments generally rely on a set of carefully-curated "facts," like the infamous Lancet article that "proved" a link between vaccines and autism (the results of the study were not repeatable, the article was ultimately withdrawn and repudiated by The Lancet, and the doctor behind it, whose name we prefer not to repeat so as to avoid giving him any added publicity, eventually had his license to practice medicine revoked due to professional misconduct). Point is: Even when anti-vaxx arguments seem reasonable and supported with evidence, proceed with great caution.

Q: J.W. from Oxnard, CA, wrote that many Americans reject science on a regular basis. I agree with that sentiment. I have become increasingly pessimistic over the past 2 months that Americans will be able to get past this pandemic without severe consequences and social unrest. Rejection of scientific facts will be a major factor.

I have seen recent polling that indicates almost 50% of Americans are creationists. Rejection of evolution means that half the country denies a principle that is the foundation of all modern biological sciences, including medicine, microbiology, and zoology. Tens of millions of Americans oppose vaccination and they are becoming more aggressive and vocal in their activism, despite rigorous scientific testing required before vaccines can be distributed. Global warming denial is promoted by dozens of prominent opinion leaders and roughly 30-40% of the country does not believe it is happening. This is despite the fact that scientists reached a consensus while I was in elementary school 30 years ago that greenhouse gases are the major factor in rising global temperatures. Social scientists concluded as long ago as the 1970s that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sexual disorder. However, a quick Google search will show you that a significant percentage of Americans still insist that it is, despite these views being based in outdated research.

My question to you as educators: what is your solution to this problem? If you had asked me as an idealistic college student 15 years ago, I would have said that improved science education is the key to overcoming science denial. Now, with more life experience, I no longer feel that way. Science education, at least in the United States, doesn't seem to be very successful at eliminating the problem.
R.M.S., Lebanon, CT

A: Let us start by pointing out that neither of us is in the persuasion business. We present information to students, perhaps with some ideas about how to interpret that information. If students push back against our interpretation, that is good, because the goal is to teach them to think for themselves. If they reject the information itself, or if they insist on an interpretation unsupported by or at odds with the evidence, there is not much we can do.

Moving on to your question, we would direct your attention to the South, circa 1950. As you may have heard, the white folks of that place and that era were, on the whole, a wee bit racist. And that racism wasn't just a surface-level thing, it was borne of a deep-rooted desire to maintain status, and economic primacy, and political power, and so forth. No amount of persuasion was going to cause pre-Civil Rights white Southerners to change their ways; the only real option was to impose the will of the majority upon them.

We would suggest that these various anti-science positions operate in the same way. People who are deeply invested in climate-change denial may have an economic incentive or may be using that as a coping strategy. People who are deeply invested in opposition to vaccines fear a loss of control, or are phobic about injections, or want someone or something to blame for junior's autism. People who insist on creationism want to believe there is something beyond this life, and have become invested in a cosmology that tells them there is. Once they question one element of that cosmology, the whole thing is potentially thrown into doubt.

Some of these beliefs (creationism) presumably don't do much harm to non-believers. But for those beliefs that are broadly harmful, well, the U.S. has a long history of prioritizing the needs of the many over the needs of the few. And so, the solution—as with civil rights—is that the government says "Ok, you have your beliefs, but those beliefs impose an unreasonable burden on the majority of the country, and so we are not going to be able to accommodate you." That means, for example, aggressive action to contain global warming, as well as mandatory vaccination laws with extremely limited exceptions (laws that a few states already have on the books). We wish we had a more elegant answer for you, but we don't think there is one.

Q: What would it take for a poll of say, Wisconsin, to be within a 1-point margin of error? Would half of the state's voters have to be polled? 3/4? All of them? Or is this sort of accuracy even mathematically possible, given that people can change their minds at the last minute? J.F., Fort Worth, TX

A: There are two different factors when it comes to the reliability of polls. The first is sampling error. This is the error introduced by asking only a small number of people. The more people you ask, the smaller the sampling error. If the pollster asked everyone, it would be zero. If a poll of Donald Trump's approval rating reports a result of 48% with a margin of error of ±3%, then it means that if the poll were repeated many times, in about 95% of the cases the result would fall between 45% and 51% (because two standard deviations from the mean is the conventional norm in statistics).

The second factor is the confidence level, which essentially tells us how likely it is that the poll correctly represents the population it is polling. This is probably the more important factor, but you rarely hear about it because the media don't want to make things too complicated. If the sample is systematically biased for any reason, it will bias the results, even with a large sample. If, for example, a pollster always calls around dinner time because most people are home then, it is very likely that lonely widows will be oversampled and mothers with young childen will be undersampled. Having a bigger sample just means the pollster will talk to more lonely widows but is not going to find out what mothers with young children think because they are too busy to complete the survey. Pollsters correct for this effect using a model of the electorate, but if that model is wrong, the poll is wrong. The problem of having an unrepresentative sample or a bad model is quite different from not sampling enough people. The classic example of the former effect was the 1936 Literary Digest poll we have referred to many times before, including this week. They asked millions of people to "vote" in their poll by getting addresses from phone books. But in 1936, anyone who could afford a telephone was probably rich and a Republican. It was a huge sample but very unrepresentative of the electorate.

Wisconsin has a population of 5.82 million people. To achieve a result similar to the ones most pollsters aim for (3% margin of error at the 95% confidence level), a statewide poll would need a sample size of about 1,000 people. To achieve the most precise result possible (1% margin of error, 99% confidence), a statewide poll would need a sample size of at least 10,000 people. That means the latter poll would be roughly 10 times more expensive. Rarely is that level of precision worth the investment, because of other factors that introduce uncertainty into the process, among them that the pollster's model of the electorate could be wrong, that there may be some sort of bias in the electorate, and that today's opinion may not be tomorrow's opinion.

Put another way, polls are just reasonably good snapshots at some moment in time and there is indeed an upper limit to how much certainty can be obtained, even if time and money are not issues.

Q: Recently, you had an item about why the betting markets like Donald Trump, despite the contrary polling evidence. You did not mention the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), which is more in line with the polls. Why do you think that this is an exception? M.M., Belfast, Northern Ireland

A: Most political betting markets appeal to regular gamblers, who may or may not be experts in politics. Further, they cater primarily to non-Americans, since it is generally illegal for them to take U.S.-based bets over the Internet (and they are very good at figuring out if an American is trying to misrepresent themselves as the resident of another country, using a VPN or other such tricks). Consequently, there is much potential for bettors to gravitate toward the most famous candidate, or to make choices not well supported by evidence.

The IEM appeal primarily to highly educated Americans, most of them politics-watchers. So, there is a much reduced likelihood that a bettor will make a statistically unwise bet. Also, bettors are limited to a max bet of $500, so it is much harder for one or two individuals to distort the results. And finally, the IEM did not start taking bets until Thursday, February 7, 2019, which means there was not quite as much time for known candidate Donald Trump to pile up bets versus the not-known Democratic candidate.

Q: Given Florida's checkered history at running an election, does anyone have the authority to reject Florida's presidential results if there is another voting scandal, and refuse to include their electoral votes in the total? If those electoral votes don't count, does the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency change? R.T., Arlington, TX

A: We would refer you to the Election of 1864. In that year, the reconstructed states of Louisiana and Tennessee cast ballots and both went for Abraham Lincoln. Congress decided that the elections were not legitimate, and tossed out the results. This reduced the number of available electoral votes to 233 (from 250), and reduced Lincoln's tally to 212 (from 229). In short, Congress has the authority to invalidate elections. And the total number of EVs needed is based on EVs cast, not on how many should have been cast, or could have been cast.

The Election of 1876 had somewhat similar circumstances, although in that case the Republican-controlled Congress could not afford to just toss the votes out, because that would have meant a loss for their candidate. So, they took a different approach. Watch for an item about that later this week.

Q: I have a question about your questions. I have been consistently impressed with both the national (AK to WY) and international reach of your site, as shown by the locations of the question submitters. Do the submissions show any particular geographic tendencies? (Adjusting for population, of course.) Are there any particular geographic tendencies in which questions get answered? Finally, are there any of these tendencies for comments submitted and/or published in the mailbag? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to tell you much that you don't already know. In terms of geographic tendencies among readers and question-submitters, we certainly get more questions and comments from some of the large states (CA and NY) than from others (FL and TX); this is presumably due to the partisan leanings of those states and of our readership (i.e., we have more readers in big, blue states than in big, purple states or big, red states). It is also clear that readership of the site has propagated a bit through the Votemaster's professional and personal network, as we get a surely disproportionate number of e-mails from the Netherlands and from other lowlands countries.

As to tendencies in the questions or the comments we run, we don't even look at the person/location until after we choose the questions/comments. So if you are wondering if there is a conscious choice to favor questions from, say, Canada or Ireland or Kentucky, there isn't. Undoubtedly, the factor that is far and away most important in skewing the numbers, as it were, is that there are a couple dozen folks who know how to ask really good questions or write really good comments, or both. So, if North Carolina seems to pop up more than expected, for example, it's because A.B. in Wendell and M.B. in Pittsboro write really good comments. If Brooklyn shows up a lot, it's because both D.A. and R.M. live there, with the former speaking very effectively for Bernie Sanders supporters (without being nasty), and the latter often sharing legal expertise. F.S., who submitted the question about Sanders' VP choice above, has so many good questions in the queue that you should expect Cologne to show up a few times in the next several weeks. And so forth.

Q: The friend who first put me onto your site has pointed out that when you make typos or misspellings, they are often homophone errors, substituting a word that sounds the same as the one you intend, but is spelled differently, like "hear" for "here" or "hole" for "whole". (Some of us have a lot of time to kill these days.) He speculates that this may be because you are speaking into some sort of dictation software. On the other hand, in the days when I used to read exam papers, I noticed that the students made a lot of "sound alike" errors when writing under time pressure that they didn't make in essays that they had more time to compose. It was almost as if they were dictating to themselves and transcribing the results phonetically. So do you use dictation software, or any sort of word processing software at all? From what I have read of (V), it seems likely that he would just type into emacs. S.I., Philadelphia, PA

A: You're right, homophone errors sneak through a lot more than we would like. It's regrettable, because that makes it look like we don't know the difference between "there" and "their" or "you're" and "your." And, of course, all the spell checks in the world don't catch these.

Neither of us uses dictation software, which would not work all that well for this purpose because spoken and written language are different. However, your other thesis is right on the mark—we're working quickly, and have the words in our heads, and sometimes transcribe them wrong. The same is true during the editing process; we're reading quickly and hearing the words, and sometimes overlook that we've used a homophone.

There are a few other, related dynamics that also help explain various common sorts of errors. Sometimes a mistake is caused when a sentence segment is "tainted" by the next sentence segment. For example, in last week's Q&A, there was a sequence that originally read: "A.L. from Springfield, OH, or U.S.G. from Galena, IL, or G.C. from Buffalo, NY." Because Grant was "from" both Ohio and Illinois, a decision had to be made about which one to use. And because (Z) was figuring that out while writing "A.L. from Springfield, IL," he inadvertently put "A.L. from Springfield, OH," even though he knows full well where Abraham Lincoln lived (having visited in person multiple times).

Another common issue is things that are counterintuitive, like writing (D-AL) or (R-CA), so we sometimes get the affiliation of Doug Jones or of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrong. And finally, sometimes the program on the television or the radio while we are working imposes itself; for example, (Z) once put "Bill Clinton" in place of "Jimmy Carter" because an old Saturday Night Live skit came on.

Q: In the explanation of the significance of name Zenger, you wrote: "When (Z) joined the site, we spent much more time than you might think looking at possible noms de plume."

What were the runners-up? E for "Elector"? H for "Herodotus"? M for "Muckraker"? T for "Tocqueville"? W for "Woodward"? I'm spending much more time than you might think speculating on the possibilities.
H.F., Pittsburgh, PA

A: The goal was to capture, ideally, "historian" but also "political analysis." We probably considered, at least briefly, 100 possibilities. Herodotus was indeed one, as was Thucydides, but that was too much historian and not enough political analysis. We considered some political analysts/commentators of past centuries, like (Thomas) Nast, (Finley Peter) Dunne, (James Gordon) Bennett, and (Horace) Greeley, but these seemed either too obscure or a little off-point (Nast is probably recognizable to most readers, for example, but he was a cartoonist, not a writer). We looked at a few Civil War figures, and there was significant consideration given to (Frederick) Douglass, since he was also a newspaperman. However, that seemed like appropriation, plus (Z) would not want people to think he was referencing (Stephen A.) Douglas (note one 's' instead of two), who was kind of a racist. There were a few punny names considered, like C. Fologist, but those seemed a bit too precious. And as a fan of the movie Ghostbusters, which featured the key master and the gate keeper, (Z) was briefly enthused about the idea of a play on that, like Votemaster and Ballotkeeper, but that gets kinda cheesy and (V) didn't like the idea. Thought was also given to non-cheesy, civics-inspired pairings to Votemaster, like Elector, Filibuster, Mudslinger, and, yes, Muckraker, but these seemed a little dry.

Today's Presidential Polls

If Joe Biden is leading Donald Trump by 6 points in the mother of all swing states, that means Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona are all in play as well. Trump can't afford to lose Florida and also have to fight for states he won easily in 2016. But it is still early in the cycle and lots can change. (V)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Florida 53% 47% May 08 May 12 Florida Atlantic U.
North Carolina 43% 46% May 07 May 09 East Carolina University

Today's Senate Polls

The last few polls of North Carolina have had Cal Cunningham (D) barely ahead, but that could just be chance. It is likely to be close here. However, one factor that has to be considered is Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and his stock market dealings. Theoretically, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) has nothing to do with Burr's problems, but the Democrats are surely going to try "a pox on both their houses" campaign. Swaying a couple of percent in a close election because some voters don't know who is who could matter. (V)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
North Carolina Cal Cunningham 40% Thom Tillis* 41% May 07 May 09 East Carolina University

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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