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Let's start with a bunch of questions about polling!
Q: I was looking at the 50-state map at the top of the page and started hovering over various
states—especially a lot of the red ones in the middle—and noticed the large margin that Donald Trump had back in
2016 in a number of them. I then noticed that there had yet to be polls of many of those states so far this year.
I'm curious to know a couple of things about these states that are likely a slam dunk for Trump (and on the other side, a slam dunk from Biden). First, how much polling are these states likely to receive by November 3? Second, do the campaigns constantly poll all 50 states (plus D.C.), especially this early in the game? R.M., Pensacola, FL
A: It's not too hard to put together a profile of the sort of state that won't get polled very much. It's going to be small, and deep-blue or deep-red. These places don't have large numbers of media outlets (or universities) to cover the costs of the polls, and their small number of EVs and hyper-partisan status make them uninteresting in terms of the presidential horse race. Exacerbating this would be a lack of competitive statewide races (governor, U.S. Senator, etc.).
Looking back to states that fit this general description in 2016, we see the following: Alabama and Hawaii (polled 1 time); Nebraska and North Dakota (2); Delaware, Mississippi, Montana, and Rhode Island (3); and Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia (4). So, it's fair to predict that in 2020, there will be about a dozen states that are barely polled. And that list will presumably look a lot like this one.
The campaigns, on the other hand, are certainly polling all 50 states on a regular basis already, and will continue to do so. Even in "lost" states, they can learn useful things about their messaging, and also about how and where they might have fundraising success. If Biden 2020 knows, for example, that Moab, UT, is a hotbed of pro-Biden sentiment, then they can target Moab with pitches for donations.
Q: There are some states listed on your electoral map as "strongly" in one column, but the polling data precedes March 13, 2020. That's the date when the President declared a national emergency. I recognize that polling is a snapshot of opinion, and that we are a long way from Election Day. Still, are there states that you think are incorrectly labeled right now as a result of the lack of polling data? If so, how far "off" could the map be? Are there states, for instance, that you think could be as much as four categories off (showing "Strongly GOP," but actually "Barely Dem," for example?) D.N., Panama City, FL
A: Four categories off would be an awful lot, but two or three is possible. Anyhow, there is much scuttlebutt that Missouri is much bluer than it looks right now. Maybe not tied, or "Barely Dem," but "Barely GOP" is possible. Some of the states with large numbers of black voters are also candidates for being recategorized, including South Carolina and Louisiana. And we've had Hoosier readers write in to tell us they think Indiana has the potential to be in play this year, though there are post-March 13 polls there that tell us it's not there yet.
Q: Am I right in thinking that Donald Trump is underperforming his 2016 results even in most red states? For example, a poll today in Kentucky shows him ahead of Biden by 16, which seems like a lot until you recall that in 2016 he beat Clinton there by 30. I hate to jinx things by asking, but aren't polls like that one actually a good sign for Biden? J.S., Chevy Chase, MD
A: It is rarely a good thing to do worse in your second election than in your first. So yes, Trump's apparently softer support in places like Kentucky is a good thing for Joe Biden, suggesting that: (1) Trump has bled some support relative to 2016, or (2) Biden is more popular than Hillary Clinton, or (3) both of these things. This does not mean that Trump is likely to lose Kentucky, but if 1 in 15 Republicans there is having doubts, then it's likely that 1 in 15 Republicans in other Trump 2016 states are having doubts. And there are plenty of Trump 2016 states where the President can't afford that kind of loss (e.g., Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan).
Q: With the obvious caveat that this is still very early in the cycle, the polls show something that I think was missed in 2016. Namely, there are still a lot of what I guess are "undecideds" (not really sure how, but that is beside the point). In the polls you listed on Friday, for example, the totals add up to: Arizona 86%, Florida 88%, Michigan 86% and 96%, North Carolina 84% and 88%, Pennsylvania 87%, and Wisconsin 86%. That's a lot of room for error. In 2016, it seemed a lot of the undecideds broke for Trump. With the current numbers, there is so much room for error, the polls seem almost meaningless at this point. J.T.M., Phoenix, AZ
A: Lots of scholars have studied undecided voters, and have come away frustrated, because the behavior of such folks is very hard to predict. To the extent that a generalization can be made, it's that they are a little more likely to break for the party that is out of power rather than the party that is in power.
It is true that, in 2016, undecideds broke for Trump by a pretty big margin. With that said, that is not as meaningful as it may seem when it comes to 2020. First, Trump represented the party that was not in power, and so may have benefited from an effect that will work against him in 2020. Second, a lot of those late-breakers were undoubtedly influenced by the mother of all October surprises, namely James Comey's e-mail revelation. Third, even in the state where late-breakers went most strongly for Trump (Wisconsin), his advantage among them was about 29%. If, say, 12% of voters were undecided a week before the election, that means that Trump gained about 3% overall. That's enough to swing a close election, but nowhere near enough to overcome the large gaps he currently faces, it would appear, in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Q: This week's CNN/SSRS poll, which put Donald Trump in the lead in the "battleground" states collectively, really has me scratching my head given the consistency of state polling results to the contrary. Though I realize that you can't draw any firm conclusions in the absence of additional data, I was hoping you could elaborate on what possible methodology errors this poll may have committed in order to reach this seemingly contradictory conclusion. J.V., Bangkok, Thailand
A: We think that they may have been trying to squeeze too much meaning out of too little data. That poll was based on responses from 1,112 adults, including an oversample of 302 adults living in the 15 states they identified as "battleground" states. Oversampling is a valid means of zooming in on a particular subset of the population, and what it means in this case is that the 15 battleground states would normally have been represented by something like 250 respondents, but instead were represented by 250 + 302, or 552. A pollster's model of the electorate would have to be laser-precise to make good projections based on so few responses, and we would suggest that external evidence indicates it was nowhere near that precise. Just think, 552 people represented 15 states, an average of 37 people per state. Trying to guess what Florida's 9 million voters might do by asking 37 people or even 40 or 50 people is a fool's errand. CNN should never have broken out its national poll that way. It should stick to reporting national polls and state polls, not this weird and meaningless hybrid.
Q: You often get questions about poll confidence and ideal numbers for determining if polls are accurate snapshots. For today's (Wednesday's) polls, you had two (AZ, GA) which collected responses over 3 days and two others that collected responses over 10 days (TN) and 14 days (VA) respectively. How does the amount of time (and the huge differences between these groupings) affect one's confidence in their accuracy? P.K., Marshalltown, IA
A: If you go back, you will notice that the two shorter-length polls were conducted by professionals, while the two longer-length polls were conducted by universities. That undoubtedly speaks to the different "business" models, i.e., using professional data collectors vs. using volunteer labor.
In any event, this has not gotten much scholarly attention as a source of potential bias. And that is because it probably doesn't matter, except under extreme circumstances. That is to say, public opinion generally shifts at a slow pace, and polls are not really accurate enough to confidently document the sort of movement that happens over a few days or a week. If something happened that might plausibly cause a major, overnight shift (the 9/11 attacks, the Watergate "smoking gun" tape is made public, Japan surrenders in World War II), then undoubtedly a pollster would toss out whatever data they had collected before that event, and would start fresh.
Q: I have always taken all recommended vaccinations, but watching the Trump team pushing out one unsafe COVID-19 remedy and test after another coupled with his undermining of government science groups such as the CDC, I find myself joining the anti-vaxxers in doubting the safety and efficacy of any vaccine that comes out of the Trump warp-speed vaccine effort. Can you reassure me that my fears are unfounded, or at least that other early non-Trumpian vaccines are highly likely to be properly vetted without political pressure? H.W., Bellevue, WA
Q: I am not an 'anti-vaxxer' and rely heavily on scientific data to form my opinions. However, I am pondering how I feel about the safety of a potentially Trump-driven vaccination process. Given his preference for ramming things through, ignoring scientific reason and doing every shady thing possible to make him look like a President who delivered a vaccine "the fastest and bested way it's ever been done before," how comfortable should I feel about injecting my children in (hopefully) the next year? E.G., Rosemount, MN
A: We think this is a valid concern, and, as "pro-vaxxers," have thought about this ourselves. Our answer, as non-physicians, is that folks like Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci have earned the public's confidence, and undoubtedly would not declare a vaccine to be safe unless they believed it to be so. Also, if nations like Japan, South Korea, France, Italy, Germany, etc. approve a particular vaccine, that is also a meaningful indication, in our view. But if it's only the President and other members of Team Trump who are trumpeting a vaccine then yes, stay far away. Certainly, we will be doing the same.
Q: What am I missing? How can more than 40% of the United States "approve" of Donald Trump and his handling of this crisis? I understand how people who were angry or full of hatred voted for him three years ago; but doesn't the massive, historic loss of life and untold suffering make people realize this was a huge mistake? J.D., Massapequa, NY
A: The current era of U.S. history will provide useful raw material for generations of future scholars interested in the study of cognitive dissonance.
The basic theory of cognitive dissonance, for those who are not familiar, is that everyone has deeply held beliefs. And when information arises that challenges those deeply held beliefs, it causes stress that must be resolved. There are four basic ways to achieve this resolution, which we will illustrate using "Donald Trump is a great president" as an example:
- Change the belief: In this case, "Donald Trump is a great president" becomes "Maybe Donald
Trump is not a great president." This is, of course, a tough bridge for many people to cross, and so this is the least
common resolution to cognitive dissonance.
- Create an exception to the belief: In this case, "Donald Trump is a great president"
becomes "Donald Trump is a great president, even if he didn't do that well with COVID-19."
- Justify the belief: In this case, "Donald Trump is a great president" becomes "Donald
Trump is a great president, and if he couldn't deal with COVID-19 successfully, then clearly nobody could."
- Ignore contrary information: In this case, "Donald Trump is a great president" becomes "Donald Trump is a great president, and COVID-19 is fake news created by people who refuse to accept that fundamental truth."
Obviously, Trump supporters have become skilled practitioners of #2 and #3, although that is not unusual, because most people are pretty skilled practitioners of #2 and #3. What's more unusual is the extent to which Trump supporters practice #4, a behavior that seems so contrary to existence as a functional, mentally healthy human being that the fellow who first described the concept of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s (Leon Festinger) had to work hard to convince his colleagues that the behavior actually exists.
Why are Trump supporters so inclined toward option 4? Well, the President's behavior, from pu**y grabbing, to profiting off of his office, to lying, to immature tweets, to Ukraineyola, to COVID-19 creates a lot of cognitive dissonance. Options 2 and 3 actually produce a pretty heavy cognitive load, such that it's difficult for a person to utilize them too often and still keep their belief system straight. Meanwhile, the culture wars have caused a whole bunch of otherwise unrelated things to become conflated: support for Trump, gun rights, religion, masculinity, self-determination, whiteness, liberty, the future, etc., such that rejecting the President threatens to undermine the whole system of belief. After all, if I/my pastor/my father/my spouse/my mother/my best friend were wrong about Trump, what else was I/my pastor/my father/my spouse/my mother/my best friend wrong about? Anyhow, if #1 is off the table, and #2 and #3 have been deployed to their (cognitive) breaking point, then #4 is pretty much all that's left. To use another psychological buzzword, it's a classic defense mechanism.
Q: I am an Egyptian citizen, and I have read your blog since before (V) revealed his identity as the
author of a couple of books I studied as an undergraduate student in Cairo University.
You frequently mention the loyalty of Donald Trump's base, and how they will support anything he says or does. I can't help but draw parallels with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi's base in Egypt. I tried to use logic and facts to argue with friends and family from his base, but I failed and gave up discussing politics with them. I can only hope that one day they will see him for what he truly is.
My question is if there was any historical precedent where a leader had a fiercely loyal base, and some event or controversy caused the majority to stop their support and see him for what he truly was? S.E., Cairo, Egypt
A: We wish we had a better answer for you, but for those rooting for the decline and fall of Trump (or El-Sisi), there's no clear U.S. historical analogue to point to. There have been a small number of politicians in U.S. history who inspired cult-like loyalty from their supporters (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, etc.). There is a much larger number of politicians who suffered a key setback that caused their support to collapse quickly (Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Watergate, George H.W. Bush and the economy, etc.). However, we cannot think of a politician who rightly belongs on both lists.
That is not to say that Trump's base will not suffer catastrophic failure, as U.S. history also has no clear analogue to the mismanagement of COVID-19. Merely that there's no strong precedent to point to.
Q: Let's get really hypothetical and accept the premise that somehow the entire U.S. military, all the way up to the Joint Chiefs, would suddenly abandon its oath to defend the Constitution and participate in a military coup against the citizenry. Is there any real possibility that gun-owning private citizens could mount a successful defense? V.L., Grand Rapids, MI
A: We will start with the caveat that most of the gun owners are also Trump supporters, and so would presumably be on the same side as the military in this scenario. If we do not note that, we will get lots of e-mails pointing it out.
And now, with that said, we will offer an analogy. Imagine you bought a house and found that the backyard contained both a beehive and a fetid pool full of mosquito larvae, so you decided to remove both. The fetid pool would be the easier task and the beehive would be the trickier task, since bees can fight back and larvae cannot. However, in the end, a human being equipped with protective gear and bug poison and the like would ultimately accomplish both tasks without all that much difficulty.
There is absolutely no question that the same would be true if the U.S. military faced off against armed insurrectionists. First of all, the military has weaponry—jet aircraft, drones, bombs, fully automatic guns, tanks, etc.—that are far beyond what is available to civilians. Further—and this is very important, but is often overlooked—the members of the armed forces are trained in tactics (including counter-insurrection tactics), and have also learned how to keep a level head under dangerous and stressful circumstances.
Lest we forget, there is already an example of the U.S. military putting down an insurrection by millions of heavily armed, highly motivated citizens. That would be the Civil War, and the federal government got the job done despite the fact that the weaponry available to it was not that much more advanced than that available to the citizenry. Can you imagine how quickly the war would have ended if the Union Army was equipped with materiel three or four generations beyond that of the Southern rebels?
Q: How important do you think it is for the GOP and the Democrats to win the White House as compared to controlling the Senate? P.M., Viken, Norway
A: The way things have evolved, the Senate is now more important when it comes to long-term changes (passing laws, approving judges, etc.) and the presidency is more important when it comes to short-term changes (diplomacy, executive orders, coping with immediate crises, etc.)
If we had to guess, we would say the GOP would rather keep the Senate than the White House, if they had to choose. That would allow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to continue his obstructionist ways for at least two more years and would, by extension, consolidate the gains they've made in the last six years (since, for example, they could make sure the tax cut remained in effect). If the Democrats held both houses, by contrast, there is quite a lot they could do, from investigations aplenty, to another impeachment (or six), to passing a take-it-or-leave-it budget that kills the tax cut.
The Democrats, if they had to choose, would probably rank winning the White House higher. There are enough immediate crises, from their vantage point (COVID-19, global warming, the collapse of the international order, etc.) that worrying about the Senate and about generational change is something of a luxury. If, after the 2020 dust settles, the Democrats have the House and the White House, then Joe Biden could quickly rejoin the Paris Accord, could prop up Obamacare, could put an end to the Federalist Society judges, and could partner with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to squeeze the Republicans at budget time.
Q: I have been pondering the possible outcomes of this year's election and I came up with the following possible results:
- Joe Biden wins, Democrats keep the House and take the Senate
- Biden wins, Democrats keep the House, Republicans keep the Senate
- Donald Trump wins, Democrats keep the House, Republicans keep the Senate
- Trump wins, Republicans take the House and keep the Senate
W.S., Green Township, PA
A: We agree with you. It seems pretty clear, at the moment, that the Democrats will keep the House, that they are moderate favorites to win the White House, and that the Senate is close to toss-up territory. Given that Trump is in more danger than the Republican Senate majority, it would be pretty hard for him to win and yet for his coattails to fail to save the Senate.
Q: Who do you think has more reason to avoid a (virtual?) presidential debate, Donald Trump or Joe Biden? I'm thinking it's better for Biden to avoid. If that's the case, would it be a good move, in your view, for Biden to say he will participate in a debate (or debates) if Trump finally releases his tax returns? D.E., Baltimore, MD
A: We are going to have to disagree with you. Biden is not quite as good a debater as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which meant that he suffered by comparison when on the same stage with them. But against a less-able debater, like Sarah Palin in 2008 or Paul Ryan in 2012, he demolished them. Trump is a terrible debater, and would be at a disadvantage against Biden. It's true that the cheese may have slipped off Biden's cracker a little bit, but it's also the case that the cheese has slipped off Trump's cracker, so that's a wash. In addition, there are far more potential tough questions for Trump to answer (or to fail to answer). And finally, since Trump has the bully pulpit and Biden does not, Biden can use the free national publicity more.
Even if we are wrong, and Biden would prefer to avoid the debates, we think that the dare/threat you propose would be a very bad idea. First, it would give Trump, who definitely would prefer to avoid the debates, an out. Second, he would spend the rest of the campaign telling anyone and everyone that Biden was afraid to debate him, and so created an excuse not to do so.
Q: I recognize that a new Democratic administration is going to have a lot of crap to deal with (starting with COVID-19). Still, why wouldn't two of the first acts of the incoming administration (assuming Dems take the Senate) be to admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as states and bump the Supreme Court to 11 members? K.F.W., El Dorado Hills, CA
Q: Let's say the Democrats control the presidency, the Senate, and the House by 2021 or at some other point in the future. Do you think they may kill the filibuster in exchange for winning a series of legislative priorities that would solidify their grip on power for years to come, barring a massive re-alignment? A.J., Baltimore, MD
A: To start with the first question, either of those actions would require Senate action. And, at the moment, that means that at least 60 Senators would have to agree, or else the measures would be filibustered into oblivion.
And that brings us to the second question. It seems to us that the writing is on the wall, and that the filibuster is going to go the way of the dodo, sooner or later. It also seems clear that Mitch McConnell's behavior in the last 10 years has given the Democrats political cover to do that. So, we would not be surprised to see the blue team kill the filibuster the next time they control the Senate, and then to push through a couple of statehood bills, a new Federal Judiciary Act, and a whole bunch of other legislation, which they would then sell to voters as "correctives" for Republicans' actions of the last decade. In fact, the voting public has become so aware of the use (and abuse) of parliamentary procedure that the Democratic base might demand that their senators kill the filibuster.
Making D.C. a state is slightly tricky. The Constitution specifically authorizes Congress to create such a district and the 23rd Amendment gives it electoral votes. A law stating "The District of Columbia is henceforth the state of Columbia" would run up again the 23rd Amendment. Of course, Congress and/or the district could redraw the lines to keep a small number of acres and people inside the district (along with the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Supreme Court). Those people wouldn't have senators or representatives but they would be so overrepresented in the Electoral College that people in Wyoming would be jealous.
Q: It seems to me that there are far more checks and balances on a Prime Minister in a Parliamentary system than there are on a President in the system set up in the U.S. Constitution. A Prime Minister, such as in the British system, must answer to the parliament and can face a no-confidence vote at any time. How is it that the Founders, supposedly so leery of the unchecked power of a king, chose to reject having a prime minister and instead created a president with far more power and independence from the legislature? M.N., Ithaca, NY
A: We are going to say a couple of things in response to your question. First, the historical question you raise is pretty easy to answer. The first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, did not come along until the 1720s. And that office did not assume anything resembling its modern form until the mid-1800s. And so, a leader like the (present-day) British prime minister was not a possibility in 1787, because that model simply did not exist at that time. All the Founders could do was create a king-like office that had as many of the upsides and as few of the downsides as possible.
As to accountability, we will say that is not actually what the British system prioritizes. No, what it prioritizes is reasonably swift action. Because it is effectively guaranteed that the premiership and the legislature will be controlled by the same party, that makes it possible to implement a political program pretty efficiently. It also makes it possible for voters to send a clear message about whether or not they like that political program. To the extent that the system has accountability, it comes from the willingness of PMs and/or MPs to rebel against their party on occasion, and also the willingness of PMs to fall on their swords when apropos (when they no longer have the confidence of the people, or the support of their colleagues). If the U.S. had the British system right now, it is...unlikely, shall we say, that Donald Trump would resign under any circumstances. It's also... even more unlikely, shall we say, that Congressional Republicans would rebel against him and force a vote of no confidence.
Q: With Georgia possibly having two brand new senators next year, how will people refer to them if they cannot call them "the junior/senior senator from Georgia?" I realize that we can call them by their names, of course, but I was wondering what the correct vernacular was for dual first-time senators. A.K., Houston, TX
A: The Senate has already had to resolve this question, since questions of seniority (whether intra-state, or inter-state) play a role in quite a few elements of how that body functions, from committee rankings to who gets to pick their office space first.
Anyhow, the first set of tiebreakers is based on previous offices held. First up on the list is U.S. Senator; someone who has already served in the Senate outranks someone who has not. If both have served, then the longer term of service wins out. If both have served in the Senate for the same length of time, or neither has served in the Senate at all, then the next office is vice president, then representative, then cabinet officer, then governor. Interestingly, having served as president doesn't help one bit.
Assuming that the office-holding tiebreakers don't resolve the matter, then the next tiebreaker is the population of the senator's home state. Obviously, that would not create any clarity in the case of two senators who come from the same state.
The final tiebreaker, should it come to that, is last name, in alphabetical order.
What this means is that, if two new senators are elected on Nov. 3 and take their seats on Jan. 3, then Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) would be first in the seniority line because he's the only viable candidate with service in any of the tiebreaker offices. He would be followed by Sarah Riggs Amico, Matt Lieberman, Jon Ossoff, Teresa Tomlinson, and Raphael Warnock, by virtue of the alphabetical tiebreaker.
With all of that said, this is actually academic because i's not possible for two new senators to be elected on Nov. 3 and take their seats on Jan. 3. The winner of the Perdue election will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021, yes. However, if one of the candidates in the Loeffler election gets 50% of the vote on Nov. 3, they would be sworn in as soon as the results were certified, sometime in the vicinity of Nov. 6. If none of the candidates in the Loeffler election gets more than 50% of the vote, then it will head to a runoff on Jan. 5, and the winner would be sworn in sometime in the vicinity of Jan. 8. Whatever happens, the two election winners will not be sworn in on the same day. So, if there are two new senators, one of them will have seniority without tiebreakers, either by virtue of having been sworn in a few weeks earlier (Nov. vs. Jan. 3), or by virtue of having been sworn in a few days earlier (Jan. 3 vs. Jan 8).
Q: You wrote about a contract awarded for $1.3B to build 42 miles of fencing on the US-Mexican border (a.k.a, "The Wall"). I gather there are multiple contracts for border fencing, and that it is not possible that these contracts could be completed by Jan. 20, 2021. Would a hypothetical Biden administration be stuck completing fencing contracts started by Trump or could Biden do a reverse Trump and reallocate the funding back to where Trump got it? G.W., Oxnard, CA
A: Well, most government contracts have "force majeure" clauses that allow termination in the case of unforeseeable circumstances. The Biden administration could likely argue successfully that COVID-19 justifies the invocation of the force majeure clauses. Further, most government contracts have a "terminate for convenience" clause that says the federal government can terminate a contract for, well, pretty much any reason they want. And even those contracts that don't have an explicit "terminate for convenience" clause have been found, by courts, to implicitly allow termination for convenience.
in short, it should be no problem for the Biden administration to back out of the wall contracts. If you would like to read much more on this issue, here is a brief prepared by the Congressional Research Service in 2015.
Q: J.E. from New York, New York brought up a great point I noticed back in 2000 and that seldom gets mentioned anywhere: Had Al Gore won Tennessee (where he lost by 80,229 votes), Florida or New Hampshire wouldn't have mattered. Besides what it says about a person who, the voters of his home state did not want to support for the highest office in the land (even Minnesota voted for Mondale), do you know of any president who won an election without the support of the voters from his state? J.G.D., Bellevue, WA
A: Well, the fellow currently in the White House is an example, since he lost his then-home-state of New York in 2016.
As to other presidents, the answer depends on whether we consider their state of birth or their state of residence when they ran for president. Here is a full accounting:
- Lost their state of birth: Jackson (SC), W.H. Harrison (VA), Taylor (VA), Lincoln (KY), Bush 41 (MA), Bush 43 (CT)
- Lost their state of residence: Wilson (NJ), Nixon (NY)
- Lost both: Polk (NC and TN), Trump (NY and NY)
As you can imagine, it is much more common for losing candidates to lose their home states. 9 major party candidates lost their birth state, while 4, including Gore, lost their state of residence, and 26 lost both. In case you are wondering, Gore—as the son of a sitting U.S. Senator—was born in Washington, DC, which he carried. And the last losing candidate to come up short in both their birth state and their home state is Willard "Mitt" Romney (MI and MA).
Q: I don't want to downplay the significance of the Florida loss, but if Al Gore had won his home state of Tennessee he would have been the 43rd president of the United States—regardless of what happened in Florida. So why didn't Gore win his home state? D.A., Ada, MI
A: Broadly speaking, the problem was that Al Gore began his career when the South was still electing moderate Democrats like Al Gore. By the time he was running for president, they were more inclined toward moderate-to-conservative Republicans. Particularly when those moderate-to-conservative Republicans were Southerners and evangelicals, like George W. Bush.
That said, Gore might have saved Tennessee but for two tactical errors he made. The first was to hold Bill Clinton (still very popular with Democrats, especially black, Southern Democrats) at arm's length. The second was to assume that his home state was in the bag, and to spend little time campaigning there. As a result, voters who might otherwise have supported Gore were only lukewarm about his candidacy, and didn't bother to show up to vote. In particular, Gore/Lieberman grossly underperformed Clinton/Gore among black voters, particularly in the urban centers of Memphis and Nashville.
Q: Your recent items about "never Trump" Republicans teaming with Democrats got me to thinking about how parties evolve over time. I've heard it said, for example, that if Abraham Lincoln were running today he would be in the Democratic party. Certainly his support for removing racial barriers and his support for a stronger federal government feel like current Democratic Party values. I'm wondering if you have seen any attempt to re-label all our presidents to where they would fall in the political spectrum today, and also if we are witnessing a potential pivot of our parties right now? J.N., Renton, WA
A: It is something of a fool's errand to try to transmute politicians of generations past into the present-day party system for two obvious reasons. The first is that some of the very most salient issues of generations past have no clear analogue today. For example, what is the modern equivalent of being pro- or anti-Manifest Destiny? Or of having a strong opinion on impressment? On the disposition of America's unorganized territories? On the "Indian problem"? The second problem is that partisans of generations past sliced and diced the issues differently than we do today. It's true that Lincoln was pro-civil rights (by the standards of his day) and that he favored a strong central government (including income taxes). On the other hand, he was pro-military, pro-gun, staunchly patriotic, and believed strongly in pulling one's self up by one's bootstraps.
Anyhow, with these rather sizable qualifiers in mind, resident historian (Z) will take a stab at putting all the presidents into categories. Please note that this is for entertainment purposes only (presidents who are being put into a different party from the one they actually represented are in bold):
- Liberal Democrat (like, say, Elizabeth Warren): Jefferson, J.Q. Adams, T.
Roosevelt, L.B. Johnson
- Moderate Democrat (like, say, Hillary Clinton): Madison, F.D. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy,
- Centrist Democrat (like, say, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV): J. Adams, Monroe,
Fillmore, Pierce, Lincoln, Grant, Arthur, B. Harrison, Taft, Eisenhower, Ford,
- Centrist Republican (like, say, Mitt Romney): Washington, W.H. Harrison,
Taylor, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Nixon, Bush 41
- Moderate Republican (like, say, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA): Van Buren, Polk,
Buchanan, Cleveland, Hoover, Reagan, Bush 43
- Conservative Republican (like, say, Donald Trump): Jackson, Tyler, A. Johnson, Trump
We're not going to explain the reasoning for each, since 45 different explanations would be a pretty dry slog. But if people care to write in and ask about the justifications that interest them most, we will be happy to run some of those next week.
And yes, we've argued before—and we stand by the argument—that the parties are currently in the process of realigning for the sixth (or maybe seventh) time in American history.
Q: Thinking about Doug Jones (D-AL), I was wondering which politicians were the most electorally durable despite being ideologically mismatched to their constituency. New York, NY
A: We will start by observing that the answer to the question must surely be a U.S. Senator. Presidents, governors, and other executives just don't serve long enough to fit the terms of the question. And if a member of the House drifts out of alignment with their constituents, there is a chance every two years for them to get booted, and eventually they will be. Further, it's pretty common for long-serving House members to be re-matched with apropos districts as maps are redrawn every 10 years (for example, former representative John Dingell, D-MI, served four different districts, with a total of seven different configurations, over the course of his 59-year career).
Anyhow, focusing our attention on the Senate, there are lots of examples of long-serving Senators who were way out of step with part of their constituency, most obviously Southern senators like John C. Stennis and Strom Thurmond, who cared little for the concerns of their black constituents.
There are also examples of Senators whose initial election, or whose reelection, was a near-miracle given the misalignment between them and their constituents. Perhaps the best example of this is Claude Pepper, who was vastly more liberal than the Florida voters who sent him to the Senate for two terms.
However, we think the very best answer to your question is...former Arizona senator Carl Hayden. A New Deal Democrat, he launched his career in the Senate in 1927, just 15 years after his state achieved statehood, and went on to become the first seven-term senator in U.S. history. Over the course of his 42 years in the upper chamber, his once-sparsely populated home state attracted a lot of new arrivals from other places, particularly conservative-leaning folks from the Midwest. It was pretty solidly red 20 years before Hayden's retirement, but he was a gifted campaigner and was very, very good at bringing home the bacon. And so, for many years, you had an odd-couple pairing of the liberal Hayden and the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater representing Arizona in the Senate.
Q: Your item on Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) led me to check out the linked Politico article, and in turn led me to seek out the last successfully elected VPOTUS who had been a sitting House member. Unless I missed something, it was John Nance Garner in 1932. However, he was also the sitting Speaker of the House. Further, it seems there were only a smattering of successful candidates from the House between then and back to James Garfield's election at the top of the ticket in 1880. Is there merit to the notion that the House is not the best pipeline to a successful national ticket? J.P.R., Westminster, CO
A: Well, note that your formulation leaves out Gerald Ford, who was serving in the House when chosen as Spiro Agnew's replacement. Anyhow, let's look at all the VPs who served since the turn of the 20th century, along with the office they held most recently prior to becoming Veep:
|Vice President||Previous Office|
|Theodore Roosevelt||Governor of New York|
|Charles W. Fairbanks||U.S. Senator from Indiana|
|James S. Sherman||U.S. Representative from New York|
|Thomas R. Marshall||Governor of Indiana|
|Calvin Coolidge||Governor of Massachusetts|
|Charles G. Dawes||Director, OMB (then called Bureau of the Budget)|
|Charles Curtis||Senate Majority Leader|
|John Nance Garner||Speaker of the House|
|Henry A. Wallace||Secretary of Agriculture|
|Harry S. Truman||U.S. Senator from Missouri|
|Alben W. Barkley||Senate Minority Leader|
|Richard Nixon||U.S. Senator from California|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||Senate Majority Leader|
|Hubert Humphrey||Senate Majority Whip|
|Spiro Agnew||Governor of Maryland|
|Gerald Ford||House Minority Leader|
|Nelson Rockefeller||Governor of New York|
|Walter Mondale||U.S. Senator from Minnesota|
|George H. W. Bush||Director of the CIA|
|Dan Quayle||U.S. Senator from Indiana|
|Al Gore||U.S. Senator from Tennessee|
|Dick Cheney||Secretary of Defense|
|Joe Biden||U.S. Senator from Delaware|
|Mike Pence||Governor of Indiana|
As you can see, there is a pretty strong bias toward governors and senators (as well as toward residents of New York and Indiana). This is not too surprising, since VPs are often folks with national stature, and also because presidents whose experience is limited primarily to state office or military service (FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, etc.) like someone who can serve as their liaison to Congress. That said, it's not unheard of for a representative, sitting or not, to make the move to Number One Observatory Circle. It's happened three times since 1900.
Q: You listed your picks for the three best Speakers of the House of Representatives in history. Who are the three worst ones, and why? F.S., Cologne, Germany
A: Here goes:
- Jim Wright (D-TX): His less-than-able service stood in stark contrast to the much more
skillful speakers who came before him (Tip O'Neill) and after him (Tom Foley). Much worse, he was on the take, and was
caught accepting illegal gifts (disguised as speaking fees, or as "salary" paid to his wife). Still worse than that, he
knowingly hired as a top aide a man named John Mack, who had served time in prison for attacking and nearly killing a
woman. In fact, not only did Wright hire Mack, he may have pulled strings to get Mack's sentence reduced from 15 years
to 27 months, and he definitely took steps to hide Mack's past from the public. Anyhow, all of this sleazy behavior
eventually compelled Wright to resign in disgrace.
- Howell Cobb (D-GA): Cobb was an unabashed white supremacist who spent nearly all of his
time as speaker trying to find ways to expand the institution of slavery.
- Newt Gingrich (R-GA): Gingrich decided that cooperation and bipartisanship were for suckers, and
shifted the House Republican caucus (and, indeed, the entire Republican Party) strongly in the direction of a Machiavellian
"the ends justifies the means" style of scorched-earth politics. Here is how McKay Coppins describes it in
written for The Atlantic a couple of years ago:
But Gingrich had a plan. The way he saw it, Republicans would never be able to take back the House as long as they kept compromising with the Democrats out of some high-minded civic desire to keep congressional business humming along. His strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then seize on the resulting dysfunction to wage a populist crusade against the institution of Congress itself. "His idea," says Norm Ornstein, a political scientist who knew Gingrich at the time, "was to build toward a national election where people were so disgusted by Washington and the way it was operating that they would throw the ins out and bring the outs in."...In short, an awful lot of the dysfunction in Washington today can be traced right back to Mr. Gingrich.
As his profile grew, Gingrich took aim at the moderates in his own party—calling Bob Dole the "tax collector for the welfare state"—and baited Democratic leaders with all manner of epithet and insult: pro-communist, un-American, tyrannical. In 1984, one of his floor speeches prompted a red-faced eruption from Speaker Tip O'Neill, who said of Gingrich's attacks, "It's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!" The episode landed them both on the nightly news, and Gingrich, knowing the score, declared victory."
It was not easy leaving off Dennis Hastert, who was utterly ineffectual as Speaker, and is now an admitted sex offender and a convicted felon to boot. But we think this trio is worse.
Q: Looking at the Supreme Court over the years, I can recall "Republican" Justices breaking ranks in a handful of decisions over things such as Obamacare or same sex marriage. I can't recall an instance where any of the 4 "Democratic" Justices broke ranks in a high-profile decision that bucked the Democratic Party line. Aren't they all just "partisan hacks," or can you think of a bunch of high-profile cases where current liberal appointees broke ranks? If so, I missed these cases on the news... P.S., Memphis, TN
A: We would suggest there are a number of reasons you might perceive things this way:
- Because the liberals are in the minority, it's generally less noticeable when they break ranks on an otherwise party-line vote.
When a conservative does so these days, it changes the outcome of the case. When a liberal does so, it
turns a 5-4 vote into a 6-3 vote.
- To a large extent, high profile cases become high-profile cases because they highlight the hot-button issues
and the partisan divisions in the country. People pay a lot less attention when RBG sides with the conservatives
on, say, intellectual property issues.
- If you really believe that only conservatives on the court break ranks, this could lend itself to confirmation bias, where you take notice of and remember cases that fit that model, and don't notice or forget cases that do not.
In any event, there are certainly instances of the liberal justices breaking ranks and joining with the conservatives, including even some high-profile ones. For example, the recent case of Ramos v. Louisiana saw Elena Kagan, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito on one side of the decision, and the remaining six justices on the other. That made a lot of liberals angry with Kagan.
We will also point out that following the party line is not inherently hackery, if the justice's opinion is well reasoned and is consistent with past precedent. However, there are some decisions that certainly don't seem to live up to that standard, with many of the largest recent stinkers coming from the pens of the conservatives.
Q: Last week, you
this question from A.M., in Bradford, UK: "Given Donald Trump's continued refusal to wear face masks, who do you think
President Pence might pick as his vice president?"
I'm curious why you would give such a sarcastic question such a serious answer. C.W., Myrtle Beach, SC
A: If a question is actually sarcastic, we don't run it. However, there is a difference between something that is not sincere, and a legitimate question that displays a little literary aplomb. This was clearly a real question, namely "Who would Mike Pence choose as his VP, if he became president?", wrapped in a slightly more interesting to read package.
Q: Are there any individuals whose comments or questions you've published on multiple occasions? Do you keep records about this? H.F., Pittsburgh, PA
A: We keep no records, but this does happen a fair bit, as we also discussed last week. It's even happened that we ran multiple comments from the same person on the same day (and, once or twice, multiple questions from the same person on the same day). Some folks are just good at asking questions/making comments, or represent a perspective that we think is worth sharing, or both.
This is most noticeable, of course, when the person's home city is fairly distinctive, like Swampscott or Anaktuvuk Pass, or Lititz (and whenever D.E. writes in from the latter, we are always reminded of this clip from Saturday Night Live).
Q: Please share more information about the V&Z relationship. You must have plenty of disagreements? M.G., Indianapolis, IN
Q: How do you decide on writing about items when you two have disagreements? D.V., Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A: Sorry, but there really aren't disagreements. When it comes to writing items, whoever gets to a story first gives it their best shot, and the other person will then edit it and/or round it out. There has never been an item where we strongly disagreed; at most it is "I think this point should be adjusted a little," or "I think we should also cover this possibility," or "I think we should remove this secondary point, or this clunky line, or this joke." On rare occasions, one of us feels a bit more strongly about a prediction than the other; for example, (Z) gives Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) a slightly worse chance of keeping her job this year than (V) does.
It is also the case that there are many areas where one person's opinion should pretty clearly outweigh the other's. When it comes to the servers and software that the site runs on, or items about polling mechanics, statistics, or election security, for example, those are clearly (V)'s province. When it comes to the Q&As, or items about history, or dealing with a bunch of screaming, fainting groupies, those are more (Z)'s area.
Q: It's clear from your writings both of you identify as professors first. But, in relation to
your work on this site, how do you identify? As psephologists? As political commentators? As historians?
Along those lines, I've learned a lot from your site and other sources over the years. I feel comfortable calling myself an amateur historian, and an amateur political commentator. I wouldn't feel comfortable calling myself an amateur psephologist, despite my years of learning from you. What skills would someone want to develop to honestly call themselves an amateur psephologist? P.N., Austin, TX
A: As to your first question, we tend to just describe the task rather than give ourselves an additional title. If we did find the need to more formally identify our task, we would probably frame it as an extension of our teaching work.
If you wanted to feel confident in your status as an amateur psephologist, you should probably get your hands on some data, (like this, for example) and mess around with it in Excel or some other program, with an eye toward answering one or more political questions. For example: "What kinds of states has Donald Trump lost the most support in?" or "Do female U.S. Senate candidates poll differently from male U.S. Senate candidates?"
If you wish to contact us, please use one of these addresses. For the first two, please include your initials and city.
- email@example.com For questions about politics, civics, history, etc. to be answered on a Saturday
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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