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

Second Debate Is Kaput

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is not interested in asking "How high?" when Donald Trump says "Jump!" And so, with him declaring his unwillingness to abide by precautions necessitated by his COVID-19 diagnosis (not to mention his bullying debate style), they announced that the second presidential debate, scheduled for this Thursday, is canceled.

The Trump campaign attempted a number of power plays in order to get their way. At various times, they: (1) insisted that the President is well enough to debate and that safety precautions are unnecessary, (2) proposed pushing both the second and third debates back a week, and (3) suggested replacing the debate with a lengthy four-hour session hosted by someone from Fox News. These were all quickly rejected by both the CPD and Joe Biden.

Since Biden now finds himself with some free time in his schedule, he has agreed to do a solo town-hall event with ABC News acting as host. In response, the Trump campaign is now attempting to arrange a competing town-hall event with NBC News acting as host. So, the two candidates in different locations, each answering town hall questions. Sounds an awful lot like Trump is negotiating an arrangement that he already had available to him and turned down. Guess that is the art of the deal.

As to the third debate, anyone who says they know what is going to happen is lying. By Oct. 22, Trump's health may well be good enough that he doesn't pose a threat to Biden. However, proving that would require a COVID-19 test, something the President already refused to take before the first debate. Further, there is the matter of Trump's incessant interruptions and talking over both Biden and the moderator. The Biden campaign and the CPD have insisted that a kill switch be used to mute the microphone of whoever does not have the stage, and Trump has said that is unacceptable. So, unless the President yields on these points, the third presidential debate could also be kaput.

It is hard for us to understand what Trump's game is here. Here are two (wild) guesses:

  • It's the base, stupid: Trump's entire strategy is to get every last supporter to vote for him and to hell with the independents and moderate Democrats. Spending his time at rallies of the faithful trying to rev them up helps with that whereas a national debate might remind Democrats why they hate him. So this theory is that Trump wants to focus on getting his base excited without having Democrats get riled up at the same time.

  • He's afraid of Biden: Even before Trump got COVID-19, the CPD said it wanted to do things differently. Trump undoubtedly correctly understood this to mean that going forward, the moderator would get a kill switch for the mics. His entire debate strategy the first time was to annoy, interrupt, bully, and talk over Biden so as to prevent him from getting in a complete sentence without being disturbed. If that strategy is no longer possible due to a kill switch, there is no plan B. While Biden is no great orator, he is competent, knows the material, and is well prepared. He can answer pretty much any question directly (except about expanding the Supreme Court, which he doesn't want to answer). In contrast, how would Trump answer: "Other countries have a far lower per-capita death rate from COVID-19 than America. Please explain." He really doesn't want 2 minutes of uninterrupted time to answer questions like that. Hence the strategy in the first debate of turning it into a circus of lies and obfuscations. If that is not possible, maybe he decided that having no debate is better than having one in which Biden looks presidential and he doesn't.

But maybe Trump doesn't have any logical plan, and he is just listening to his gut rumbling. (Z & V)

Saturday Q&A

We got virtually no questions about the VP debate, which underscores our point about how impactful it was.

Q: For a while, you used to keep tally on the bad weeks that Trump had (and there were many, so many that you apparently gave up keeping track). Would you not agree that the week from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4 was his worst week yet? This seven-day period saw three devastating stories, any one of which would have sunk any other president: The New York Times exposé on his taxes, the disastrous debate, and of course the life-threatening contraction of COVID-19, not to mention a bunch of smaller stories, like FLOTUS dissing on Christmas, the emergence of the Proud Boys, a surge of negative polls, adverse court decisions, etc. M.B., San Antonio, TX

A: We would agree that in terms of political setbacks, this was the worst week Trump has ever had, and probably the worst week any president has ever had. The only other week that is in contention is the week Trump was formally impeached, and that is because his impeachment will be associated with his name long after everyone but the historians and political scientists has forgotten the tax returns, the debate, etc.

Q: The Trump campaign claims they will win the election because of their ground game. Your thoughts? M.B., El Dorado, KS

A: A good ground game requires two things: (1) effective organization and (2) money. The Trump campaign has shown itself, over and over, to be rather amateurish, while the Biden campaign is being run by seasoned pros. And the Trump campaign is running short on cash, while the Biden campaign is flush. Under these circumstances, we do not see how Trump 2020 can plausibly out-ground game Biden 2020.

Q: Given the large number of folks that Donald Trump has fired for not telling him what he wants to hear, what's your opinion regarding whether he knows how dire the current re-election picture is for him? R.S., Denver, CO

A: Trump is pretty good at self-deception, because it's been key to his business "career" and his public persona for decades. On the other hand, he's not great at it, which is why he oversells many of his lies (repeating himself, excessive use of hyperbolic words like "great" and "beautiful" and "historic," etc.). If Trump truly believed in what he was saying, he wouldn't need to do this.

So, while he may sometimes talk a good game about "how we're gonna win this thing," it's clear that in his heart of hearts, he knows he's in deep trouble. This is why he has engaged in increasingly risky and outlandish behavior, like what we saw at the debate. Other politicians would switch gears, but Trump is an old dog who can't learn new tricks, and so all he can do is turn the dial up from 10 to 11. That he is aware of what's coming on Nov. 3 is also why he's doing everything he can to sow the seeds of doubt in the election results.

Q: If Donald Trump loses Florida in this election, will he be the only President to have had different home states in two different elections, and to have lost their home state each time? D.C., San Francisco, CA

A: Yes, in large part because both of these things are very rare. We can't find a single president, besides Trump, who formally changed their residency while in office. And only three presidents prior to Trump lost their state of residence, and each of them did it only once: James K. Polk (Tennessee, 1844), Woodrow Wilson (New Jersey, 1916), and Richard Nixon (New York, 1968). And yes, Dick Nixon was living in New York during his second presidential run.

Q: I am not sure how I should react to Trump's misfortune. We are all fellow travelers on this Earth and learning to care is part of the journey blah, blah, blah. But how big of a deal is it to snicker at Trump's misfortune and make a few non-PC jokes? A.L., Osaka, Japan

A: First of all, Trump has been guilty of enough harmful behavior that whatever response you choose is justifiable, we think. Second, dark humor has been used by humans as a very healthy coping mechanism for thousands of years (the formal name for this is relief theory).

Q: I have only one question. With millions of Americans trying to decide whether to eat or pay for their kid's meds, we have a President who tweeted this: "I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business."

Can he do this?
D.R., Aiken, SC

A: This is as empty a promise as "Mexico is going to pay for the wall." At very least, even if Trump wins, the current status quo (i.e., the Democrats control the House) will remain in place from Election Day until Jan. 3, 2021. And the odds are overwhelming that the Democrats will retain control of the House thereafter. If Trump cannot will a relief bill into being right now, why would he be able to do so after the election?

Q: I'm confused about how the COVID-19 stimulus negotiations are being conducted. Is it normal for a leader of Congress to officially negotiate legislation with a member of the executive branch? Wouldn't the normal approach be for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to negotiate with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and/or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)? J.F., Worth, TX

A: McCarthy is irrelevant, as Pelosi has tight control over her caucus, and does not need the Minority Leader's support to get things passed. McConnell is nearly as irrelevant, as he's more than happy to do nothing, and so does not negotiate in good faith (when he's willing to negotiate at all).

The only plausible way to get something done is for the House to squeeze the Senate from one side, and for the White House to squeeze the Senate from the other. A bill that has Pelosi's support (and, pretty much by definition, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's input/support) is likely to get most or all of the Democratic senators' votes. And a bill that has Trump's support is likely to get a large number of Republican senators' votes, particularly those of senators who hope to take over the Trump lane in 2024 (Ben Sasse, Josh Hawley, etc.).

It is extremely common for the White House to dispatch a point person to negotiate with Congress. In several recent administrations (particularly the Obama and Clinton administrations), the vice president tended to handle this task (since Joe Biden and Al Gore were veteran members of Congress). However, it's not unusual to give the job to a cabinet secretary, especially one who is relatively competent in a sea of fools.

Q: If Donald Trump loses the election, can he profit somehow until Joe Biden is sworn in? For example, could he say all federal employees are automatically invited to Christmas parties at his resorts, rooms reserved whether they show or not at $500 a night, etc.? J.B., Brossard, Québec, Canada

A: Abusing the emoluments clause so aggressively, especially with only weeks left in one's term, would be unwise and probably wouldn't work. The bureaucracy would refuse to play along, knowing full well that Trump was a short-timer.

If Trump was going to try to make big bucks in the final weeks of his presidency, the most effective way to do it would probably be stock market manipulation. He could tell his buddies to short sell a bunch of stocks, then could do something to bring the markets down, and then everyone could share the profits. Of course, everyone involved would need to be really careful as they would be at risk of getting popped for insider trading.

Depending on how willing he is to break the law, Trump could also sell pardons, or give concessions to foreign powers in exchange for favors (like, say, free land upon which to build Trump Tower Moscow). There have also been questions about the accounting done by his reelection campaign; it's possible he has already plundered (or will plunder) that source to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Q: Mike Pence clearly showed that he is Trump's poodle in the VP debate. He parroted blatantly false talking points, clearly demonstrating that he has no spine. How can he possibly make a presidential run in 2024 and be taken seriously? M.K., Dallas, TX

A: We don't believe he can. There's a reason that the fly at the debate became a big thing, and it's the same reason that Dan Quayle's misspelling of "potato" became a big thing. And that is because both were already seen as somewhat comical and unserious figures, and the embarrassing incident just crystallized that.

Q: You have quoted the saying, "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." And I think it's true: The party was in love with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the party was in love with Bill Clinton. Al Gore? Boring! John Kerry? Boring! In love with Barack Obama, not in love with Hillary Clinton.

So, do you think the party is in love with Joe Biden?
R.K.P., Chicago, IL

A: No, it is clear that what the party is in love with this year is the idea of getting rid of Donald Trump. That said, the "lovability" of a president sometimes only becomes clear with hindsight. For example, the warm feelings that many have for Jimmy Carter today are because of his very successful post-presidency, and were not nearly as strong when he ran in 1976. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton had won the election, and had a successful first term, people might well have noted that she collected nearly 66 million votes, and that she broke the glass ceiling as the first woman president, and that her critics were mostly people who reflexively hate Democrats and/or powerful women.

Q: How likely is it that Arlene Guzman Todd purposely set-up Cal Cunningham? It's been reported that she is a political conservative and her text exchanges found their way to a right-wing website. Of course, even if she did, he was dumb enough to fall for it. C.O., Honolulu, HI

A: It's possible, although that would effectively make her a member of the world's oldest profession. What appears to be more likely is that Cunningham dumped her, and she responded by trying to take him down. As they say, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn'd."

Q: In modern times, has a Supreme Court nominee ever made it to the Supreme Court without getting a majority approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee? With three Republican committee members now out with COVID-19, it's a real possibility, isn't it? L.T., Washington, D.C.

A: Only two modern nominees failed to secure a majority of the Judiciary Committee's "yea" votes. In 1987, by a 9-5 vote, the Committee sent Robert Bork's nomination to the floor of the Senate with an unfavorable recommendation. Bork, of course, was not confirmed. Four years later, by a vote of 13-1, the Committee sent Clarence Thomas' nomination to the floor of the Senate with no recommendation. Thomas, of course, was confirmed. And yes, with so much illness, it could happen again this time.

Q: Should Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, or someone else have to step in as acting president, would they be recognized as the 46th president after a certain amount of time has elapsed? R.H.D., Webster, NY

A: Acting presidents are not included in the official count, regardless of how long they serve. Otherwise, Dick Cheney would be the 44th president of the United States (or possibly 45th, since George H. W. Bush was also acting president a couple of times).

Q: Suppose that Mike Pence takes over as acting president, but he knows that he's caught the virus as well. Can he appoint an "acting vice president" to prevent Nancy Pelosi from being next in line?

And if Donald Trump died, so that Pence is not just the acting president, then I assume he'd try to appoint a new VP as soon as possible. Who is he likely to choose?
K.H., San Jose, CA

A: Pence does not have that option. There is no such office or status as "acting vice president."

If Pence were to assume the presidency upon the death or resignation of Donald Trump, his VP choice would depend an awful lot on when that happened. If before the election, he'd choose the VP most likely to attract votes to the Republican ticket, probably Nikki Haley. Even if she was not confirmed by the Congress, that would send a message to voters about what ticket they are really voting for.

If it happens after the election, and the Trump/Pence ticket loses, then Pence would choose whatever candidate he thinks would help him most in 2024. Could be Haley again, though she's a 2024 rival, so he might not want to give her the exposure. He might prefer to tap someone like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who would be a tip of the cap to the Midwest and to the more moderate wing of the Republican Party, but who is no threat to run himself in 2024 at age 91.

If it happens after the election, and the Trump/Pence ticket wins, then Pence would choose someone he's interested in partnering with for four years. Probably not a woman, since he wouldn't even be able to eat dinner with her, and he doesn't seem the sort to go with a person of color. He'd probably go with an attack-dog type who could go on Fox News and Rush and say outlandish things. Maybe Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)?

Q: If circumstances are such that Nancy Pelosi is elevated to the presidency, would she then have to give up the position of Speaker of the House? Or would she be able to hold both simultaneously? E.P., Gunma, Japan

A: The rules are clear—in order to serve as acting president, even if it's just a day or two, Pelosi would have to resign the speakership and her seat in Congress.

That said, she could resume the speakership immediately after her "presidency" ends, since the speaker doesn't have to be an elected member of the House. And she would undoubtedly win the special election that would be held to fill her seat.

Q: If Nancy Pelosi became president, what actions do you think she would undertake? Could she, in theory, announce an economic stimulus executive order? M.H., Los Gatos, CA

A: Congress retains the power of the purse, even when a prominent former member of Congress is in the White House. So, a President Pelosi might be able to move some money around at the margins, but there is no way she could spend $1 trillion (or even $50 billion) by fiat.

As to what she would do, that depends on the timing of her ascension to the presidency. If before the election, she might not do much of anything, for fear of making the Democratic Party appear mercenary and willing to take advantage of the death of a president. Although she probably would withdraw Amy Coney Barrett's nomination, since the Democratic base would be outraged if she did not. After the election, she would likely spend much of her time reversing Donald Trump's executive orders, particularly those on the environment.

Q: Since we've understandably been hearing a lot about the presidential line of succession and the 25th amendment lately, I have a question about the former that is probably best answered by your resident historian (Z). I'm particularly struck by the fact that the Secretary of Treasury is so high up in the order (No. 5, behind the Vice President, House Speaker, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Secretary of State). Seems to me that the Secretary of Defense and Attorney General, in particular, would be better fits in the highly unlikely event we ever had to dip that far into the well, so to speak. So, exactly how was the order of the line of succession determined, and what was the thought process behind that determination? D.F., Norcross, GA

A: The current line of succession is based on the order in which the cabinet departments were created. Doing it that way seemed a reasonable manner for ranking the relative importance of the departments, and it also spared Congress from updating the law every time a department is created or abolished. But that does mean that we have Treasury in line ahead of Defense by virtue of being a whole 10 days older (the former was created September 2, 1789, and the latter, then called the Department of War, on September 12, 1789).

Q: How are electors chosen? If Joe Biden wins the popular vote in a state, can the elector declare Donald Trump the winner? M.G., New Brunswick, NJ

A: To start with the latter question, there are 14 states that cancel votes from faithless electors and replace them with a faithful elector. So, in those 14, a Biden elector could not go rogue and vote for Trump. In the other 36 (plus D.C.), they could, if they are willing to accept whatever penalty the state has decreed for such behavior.

That said, this is very unlikely. The process varies by state, but electors are chosen by party functionaries—state conventions, state central committees, or state party chairs, generally speaking. And the folks chosen tend to be people whose loyalties are not in doubt—longtime party activists, party officials, people who have a personal or professional relationship with the candidate, etc. It is plausible that a Democratic elector could vote for a Democrat different than the one to whom they are pledged, or might even cast a protest vote. It is improbable that a Democratic elector would cross over and vote for a Republican, though, especially if that Republican is Trump.

Q: Given the events of the past week, I was wondering what happens if some of the electors end up getting COVID-19 or having to quarantine? Are there provisions for alternate electors? P.C., Washington, DC

A: Again, this varies by state, but all states have some requirement that alternative electors be chosen. Sometimes it's a flat number, sometimes it's one alternative per electoral vote, and sometimes it's two per electoral vote. So, for example, Colorado (with its 9 electoral votes) will actually have 27 electors (9 electors, 9 first alternates, and 9 second alternates). If the supply of alternates is somehow exhausted, then—again, depending on the state—further alternates are chosen by the state party committee, or by a vote of the electors themselves.

Q: Why are absentee ballots not processed as they arrive? I voted early in-person in Virginia. My ballot went into the regular vote-counting machine, so its marks have already been added to the machine tally. Wouldn't it be more practical to handle all ballots that way? M.B., Kilmarnock, VA

A: There are two primary reasons. The first is that some states allow voters who have voted absentee to change their mind, vote in person, and cancel the absentee ballot. So, it's necessary to keep the ballots uncounted in case some (or many) need to be located, removed from the pile, and destroyed. The second is that if the early vote totals leaked out, it could have a significant effect on the election. And keeping that sort of information secret would be difficult, especially since those who know the totals could have a partisan motivation for sharing that knowledge with a newspaper or a campaign.

Q: You commented several times about conservative-biased polling houses like Rasmussen and Pulse Opinion Research, writing that the latter barely makes the cut for inclusion in your database. I do not recall your mentioning polling houses with a liberal bias. Are liberal-biased polling houses less common? G.W., Oxnard, CA

A: Let us first of all point out that a pollster can show generally more favorable results for Democrats, or generally more favorable results for Republicans without necessarily being biased. Every pollster has a model of what they think the electorate will be, and there is legitimate room for difference of opinion there.

The problem with Rasmussen and Pulse is that they do things that call into question their commitment to fair and honest polling. For example, they often ask questions in a leading fashion. They "adjust" their data in a non-transparent fashion to correct for "shy" Republicans they say are out there. They tend to conduct polls that will be particularly useful to Republican politicians (say, for example, a poll on whether or not it's fair that the President of the United States should have to have a COVID-19 test just to participate in a debate). Because of these practices, it is fair to suspect that Rasmussen's and Pulse's house effects are not simply due to legitimate differences in modeling the electorate.

And yes, we would say that liberal-biased polling houses are less common. There are basically three reasons that pollsters might conduct political polls. The first is to sell the political polls themselves. The second is to advertise their general marketing/polling business. And the third is to get advertising for their organization/university. Any pollster in the third category is not well served by bias of any sort, since that would reflect badly on their institution. And while there are right-wing outlets willing to pay for political polls where the books have been cooked, there really aren't left-wing outlets willing to do so. So, there are no liberal-biased polls in the first category, either.

That leaves us only with the second category, where there are a small number of pollsters with a pronounced liberal bias. The most obvious of those is SurveyMonkey, which is mostly interested in promoting its web-based polling business. But the SurveyMonkeys of the world are outnumbered by the biased right-wing pollsters in the second category, which are then added to the biased right-wing pollsters in the first category, giving us a considerably larger number of conservative-biased pollsters.

Then there is a whole other category of firms that are actually campaign consultants and which do polling for their clients. Their polls are probably as accurate as anyone else's since candidates want to know where they stand. But the numbers they release may not be the actual results of the polls. We don't use any numbers from these folks. They are actually easy to detect because their Web pages often have statements on them like: "We have helped elect 28 Republicans!" Their goal is not to convince the public of their honesty but to get Republican candidates to hire them. The same holds for Democratic consultants.

Q: Your averaging of polls makes obvious statistical sense. However, throwing out Rasmussen, which you have commented on several times and presently ignore for your model, what are some of the specific differences among the many polling organizations' methodologies that can lead to a divergence—sometimes quite substantial—among their numbers? As a follow up, which pollsters are skewing more favorably to the Democrats and which for the GOP this cycle? Finally, besides Ann Selzer in Iowa, is there anyone else you would put in the "gold standard" category? J.K., Short Hills, NJ

A: We would say there are three things, in particular, that account for divergences between pollsters:

  1. What does their model of the electorate look like?
  2. Do they use good practices (e.g., randomizing answer order; non-leading wordings of questions) or not?
  3. How do they collect their responses (Cell phones? Landlines? Internet? Some combination?)?

(Note that the list is addressed to a pollster's general output, not to individual polls. A single poll could easily vary because the sample the pollster got happened to be wonky.)

Since pollsters don't generally share information about their models of the electorate (as that is their valuable intellectual property), we are left to judge them on #2 and #3 (and, eventually, on their results). Since pollsters pretty much have to release their question list and have to reveal how they collect their responses, it's very plausible to identify the sketchy pollsters who are using bad practices or who are relying on responses of questionable quality.

This cycle, TheHill/HarrisX, Harvard-Harris, Emerson, and Monmouth seem to be skewing in the direction of the Republicans. Meanwhile, Reuters/Ipsos, CNN, SurveyUSA, Quinnipiac, and The Economist/YouGov seem to be skewing in the direction of the Democrats. But again, as we note above, this is not prima facie evidence of bias. It simply means that the latter group really expects more Democrats to vote than the other firms expect, while the former group anticipates more Republicans. They collect this information from their polling data by asking questions like: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it that you will vote this year?" For pollsters who have been around the track a couple of times, they can compare this year's data with that of 2016 and 2012 and determine who is a likely voter. Different firms have different "secret" questions and thus end up with different models of the actual electorate.

And Ann Selzer is rather unique, because she confronts a knotty problem that largely doesn't exist elsewhere (caucuses) and confronts it well. That said, other pollsters that are very good include Marist, Monmouth, Siena, Suffolk, Emerson, NBC News/WSJ, and ABC News/WaPo. It is surely not a coincidence that universities and major news-gathering organizations are represented well on the list, since they all have reputations that are very important for them to maintain.

Q: Who are Redfield and Wilton Strategies? Do they lean Democratic? I could not find them on 538. C.J., Burke, VA

A: They are one of the most prominent pollsters in the U.K., and they have recently decided to expand their political polling business to the other side of the pond. They work with some good outlets in Britain (the BBC, The Telegraph, Politico Europe) and with some less-good outlets in the U.S. (Newsweek, Forbes). Since this is their first cycle of U.S. polling, it won't be possible to evaluate them until the returns are in. However, their numbers have been middle-of-the-road, so they don't seem to have a pronounced house effect.

Q: The polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win in 2016. How far off was the biggest difference between the polling and the actual vote? If we allow that big a swing in the polls this time, how would the electoral vote come out? M.C., Philadelphia, CA

A: The pollsters missed badly on Wisconsin, erring by an average of more than 7 points. The other states in the top five (bottom five?) are Iowa (average error of 6.5 points), Minnesota (4.7 points), Ohio (4.6 points) and Michigan (3.7 points). Note that these errors only awarded two states incorrectly—Wisconsin and Michigan (and both just barely). In the other three states, the polls had the outcome right, and just got the margin of victory wrong.

As to your second question, The New York Times has been kind enough to calculate that number on a daily basis. At the moment, if state polls are just as wrong as they were in 2016, then...Joe Biden wins, 319 EVs to 219.

Q: I saw the NBC/WSJ poll giving Joe Biden a massive 14 point lead. However, before getting too excited, I reminded myself that the same pollster had Hillary Clinton up by 14 much closer to the election. What is different this year? Can 2016 repeat itself? S.S., Raleigh, NC

A: First of all, the poll you refer to was released on October 8, 2016, so it was actually a day or two further away from the election than we are right now, and not closer. Also, it was a clear outlier. From the day that Donald Trump claimed the Republican nomination, no other national poll gave Clinton a lead that large, and only three others gave her a lead as much as 12 points. Those numbers are based on 155 polls in total.

Further, of the 96 polls conducted on or after Sept. 1, 2016, Clinton had a double-digit lead just 10 times, was tied with Trump 6 times, and trailed him 11 times, with the result that her national polling average on Election Day was +3.2 points. That's not far off what actually happened (Clinton +2.1). By contrast, there have been 48 national polls since Sept. 1 of this year. Despite that being half as many, Joe Biden has already piled up 15 double-digit leads. He has also been tied zero times, and has trailed Trump just once (and that was a Rasmussen poll that had Trump up by just one point). As a consequence, Biden's current national polling average is +9.6, which is exactly triple what Clinton's was on Election Day.

So, could 2016 repeat itself? Mathematically, it is not conceivable under current conditions. That means that for Trump to score a surprise upset, he'll need at least one of these three things to happen: (1) significant movement in the numbers, (2) large and systematic polling errors, or (3) shenanigans. Numbers one and two are improbable, which means the President is really putting all his chips on #3.

Q: Does your forecast take into account endless Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters, suppress turnout through disinformation campaigns, have mail-in ballots thrown out due to signatures or lack of secrecy envelopes, likely voter intimidation tactics at the polls, eliminating polling/early voting locations? M.B., Singapore

A: It does not, because there is no meaningful way to quantify those things. Maybe they will be wildly effective, or maybe they'll have no impact whatsoever. Maybe they will be significant in some states and not others. There's simply no way to know or to measure. If someone tells a pollster she will vote for Biden and then a goon working for Trump scares her away at the polling place and she doesn't vote, there is no way to take that into account.

You should also keep in mind that the threat of these things may actually generate a counter-response, wherein Democrats make a special point of voting, and of voting early. So, it could be that the "correct" adjustment is actually to make the map even more favorable to the Blue Team. But again, there's just no way to know with any certainty.

Q: The televised debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 drew huge audiences, and Americans are still talking about them 60 years later. So why were there no presidential debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972? P.M., Albany, CA

A: Because the presidential debates did not become de facto requirements until the 1980s. Prior to that, they were seen as a special event, or a stunt, or something more apropos to the primaries than the general election. And so, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and then Nixon in 1968 and 1972 refused to do any debates, either because they knew they weren't very telegenic, or they didn't want to give a platform to an opponent who was trailing them badly in the polls, or both.

Q: I was wondering if the map has ever gone all red or blue on Election Day? S.L., West Babylon, NY

A: Three times, a candidate has swept the Electoral College (George Washington in 1788 and 1792, James Monroe in 1820), but those all predate the red-blue era. Since the advent of the Republican and Democratic Parties, there have been a few near-sweeps:

FDR won everything but Vermont and Maine in 1936;
Nixon won everything but Massachusetts, D.C., and 1 EV in Virginia in 1972; Reagan won everything but Minnesota and D.C. in 1984

However, nobody has put together a "perfect" map. For over 100 years, a truism in politics was: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." That kind of took a hit in 1936 and died out.

Q: In your item on Joe Biden's speech in Gettysburg, you made mention that Abraham Lincoln might personally be responsible for five of the top 10 best speeches in U.S. history. In your opinion, what are the top 10 speeches? R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: Well, to qualify for the list, we'd say a speech has to be both eloquent and impactful. For example, James Monroe's last State of the Union was impactful (he announced the Monroe Doctrine), but was not at all eloquent. John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address was eloquent ("ask not what your country can do for you"), but it comes up a little short in the impact category. Anyhow, with that said, here's our list:

  1. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Farewell Address" (1961)
  2. Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (1852)
  3. William Jennings Bryan, "The Cross of Gold" speech (1896)
  4. Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet" (1964)
  5. Abraham Lincoln, "House Divided" Speech (1858)
  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address (1933)
  7. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (1865)
  8. Patrick Henry, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" (1775)
  9. Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream" speech (1963)
  10. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Yes, we only put three Lincoln speeches on the list. It's merely arguable that he could have five of them, if you include the Cooper Union address and his First Inaugural. Other honorable mentions include FDR's address on Pearl Harbor, Barbara Jordan's 1976 DNC keynote, Barack Obama's 2004 DNC Keynote, Ronald Reagan's address on the loss of the shuttle Challenger, Reagan's "A Time for Choosing," Douglas MacArthur's "Old Soldiers Don't Die" address, and Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech.

Q: You wrote that "Gettysburg is seen (not especially correctly) as the turning point" of the Civil War. What would you give as the actual turning point or points? Do they give us any insights into potential turning points for today's crises (climate change, racial justice, political dysfunction, etc.) E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: Here are the five biggest turning points of the Civil War:

  1. The First Battle of Bull Run (1861), which made clear that the Civil War wasn't going to be quick or easy and that it was time for both sides to get serious about their war machines.

  2. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863), which brought a permanent end to Confederate offensives, gave a morale boost to the North, and provided a foundation for the Gettysburg Address.

  3. The Fall of Vicksburg (1863), which cut the Confederacy into two pieces and gave the Union control of the Mississippi River.

  4. The Fall of Atlanta (1864), which secured Abraham Lincoln's reelection and thus doom for the Confederacy.

  5. The Battle of Antietam (1862), which laid the groundwork for the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, guaranteed Europe would not help the Confederacy, and marked the end of the line for Maj. Gen. George McClellan.

Note that turning point does not mean "moment at which the North's victory became guaranteed," it just means "moment when the course of the war took a noticeably different direction."

To the extent that there's a lesson here, we would say it is something like this: big changes usually turn on small, and often unexpected, things. Most of these turning points could have ended up very differently, if just one or two elements had shifted. In modern terms, think of how Obamacare was saved by a surprise vote from John McCain, or how Donald Trump won the 2016 election by a smattering of votes in three allegedly blue states. In short, even when things seem pretty dark, the dawn could be just around the corner.

Q: Has there ever been a president that died in the White House? G.C., Alexandria, VA

A: Two of them in just nine years, although none since. Here is a list of the eight presidents who have died in office, along with the location where they met their end:

  • William Henry Harrison: In the White House, 1841
  • Zachary Taylor: In the White House, 1850
  • Abraham Lincoln: At Petersen's Boarding House, Washington D.C., 1865
  • James Garfield: At Francklyn Cottage, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1881
  • William McKinley: At Milburn House, Buffalo, New York, 1901
  • Warren Harding: At the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, California, 1923
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: At his residence in Warm Springs, Georgia, 1945
  • John F. Kennedy: At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, 1963

Q: You noted that Vermont has sent just one Democrat to the U.S. Senate in history. So why was Vermont very Republican in the past and is now very Democratic? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: Broadly speaking, Vermont has a long history of being socially liberal and fiscally moderate. For a long time, the Republicans—particularly the sort that flourished in the Northeast—offered the best combination of those. Now, the Democrats do.

Q: This is probably an inconsequential question, but it drives me a bit crazy. What is the significance of the (V) or the (Z) at the end of different items? K.W., Sault Ste. Marie, MI

A: When the site was first created by computer scientist Andrew Tanenbaum, he used the alias Votemaster, and continues to do so. When historian Christopher Bates signed up, he needed an alias in order to match, and chose Zenger in honor of John Peter Zenger, a notable figure from U.S. history whose trial established that critical commentary is not libelous if it's truthful. Any items signed (V) were written by the Votemaster, any signed (Z) were written by Zenger, and any signed by (V & Z) were written by one of us and then substantially edited by the other.

Q: My spouse and I often burst out laughing aloud, when we read your weekday analyses and weekend answers to questions. It can be quite disruptive and distracting, you know. My question: do you two laugh at each other's snark and jokes, when proofreading your posts, pre-publication? L.E., Santa Barbara, CA

A: Yes; fortunately, we have similar senses of humor. That said, (Z) has the advantages of following sports, and of living in the U.S. and being in touch with American popular culture. So there are a few jokes in those areas that are lost on (V). Like, for example, the debate headline that (Z) used, "Pretty Fly, for a White Guy." That song was big in the U.S., a shade less so in the Netherlands.

Today's Presidential Polls

Speaking of Redfield and Wilton Strategies, they quite like Joe Biden's chances, as they have him up comfortably in all of the key swing states. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Arizona 49% 43% Oct 04 Oct 07 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
Florida 49% 44% Oct 04 Oct 06 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
Georgia 46% 48% Sep 27 Oct 06 U. of Georgia.
Michigan 50% 42% Oct 04 Oct 06 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
North Carolina 49% 44% Oct 04 Oct 06 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
New Jersey 53% 38% Sep 30 Oct 05 Fairleigh Dickinson U.
Pennsylvania 49% 42% Oct 04 Oct 06 Redfield and Wilton Strategies
Texas 45% 50% Sep 25 Oct 04 YouGov
Wisconsin 51% 41% Oct 04 Oct 07 Redfield and Wilton Strategies

Today's Senate Polls

Although the U. of Georgia is in Georgia (it's right there in their name!), they aren't actually all that stellar at polling Georgia. This number is far enough off from other polls of the race that we suspect that UGA's model is a little off, or that they got a not-so-great sample. That also casts some doubt on their presidential number, above. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Georgia Jon Ossoff 41% David Perdue* 49% Sep 27 Oct 06 U. of Georgia.
Texas Mary "MJ" Hegar 42% John Cornyn* 50% Sep 25 Oct 04 YouGov

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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