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      •  Saturday Q&A
      •  Today's Presidential Polls

Saturday Q&A

Some of these answers are a wee bit judgmental. Sorry.

Q: Given that anything that would clobber another candidate leaves Donald Trump's base unfazed, what effect will The Atlantic story on his contempt for the military have on the electorate? There are so few undecided that the story may not move the needle at all. And will the base even be aware of the accusations? S.Y., Skokie, IL

A: The problem for Trump is that this is one of the handful of issues that his base really cares about on an emotional, visceral level. He has used that fact to his advantage many times, most obviously all the "kneeling football players" stuff, an act of protest that the President and other Republicans framed as an act of disrespect toward America's veterans.

And so, if the story is true, it means that Trump goes counterfeit on one of the three or four basic pillars of his whole political program (if "program" is the right word for something so haphazardly constructed). It's as if he was caught on tape saying "I always knew there would be no wall; that was just to get suckers to vote for me," or "Who really cares if abortion is legal?" or "People who love guns are losers." The fact that the White House has responded so swiftly and so vehemently to the story is a clear indication that they are scared to death, and that they know it has the potential to hurt the President badly.

We have made the case, and we stand by it, that this is going to hurt him with active-duty military. As to the civilians in the base, they are certainly going to hear about it, and most will likely dismiss it as "fake news." For those folks, the scales might be tipped if one of the four high-ranking officers who spoke to The Atlantic anonymously were to identify themselves and confirm the magazine's reporting. At the moment, it's basically Trump vs. (Atlantic editor and reporter) Jeffrey Goldberg. It's easy enough for his base to dismiss a reporter, especially one who is a liberal New York Jew. A three-star general, by contrast, would be much harder to ignore. It's true that military officers are not supposed to get involved in politics, but it's also true that by speaking to The Atlantic, they have already broken that taboo. There's a strong argument to be made that this is not the time for half-measures; if these four officers felt it was important for the American people to know this information, then presumably it should also be important enough for them to own their (currently anonymous) claims.

Q: I used to think that an announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine would be just about the only thing that could give Trump a fighting chance to win the election. (I hasten to add it would have to be a credible announcement, backed up by impartial and trusted sources. That means Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins; the heads of FDA and CDC, not so much). I'm not so sure now even that would be enough. What do you think? S.B., Springfield, VA

A: Our guess—and it's just a guess—is that you are right. First of all, there is no plausible way that a vaccine will be an unambiguous win for Trump at this point. He and his team have made the politics of the situation so clear, and so many doctors have spoken up to say "An October vaccine is not possible," that any announcement would be treated with deep skepticism by much of the populace (even with Drs. Fauci and Collins giving their blessing). Further, a vaccine will not undo the damage that has already been done, including the nearly 200,000 dead Americans, the many more who have recovered but are going to suffer long-term consequences, the economic chaos, and the like. Plus, there are all the other strikes against Trump, from unrest in the streets, to all the lying, to a mess of a foreign policy, to all the lawsuits and alleged corruption. For the 52% or so of Americans determined to pull the lever for Joe Biden, we don't think the announcement of a vaccine will erase all the other stuff. At most, it might cause a majority of the undecideds to break for Trump. Also keep in mind that early voting has already started. North Carolina mailed out the absentee ballots on Friday. If the vaccine announcement comes on Nov. 1, half the country will have already voted. It would have to come in early October to matter, but then it wouldn't be believable.

And so, that leaves us with the same conclusion that we've put forward many times: Trump's only real chance of winning this thing, BARRing a massive October surprise, is through various forms of chicanery.

Q: Would you mind commenting on this article, headlined: "What's the worst that could happen? The election will likely spark violence—and a constitutional crisis?" I know you advised us not to read these kinds of articles, and I generally don't, but this is The Washington Post, for crying out loud! The use of "likely" in the subtitle is concerning. Is this just more irresponsible journalism? How "likely" do you think a scenario such as this is? B.B., Portland, OR

A: Anyone who clicks through and reads the article will see that the headline is written to be as dire and click-baity as is possible, and that the authors acknowledge that their predictions actually only apply to a close election, and not a landslide. We are not sure what the value is in causing readers so much unease, but the "click on this!" nature of the whole thing certainly gives us pause when considering the paper's motivations.

In any event, there is absolutely no historical analogue for the current situation. It is true that there was a mass rejection of one election result in U.S. history, in 1860, but that did not involve the sitting president of the United States refusing to concede defeat or honor the will of the voters. And so, any piece like the one linked above is necessarily just a big guess. And all we can do is remind people of a couple of things. First, Donald Trump is, in the end, a coward. Sorry to use strong language, but he's shown again and again that he'll talk a big talk, but he won't walk the walk. He's unwilling to do something as minor as fire a subordinate, preferring to pass that duty off to Jared Kushner or others. We don't think the President has the backbone to suborn open rebellion. Second, marauding bands of armed Trump supporters might be a source of fear and violence for a short while, but the notion that these untrained militia types can meaningfully impose their will on a nation of 330 million people strains credulity. They would be opposed by vast numbers of private citizens, or by the police and/or the National Guard.

Q: Recently, there have been rumors indicating that the protesters (BLM and Antifa and others) in Portland are being funded by George Soros or some other liberal megadonor. Some rumors have also circulated that the rioters and looters are not from Portland and are being transported into the city in order to create chaos. Is there any basis in truth to any of this? Who is to "blame"/what is the cause for the escalation of events in Portland? L.E., Winston-Salem, NC

A: The notion that left-leaning groups are the secret tool of some wealthy and powerful person/group (often a wealthy and powerful Jewish person/group) is a very old one. Did you know that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis claimed that Jazz music was secretly a Jewish plot meant to allow Jewish puppetmasters to ally with and control Black people? There's no truth to any of it. The falsehood-debunking site Snopes has written many times about the alleged Soros-Antifa/BLM ties; here is their most recent article (about four weeks old).

To the extent that outsiders are traveling to these protest sites, it's mostly (though not entirely) right-wing white men, often armed with guns, and allied with far-right groups like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. However, these outsiders—whether right- or left-leaning—are, by all evidences, traveling of their own volition and are not in the employ of some shadowy figure or organization that is pulling the strings.

As to "blame," that's a tough question, and we will answer it thus: When there is a big fire, firefighters largely try to build a firebreak around the burn site, and then to let the fire burn itself out. They have figured out that is the safest and most efficacious approach. Similarly, with urban unrest, it generally works best for authorities to form a perimeter around the unrest, and then to let it play itself out. This was the approach used, for example, during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, the Watts Riots of 1965, and the recent unrest in Seattle, among others. So, if we are to "blame" anyone, it would be anyone who introduces new tension and violence into the situation, which is like throwing fuel onto a smoldering fire. That could be militia members arriving from elsewhere, or Antifa/BLM/others lashing out, or even a politician encouraging the unrest with their ill-considered words.

Q: Has there ever been a major fascist or communist movement in U.S. history? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: No. The U.S. system is set up such that it is nearly impossible for non-major political movements to acquire even a tiny crumb of power, such that communist and fascist movements in the U.S. have almost invariably been the province of fringe types, or sometimes of intellectuals who are dabbling in different philosophies, like the numerous liberal elites who popped in at a few communist meetings in the 1930s and eventually drifted away from the movement (only to be called on it by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, in some cases).

To the extent that there is an exception to this, it's the America First Committee (AFC), which was organized in Sept. 1940 in an effort to keep the U.S. out of World War II. It included political activists of many stripes, among them militant pacifists, anti-Semites, fascists, people who weren't themselves fascist but sympathized with fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and some communists. The AFC had 800,000 members at its height, and exerted some meaningful impact on public debate about the war for about a year, but was eventually discredited as disloyal. And obviously, they failed in their ultimate goal. Since the U.S. entered the war in Dec. 1941, that means that AFC existed for just a bit more than a year.

If we expand your list to include "socialist" movements, then various folks identifying as socialist have had some limited success, winning some mayoralties and other local elections (mostly in the Midwest), not to mention at least one U.S. Senate seat. However, it should be noted that most of these individuals embraced a flavor of socialism pretty far removed from the flavor favored by many folks in Latin America or Europe.

Q: There are various groups that one side or the other dislikes, QAnon believers and BLM supporters probably being the most prominent from each side at the moment. Although neither is really a structured organization, there are real people who "belong" to each group. My question is about Antifa. The right seems to bring up Antifa often. The peak was probably when Trump accused Martin Gugino, victim of the Buffalo police shoving incident, of being an Antifa provocateur. Antifa seems to be more of an idea than a group. The uproar somewhat reminds me of the panic about Satan worshiping spreading like wildfire across the U.S. in the 80's and 90's—screaming about something that doesn't really exist. Am I missing something? What is Antifa and why is it such a bogeyman for the right? Y.H., Toronto, Canada

A: Antifa is the term used to describe a very loosely organized confederation of left and far-left activists whose primary raison d'être is to resist right and far-right extremism. Sometimes they do so through peaceful and non-violent means, sometimes they use more extreme, and even violent, means. There are many overviews to be found on the Internet, of course, this one from Al Jazeera is pretty brief but pretty good. They are analogous to a group like the hippies or the Progressives in that they are a real and visible movement, but there is no central leadership or organization.

As to the final part of your question, some readers are surely aware of a famous 1964 essay by the historian Richard Hofstadter (later turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book) entitled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." His argument was that Americans, particularly (though not exclusively) right-leaning Americans, are especially prone to fear of various bogeymen. And in the book (but not the article), he makes one of the foundational observations about these bogeymen: They work best if they are present enough to be noticeable, but distant enough to be a bit mysterious/unknown. In other words, you are more likely to fear, say, Black Lives Matter if you have only heard of them and seen them on TV, than if you know several BLM activists personally.

At the moment, as (Z) writes this, there is a rerun of the 1980s show "The Golden Girls" on TV. And one thing that is striking about that show is the frequent number of jokes made about how "the Japanese are taking over." It is a reminder that, in that decade, many Americans were scared to death that Japanese businesses were going to snap up everything valuable in the United States, turning Americans into their...minions? And thanks to that, and to help make our point about the paranoid style, it occurs to us to compile a list of (in our judgment) the biggest bogeymen for each decade of U.S. history since 1800. For your reading enjoyment, here it is:

Decade Bogeyman
1800s The French
1810s The British
1820s Banks and bankers
1830s Freemasons
1840s Irish immigrants/Catholics
1850s Abolitionists
1860s "Black" Republicans (white GOP politicians who would allegedly compel interracial marriage, etc.)
1870s Former Confederates
1880s Former Confederates
1890s The Spanish
1900s Wealthy business interests (monopolies and trusts, especially)
1910s The Germans
1920s Communists
1930s International bankers (code for "The Jews")
1940s Japanese-American spies (an alleged "Fifth Column")
1950s Communists
1960s Hippies/The Civil Rights Movement
1970s The Middle East
1980s Japanese business interests; Latin American drug cartels
1990s The Clinton family
2000s LGBTQ Americans (specifically, LGBTQ marriage)
2010s Un-American Black people (ACORN, allegedly Kenyan-born presidents, BLM); undocumented immigrants

Some of these are trickier than others, but we think we've hit the bullseye with the great majority of them.

Q: As I've listened to a variety of stories about QAnon, I've been scratching my head as to "Who's behind this?" and "Why?" Than it suddenly became obvious to me: It's the Russians. They are sowing dissent, giving Donald Trump more than he could ask for, and do not care about the effects of what happens. And we have so many useful idiots here to work with.

Am I way out in left field or am I at home plate?
G.C., South Pasadena, CA

A: There has been much speculation about the identity of QAnon, and very few answers. It's generally agreed that it's one person, as they use a unique tripcode to identify themselves and to log in to 8chan. Typically, of course, the Russians work in teams. It is also the case that Q is an expert speaker of the English language, and knows American culture very well, such that they know exactly how to push (some) Americans' buttons. So, while it certainly could be a Russian (or many Russians), we would bet it's not. We aren't going to put you out in left field, but we can't put you at home plate, either. How about 10 feet behind third base, along the foul line?

Q: There has been talk recently about whether Joe Biden should agree to debate Donald Trump. The aspect of this I wanted to ask about is Trump's propensity to interrupt. By some counts he interrupted Hillary Clinton over fifty times in the first debate alone. Granted, some of this was undoubtedly because of sexism, but clearly the moderators are unable or unwilling to stop it. It makes me think that Biden should skip the debates, because what would be the point of debating if Trump is going to walk all over Biden's allotted time and no one is going to do anything about it? What can or should be done about this? A.L., Oakland, CA

A: Biden is in a better position to stand up to Trump, as that will be perceived as strong/masculine, and not (unfairly) as bitchy/shrewish. And he's likely to do it, because a little peacocking early on could take a lot of wind out of Donald Trump's sails. Beyond that, it's on the moderators and the Commission on Presidential Debates. One obvious step would be to turn off the microphone of whichever candidate does not have the floor. That was not an effective approach back in 2016 because the candidates were close enough to each other that they could rely on the other's microphone. But with the social distancing that will be practiced this year, it's much more viable. If the director is insructed to focus the camera only on the person speaking the the moderator mutes the other's mic, no one will notice Trump if he tries to interrupt. Since Biden knows Trump might try to stalk him to get on camera, he should think of a couple of lines to put him down. For example: "Chris, I think the president needs to use the men's room badly and can't find it. Could someone on the stage crew show him the way?" That would be the talk of social media and the late-night comics for 3 days.

Q: You published Jennifer Rubin's list of tough questions that Donald Trump could be asked during the debates. What are some tough but fair questions that Joe Biden might be asked? B.L., Hudson, NY

A: Here are five:

  • Why did you treat Anita Hill as you did during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings?
  • What has changed since you were an outspoken supporter of "three strikes"?
  • Would it be fair to say that you landed the Democratic nomination by default, and not on your merits?
  • Can you explain your habit of making patronizing remarks about Black voters?
  • Jimmy Carter said he would have been unable to handle the presidency at age 80. Is 78 really that different?

Q: We've obviously reached the point where "President Tells the Truth Today" would be a major headline. How are we to look at the upcoming presidential debates in this context? It would be unfair to expect Joe Biden to use up all his debate time, explaining why the president's previous statement was untrue. Perhaps someone could sound a horn whenever Trump made a false statement, but it's doubtful that the President's team would accept that sort of arrangement. In your opinion, what steps can/should the moderators take to make these debates even remotely useful to the voting public? In your judgment, are the moderators who have been selected up to the challenge? D.H., Mashpee, MA

Q: You wrote "Three of the debates will have a number of segments, each on a single topic to be chosen by the moderator and announced in public a week before the debate so the debaters can cram if they so desire. We expect Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Mike Pence will cram like crazy and hold mock debates for practice. We also expect that Donald Trump will do none of it because his supporters don't expect that he knows the material and don't care if he lies about it. If he makes mistakes, the media will point it out and it will have no effect. If any of the other three make big mistakes, it will be big news." If that statement is really true, then what value is there for Joe Biden in having these debates? G.H., Krakow, Poland

A: There is no question that most of the real-time fact-checking will be on the moderators. And because they know what they're dealing with, we suspect they will be ready. Fox News' Chris Wallace, who will take debate #1, has certainly shown a willingness to challenge Trump on falsehoods, and we think Steve Scully or Kristen Welker will not hesitate to do the same, with all three using follow-up questions to put the President on the spot.

Joe Biden has two goals for these debates. The first, and the biggest by far, is "do no harm." If he shows up and gives a credible performance, one where he is clearly in command of his faculties and he doesn't step in it, that is a huge win because it undermines Trump's main line of attack (Biden is old/feeble/senile). The second goal, which would be the icing on the cake, is to get the President to say something really damaging. It could be something impolitic (like something racist, or dismissive of the armed forces) but it could also be something that speaks to ignorance of the basics of the job. Recall that in 2016, Trump had no idea what the nuclear triad is. Now that he's been in the Oval Office for four years, being unable to answer a question like that, or about some other very basic factual matter, could be a very bad look. Note that we're not talking small-to-medium mistakes, like mispronouncing Angela Merkel's name or putting the Great Depression in the wrong decade. We mean something that would speak to sleeping on the job, like not knowing what the World Bank is, or who the leader of Syria is.

Q: On Thursday, you wrote: "In most states, absentee ballots are not counted until Election Day, and in some states not until the polls close on Election Day. This latter situation exists because, in those states, it is legal to cast an absentee ballot and then vote in person, in which case the absentee ballot has to be located and destroyed." Then, on Friday, you wrote: "Earlier this week, Donald Trump encouraged residents of North Carolina to vote twice—once via absentee ballot, and once in person. On Thursday, he told Pennsylvania voters to do the same. It is, of course, illegal in both states to knowingly vote twice."

Setting aside whether Trump has the ability to comprehend any aspect of election law (though one would expect Bill Barr can), would you take a moment to expand on the difference between those statements?
M.H., Arvada, CO

A: In all states, it is illegal to knowingly cast two valid ballots. Often, voters (particularly those who have requested absentee ballots) are asked point-blank if they have already voted. Even if they are not asked, they have an affirmative duty to volunteer that information if they have. If they concede they have already cast an absentee ballot, then the poll worker notes that the ballot needs to be found and destroyed, and all is well. If they hide that fact, then they have committed a crime.

If an absentee ballot is submitted early enough, the poll workers already know the voter has cast a ballot, and it's not even necessary to ask them about it. The only way Trump's scheme could plausibly work is if his supporters put their ballots in the mail on or near Election Day, too late for it to be noted on the voter rolls, and then also toddle down to their polling places to vote again. Even that would not work, however, as the people who run the elections will figure out that the person voted twice, and will destroy the absentee ballot. And so, the only effect—assuming many thousands of people were to take Trump's advice—would be to create a bit of chaos and uncertainty, while also exposing each of those people to the very real possibility of going to the pokey for a nice, long visit. In North Carolina, for example, knowingly voting twice is a Class I felony, which means it carries a possible penalty of a hefty fine and 3-12 months behind bars.

Q: When I turn on the TV on election night and I see the scroll say things like "Virginia: Biden 63%, Trump 35%, 48% precincts reporting," where do those numbers come from? Are they coming from exit polls by the press (AP), or are these actually officially counted votes that run through the machine? If it's the former, why would the AP conduct these polls, knowing it's such a small portion of the electorate and could cause Trump to declare victory on election night? If it's the latter, can't the states' election departments choose to wait for all votes to be counted before publishing anything, especially in those states with Democratic leadership? J.L., Wanamingo, MN

A: There are two different sets of information in use here. When you see "precincts reporting," like the example you noted in your opening sentence, that always reflects actual vote totals that have been tallied and announced. What generally happens is that, as each precinct reports, the state's secretary of state provides updates, either in the form of press releases, or postings to a state-run website, or both.

The other sort of information is exit polls. The purpose of those (and the numbers aren't usually reported, so as to avoid confusion) is to allow the AP (and others) to make well-educated guesses about what is going to happen once the votes are counted. So, if the AP (or CNN, or MSNBC, or Reuters, or whoever) calls, say, Virginia with only 30% of the precincts reporting, what that means is something like: "We did exit polls in Richmond, Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg, and learned that the composition of the electorate makes a Trump victory impossible, especially now that the reported vote totals show a middling presidential performance in the traditional Republican bastions of Arlington and Blacksburg."

As to withholding results, that is somewhat a matter of state and local law; some states/municipalities allow it, some don't, and some have no explicit rules in either direction. The reason we say somewhat is that a state secretary of state—say, Arizona's Katie Hobbs (D)—could decide of her own volition to withhold results until every ballot is counted. Even if state law does not allow that, Hobbs could undoubtedly find some nominally plausible statutory basis for her actions, and Gov. Doug Ducey (R) would have a very tough time getting a court order before the count is completed.

Q: If a voter mails in the ballot a week before Election Day, but dies before Election Day, does the vote count? J.T., Seattle, WA

A: As a legal matter, it varies from state to state. Some states allow such ballots, others do not. As a practical matter, it is nearly impossible for a state to toss out such a ballot, unless someone close to the deceased makes a serious effort to inform the authorities of the voter's demise. This does not happen very often.

Q: Why is it not considered a conflict of interest for a president to choose their own attorney general? I know this system usually works and there is no method to completely avoid partisan appointments, but having an AG candidate tell an equally partisan Senate whatever it is they need to get confirmed seems like a poor process for a position that is a single choke point for obstructing any federal case against the president. This is like being charged with a crime and getting to choose your own lawyer to be the judge. M.M., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

A: The Founding Parents expected that officeholders in the republic would be men of honor, and could be trusted to do the right thing, even if the right thing was not legally required. This obviously did not work with Donald Trump, who has made a career of abusing various honor systems for his own benefit. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold made that very observation in an interview published by Slate this week.

Fixing the problem is no easy thing, as—beyond the Senate's right of confirmation—the courts have been leery of efforts to impose limits on presidential appointments. Reestablishing the filibuster for confirmations might help, since that would mean an AG (or any other appointee) would have to get at least some bipartisan support. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Q: What if Joe Biden wins the presidency, but the Republicans keep the Senate, and therefore Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stays as Majority Leader. In the normal course, after he's sworn in, Biden sends cabinet and sub-cabinet nominations to the Senate. What if McConnell simply files the nominations and doesn't bring them up for a vote? Is there any recourse to such a deliberate effort to tank the workings of a Biden/Harris administration? D.R., Tucson, AZ

A: We are very skeptical that McConnell would be willing to try this and that, perhaps more significantly, the members of his caucus who are vulnerable in 2022 would be willing to play along.

That said, let's imagine McConnell attempts it, whether with cabinet officials, or judges, or whomever. It's possible that Biden could employ a brute force approach, and argue that by failing to take any action on his nominees, the Senate has tacitly approved them. That would be shaky, legally, it is true. On the other hand, the legality of DHS Secretary Chad Wolf is also shaky, and yet he's been on the job for over a year. Or he could name them all as acting secretaries, as Trump so often did, and dare McConnell to do anything about it.

The alternative, and the likelier, course of action is that Biden would file a lawsuit arguing that "timely" consideration of nominees is implied by the Constitution, even if it's not stated outright. That would go to the Supreme Court, and might well produce 9-0 decision in Biden's favor. There is no legal argument that the authors of the Constitution intended for key government posts to remain unfilled for four or eight years. Assuming we are right, the Court would set a deadline for voting on nominees, and that deadline would likely be binding henceforth.

You might wonder why we would answer this way, in view of what happened with Merrick Garland. And the answer is that Barack Obama did not press that situation because he was "no drama Obama" and because he thought Hillary Clinton was sure to win, such that he could afford to leave Garland twisting as a useful wedge issue. If Obama knew what was coming, he would have acted differently, for certain.

Q: Each day I look at your projected electoral map as well as the news you report on recently released polls. Obviously, there is a lot of focus on the big swing states, but what can you tell us about a state like Arkansas? Do you think Biden really is within the margin of error in this Deep Southern state?

Also, has there been much presidential polling of NE-02 and ME-02? Depending on how you tinker with the map, those two EVs could end up being consequential (the difference between a 270-268 margin or a 269-269 tie). I've seen some prognosticators giving NE-2 to Biden and ME-2 to Trump (which he did win in 2016). Can you include polling of those on your map, assuming there are any?
K.F., Framingham, MA

A: As to Arkansas, it's certainly plausible the contest is that close. Arkansas has a sizable number of conservative Democrats and an additional chunk of sorta-centrist Republicans who used to be Democrats. And so, a centrist Democrat definitely has a puncher's chance in the Razorback State. Don't forget that Arkansans twice gave their EVs to native son and centrist Democrat Bill Clinton in recent memory. Even more recently, they twice elected centrist Democrat Mike Beebe to the governor's mansion (he served 2007-15).

As to ME-02 and NE-02, it would not be easy to reprogram our site to accommodate that. We might still do it nonetheless, but it would also not be all that valuable. The odds of them being difference-makers are quite small (less than 1%), and they are not often polled individually. For what it is worth, ME-02 has been polled three times this cycle, giving Joe Biden an average lead of 1 point, and NE-02 has been polled twice, giving him an average lead of 9 points.

Q: Have you ever considered shortening your look back window from a week during the final stretch of the campaign? For example, post-Oct. 20, you could consider using a 3-5 day window as opposed to a full week. In theory, members of the electorate are paying more attention so late in the cycle. I recognize that there are purportedly fewer undecided voters this year, but the overreliance on fresher data might allow you to catch some late breaking trend. Enough polls should be available in the "swing states" to limit the gyrations. J.K., Short Hills, NJ

A: We did an experiment in previous cycles after the election by trying various look-back periods starting at Election Day and going backwards. The tradeoff is older data and more data vs. less data but fresher data. The results were not crystal clear, but a week seemed like a sweet spot.

The problem with polls is that the statistical margin of error isn't the only factor to worry about. Every pollster has a model of the electorate and often they are wrong because they can only guess how many non-college wealthy Latino Republican-leaning seniors are going to vote. By having more pollsters in the mix, the effects of incorrect models tend to average out. With a short window, say 3 days, we risk having only one poll from, say, Arizona, and then a bad model from that one pollster would have an oversized effect.

Q: If national and swing state polling remain as they are now to the end of the election cycle, and Trump still wins, does it make sites like yours obsolete? What is the point of polls if nefarious Republican strategies to suppress the vote make them consistently wrong? J.L., Wanamingo, MN

A: Well, we would hope that we provide some value beyond the numbers. But in any case, there is a reason that landslides matter—they translate into mandates. And conversely, presidents who win by a hair often struggle to get their agenda passed for want of political capital.

If sites like ours make clear that a Biden victory should have happened, and yet a Trump victory does happen, particularly in mathematically improbable/impossible ways, then the President might be able to hold onto his job for four more years, but anyone and everyone who opposes him would have a blank check to resist him. We're talking pushback from blue states, we're talking protests in the streets, we're talking prosecutors in New York moving forward with criminal indictments and civil lawsuits, we're talking a Democratic-controlled House that won't even talk to the President. We, and in particular (Z), are skeptical he'll be able to steal the election. But even if he does, he'll find it to be a hollow victory, we think.

Q: Yesterday, I got a phone call (landline) from what purported to be Rasmussen on the subject of immigration. I pushed "1" for yes (this was all a recorded voice). The first question concerned my feelings about Donald Trump, with 1 being the greatest and 5 being the worst. After that there were about 20 questions related to immigration. Every question used the term "illegal immigrants" rather than, for example, "undocumented residents." The questions ranged from what do I think should happen to the Dreamers (although that term was not used, in favor of "illegal aliens who were brought here as children") to how the growth of cities might cause more dangerous wildfires. Finally there were the typical demographic questions about me. I finished the survey, but the questions were so leading and deceptive that I wondered if this was actually Rasmussen (I know you've said they have a Republican slant) or the RNC pretending to be a polling outfit. Do parties and candidates do that? Do actual pollsters phrase questions to be inflammatory in order to provoke answers they want? P.G., Berkeley, CA

A: What you are describing here is known as a push poll, which is a poll where the purpose is not actually to collect information, but instead to plant controversial (and usually dishonest) notions in voters' heads. Richard Nixon was a pioneer in this area, but the true king of push polling was George W. Bush. When he first ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards (D), his people made thousands of phone calls "polling" voters with questions like this: "Would you be more or less likely to vote for Governor Richards if you knew that lesbians dominated on her staff?" When he ran for president, with then-Sen. John McCain as a challenger, Bush's people made tens of thousands of phone calls "polling" voters with questions like this: "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" The lesbians and the illegitimate child were both falsehoods (in McCain's case, meant to take advantage of the fact that he and his wife adopted a dark-skinned Bangladeshi orphan).

Generally speaking, professional pollsters do not undertake push polls, and such dirty tricks are left to the campaigns/parties to execute. That said, we wouldn't put much of anything past Rasmussen.

Q: It is so obvious that the Rasmussen Poll is nothing but a ridiculous partisan tool for the Republicans. Why does anyone even consider their information on their website as real data? J.C., Dallas, TX

A: Because some people don't actually want new information, they want confirmation of what they already believe.

Q: What do you think about this article in The National Review that says Trafalgar Group correctly predicted MI and PA in 2016, and now they are currently predicting Trump leads in multiple swing states (MI, MN, WI, AZ), as compared to other pollsters? Is there reason to think they are right again and the others are wrong? If Biden loses those states, then he loses the election. A.L., Cambridge, MA

A: The Trafalgar Group, which is really just one guy named Robert Cahaly, says that their poll incorporates "social desirability" bias, which is a fancy way of saying that they believe there are lots of "shy Trump" voters out there, and that Trafalgar is going to include those alleged voters in their polls. They have never given much of an explanation for how they measure these voters, but in any case, their polls pretty much always give Trump 3-4 points more than anyone else's polls do.

We hope it's already somewhat obvious what effect should be expected from this. There were a number of states in 2016 that were predicted to go for Hillary Clinton by a whisker, and some of those went for Trump instead. These are the exact states we would expect Trafalgar to "predict," given the extra credit they reflexively give to the President. They predicted, for example, that he would win Michigan by 4.5%; he actually won by 0.23%. They said he would win Pennsylvania by 4%, he actually won by 0.72%.

You will notice that Trafalgar's predictions, while "correct" in the sense of picking the winner, were not actually all that accurate. They have nonetheless gotten a lot of mileage out of their supposed prescience. What they don't mention is all the states where they were wrong. For example, they had Trump winning Nevada by 5%; Clinton actually won it by 2.4%. They also did not bother to poll some of the swingiest states, including Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota. In short, their resume isn't nearly as impressive as right-leaning folks sometimes make it seem, and there's a reason they have a C- rating on FiveThirtyEight.

Q: I wonder if Nate Silver selling to ESPN ruined what he had going on. Has there been a noticeable decline at 538 since then, or did that sale not have much of an impact on their quality? J.P., Kansas City, KS

A: If you want a fuller assessment, (Z) wrote a rather blistering piece on the site a few years back.

For a shorter answer, however, we will say two things. The first is that the ESPN (and later ABC News) affiliation put real pressure on Silver to develop a brand, and to differentiate himself from the competition. And the brand he decided upon was "contrarian with no biases." The problem with "contrarian" is that while rebels are sometimes correct, the conventional wisdom is also sometimes correct, and if you reflexively reject the conventional wisdom in all cases, then sometimes you're going to be way wrong. The "no bias" is even more silly; any serious thinker or writer knows that Platonic ideal is not achievable. And what Silver meant by "no bias" was something like "I'm going to present the numbers and let them speak for themselves." That's actually a very clear, and somewhat dishonest, form of bias called implicit theorizing.

In addition to the newfound focus on brand—which leads to the same problem that Sherlock Holmes noted when he talked about bending facts to suit theories, as oppose to bending theories to suit facts—Silver's move to ESPN/ABC News meant that he was writing only part-time, and that he was working as a manager the rest of the time. Silver is himself a gifted writer and thinker, and when he has time and energy to do things right, he can knock your socks off. However, he does not appear to be a particularly skilled manager. Some of his hires were dubious, like climate-change-denier Roger Pielke Jr. Others were good, but went running for the hills very quickly, which is not usually a good sign. That list includes folks like Mona Chalabi, Emily Oster, and Harry Enten.

Beyond the personnel stuff, another managerial issue is that quality control was (and still is) spotty, and the site has published many items that were not really worthy of seeing the light of day. For example, former culture editor Walt Hickey produced a bunch of pieces with titles like "The Four Types Of Tom Cruise Movies." Reading those pieces, it's not especially clear why the lines are drawn where they are, particularly for films that could easily be placed in more than one category. Further, there is no clear explanation as to why the categorization matters, or is instructive for film fans. And since nearly every entry in that series had exactly four categories (Tom Hanks movies, Vin Diesel movies, Scarlett Johannson movies, Will Ferrell movies, etc.), it seems like a particularly clear example of bending facts to fit theories instead of theories to fit facts.

Q: I have seen several questions about President Trump being prosecuted when he leaves office, as well as your reply to those. But, isn't it more likely that when he is out of office, public attention will shift, and the media won't focus as much on it? The legal briefs will still be filed, and the justice system will continue at its usual glacial pace. But that stuff is tedious and boring...and with him no longer being president, does it seem likely there will be that much public will/interest to continue to pursue civil and/or criminal investigations against him? And without that interest, wouldn't it cease? P.M., Currituck, NC

A: First of all, the folks who investigate and prosecute crimes tend to take their jobs very seriously, and do not "drop it" because they think a prosecution has become controversial or uninteresting. It is inconceivable to us that, for example, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance would toss all the work that he and his people have done in the garbage on Nov. 4 if Trump happens to lose the election.

Beyond that, we think you are way underestimating the interest that tens of millions of Americans have in seeing Trump get some comeuppance, one way or another. Anyone in a position to prosecute who shrugs their shoulders and says "Eh. He's not in office anymore," is going to enrage vast numbers of voters, and will put their career (or that of their bosses) at risk. And that's before we talk about folks like New York AG Letitia James, who may just see an opportunity here to score some brownie points en route to a promotion to governor when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) gets bored with the job.

Q: With all the people concerned that Donald Trump will not leave the White House if he loses, I feel like people are overlooking the equally alarming prospect that he would try to get back into the White House again in 2024. That raises a historical question: How did Grover Cleveland do it? What were the political and historical factors that enabled him to be the only man to be voted out of office and then earn a second term years later? Because it may be unlikely that Trump would get to be 45 and 47, but I don't put it past him to try. S.W., Orland Park, IL

A: The primary reason is that, although the Republicans won most presidential elections between 1860 and 1932, the number of voters in each party was actually pretty close to equal, such that Democrats had a real chance to win, particularly if they could flip the very critical swing state of New York.

Because Cleveland was pretty popular, and because he was something of a Republican in Democrat's clothing, he actually won the popular vote three times in a row. In the two Electoral College wins, he won New York, benefiting from being a native son, as well as from political missteps by the Republicans. Meanwhile, in the one Electoral College loss, he lost the Empire State by about 15,000 votes out of 1.3 million cast, primarily because there was also a native son (VP nominee Levi Morton) on the Republican ticket. Had New York gone blue in 1888, Cleveland would have won that election, 204 EVs to 197.

We don't think this is much of a model for Trump. If he tries to come back in four years, he'll be pretty old, and he will have had four years featuring things like lawsuits, prosecutions, possible prison terms, and his taxes finally being revealed. Plus, the demographic groups that make up his base are shrinking; that situation isn't going to improve by 2024. In addition, we think it unlikely that his 2024 opponent will be Joe Biden. It could be Kamala Harris but in any event it will probaly be someone much younger than he will be then.

Q: I love your work and your site and have been a longtime reader. Recently, I accidentally went to instead of .com. It gave me a notice about installing Yahoo browse-safe and changing my default browser. I opted out and it redirected me to your site. But now I'm wondering if I may have picked up some malware from a site that isn't really associated with you but pretending to be.

So my question is, is the .org domain controlled by you as well? And if so, do you know anything about this notice?
D.S., Dalton, GA

A: We have absolutely nothing to do with that other domain. Please take whatever steps needed to double-check your computer.

Q: You wrote: "Many people in suburban and rural areas like to support their favorite candidate(s) by putting campaign signs in their yards."

I guess I cannot speak for all urban areas, but this certainly also is done in Chicago. I am curious why you wrote the sentence that way.
J.L., Chicago, IL

A: Because while people in cities may put up signs, we imagined that a majority of them do not have yards in which to do so. That is certainly the case in both New York and Los Angeles.

Today's Presidential Polls

Recently, there has been some indication that Minnesota was tightening up. Maybe that wasn't the case, or maybe the strong feelings from the George Floyd situation are fading. Frankly, it's pretty hard to construct a reality where Minnesota is considerably redder than Wisconsin or Michigan, so if we had to bet, we'd bet this poll has the right of it. We shall see once a few more pollsters weigh in. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Minnesota 52% 44% Sep 03 Sep 04 PPP

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Sep04 Trump Tells Residents of North Carolina, Pennsylvania to Vote Twice
Sep04 Trump Allegedly Smeared Dead, Disabled Veterans
Sep04 Biden Goes to Kenosha
Sep04 Biden Picks Up 100 More Endorsements from Prominent Republicans
Sep04 Pelosi, Mnuchin Reach Tentative Deal to Avoid Shutdown
Sep04 Facebook to "Limit" Political Ads Right Before the Election
Sep04 Judges Say: "No Way, 'Ye"
Sep04 Georgia Appears to Have Wrongfully Struck 200,000 People from Voter Rolls
Sep04 A Bookish Solution to Absentee Voting
Sep04 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep04 Today's Senate Polls
Sep03 Biden Leads Nationally by 8-10 Points
Sep03 Biden Raises an Incredible $365 Million in August
Sep03 Florida's Latinos Could Pick the President
Sep03 Could a COVID-19 Vaccine Be the October Surprise?
Sep03 Debate Moderators Announced
Sep03 An Election Night Doomsday Scenario
Sep03 McConnell Doubts There Will Be Another Relief Bill
Sep03 Pence De Facto Admits That He Was on Standby When Trump Visited Walter Reed
Sep03 Outlook for Republican Women is Good in the House, Bad in the Senate
Sep03 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep03 Today's Senate Polls
Sep02 Massachusetts Likes Its Incumbents
Sep02 Trump Gotta Trump
Sep02 Trump's Tax Returns Will Remain Secret for a Little While Longer
Sep02 Iowa Is Your New COVID-19 Hotspot
Sep02 Trump Trying Desperately to Salvage Big Ten Football Season
Sep02 Presidential Health Under the Microscope
Sep02 Social Security Is in Danger
Sep02 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep02 Today's Senate Polls
Sep01 Trump Reverts to Form
Sep01 Biden Takes the Show on the Road
Sep01 Sanders Is All-In for Biden
Sep01 USPS Shenanigans Look to Be Backfiring on Trump
Sep01 New Voter Registrations in Swing States Favor Democrats
Sep01 Tuesday Is Book Day
Sep01 Legal Blotter: One Win, One Loss for Trump
Sep01 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep01 Today's Senate Polls
Aug31 Is There a Trump Bump?
Aug31 Trump Unleashes Twitter Barrage
Aug31 It Is Still All about the Base
Aug31 DNI John Ratcliffe Won't Brief Congress on Election Security Anymore
Aug31 A New Battleground: Yard-Sign Theft
Aug31 Meadows: We Are Not Going to Negotiate a Coronavirus Relief Bill
Aug31 Massachusetts Primary Is Tomorrow
Aug31 When Will the Election Be Called?
Aug31 Military Won't Get Involved in an Election Dispute
Aug31 Trump Keeps Putting Himself in Danger