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      •  Sunday Mailbag
      •  Today's Presidential Polls
      •  Today's Senate Polls

Sunday Mailbag

Boy, what a week.

The 2020 Election

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: In the last week, the current president—whose name escapes me—called US soldiers KIA losers/suckers and admitted on tape in February he knew the dangers of COVID (which, by next week, will claim its 200,000th American victim). Then a DHS whistleblower said he was told not to report about Russian meddling. In the past, if any president would have had a week like this in an election year, the only question would have been whether he lost the election 538-0, or managed to scrape up 25-75 EVs.

The fact that Joe Biden's lead is only slightly above the margin of error is mind boggling beyond thunderdome. Many candidates did far less and were destroyed (in part at least) by seemingly innocuous things. Think President Carter's hostage rescue attempt, Michael Dukakis wearing an oversized helmet in a tank, George H. W. Bush looking at his watch in a debate, or Howard Dean making a funny noise. None of them engaged in negligence that killed 200,000+ Americans.

Even if the current president were a swell guy and this was his only blemish, he should lose this election by 325+ EV's. This president has never been higher than mid-40's approval and his strongly unfavorables are as high as any POTUS has ever had. How this election is somewhat close is a mystery far greater than the pyramids of Egypt.

R.J.J. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Fun fact: This morning, September 8, I noticed that if we discount the "Barely" votes in both directions and look only at electoral totals each candidate would be awarded from "Likely" and "Strongly" states, the total comes out as Biden 270, Trump 138.

Not only a two-to-one margin, but enough votes to put Uncle Joe in the Oval Office.

For historical context, here are the same tallies from this same date going back to the 2008 election:

  • 2016: Clinton 220, Trump 155
  • 2012: Obama 241, Romney 191
  • 2008: Obama 260, McCain 165

I don't know what, if anything, it means, but in a year where pessimism and paranoia seem to be ruling the airwaves...well, maybe preparedness and perseverance will win out.

C.B. in Melbourne, Australia, writes: October Surprise? There has been at least one surprise every month since Trump was elected! They just keep coming—at least two so far in September! The strange thing is at the moment the polls are narrowing, even with the army scandal and everything else.

V & Z respond: At this point, the biggest October Surprise would be if there is no October Surprise.

T.G. in Cincinnati, OH, writes: I think it's already decided who will "win" the debates: Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton demolished Trump in the debates in 2016, but the media's double standard is that Trump only needs to stand there for two hours without soiling his underpants in order for them to give him a shiny participation trophy. Hillary was lambasted by media personalities, such as James Brooks, who said it wouldn't hurt her to smile more. Our media culture is one huge reason we're in this mess.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: I have been reading a lot of nightmare scenarios recently on this site, and I saw the episode of "Meet the Press" where they discussed the same subject. All these scenarios have something in common: to work there have to be a lot of people who are willing to have their name on the page in the history books that says American democracy ended late 2020 or early 2021. There are people like Joe Arpaio, Roy Moore, Glenn Beck, Nathan Bedford Forrest, etc., who will be proud of their "accomplishments," regardless of what the history books will say about them. But I'm comforted by the thought that it takes a lot of people with this attitude for any of these nightmare scenarios to work. I really think it will make enough of these people reconsider when they know they have to face the questions, "Really? You sacrificed every shred of honor and dignity you had and the nation for Donald Trump? That's the person who was worth that high a sacrifice?"

V & Z respond: This is a point we've raised many times. Any attempt by Donald Trump to steal the election, or hold on to power that is not legally his, will require buy-in from an enormous number of people.

Everybody Stay Calm...All is Well!

G.N. in Milwaukee, WI, writes: People seem to be missing the most significant issue with Donald Trump claiming that he lied to avoid a panic. The issue with that argument is that he claimed China lied about the virus and he wants people to hold them accountable for it. But now he's claiming he did the same thing. Shouldn't we hold him accountable?

J.P. in Bangor, ME, writes: I am surprised that no one has publicly connected the dots regarding Donald Trump's obvious down playing of the COVID-19 risks over the last several months.

Trump's net worth (whatever it is) is comprised of a mix of annuity income from branding (allowing the Trump name to be used on a development) and outright ownership of hotels and resorts. The shift towards branding made great sense since virtually every property he owned and operated ended up in default and/or bankruptcy. But his actual holdings are still considerable (think Trump hotels like the one in DC, and his variety of golf courses) and likely form the vast majority of his assets. All of these occupancy- and tourism-dependent properties are entirely dependent on cash flow, with large operating costs and, like restaurants, are only financially viable when operating fairly close to capacity.

There is no question that all of these properties have been hemorrhaging money since March. Whether his cash flow from his branding business is sufficient to keep them afloat is unknown, but highly unlikely since numerous branded properties have ended the relationship during his disastrous tenure as president.

The entire downplaying of the COVID-19 risks is likely pure personal financial panic regarding the mounting losses at these properties and the need to restore tourism and resort traffic.

At some point he will have insufficient cash flow to keep paying his vendors. There is the possibility of some occasional cash advances to tide him over from a friendly oligarch or two, but the banking system is much tighter than it used to be and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep this secret.

I expect the shoe (more likely multiple shoes) to drop any day regarding vendor defaults at some of these resorts. It will be a close call whether he can keep this out of the news until Election Day. Whether or not he wins the election, this news will likely start trickling out shortly thereafter.

Like everything else about his presidency, the COVID-19 response is all about Donald. He is ambitious beyond his competence, he is overextended, he is losing money, and he is in trouble. Anyone who has paid attention to his career has seen this movie multiple times before. It's surprising that this is not more widely recognized.

S.K. in Chappaqua, NY, writes: Donald Trump told Bob Woodward "I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

This from the person who, in the run up to the 2018 elections, wanted to create a panic about caravans of drug-dealers, murderers, and rapists coming to our southern border, and now wants to create a panic about Antifa and anarchists who pillage and loot and want to come to reside near white Americans.

"Blatant inconsistency" is not strong enough a description for such messaging.

D.H. in Lisbon Falls, ME, writes: Great moments in presidential history when the president did not want to "panic" Americans, and so used the "Trump approach":

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941: "Yesterday, we had a little naval issue in Hawaii. Damages could be slight, but I am not sure...we'll get back to you soon. I love Hawaii, it has great beaches...some great hotels could be built there"

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957; "The issue in Little Rock may be a little upsetting...some bad hombres at work. But I am sure the local police can handle the issue. I respect the governor; he is a good friend of mine, and I don't want to get involved in a state issue."

  • John F. Kennedy, 1962: "Yes, we have some excellent pictures of cool military stuff that we found hidden in Cuba. It could be something really interesting...everyone is talking about it. I asked my friend Khrushchev about it, and he promises he will look into it."

  • Ronald Reagan, 1986: "I blame the so-called 'NASA experts.' Some of them are left over from the Carter years...If we had a real Space Force this would not have happened."

  • Bill Clinton, 1995: "Many people are talking about what happened in Oklahoma yesterday, but there are good people on both sides of this issue. Plus, I know some firms in that state who are great at rebuilding stuff."

  • George W. Bush, 2001: "Some planes got lost yesterday and they hit a few buildings, but this is not a problem. It will go away really quickly, like magic."
Raging Against Woodward?

J.A. in Middelkerke, Belgium, writes: Your assessment of Bob Woodward's culpability in not disclosing Donald Trump's admission beggars belief.

You wrote that Trump was going to do what Trump was going to do, no matter what. There is no way you or Woodward can know that. Indeed, whenever you discuss a counter-factual you emphasize just this point. Furthermore, on many occasions you have pointed out that Trump, when forcefully opposed, backs down when confronted because he is a coward. So it is far from certain that releasing the recording would not have changed the way Trump handled the pandemic. Given the enormous stakes, it was completely reckless of Woodward to keep this information under his hat.

You also wrote that the people who ignored the dangers posed by COVID-19 were going to do so regardless. Are you honestly saying that Donald Trump—if he had been forced into taking a different tack—has no influence with his base? Because the evidence clearly says he does (see Republican policies in 2015 versus now). In any event, it is quite clear that even if only a small minority would have acted differently because they either heard Trump's words on the recording or because Trump was forced to change his messaging, dozens if not hundreds or thousands of lives would have been saved. Those deaths fall squarely on Mr. Woodward's shoulders and they will never fall off.

Lastly, as a huge fan and avid reader of your site, I would have expected you to not be so naive as to Mr. Woodward's motives. He did not release this information, or indeed his book, at this time due to some moral calculus about defeating Trump or mitigating the harm he does to America. He released it now to make money and/or to be in the limelight.

So the arguments for withholding this information until now are extremely weak, not—as you say—strong. To think otherwise, one has to believe that information has no influence, that the President has no influence, and that journalists have no duty to bringing out the truth in a timely fashion. One also has to ignore the 800-pound person/man/woman/camera/TV in the room that Woodward just happened to act in his own financial interests.

I doubt that any student of yours that used such arguments in one of your courses would receive a passing grade.

V & Z respond: This is an excellent counter-argument to the one we made.

E.K.H. in San Antonio, TX, writes: Amazing that Donald Trump opened up to Bob Woodward as he did. And Woodward got him on tape! Apparently he figured out how to manipulate the Narcissist-in-Chief into spilling pretty much everything. Perfect timing to release the book now. This one, I'm going to have to read.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, writes: You wrote: "For those folks (Trump's base), 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."

Clearly, one of those four officers must be General John Kelly. Even Trump seems to think so, going on the defense by saying that Kelly couldn't handle the pressures of the job. Given that Trump continually insults Kelly—and, for God's sakes insulted Kelly's dead son while standing over his grave—one has to wonder what the hell is wrong with the man that he hasn't yet spoken up. Is Kelly's hatred of people with dark skin so great that it blinkers not only his sense of duty but his love of his son?

Kelly, by being retired and having served as Trump's Chief of Staff, has long ago trampled over the line separating the military from politics. When he took the job as Trump's Chief of Staff, the media praised him for being a patriot and a potentially calming influence on Trump. Hah! It's long been suspected that Kelly has been the source of so many anonymous quotes. If this man was a real patriot he would stop "passing notes in class" like a teenager and stand up and say for all to hear what he knows about Trump. It is his duty and it is his obligation to the men and women of the armed services, past and present, to know about the low regard in which Donald Trump holds them.

G.A. in Morgantown, WV, writes: Donald Trump's comments on the military may affect the senior vote in ways that I've not seen explained.

My 72-year-old wife's father was in the Signal Corps and was involved in, among others, the Battle of the Bulge. A geographically concentrated battle not friendly to those operating radar. My wife isn't going to vote for Trump anyway, but when the news of the "loser" comments came out, she turned to me and said, "Trump called my daddy a loser." He would have lost her vote right there and then.

Mr. Miller died in 2000, but she is still proud of his service even though she had not yet been born. I doubt if she is an outlier.

M.M. in Plano, TX, writes: Donald Trump's comments on soldiers' distrust of the sergeants and officers appointed over them would have been accurate in 1970.

Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen felt a huge generation gap with their more immediate superiors. There was an internal war between lifers and short-timers over hairstyles, music, courtesies, appearance, and customs. We, the junior-enlisted draftees and the draft-motivated volunteers, saw little of practical value in our training (which focused on how to fold underwear) or in the services' behavioral requirements (which focused on acting dumb and socially subservient).

Many troops felt the war was a mistake and expressed sympathy for the antiwar movement. Many more felt the absence of a coherent strategy and the presence of a bureaucratically twisted chain of command made them feel as if they had no purpose.

General William Westmoreland, the top American commander in Vietnam, is judged rightly as the biggest loser in American military history.

Trump is describing our attitudes of long ago correctly. But he is not describing the attitude of today's soldiers. They are all true volunteers, and they respect most of the leaders in their chain of command. They want to serve and to follow military traditions.

Trump, as always, is grasping at the past.

Legal Matters

C.F. in Davis, CA, writes: I think it's worthwhile to parse the numbers related to how Florida's 11th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision might impact the 2020 vote.

It's interesting to note in 2019, Florida had a population of 21,480,000. If 775,000 are ex-felons as you wrote, that means 3.6% of Florida's population are ex-felons. According to The New York Times, it is estimated that 1.89% of Americans are ex-felons, so Florida's population of ex-felons is much higher than the national average—90% higher! Florida has the highest percentage of ex-felons of any state in the nation. Mississippi and Kentucky are not far behind. The GOP knows where their bread is buttered. Their voter suppression tactics all over America are ubiquitous and pervasive and have been for decades.

In 2016 Donald Trump won Florida by 112,911 votes, with 49.02% for Trump to 47.82% for Hillary Clinton and 3.16% for others.

It is estimated that 60% of ex-felons register and vote Democratic and 40% GOP and third party. So, let's look at how many votes that nets out to be if ex-felons are allowed to vote in 2020. Doing the math, 60% of Democratic ex-felons in Florida equals 465,000. If ex-felons can vote, and 50% of them do, that results in 232,500 more votes for the Democrat Joe Biden. And 40% of GOP and third party ex-felons in Florida equals 310,000. If ex-felons can vote, and 50% of them do, that results in 155,000 more votes for the Republican Trump and others. This nets out to Biden theoretically losing about a 77,500 vote advantage that he might have otherwise benefited from if the 11th Circuit had ruled the other way.

It is also important to remember that ex-felons were not allowed to vote in Florida in 2016, so we are basically left with the 2016 status quo and a missed opportunity for Biden to gain a net increase of 77,500 votes if the court had ruled otherwise. It would have been nice to have these "extra" 77,500 votes go to Biden and removed from Clinton's 112,911 vote loss in 2016. Biden would have had a substantially shallower hole to dig himself out of: 35,411 votes rather than 112,911 votes.

So, if he wants to win Florida, Biden is simply going to have to make up this 112,911 vote deficit with non ex-felon voters, particularly white seniors worried about their Social Security and Medicare. As many are reporting, the 11th Circuit Court's decision could ultimately determine who wins Florida. If Trump wins Florida by 77,500 votes or fewer, you could make this argument.

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: In the item on the ruling out of the 11th Circuit, which saw 5 Donald Trump appointees and one George W. Bush appointee siding with the Republican governor while 4 Democratic appointees dissented, (V) wrote: "If you thought that the courts were nonpartisan and justice was blind, welcome to the real world."

Such a blanket indictment of the entire state and federal judiciary based on the outcome of one case is, in technical terms, absurd. It's certainly not worthy of the normally careful analysis and evidence-based conclusions that your readers have come to appreciate and value. This is not the first time that (V) has demonstrated a decidedly negative opinion of the American judiciary. Routinely, opinions that supposedly speak to a partisan judiciary are highlighted while opposite examples are ignored or downplayed. Nonetheless we have seen a number of items described on this site where Trump-appointed judges have not ruled in his favor. Other examples are here and here.

If one case is enough to characterize the entire judiciary as partisan, then I can just as easily conclude from my examples that the courts are, in fact, nonpartisan, fair and impartial, and judges carefully decide the cases before them on the facts and the law. And that, frankly, is the case more often than not. The truth is that whether a judge is appointed by a Republican or a Democrat often says nothing about how they will rule in any particular case. In fact, we have many, many judges whose own political affiliation does not match that of the official who appointed them.

What is more accurate is that Trump and his coterie, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former White House counsel Don McGahn, who treated the appointments process more as a spoils system than a search for qualified applicants, have managed to diminish the competence and independence of the federal appellate courts with their appointments. But even then, their picks don't represent the majority on the appeals courts.

It does appear that this particular decision is a nakedly partisan one designed to disenfranchise one party's voters. And I have not read the 200-page opinion, so I'm reluctant to even say that without having done so. But if it is, then we should all condemn it as such precisely because that is not the norm. That said, this decision does not justify smearing the entire judicial system and the myriad judges within it who work tirelessly under the burden of enormous caseloads and little relief to provide fair and impartial justice to the parties who appear before them. Such unfounded and inaccurate slurs only play into the hands of those who seek to undermine our independent judiciary and benefit from undercutting the public's confidence in their decisions.

M.M. in Leonardtown, MD, writes: With due respect to his otherwise solid political analysis, I think (Z)'s assessment of the DOJ's intervention in the defamation case against the President is off the mark. The motives are far more perfidious than mere chintziness and bullying, as (Z) suggested. The President was losing bigly in state court, and was due to be deposed and potentially provide a biological sample for evidence at some point in the next month or so. The DOJ intervention essentially stops the clock because, even if this legal theory is (rightly) laughed out of court, the President will appeal all the way to SCOTUS, which means any legal resolution won't occur until after the election. While "Justice Department intervenes to take over Trump's defense in defamation lawsuit" (from NPR) is a bad headline, it can't be worse than "DNA doesn't lie: Testing confirms President assaulted Jean Carroll, perjured himself in deposition" in late September/early October.

V & Z respond: You're right, that's a much better explanation.

D.P. in Seattle, WA, writes: Regarding AG Bill Barr trying to have the DOJ step in to represent Trump in the Carroll defamation lawsuit, the (main) reasoning likely isn't due to Trump's cheapness or trying to bully Carroll. Rather, it is likely to try and argue immunity from defamation. Notably, the DOJ filed its motion arguing that it should be substituted under 28 USC 2679(d)'s representation provisions. Under the same law, federal employees and officers (which debatably includes the President; the definition is a bit unclear) are immune from suit for any claim arising out of libel or slander caused by said person acting within the scope of their employment or office. 28 USC 2680(h); 28 USC 1346(b)(1). Presidents also enjoy absolute immunity, per SCOTUS, "from damages for liability for acts within the 'outer perimeter' of his official responsibility." Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 US 731, 755-57 (1982).

Those two bits of law combined indicate that the DOJ will attempt to argue that Trump was acting within his official capacity when he made the statements Carroll is suing him over. I believe Trump made a similar argument in the Summer Zervos case.

Personally, I think it's quite a stretch, but I think the logic will go as follows:

  1. Trump is President
  2. Presidents have absolute immunity for conduct within the outer perimeter of official responsibility
  3. The FTCA also grants immunity from defamation claims
  4. Trump's statements to the press that Carroll was a liar, etc. were made in his official capacity as President
  5. The statements are therefore not actionable

Obviously, the sticking point is #4. It's a stretch, legally speaking, and would be a novel legal argument if adopted. But I think that's what the strategy is.

V & Z respond: This is also better than what we came up with. In our defense (no pun intended), we're not lawyers.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: In addition to your response to K.S. of Sun City Center, FL, there's another very good reason for Joe Biden not to issue a list of potential Supreme Court picks. Remember, Donald Trump is all about firing up the base. Listing a bunch of hard-right candidates does exactly that. Biden, on the other hand, is trying to keep a coalition of leftists and centrists from fracturing. If he releases a list heavy on centrists like Merrick Garland, he runs the risk of the Left throwing up their hands before sitting on them on Election Day. Conversely, if he releases a list heavy on super-progressive candidates (types like Laurence Tribe or the late Stephen Reinhardt from the Ninth Circuit), he could alienate centrists. A mix of both would satisfy no one, and in all cases, Republicans would say they are all socialists, which again fires up the base. So issuing a list of Supreme Court worthies is a lose-lose-lose-lose proposition for Biden.

Voting Matters

B.D. in Waterville, OH, writes: Just a reminder that "states differ" when it comes to voting. D.E. of Baltimore, MD, wondered why Democrats aren't going all-in for drop-off boxes. It may be because it's hard to do "one size fits all" voting initiatives. In Ohio, for example, there is one drop-off box per county, at the County Board of Elections in the county seat. Promoting drop-off boxes is great if they are scattered in many areas (and I hope the public library idea catches on), but so far, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) has resisted calls to increase the number of drop-off boxes (it's also somewhat tied up in Republican politics at the State House and in difficulties with changing something so late).

This means that in some rural counties, you would be asking people to drive to a point quite far away to drop off a ballot. That involves time, gas, and effort -- I'm not sure everyone would even know where their Board of Elections was located. Whereas you can mail something at your local post office (which even small towns have) or put it in the postal box at the end of your lane (in rural areas). In urban areas, with only one drop-off location, you're asking people to take a bus or other form of transit to get to that location. Again, that's assuming you have the time, knowledge of location, and money to cover transportation charges. Mailing is much simpler.

I wish Ohio would install drop-off boxes in more places, but I suspect they can't or won't. Frank LaRose seems to be a straight shooter and being as fair as he can—making sure all registered voters receive absentee voting applications, for example, and publicizing in many different venues how to register and how to vote. But his hands are pretty much tied by a Republican-led legislature in terms of doing anything more.

All of this is not to dispute your answer, but just to add to many of your previous comments about voting: where you live truly does make a difference. And that makes a national voting campaign difficult.

L.S. in Greensboro, NC, writes: While I do think your idea of more drop boxes in places like libraries makes sense, in reality it may not be workable everywhere. Recently, a local election official was asked about adding drop boxes and he said that under North Carolina law the only places allowed to have drop boxes are polling places. I suspect that there are other states whose laws don't allow wide use of drop boxes, too. So where allowed it makes sense to add more, but it's not a universal solution.

J.K. in Portland, OR, writes: Living in Multnomah County, Oregon (a state where everybody gets ballots in the mail and sends them back either by mail or to a ballot box), we are also fortunate in having a really great county library system. In normal years, there is a locked ballot box near the entrance of each branch library. In this Year of the Pandemic, the library has changed its system a little bit, because the buildings themselves are still closed to the public. Instead of coming in and placing one's ballot in the box, you can instead place it in the book return slot outside every library (where it falls into a basket out of the reach of somebody on the outside). From there, ballots will not remain with books in quarantine for four days but will be placed by library staff directly from book returns into the familiar locked ballot boxes. County elections staff retrieve the boxes periodically throughout the three-week voting period, with the last collection after 8 p.m. on election night. All library staff who handle ballots in any way swear an Oath for Temporary Elections Workers (the same one as the people who work at the County Elections center). Now, that's how to do it!

I.O. in Norman, OK, writes: I'm doing my best to help people vote by mail or in-person, whichever way is most convenient and safe for them. But as for me, this article makes a strong case for voting in-person, if at all possible. It summarizes some of what you've cautioned your readers on: that if, on the night of November 3, Donald Trump has a higher total of announced (in-progress) vote totals in the states, he will try to claim victory, and he will try to stop the counting of mail-in votes. We need to weaken his ability to do so convincingly. So, I will walk through glass if I need to. I will wear masks (plural if necessary) and will make sure my vote for Joe Biden is counted as an in-person vote on Election Day. Even if my state has pretty much zero chance of going blue.

E.J. in Raleigh, NC, writes: I'm a sworn election judge in North Carolina, and wanted to offer a few thoughts on Donald Trump's exhortations that his backers in North Carolina show up on Election Day to cause shenanigans.

First, Election Day voter challenges are exceptionally rare. Under state law, a challenger must: (a) live in the county where the challenge is made, (b) present evidence of their right to challenge (which is strictly limited), and (c) immediately present "affirmative proof" to the three election judges staffing that precinct regarding why they're issuing a challenge. The process is very clearly documented here, including the very limited set of accusations that would even be considered. The three judges then confer and make an immediate decision so that the whole process doesn't get slowed down for everyone else. Most importantly, as the state's own form says, "In the absence of affirmative proof, the presumption is that a voter is properly registered or affiliated." That means it isn't enough for a challenger to say they're "pretty sure," or they've "got a feeling." Any challenge not accompanied by documentation of damning evidence is immediately thrown out. Specious challenges will fail.

Second, in any election—but especially during a pandemic—a part of our job is to make sure no one loiters in the polling place. A person who walks in and tries to take up a station looking for challenge opportunities is going to get asked to leave immediately. The sheriff is happy to enforce that for us.

Third, just in case anyone thinks the way around these is to challenge specific voters' registrations ahead of time, the deadline for doing so passed weeks ago.

Fourth, election observers may be in the polling place, but they must be appointed ahead of time by their party and approved by the county. A random person who shows up on Election Day and says they want to act as an observer is asked to leave. Legitimate observers must abide by strict rules, including how frequently and under what circumstances they can interact with election staff. If their behavior interferes with the election or its administration they are removed. Thus, even being an approved election observer is not a path to creating chaos.

With all that said, I do fully believe there will be people out looking for opportunities to harass election workers on Election Day. I'm already certain I will have a handful of voters try to "prove" absentee-by-mail is "broken" by voting absentee and in-person, something that's trivial for us to detect and prevent.

V & Z respond: Thank you! We always appreciate reports from those with firsthand experience.

"Insider" Polls

B.R. in Union, NJ, writes: You had a question from J.J. of Des Moines, IA, regarding friends who talked about being aware of "insider" polls from Democrats showing the various races as being closer than what the public polls are showing. Besides what you wrote, which was excellent, I had another observation.

I receive numerous e-mails every day from various Democratic Party sources, often as many as 20. These often proclaim that they are providing me with "insider" information, and often report that their data shows various races are much closer than what the polls you report indicate. For instance, I can't count the number of these I have received referring to the race for Senate in Arizona, saying that the race there is close, where the polls you report show that it's not remotely close. The ultimate point of these e-mails, of course, is to solicit contributions, typically not specifically to Mark Kelly's campaign, but to DSCC or ActBlue or other similar organizations that work to a degree on behalf of Kelly but also on behalf of other Democratic candidates.

Since first thing I do in the morning is read your site in particular (assuming the daily update is posted by then), and the others to a lesser degree, I know that these e-mails are often exaggerating how close the race is. And I know from years of experience following politics that the reason they do is because saying a race is close, particularly one with as much emotional appeal as Kelly's, or for that matter Gideon's or McGrath's, is much more likely to generate contributions than one saying that the candidate is leading by a solid margin.

As I read J.J.'s question, I had to wonder if these sort of e-mails were the "insider" sources that JJ's friends were referring to.

V & Z respond: Certainly possible, but the "grey data" bit really sounds like the sort of trick that right-wing propagandists use. Further, those fundraising e-mails tend to make things seem "close," not like the Democrat is desperately far behind.

J.E. in Bellevue, WA, writes: Perhaps "grey data" just means a polling sample comprised entirely of senior citizens?

V & Z respond: AARP does do quite a bit of polling this time of year.

The 18%

A.H. in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, writes: I was reading your note regarding the curiosity of international readers. I have been an avid reader of your site since 2004 and have always enjoyed your analysis and commentary. Having grown up on a border town, near Windsor, Ontario, our news was dominated by Detroit network news. As a result, I have had more than a passing interest in U.S. politics since childhood.

As Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of current PM Justin) famously said in 1969, regarding the U.S.:

Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

This quote is every bit as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago.

N.A. in Cambridge, UK, writes: In the September 6th mailbag, you commented on how many people outside the U.S. have a detailed interest in American politics. As one of your long-term readers, I thought I'd offer a few perspectives.

I was introduced to your site on a discussion newsgroup for sysadmins back in 2004 and followed you fairly indifferently (maybe one hit a month), with a burst of daily reading in the last couple of weeks before Election Day. The Obama years seem now to have been a good dream and my attention was mostly centered on U.K. politics but, as I suspect was the case for many of your readers, the question of who was going to replace Obama became very interesting and the rise of one Donald Trump rather worrying. Since the election of Trump, I haven't read every day but I have read at least once a week and caught up on previous days' output.

In the same time, a lot of my energy has gone into the mess that is Brexit. That hasn't been resolved, but with Boris Johnson's working majority the drama is much less, so right now I'm watching the U.S.'s car veer from side to side on the road and hoping it doesn't crash.

Partly this is the convenience of language; like many English-native speakers I can't read any other language sufficiently well to follow politics, and the Australians and New Zealanders are sadly too far away to have much influence in the U.K.

I'm also a politics nerd; I have strong opinions on voting reform and find discussions of the minutiae of how voting works in all the different U.S. jurisdictions interesting. I follow discussions of hanging chads and computerized voting with interest—particularly the latter, since I've worked with computers since I was 5 years old.

Finally, as a trans person, I have a particular interest in this election. We are members of a worldwide community. People in that community are persecuted, hurt, and killed daily worldwide and parts of the Trump administration are encouraging such behavior. We hope (and many of us pray) for a change in the election; and it is my wish that we know the result by the 20th November so we can put the Trump presidency behind us as we remember our fallen brothers and sisters on the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

R.H. in Sydney, Australia, writes: As one of the 18% of your readers who has enjoyed and followed your blog for years, I should like to explain why and how I became interested in American politics. When I was young, my grandmother lived in New York and sent me all manner of things American which of course excited me as, in those days, anything American was amazing. Among this was a children's book on American history which I still have. Through that, it led me to explore other books, one of which was John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, which told me of the great men that dominated the Senate. The American presidency became a natural next step, and with that who the American people chose to lead them in the next four years and why. I was lucky enough as a young lad to see Lyndon B. Johnson when he came to Sydney in 1966, and later to shake the hand of Vice President George Bush and that of Gerald Ford when they came here. I have largely been a "Republican," but have recognized the positive qualities of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I have been to the U.S. 3 times and have seen the American Dream; it has always been the light by which Americans have traveled. Sadly, in these last years, that light has dimmed and the Dream turned into a nightmare. I make no apologies for that statement. I hope that nightmare may soon end and the light be brighter so as that Dream may once again guide a truly great Nation.

V & Z respond: Thanks to all of you for sharing your stories!

Vaccine Nation

J.G. in Garner, NC, writes: The news this week was that an AstraZeneca vaccine trial was halted because one participant receiving the active vaccine was diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Then, later in the week, the trial was restarted on the advice of an independent safety monitoring board and a U.K. agency. The political pressures in the U.K. under Boris Johnson must be comparable to those in the U.S. under Donald Trump.

The logic of the decision to resume this trial must be questioned. If there are 18,000 participants in the trial, presumably that means that 9,000 received the active vaccine and not a placebo. One participant being diagnosed with transverse myelitis implies a frequency of 1 case per 9,000, or 111 cases per million.

According to the US National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the annual incidence of transverse myelitis is 1.34 to 4.60 cases per million, or 1.2% to 4.1% of the implied incidence rate in this trial so far, with 60% of enrollment complete.

I won't get into details, but the way this vaccine works could trigger an autoimmune response by the body, because SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is expressed on the surface of normal cells. No vaccine like this has ever been tested in a program this large. It is possible that as the immune response develops, the body may target normal cell proteins that are found next to the spike protein on the otherwise normal cell surface. Then it's "Katie, bar the door." This could be particularly serious for a vaccine that may need to be given annually.

Looking Backward

J.T.M. in Phoenix, AZ, writes: I'm a bit surprised that (Z), as a historian, is not a bit more skeptical about the 1619 Project and its agenda. This is not simply about teaching an aspect of U.S. history that can be overlooked (although I'd even argue that isn't the case). The 1619 Project questions the very foundation of the U.S. from a controversial biased revisionist perspective. It has been criticized from the left as well as the right. You seem to be falling into the "Orange Man bad" trap on this issue, assuming if Trump does it then it's bad and racist. In general, that usually seems to be a good place to start from with Trump, but in this case I think it's more complicated. And again, I would think as a historian you would be a little more objective about the history.

Z responds: Historical material does not have to have pretensions to fairness or objectivity in order to be useful. Many college professors have had enormous success assigning Howard Zinn's outspokenly leftist and revisionist textbook A People's History of the United States alongside a more centrist or a right-leaning text, and having students read both simultaneously to see what competing perspectives look like. The earlier that students learn that "history" is not some great truth handed down from on high, like the Ten Commandments descended from Mount Sinai, and that it should always be interrogated critically, the better.

J.K. in Athens, GA, writes: I see that your comment on the America First Committee has already drawn an appropriate critique, but that critique was hardly strong enough. I have read your site many years now, finding it to be perceptive and informative. Sadly, your summary of America First suggests an utter lack of basic knowledge about the topic.

Of course, this has been a concern since 2015 when Donald Trump decided to revive the phrase. Trump and, as far as I know, anyone else who has claimed to defend "America first," we do find to be on the far-right. That is not the case with the America First Committee of 1940-41.

After the Second World War, those who continued to argue against the merits of US intervention did indeed tend to be on the right (e.g. Harry Elmer Barnes and other Pearl Harbor conspiracy theorists). That should not discount the non-partisan, and broad-based, support that America First had. Granted, Charles Lindbergh, with his infamous speech in Iowa, had a moment not unfamiliar to 21st-century smart-phone addicts, wherein something controversial is said and then apologies are demanded; the argument that what he said is anti-Semitic is, for many, debatable. And yet historians (mostly on the right, oddly enough) as well as famously Philip Roth seem to think we can group Lindbergh with genuine, publicly-acknowledged anti-Semites like Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford.

Even your attempt to note the participation of those on the left is misleading; yes, Communists participated, but largely to try to use the organization for their own purposes, which during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact of course meant non-intervention. The prominent left wingers who participated, however, were those like Socialist leader Norman Thomas and progressive Democrat Burton Wheeler.

V & Z respond: We printed your letter because we think people will want to know more about this very interesting chapter in American history. However, we'd ask that you read our responses carefully before accusing us of ignorance. The question being answered was about the influence of communists and fascists in American society, and we offered this as one example where some of those folks actually had a voice in the national discussion, as opposed to being relegated to the fringes. At the same time, we also made very clear that this was a heterogeneous group, writing: "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." We never suggested it was all fascist, or all communist, or all lefty, or anything like that.

As to Lindbergh, FDR said to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau: "If I should die tomorrow, I want you to know this, I am absolutely convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi." (Z)'s grandmother knew Lindbergh, and said the same.

Words Matter

P.M. in Currituck, NC, writes: Thank you for the clarification regarding the definition of the term "genocide." It, and other terms (such as "fascist"), are often thrown around in a wanton manner. One issue our society has today is how language is used in such a cavalier manner; I applaud you both in setting the record straight when you encounter examples of that. If the President had someone similar, we likely would not have been subjected to such dreck as "I profoundly accept this nomination." Ugh.

F.L. in Denton, TX, writes: R.W. in San Francisco, CA, wrote: "Louisiana under Governor Huey Long in the 1920's and early 1930's was a true fascist government in power." Pardon the length of this rebuttal, but this old LSU Tiger would like to take a bite out of that.

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of 'fascism', but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart (concerning pornography), we know it when we see it. Perhaps R.W. is confusing Long with the fictional characters Willie Stark (All the King's Men) or Buzz Windrip (It Can't Happen Here). As for Stark, Robert Penn Warren specifically wrote, "Willie Stark was not Huey Long." Windrip isn't even close.

As his career progressed, Huey did take steps to tighten his grip on power, as fascists do. He had his subordinates sign undated resignation letters. State employees had to "donate" some of their pay into the aptly-named "Deduct Box," which was to be used for Long's re-elections. During his last few years, he consolidated a great deal of power into the office of governor by securing the passage of various laws. It is also safe to say that there was little love lost between him and the major newspapers.

But Louisiana politics in the '20s wasn't beanbag. Long had to play hardball or he wouldn't even have gotten an at bat against the "Old Regulars," who were, far and away, more corrupt, ineffective, and uncaring. Even after Long was elected, they didn't exactly take their ball and go home—they opposed him every step of the way.

Was Huey a populist? Definitely. He espoused ideas that were popular to ordinary people. A demagogue?

T. Harry Williams, his biographer, argued that he was not. Part of fascism and demagoguery is the scapegoating of an "other." Huey did that, but it was not against a race or religion. "Treat [Blacks] just the same as anybody else, give them an opportunity to make a living, and to get an education." Not something you hear from most Southern politicians, even today. Of Adolf Hitler (well before the war), Long said, "Don't liken me to that [SOB]. Anybody that lets his public policies be mixed up with religious prejudice is a plain [GD] fool." Long openly threatened a KKK leader, saying that, should he set foot in Louisiana, he would soon leave with "his toes turned up." Long also removed poll taxes, so more Blacks and poor whites could vote.

Fascists and demagogues don't care about minorities; they vilify them and they certainly don't want them at the polls.

As mentioned, Long did have his "bogeymen." Apart from the Old Regulars, they were big businesses, and the biggest of all was Standard Oil—hardly a helpless minority. But unlike fascists or communists, he didn't want to nationalize them; he just wanted big business to pay their share.

He greatly increased funding to public education, built dozens of schools, and bolstered LSU. All schoolchildren received free textbooks; this was a novel idea at the time, which took three years of court challenges, culminating in a SCOTUS appearance. Long built an enormous charity hospital system and founded the LSU medical school.

Fascists don't much want an educated public.

Against fierce opposition, Long dragged Louisiana into the 20th century with a litany of infrastructure projects. At his start, there were 300 miles of paved road; when he was done, there were over 13,000 miles and more than 100 new bridges, including New Orleans' first across the Mississippi River. He also provided New Orleans with natural gas and an airport. Contrary to popular belief, Mussolini couldn't even get the trains to run on time. Long's dying words were, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do." Said no fascist leader, ever.

True, Long cost some dissidents their jobs at a time when jobs were scarce, but he never sent anyone to a "camp," which is more than FDR could say. He did not incite torture, a sin of numerous presidents. No reporters were put in prison, although, admittedly, a few photographers got roughed up. There was no hostage-taking. He didn't build a "war machine." There were no assassinations—except his own.

A populist? Definitely.

A socialist? Long's "Share Our Wealth" program looks very similar to proposals by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

A demagogue? Depending on one's definition, worthy of discussion.

A fascist? No.

As Huey put it, "Oh, hell, say that I'm sui generis and let it go at that."

C.W. in Carlsbad, CA, writes: Yes, spelling counts when you're trying to manage a popular and informative website. But your spelling errors are nothing compared to this one:

Ad from the Donald Trump campaign 
bragging that he's been nominated for the Noble (not Nobel) Peace Prize

All I can say is: If this is how the Trump campaign wants to spend their funds, fine with me.

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: In general, my speech/writing patterns are such that I can make a sailor (of any nationality) blush deep, deep red; and I have been able to do so for the past half century, at least—in multiple languages.

That said, I fully support your editorial style related to "foul language," and not simply for the reasons that E.K. in New York, NY highlighted. Those of us who use "f***" like a comma can quickly and easily fill in the blanks when reading your posts. I do not need it spelled out to grasp the deadly disaster of the Republican Administration and the congressional Republicans, who are complicit and enabling in the efforts to destroy our democracy.

Furthermore, my concern is that using such language, whether in print or verbally, will turn off some of the very people we need to bring into our big tent. When speaking in certain circles, I use "bleep" or "eff" to convey the same intensity. My tone of voice certainly can convey the depth of my disgust or anger, without offending others. Using asterisks (or special characters %!#$#@) in print is necessary, in my opinion, to accomplish the same type of communication, especially when you are writing to address a large, varied group.

As to The New York Times actually printing what Trump said about Senator McCain, I can only say that the NYT editorial staff have skillfully communicated the disrespect held by the current occupant of the White House for anyone who disagrees with him, by having used his actual (disparaging) language. The direct quote was masterful. It has nothing to do with sensitive ears and everything to do with showing what kind of a despicable being he actually is.

So, count my support as another one for your current writing style.

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, writes: As an Internet discussion thread lengthens, the odds of it descending into incomprehensibility approaches marchtuf nogabiles.


D.A. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: The first websites I check each a.m. are EV and XKCD, in that order. Today, there was a bit of synchronicity that I thought I'd share:

A stick man pooh-poohs polling,
saying you have to talk to the man on the street to get to the truth, and ultimately points out without irony that the high and
mighty polls say that people don't think it's smart to play in traffic, but that you don't find any men on the street who say that

G.C. in New York, NY, writes: Paraphrasing a bit, you wrote, "Picking Trump's worst week is like picking the worst song by Nickelback." You can definitely rule out "Leader of Men."

V & Z respond: (Z) once overheard a conversation between three gentlemen at the UCLA location of the West Coast smoothie chain Jamba Juice. They were discussing their favorite smoothie flavors, their enjoyment of Pirate's Booty low-calorie snacks, and their favorite Nickelback songs. It would have been the most "stuff white people like" conversation that ever took place, if not for the fact that all three of the gentlemen were Black.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, writes: Frostbite Falls is real? I thought only Rocky & Bullwinkle lived there with the occasional visit from those two "illegals," Boris & Natasha.

V & Z respond: Don't forget that Boris & Natasha were Russian, and so they are a-ok these days. As to Frostbite Falls, it's not real, but it's based on a real place, namely International Falls. We took a look, and found some evidence that residents of the town use the fictional name as a nickname for the real place, in much the same way that Mayberry (fictional) is sometimes used as a nickname for Mt. Airy, NC (the real-life inspiration for Sheriff Andy Taylor's hometown in The Andy Griffith Show). So, we let it stand.

Today's Presidential Polls

We doubt New Hampshire is going to go for Trump, but if it does, it will stick out like a sore thumb on the electoral map—right shape and everything. We also do not foresee a world in which Joe Biden wins Arizona easily, but loses Nevada. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Minnesota 50% 41% Sep 08 Sep 10 Siena Coll.
New Hampshire 45% 42% Sep 08 Sep 11 Siena Coll.
Nevada 46% 42% Sep 08 Sep 10 Siena Coll.
Wisconsin 48% 43% Sep 08 Sep 10 Siena Coll.
Wisconsin 50% 43% Sep 01 Sep 10 Morning Consult

Today's Senate Polls

There hasn't been much polling of this race, but Jason Lewis is fringy to the point that we would guess 40% is pretty near his ceiling. Tina Smith didn't really want the job, but she's a good soldier who did what her party asked of her. Now's she's stuck with it for another 6 years. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Minnesota Tina Smith* 49% Jason Lewis 40% Sep 08 Sep 10 Siena Coll.

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Sep12 Appeals Court Rules Ex-Felons Must Pay to Vote
Sep12 Saturday Q&A
Sep12 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep12 Today's Senate Polls
Sep11 Trump Reaps the Woodward Wind
Sep11 Senate COVID-19 Bill Dies a Quick Death
Sep11 The August Fundraising Numbers Are In
Sep11 Whistleblower: I Was Told to Ignore Russia
Sep11 Trump Renews His Nobel Peace Prize Push
Sep11 Trump Bans Drilling off the Coast of Southern States
Sep11 COVID-19 Diaries: Do or Die
Sep11 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep11 Today's Senate Polls
Sep10 Ipsos National Poll: Biden 52% and Trump 40%
Sep10 Trump Is Gaining among Latinos in South Florida
Sep10 HHS Tried to Muzzle Fauci
Sep10 Trump Releases a List of Possible New Supreme Court Justices
Sep10 Senate Races Are Almost All Filled in Now
Sep10 Why Predicting The Election Is So Difficult This Year
Sep10 Eight Questions That Could Decide the Election
Sep10 Anonymous Sources Are Essential to Modern Political Reporting
Sep10 Democrats Are Looking Down
Sep10 Ginsberg Comes Clean
Sep10 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep10 Today's Senate Polls
Sep09 Another Bad Day on the COVID-19 Front
Sep09 The Justice Department Confirms It Is Indeed Trump's Personal Legal Team
Sep09 Cohen Book Is Released
Sep09 McConnell Prepares for Some Senatorial Kabuki Theater
Sep09 Trump Yet Again Encourages Supporters to Take the Law Into Their Own Hands
Sep09 Trump Campaign Has Cash Flow Problems
Sep09 DeJoy Investigations Are Coming
Sep09 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep09 Today's Senate Polls
Sep08 Trump Blames the Democrats for...Everything
Sep08 Trump Attacks the Military's Leadership, Too
Sep08 Trump Tosses Out Some Very Red, Culture-Wars-Flavored Meat
Sep08 DeJoy Gets Introduced to the Underside of the Bus
Sep08 Poll: Voters Think Trump Is More Likely to Win the Debates
Sep08 Judge to Census Bureau: Keep Counting
Sep08 Chris LaCivita Will Try To Rescue Trump
Sep08 Today's Presidential Polls
Sep08 Today's Senate Polls
Sep07 National Poll: Biden Leads Trump by 10 Points
Sep07 Trump Is Betting on YouTube This Time
Sep07 Trump Is Going after Harris
Sep07 Kevin McCarthy: Trump's War on Absentee Ballots Could Screw Us
Sep07 Jeffrey Goldberg: I Stand by My Reporting
Sep07 DeJoy May Have Broken the Law
Sep07 Barr Is Trump's Lap Dog