National Polls Don’t Mean Much; Here’s Why

“Here we go with the Fake Polls,” President Donald Trump tweeted on July 15.  “Just like what happened with the Election against Crooked Hillary Clinton.” He’s complaining about several polls that show him losing the national popular vote to various Democratic presidential aspirants, in some cases by double digits.

He has a point. In 2016, most polls showed Hillary Clinton winning handily and most Americans seem surprised when Trump emerged victorious.

On the other hand, Trump’s future isn’t quite as indisputably bright as he’d have you believe.

We’re looking at two separate problems.

The first problem is the false perception that there’s a “national popular vote” or, concomitantly, “winning nationally.” There isn’t.

The second problem is that in recent years polling techniques just haven’t produced very accurate results.

First, the “national popular vote”:  Hillary Clinton received more votes nationwide than Trump did in 2016, but lost the election because all of each state’s electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote in that state (except Nebraska and Maine, which apportion their electoral votes by congressional district). A narrow win in a state gets you exactly as many electoral votes as a landslide and vice versa.

Clinton won California, beating Trump by more than 4 million votes. Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump nationwide. But Trump racked up 304 electoral votes to her 227 with small-margin wins in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Nationally, the election turned on fewer than 80,000 individual votes in those last three states.

That’s how it works. A “national” poll can’t tell us who will win a presidential election because it doesn’t capture the relevant data.

Second, the problem with polling as such: Pollsters are having a harder time identifying and reaching representative samples of likely voters who willingly share their preferences.

In 2016, I predicted (six months in advance) that Trump would win Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Friends told me I was crazy to think he’d win any of those states. He won them all — and with them, the election.

My formula for predicting the outcome those states was simple: I believed that any state in which Clinton didn’t enjoy at least a 5% polling advantage would go for Trump, because Trump was activating a demographic — rural Republicans — that was going to turn out at much higher than usual levels but that pollsters weren’t reaching.

What’s Trump’s 2020 problem? A few tens of thousands of Democratic votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and possibly Florida would enough to reverse the Electoral College outcome.

In 2016, Trump was at the top of his turnout game and the Democrats were at the bottom of theirs. He has nowhere to go but down. They have nowhere to go but up.

My prediction: Trump won’t win any states in 2020 that he didn’t win in 2016. The question is how many states (and thus how many electoral votes) the Democratic nominee can wrench from his grasp. Two would be enough, if one of them is Florida. Without Florida, it would take three.

It’s closer than it looks, folks.

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Free Speech Just Isn’t That Complicated

It’s hard to believe we need to have this conversation in this day and age. But if we don’t keep having it, at some point we might not be allowed to have it.

Question: What is free speech? Or, rather what is NOT free speech?

In 2017, former Vermont governor,  presidential candidate, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean informed the American public that “[h]ate speech is not protected by the first amendment.”  That’s one variation of the “hate speech is not free speech” claim.

Yes, “hate speech” is free speech (and yes, it’s protected by the First Amendment).

On July 12, speaking at a White House “social media summit,” President Donald Trump opined that “free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad. To me, that’s a very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”

Yes, calling something “bad” that Donald Trump calls “good” is free speech too (and yes, it is also protected by the First Amendment).

This  shouldn’t even be an “issue.” It’s just not that complicated, folks. But for some reason we’re still MAKING it complicated.

Ever since the framers enshrined freedom of speech in the Constitution, Americans have struggled with what, if any, limits can be legitimately placed on that freedom.

The law and the courts have carved out limited exceptions for things like speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” “true threats of violence,” and knowingly false speech aimed at defaming a person’s character or defrauding others in a commercial sense (e.g. “I’m selling you one ounce of gold” when it’s actually one ounce of lead with gold paint on it).

There are plenty of reasonable arguments to be had about what, if any, exceptions to unfettered freedom of speech might make sense.

But when it comes to matters of opinion,  the only reasonable position is that you’re entitled to have opinions, and to express them, period.

Even if Howard Dean thinks they’re “hateful.”

Even if Donald Trump thinks that he’s “good” and that you’re making him look “bad.”

Even if they make someone feel angry or, to use the latest non-specific catch-all complaint, “unsafe.”

We don’t have to agree with others’ opinions. We don’t have to like the manner in which others express their opinions. We don’t even have to listen to other people when they express their opinions. But we don’t get to stop them from expressing their opinions. Not even if we’re Howard Dean or Donald Trump.

In anything resembling a free society, that’s just not negotiable. And no politician who argues otherwise should ever win an election to the position of dog-catcher, let alone governor or president.

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Did Jeffrey Epstein “Belong to Intelligence?”

In 2008, billionaire asset manager Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers negotiated a very favorable plea bargain in Florida, under which he served a mere 13 months in jail — in his own private wing, with 12 hours of daily “work release” — on a single charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor (the FBI had identified 40 alleged victims of sexual predation on his part).

Epstein’s in jail again, this time in New York, on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. Again, prosecutors allege at least 40 victims.

A prospective 41st casualty of the case, perhaps not an undeserving one, is Alexander Acosta. As US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Acosta negotiated that sweetheart 2008 plea agreement. Now he faces calls for his resignation as US Secretary of Labor.

How did the plea agreement come about? For an easy explanation,  look to a (supposed) exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

More money buys more formidable lawyers (in Epstein’s case, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr). More money usually means friends with more money, and with the influence that goes with having more money. It’s just a fact of life that more money sometimes means getting away with — or at least getting off easier for — things would put you or me in jail for a long, long time.

But another possibility rears its ugly head. In an article for The Daily Beast, investigative journalist Vicky Ward quotes a former senior White House official, in turn quoting Acosta’s response to questions about Epstein during his interview with President Donald Trump’s transition team:

“I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone.”

Yes, we’re getting that quote at third hand. Unfortunately, yes, it sounds plausible.

Suppose you were a wealthy and influential man with wealthy and influential friends — not just celebrities, but business moguls and politicians — from around the globe.

Suppose you held wild sex parties on your private island and invited those wealthy and influential friends, even ferrying some of them to the island on your personal Boeing 727 airliner.

Suppose those wild sex parties included the presence, voluntary or coerced, of  young (perhaps illegally so) women.

That’s pretty good extortion material, isn’t it?

Now suppose a government intelligence agency offered to protect you from prosecution for your escapades — perhaps by leaning on a federal prosecutor to make the matter go away with minimal punishment —  in return for that extortion material?

Is that how things happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But if so, it would be far from the first time that innocent men, women and children have been sacrificed to the false idol of “national security.”

Since World War Two, the United States has built itself into a “national security state” which recognizes no ethical or legal constraints. It’s doesn’t exist to protect the American public. It exists to protect itself. And, too often, it protects the predators among us.

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Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

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Marianne Williamson is Right About American Elections

Self-help guru Marianne Williamson isn’t likely to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, despite having probably served the American public more ably than any of her opponents (among other things, her Project Angel Food delivers millions of meals to the seriously ill).  Good works aside, she’s a little too “New Age,”  spiritual, and individualist/voluntarist-oriented for a population  increasingly viewing coercive government as its living and unquestionable God.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to her, though, especially when she points out major flaws in the system. At a July 3 campaign event in New  Hampshire, Williamson discussed the “illusion of choice” in American elections, comparing them to Iran’s, where “you can vote for whoever you want, among the people that they tell you it’s OK to vote for.”

Afterward, Williamson backed off just a hair, calling her remarks “a cautionary tale, not a direct analogy.” She shouldn’t have.

Iran’s parliament, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, includes 290 representatives. Of those seats, 216 are split between three political parties, 66 are held by independents, and five are reserved for religious minorities.

Of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, 434 are split between two political parties, with a lone independent holding the 435th. The US Senate is slightly more diverse — 98 of its seats are split between the two “major” parties, with a whopping two independents.

Yes, “separation of church and state” is preferable to theocracy,  but our two “major” parties, the Democrats and Republicans, exemplify an iron grip on rule by party establishments that even Iran can’t match.

How do they do it? Why aren’t there any current members of Congress from the Libertarian, Green, or other “third parties?” And why are independent and “third party” members of Congress a rarity since early in the 20th century? Two reasons.

One is that unlike the world’s parliamentary democracies, which use “proportional representation” measures to accord smaller parties at least token representation, the US uses single-member districts and first-past-the-post voting. In each district there’s one winner and everyone else loses.

The second is that, since the late 1800s, US states have used government-printed ballots and “ballot access” laws to make it increasingly expensive (and sometimes completely impossible) for “third party” candidates to even appear on voters’ ballots.

According to Nicholas J. Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee, the Libertarian Party spent more than half a million dollars just getting on ballots for 2016 (not including state party and candidate spending) .

Not campaigning. Just getting their names in front of voters on election day. In some states, no amount of money is enough to get past Republican and Democratic election officials (or, in court, Republican and Democratic judges). Campaigning gets done with what’s left over.

That’s how every election cycle goes. The “major” parties don’t want a fair fight, and they’ve structured American elections to ensure they never face one.

The only way to force a fair fight is for “third party” candidates to start winning the UN-fair fights. Your votes (and donations and party participation) can make that happen.

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North Korea Nuclear Freeze? Finally, a Realistic Proposal

As President Donald Trump met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un for the third time at the end of June — becoming the first sitting US president to visit North Korea — the New York Times ran a piece suggesting the appearance of a new option on the proverbial  table: A negotiated “nuclear freeze” rather than just another cycle of fruitless US demands for  “de-nuclearization.”

The response from National Security Advisor John Bolton came swiftly via Twitter:  “Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”

If Bolton and the National Security Council HAVEN’T discussed the possibility,  they haven’t been doing their jobs.  And if anyone’s being “boxed in” by having the idea called to public attention, it’s not Trump, it’s Bolton, who prefers saber-rattling theatrics for his hawkish friends on Capitol Hill to actually safeguarding the US.

There are really only two viable paths forward for improved US-North Korea relations.

One is for the US to start minding its own business: Withdraw US troops from and end all defense guarantees to South Korea, unilaterally lift sanctions on the North, and let the region work out its own problems without further American interference. Highly unlikely, at least for the moment.

The other is a “nuclear freeze” under which Kim keeps his existing nuclear arsenal but refrains from building more weapons, in return for sanctions relief and the US getting, and staying, out of the way of improving relations and closer ties between Pyongyang and Seoul.

That second option is eminently doable. It would cost the US  nothing of real value. In fact, rightly handled, it would immediately reduce US “defense” outlays — a peace dividend, if we can keep the Military-Industrial Complex’s grubby hands off it.

Any US policy toward North Korea must account for two facts:

First, nuclear powers don’t give up their nukes. Only one, South Africa, has ever done so, and that regime didn’t face external foes on any large scale. North Korea has effectively been at war since the late 19th century, first against Japanese occupation, then against the South and the US from 1950 until now. Expecting Kim Jong-un to give up the ultimate deterrent to future invasions — by the US, by the South, by Japan, or even by current allies like China and Russia — is simply unrealistic. It’s not negotiable. The US knows it’s not negotiable. The only reason to even make the demand is to intentionally keep relations hostile.

Secondly, in the case of the United States, Kim has historical evidence as to what giving up his nukes might portend. He saw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi deposed and killed after they gave up their (never successful) nuclear weapons efforts. Kim would presumably prefer to remain alive and in charge.

A nuclear freeze agreement would not, in and of itself, produce peace. But it would be a giant step in that direction.

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