What’s Still On Mueller’s To-Do List?

As the summer drew to a close, Labor Day attained almost mythic status for followers of the Mueller investigation. Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani repeatedly claimed that the Mueller probe, which is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, was poised to wrap up by the beginning of September. Others breathlessly predicted that indictments of Roger Stone and even Donald Trump Jr. were imminent.
Instead, none of that happened. And now Mueller-watchers may have to wait even longer to learn what the special counsel investigation has in store. With the midterm elections less than 60 days away, some observers have predicted that Mueller will refrain from taking steps that could affect the outcome — although as former FBI director James Comey can attest, there’s no ironclad rule forbidding Department of Justice officials from taking action, even on the eve of an election.
As we enter this possible quiet period, however, it’s a good time to take stock of what Mueller has accomplished so far, and what questions are left unanswered.
The special counsel investigation tends to be described as a single, sprawling entity, with many details still in shadow. But there are several distinct tracks or areas of focus within the investigation that Mueller is pursuing simultaneously. Sketching out the trajectory of these tracks can help illuminate the special counsel’s strategy so far — and where it might go next. Legal experts say the special counsel is closing in on the parts of the probe that have the biggest impact for Trump and the people in his orbit.
Pre-existing illegal activity by Trump associates
So far, the longest-running element of the Mueller investigation — the indictment and trials of former campaign Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for financial crimes and foreign lobbying violations — is the thread that has the fewest obvious connections to the president. Manafort was already under surveillance by the FBI in connection with these crimes when he was working for the Trump campaign, and many of the crimes for which he was indicted took place before 2016.
Manafort was found guilty on eight counts, and his conviction could prove relevant for other parts of the investigation if he provides information about coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russian agents in 2016 in exchange for a more favorable sentence. But Lisa Griffin, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Duke University, said the “window is closing” for that kind of cooperation. According to some reports, Manafort sought a plea deal for his second trial, which could have led to cooperation, but the talks broke down.
Russian coordination with the Trump campaign
The splashiest moments of the Mueller investigation so far have been the two sprawling sets of charges issued by the special counsel’s office against 25 Russian nationals and three Russian businesses. These documents allege that the Russians engaged in a complex, yearslong cyber-influence and hacking campaign with the explicit intent of undermining Hillary Clinton and supporting Trump in the 2016 election.
These individuals and businesses are highly unlikely to see the inside of a U.S. courtroom. But the indictments are important because they offer detailed evidence that Russians were actively working to buoy Trump’s candidacy, despite the president’s protestations to the contrary, and that they did it by sowing discord, spreading misinformation, and leaking damaging hacked materials about his opponent.
The charging documents pointedly stopped short of saying that the Russian efforts tipped the election to Trump, or that Trump campaign officials knowingly coordinated with the Russian agents. Legal experts, however, say that it’s entirely possible that the indictments of the Russians are just the foundation for future charges against Americans who may have solicited or participated in the circulation of the hacked materials or offered favorable treatment on issues like sanctions in exchange.6
The question is whether these Americans — if they exist and are charged — were affiliated with the Trump campaign and how close they are to the president. One frequently discussed possibility is that Roger Stone, an informal Trump advisor who has been under scrutiny for some time because of his murky links to people responsible for hacking and leaking the Democrats’ emails, will be indicted.
Stone, who formally cut ties with Trump in 2015, was a relatively minor figure in the president’s campaign. But the indictment of anyone affiliated with the president for crimes related to election interference could mark a turning point in the investigation, which so far hasn’t addressed the question of whether Americans knowingly worked with Russians to influence the outcome of the election. And it’s still possible that higher-level members of the Trump campaign — even the president or his children — could eventually be implicated.
Obstruction of justice
Mueller’s reported probe into potential obstruction of justice has the most obvious implications for the president, although there have yet to be any charges that are directly linked to obstruction. Some experts, like Griffin, say that from a purely legal standpoint, there is plenty of publicly available evidence that Trump attempted to obstruct law enforcement in their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election — whether it was through his firing of former FBI director Comey (which the president himself said was related to “this Russia thing”) or tweets calling on high-level officials in the Department of Justice to end Mueller’s probe. That’s in addition to any other evidence Mueller may have gathered from Trump administration insiders like former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
“This part of the investigation should be easy for Mueller — it’s not nearly as complex or labor-intensive as unraveling what was happening with that Russian troll farm,” said Samuel Buell, a professor at Duke Law School and a lead prosecutor on the Enron case.
In fact, collecting evidence to support an obstruction case against Trump might actually be a less knotty problem for Mueller than determining whether he can win the case in court. Some are skeptical about whether Trump’s threatening tweets can actually constitute criminal behavior. And then there’s the question of whether Mueller would actually charge the president with obstruction of justice. It’s not clear, for example, whether it’s even possible to charge a sitting president with a crime.
But Mueller can also include evidence of obstruction in his ultimate report to the Department of Justice — which could be fodder for Congress to bring impeachment charges.
Other crimes committed during the investigation
For months, Trump has been toying with the idea of sitting down for a formal interview with Mueller. Buell says that he doesn’t expect this to happen. There’s simply too much danger that the president would lie under oath.
“In any moderately complex federal investigation, you always end up with some people who get in trouble for lying,” he said. So far, several of the people charged in Mueller’s investigation have already fallen into this category, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Dutch attorney Alexander van der Zwaan, and onetime Trump aide George Papadapoulos. Some of these defendants — like Flynn — are cooperating with investigators in other aspects of the investigation, but others, like van der Zwaan, appear to have been charged with perjury or making false statements simply to signal that lying to investigators carries consequences.
Mueller is reportedly allowing Trump to submit written answers to questions about whether his campaign coordinated with Russia to interfere with the election, which poses fewer risks. But that doesn’t mean Mueller won’t still push for an interview on questions related to obstruction. But will he subpoena Trump to appear before the grand jury if the president doesn’t agree to a voluntary interview? Whether a president can be subpoenaed in a criminal case is also unclear — and the inevitable legal battle that would ensue could carry more risks than benefits for the special counsel. (Brett Kavanaugh was asked about this very issue during his confirmation hearings Wednesday and refused to comment.) But refusing a subpoena could also play badly for the president, from both a political and legal perspective — even potentially forcing him to invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Ironically, the most concrete legal threat to Trump so far has come from outside the Mueller investigation. In August, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to making an illegal campaign contribution at the direction of the president. The charges against Cohen were brought by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who may be sharing information with Mueller but are operating independently from the special counsel.
Former prosecutors say it’s not surprising that Mueller is proceeding slowly and carefully when it comes to the parts of the investigation that have the biggest implications for the president. “This case is enormously complex,” Griffin said. “It involves international actors, complicated financial dealings, surreptitious communications — cases like this take a long time to develop under normal circumstances. And Mueller is operating under tremendous scrutiny. He’s going to want to build a rock-solid foundation before making any big moves.”
But whenever they occur, Mueller’s next announcement or round of charges could turn threats to the president that have so far been hypothetical into something very real.

Just About Everyone In Florida Has Already Decided Who To Vote For

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Poll of the week
New Quinnipiac University polls of the gubernatorial and Senate races in Florida found that both are neck and neck, with voters almost evenly split between the Democratic and Republican candidates. That’s not all that surprising in a perpetual swing state like Florida. But here’s what did catch our eye: The vast majority of Florida voters are already committed to a candidate with about two months still left until Election Day. Only 3 percent of voters in the gubernatorial poll and 2 percent of voters in the Senate poll said they were undecided.
The percentage of voters who say they are unsure or undecided tends to depend a lot on the pollster — different polling firms “push” respondents to various extents to declare a preference.7 But even comparing the results of the Florida polls, which were conducted from Aug. 30 through Sept. 3, to other Quinnipiac polls taken in August, the Sunshine State races stand out. A Quinnipiac survey of Connecticut voters found that 14 percent were undecided in their vote for governor and 8 percent in their vote for senator. When Quinnipiac surveyed New Jersey voters, they found that 16 percent of voters were unsure who they would cast their Senate vote for. And even in the highly competitive Texas Senate race, which Quinnipiac polled in late July, 6 percent of voters said they were undecided.
Other pollsters haven’t found quite so few still-deciding voters in Florida, but Quinnipiac isn’t much of an outlier. Every recent poll of the governor’s race between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis shows a close race with few voters still up for grabs:

Most Florida voters have a candidate in the governor’s race …
Recent polls of the Florida gubernatorial election between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis

Start date
End date
Pollster
Gillum
DeSantis
Unsure

8/30
9/3
Quinnipiac University
50
47
3

8/29
8/30
Gravis Marketing
47
45
8

8/29
8/30
Public Policy Polling
48
43
9

And the most recent polls of the Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott show the undecided share in the single digits:

… same with the U.S. Senate race
Recent polls of Florida’s U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott

Start date
End date
Pollster
Nelson
Scott
Unsure

8/30
9/3
Quinnipiac University
49%
49%
2%

8/29
8/30
Gravis Marketing
47
47
6

8/29
8/30
St. Pete Polls
47
47
5

8/29
8/30
Public Policy Polling
46
45
8

8/16
8/20
Florida Atlantic University
39
45
16

8/10
8/16
Saint Leo University
36
40
15

Couldn’t the Floridians who say they’re behind a candidate still change their minds? Of course. Interestingly, Quinnipiac tested this. Among those who stated a preference in the races (almost everyone), Quinnipiac asked a follow-up question about whether their minds were made up or if they thought they might change their minds before the election. In the race for governor, 94 percent of respondents said their mind was made up. In the race for the Senate, 92 percent did. That’s a hair higher than the share of Floridians who told Quinnipiac their minds were made up about the presidential election in a July-August 2016 poll. (That’s surprising because gubernatorial races tend to be less reflexively driven by partisanship than presidential ones.) It’s also a tad more than the share of Americans nationally who said they were decided about the White House in a September 2016 poll.
Considering that so many voters seem to have made up their mind this early in the campaign, there may be little opportunity for the candidates to persuade voters. This means we might see the campaigns focus on turnout and play to their respective bases. And both races seem likely to come down to who does a better job.
Other polling nuggets

NBC News/Marist polls out this week found Senate Democratic candidates with an edge over Republican candidates in Indiana and Tennessee. In Missouri, an NBC News/Marist poll found Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and her Republican challenger, Josh Hawley, in a dead heat.
An internal poll released by the Democrat challenging indicted U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter found the race tied at 46 percent. (As of Thursday, Hunter’s odds of winning re-election had fallen in FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast. Last week, Pollapalooza noted his chances were 9 in 10.
Women were 18 points less likely than men to say that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to the Supreme Court, according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey. Similarly, Fox News found a 15-point gender gap in a recent survey testing support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
HuffPost rounded up polls conducted in August that measure Kavanaugh’s support; on average, 38 percent favor his confirmation.
A YouGov poll found that Americans ages 18-34 are far less likely than Americans who are 55 or older to believe that the U.S. is a “special country.”
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that opinions about kneeling during the national anthem are driven by political and racial divides.

Trump approval

Polls this week showed an overall decline in Trump’s approval rating. His net approval rating currently sits at -13.7 points, according to our tracker. (That’s a 40 percent approval rating and a 53.7 percent disapproval rating.) That’s a drop from one week ago when his net approval was -12 points; 41.5 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s job performance and 53.5 percent disapproved. At this time last month, that net approval was -11.2 points — 41.5 percent approval, 52.7 percent disapproval.
Generic ballot

We’ve tweaked our generic congressional ballot tracker! See here for a full explanation of what changed, but in short: The average now takes more convincing before it’ll move toward one party or the other. According to our revised tracker, Americans currently opt for a hypothetical Democratic House candidate over a hypothetical Republican by a 8.4-point margin (48.3 percent to 39.9 percent). One week ago, their lead was the same 8.4 points (48.2 percent to 39.8 percent). One month ago, the Democrats had 7.4-point advantage, 47.4 percent to 40 percent.
Check out our 2018 House forecast and all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the midterms.

Why Democrats Were Willing To Break The Rules On Kavanaugh Day 3

Who wouldn’t want to spend the day watching a Supreme Court nomination hearing?
FiveThirtyEight is tracking Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony in the Senate all week long, and some of our writers will be offering their thoughts after each day’s action. Today, Oliver Roeder and Perry Bacon Jr. each filed a dispatch.

There is an ideological light burning inside Brett Kavanaugh, but the last few days of congressional testimony hasn’t told us much about what it looks like — let alone how bright it will burn if he reaches the Supreme Court. Instead, it has been obscured by two distinct, opaque screens. The first screen is made of paper. Hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from Kavanaugh’s career as a government lawyer have either been withheld from the committee, declared “committee confidential” or delivered too late for any meaningful vetting. The second screen is made of silence. Kavanaugh has relied on an unwritten rule that he says compels a nominee to refuse discussing hypotheticals, potential future cases and — especially today — current events. To do so, he says, would corrupt his “judicial independence.”
For the first hour of Thursday’s hearings, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, along with the press, tried to poke holes in that first screen to let the light in.
The confidential documents “belong to the American people,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said to his Republican counterparts. “Shame on my colleagues.” Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, released some “committee confidential” documents, drawing the sharp ire of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who declared that conduct unbecoming of a senator. Booker wasn’t alone. (Later in the day, it was revealed that the documents weren’t confidential after all.)
Democrats’ efforts did not end there. They were given a gift on Thursday morning when The New York Times published a group of Kavanaugh emails that had been marked “committee confidential.” In one, from 2003, after reviewing the draft of an op-ed written by someone else, Kavanaugh offered an edit: “I am not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe [v. Wade] as the settled law of the land at the Supreme Court level since Court can always overrule its precedent, and three current Justices on the Court would do so.”
Not surprisingly, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the first Democrat to question Kavanaugh on Thursday, began her inquiry with this email. What did this email say about Kavanaugh’s opinion of Roe or augur for his future rulings on Roe?
Kavanaugh promptly raised the second screen — the unwritten and unenforced “rules” that would make it inappropriate for him to answer — and kept it up. He could provide neither any “hints or forecasts or previews,” he said, nor “a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down” on any specific Supreme Court decisions. (These non-answers are nothing new and are thoroughly bipartisan.)
For the next few hours, Democrats tried to poke holes in this screen, too — to little avail. Kavanaugh declined to comment (or “hesitated to opine”) on Roe v. Wade, on Trump’s stance on torture, on whether Kavanaugh would be constitutionally obligated to recuse himself should certain cases concerning Trump come before the Supreme Court, and on voting rights and voter fraud. (To his credit, Kavanaugh did say he approved of the 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, the case that granted the Supreme Court its power of judicial review.)
The result of all this obfuscatory dodgeball is a series of frustrated senators on one side and a series of self-satisfied senators on the other. And the same would be true if the sides of the aisle were reversed.
After three days of this hearing, it seems to me that this democratic rite of passage has become not a circus, as is the preferred metaphor, but a maze made of mirrors. The same questions bounce around and reappear forever, unanswered — and very often you smack into walls. Eventually, one wonders what in fact one is doing there.
When a Supreme Court nominee, on the cusp of the most powerful jurisprudential job in the land, won’t talk about the hypothetical, or the actual, or the past, or the present, or the future, very little is left. What are we doing here?
Despite what he emphatically did not say, we have strong evidence that Kavanaugh is conservative. Quite possibly very conservative. But we aren’t sure what he’ll do if he gets to the court; the role of Supreme Court justices is unlike any other judge. Until Kavanaugh actually takes his seat in the big marble building, we will remain largely in the dark, bumping into walls.
— Oliver Roeder

A few thoughts on Day 3:
First, my main takeaway: The exchange between Booker and Cornyn seemed like the standout moment — because it was personal and tense, sure, but also because of what it demonstrates about the political moment we’re in.
Cornyn accused Booker of violating the rules of the Senate by talking about one of Kavanaugh’s past documents that had been labeled “confidential.” Cornyn even suggested that the New Jersey senator was doing so largely to promote a potential 2020 presidential campaign and warned Booker that there would be consequences to his actions.
Booker defended his move, said the process for releasing the confidential documents was a sham and basically dared Cornyn to seek any kind of punishment of Booker for violating Senate rules. “Bring it, bring it,” Booker said. (The documents were later revealed to not be confidential.)
I expect Booker to run for president in 2020, but I don’t think this moment was really about his political ambitions. The other Senate Democrats, including veteran members unlikely to seek higher office, like Dick Durbin of Illinois, chimed in to say that they agreed with Booker’s move — and that Cornyn should try to punish them too if he went after Booker.
Instead, the Booker-Cornyn exchange showed two things, in my view. For one, the younger, more partisan Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee — Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, California’s Kamala Harris and Booker in particular — are pushing the party to take a more confrontational path in this nomination process, in some ways forcing less partisan, older senators (such as California’s Dianne Feinstein) to follow their lead. This is a dynamic we’ve seen in the Democratic Party at large.
Second, the Booker-Cornyn run-in, and the “confidential” documents fracas in general, is a good example of why so many scholars are worried about the state of American democracy. The Republicans, in this instance and others,8 seem to be prioritizing winning over following bipartisan procedures. In turn, this is driving Democrats to violate norms.
Looking forward, liberals are openly touting the idea of trying to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court the next time Democrats are in power. Booker, Harris and other potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will likely get pressure to support such ideas. Increasingly, the very rules of politics are under constant contestation — and with two parties that think they can’t give an inch to the other.
A few other thoughts:

Durbin hammered this point Thursday, and it’s worth coming back to: Kavanaugh is a fairly traditional Republican, but Trump is a non-traditional president who regularly breaks with norms. So Kavanaugh’s views on presidential power and Trump-specific moves (like attempting to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation) are the big, important unknowns here. And because Kavanaugh has said so little about these questions, we don’t know much. Democrats are worried that a justice will be confirmed who not only upholds abortion limits and strikes down parts of Obamacare, but also allows Trump to engage in unprecedented behavior, including and potentially ending the investigation against him. Nothing Kavanaugh said in the last three days eliminates that possibility.
Republicans may be trying to limit access to documents that contain Kavanaugh’s views on hot-button issues like abortion, but I don’t think there is any real mystery about his views: He is a loyal Republican; served in top posts in the George W. Bush administration, which was generally opposed to abortion rights and affirmative action; and was nominated by a Trump administration also opposed to abortion rights and affirmative action.
Again, it’s not surprising that Kavanaugh is conservative. But I think his comments make it even more clear what the new reality on the court will be if Kavanaugh is confirmed: The swing justice will be John Roberts.

— Perry Bacon Jr.

The Rams And Bears Spent Big On Non-Quarterbacks. Will They Regret It?

A few years back, my colleague Ben Morris wrote a piece for FiveThirtyEight called “Ndamukong Suh Is Cursed.” The basic premise was that huge contracts for non-quarterbacks in the NFL are usually doomed to failure, because of a couple factors: First, the team that “wins” the bid for a player is often the one who overpaid the most; beyond that, tying up a huge percentage of the team’s salary cap in one player can hamstring a roster even if the individual contract ends up providing fair value. Ben’s example of Suh, whose highly paid tenure with the Dolphins ended in March, wound up being a perfect case study — not only was the defensive tackle much less productive after the deal, but Miami also played worse after signing Suh.
That still hasn’t scared off teams from investing heavily in non-QBs, though. Last week alone, the record for defensive contracts was broken twice — first, when the L.A. Rams extended defensive end Aaron Donald for six years and $135 million; then, when the Chicago Bears traded for DE Khalil Mack and gave him a six-year, $141 million deal. In terms of guaranteed money (the only thing that really matters in NFL contract talk), each contract ensures the player an amount equal to about 50 percent of the current salary cap, a colossal number for any player, let alone one who doesn’t throw the ball. (The QB record is Matt Ryan’s 56 percent mark, set in May; the previous non-QB record of 45 percent had belonged to Broncos LB Von Miller from his 2016 deal.) So are teams still dooming themselves, or can these new deals possibly be worth it?
Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea for a team to tie up a bunch of guaranteed money in any single player, simply because it limits the rest of the team’s flexibility to build a competitive roster under the salary cap. This isn’t the NBA. Research shows that teams built on depth — rather than a few stars plus a bunch of scrubs — tend to do better, partly because injuries are inevitable in the NFL. Megadeals make deep teams harder to build. Maybe that’s why, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, only three9 of the 16 players who signed a deal worth at least 40 percent of the current cap in guarantees since 2000 saw their team play better (in terms of its Simple Rating) over the following three seasons than it had in the three years prior. There’s a reason the Ravens and Seahawks were Super Bowl teams while paying Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson peanuts but haven’t had the same success once their QBs got paid.
The expectations for a player to produce after signing one of these huge guaranteed deals can escalate quickly. According to Stats & Info’s salary data10 and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) metric for estimating player value, a player needs to produce an extra point of AV in each of the next three years to justify every 6 additional percentage points in the ratio between his guaranteed money and the current cap. For Mack and Donald, that means needing to hit an average of about 13 AV per season over the next three years just to break even.

They’ve done it before — individually producing 15.2 AV per year since 2015 — but sustaining that level of performance is a tall order. Since 1960, there were 795 defensive players who, like Mack and Donald, produced between 35 and 55 points of AV over any given three-year span. Of those, just 116 (15 percent) reached the 13 AV average that Donald and Mack will need to break even over the next three seasons, and only 82 (10 percent) ended up matching their own established AV from the preceding three seasons. On average, this group of players lost 41 percent of its value from the previous three seasons to the next three years.
And merely breaking even on one of these contracts usually isn’t enough to help a team win, anyway. Since the NFL is a salary-capped league, paying players exactly what they’re worth will buy you an 8-8 record, all else being equal. The real value is in having players who outperform their salaries. We can see this in the relationship between big contracts and how they affected a team’s overall performance. Among established veterans who earned deals guaranteeing at least 30 percent of the current cap and met the three-year AV expectation implied by their contract, their teams still tended to decline by 1.2 points per game of Simple Rating on average over the following three seasons, with only 40 percent seeing their teams improve.
Just to reiterate: That was among the success stories, players who ultimately lived up to their contracts — in theory, the best-case scenarios for these kinds of deals. More often than not, though, it didn’t matter how well they played, because their salary figures made it hard to build up the rest of the roster. Quarterbacks can make up for this some by the fact that even top-tier QB deals are still probably paying them less than their true value. But for non-QBs such as Mack and Donald, it becomes very difficult to win championships while pulling in a guarantee worth nearly 50 percent of a whole season’s salary cap.
There are exceptions, of course: As part of their plan to build from the trenches, Philadelphia won it all last season with DT Fletcher Cox playing on a deal that guaranteed him 41 percent of the cap. Kansas City has also been competitive during LB Justin Houston’s 37 percent deal. And if you look back even further in history, as Ben did in his story, Reggie White and Deion Sanders were unqualified triumphs for big-ticket defensive free agency early in the salary-cap era. It’s possible the Bears and Rams can capitalize on their relatively cheap quarterback situations (with young signal-callers Mitch Trubisky and Jared Goff, respectively) to leverage Mack and Donald’s defensive production into boatloads of wins, too.
But it is perhaps telling that, in ESPN’s data (since 2000), the five-time champion New England Patriots have only guaranteed one player more than 25 percent of the cap in any contract they’ve signed: quarterback Tom Brady, who maxed out in 2013 with a deal paying him 46 percent of the cap. (Next-highest behind Brady is guard Logan Mankins, who was guaranteed 25 percent of the cap for the deal he signed in 2011; cornerback Stephon Gilmore inked the Pats’ most expensive defensive contract at 24 percent in 2017.) The Patriots understand fungibility better than maybe any other franchise in pro sports, and they do not commit huge sums of cash to anybody other than arguably the greatest quarterback in history.
Still, their rivals are trying to create a new paradigm. As my ESPN colleague Lindsey Thiry pointed out after Los Angeles inked Donald’s extension, the Rams have now committed nearly $239 million in guaranteed money since the 2018 league calendar began — and none of that was to Goff. As a result, their window to win a Super Bowl might be open for only two seasons before they have to start shedding talent to stay under the cap. Obviously, if L.A. ends up winning a ring anyway, it would lend plenty of validation to the strategy, perhaps spawning copycat paydays for defensive anchors. But until then, history says these deals usually just make championships harder to come by.
 

Election Update: The Most (And Least) Elastic States And Districts

Welcome to our Election Update for Thursday, Sept. 6!
After reaching a new high of 4 in 5 on Tuesday, Democrats’ chances of winning a House majority in our forecast have fallen back to Earth a bit. Recent national generic-ballot polls have been a bit less optimistic for Democrats, and as a result, their chance of taking control of the House have ebbed to 7 in 9 (or 77 percent) in our “Classic” model.11
Shifts of a few percentage points are a pretty commonplace occurrence for our forecast. But not all districts swing in tandem, even when the only new data available is national polls (as opposed to individual district polls). That’s because some districts are more “elastic” than others.
FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver introduced the concept of an “elastic state” during the 2012 presidential campaign. A state’s elasticity is simply how sensitive it is to changes in the national political environment. A very elastic state is prone to big shifts in voter preferences, while inelastic states don’t blow as much with the political winds.
An elastic state isn’t necessarily a swing state, or vice versa. Think of the difference between a state that is decided by 1 percentage point every election (an inelastic swing state) and one that votes 10 points Democratic one year and 10 points Republican the next (an elastic swing state). In other words, elasticity helps us understand elections on a deeper level. Just knowing that both of those districts are competitive doesn’t tell you everything you need to know; for example, the two call for different campaign strategies (turnout in the former, persuasion in the latter).
Today, we’re excited to unveil not only an updated elasticity score for each state, but also, for the first time, the elasticity scores of all 435 congressional districts! These scores are derived from the 2016 version of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a massive, 60,000-plus person survey conducted by Harvard University in conjunction with YouGov. The scores work by modeling the likelihood of an individual voter having voted Democratic or Republican for Congress, based on a series of characteristics related to their demographic (race, religion, etc.) and political (Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal, conservative, etc.) identity. We then estimate how much that probability would change based on a shift in the national political environment. The principle is that voters at the extreme end of the spectrum — those who have close to a 0 percent or a 100 percent chance of voting for one of the parties, based on our analysis — don’t swing as much as those in the middle.
You can download the data, which our forecast uses to translate generic-congressional-ballot polling to individual districts, on GitHub via this link. However, here, at a glance, is the elasticity of every state (and the District of Columbia), plus the top 25 and bottom 25 congressional districts (higher scores are more elastic, lower scores are less).

Elasticity scores by state
Updated for 2018

state
elasticity score

state
elasticity score

Alaska
1.16

Illinois
1.01

Rhode Island
1.15

Arkansas
1.00

New Hampshire
1.15

Pennsylvania
1.00

Massachusetts
1.15

Oregon
1.00

Maine
1.13

Kansas
1.00

Vermont
1.12

Washington
1.00

Idaho
1.12

Indiana
0.99

Wyoming
1.08

Connecticut
0.99

Nevada
1.08

Tennessee
0.98

Iowa
1.08

North Carolina
0.98

Wisconsin
1.07

North Dakota
0.98

Colorado
1.07

New York
0.97

Hawaii
1.07

South Carolina
0.97

Montana
1.07

Maryland
0.96

Michigan
1.07

Louisiana
0.96

Utah
1.06

Missouri
0.95

Arizona
1.05

Virginia
0.94

West Virginia
1.04

California
0.94

Texas
1.03

Oklahoma
0.94

Florida
1.03

Kentucky
0.94

Minnesota
1.03

Delaware
0.93

Ohio
1.02

Mississippi
0.92

New Mexico
1.02

Georgia
0.90

South Dakota
1.01

Alabama
0.89

Nebraska
1.01

Washington, D.C.
0.80

New Jersey
1.01

Elasticity score by congressional district
The 25 most and least elastic House districts in 2018

Most elastic

Least elastic

district
elasticity

district
elasticity

Michigan 5th
1.24

California 5th
0.83

Illinois 8th
1.22

Illinois 1st
0.83

Nevada 4th
1.22

New York 7th
0.82

Massachusetts 1st
1.22

Virginia 8th
0.82

Massachusetts 6th
1.21

California 15th
0.82

Massachusetts 2nd
1.21

California 28th
0.82

New York 21st
1.21

Georgia 10th
0.81

Florida 26th
1.20

Georgia 13th
0.81

Massachusetts 9th
1.20

Washington 7th
0.81

Florida 25th
1.20

California 37th
0.81

Minnesota 7th
1.19

Mississippi 3rd
0.80

New Hampshire 1st
1.19

New York 9th
0.80

Massachusetts 4th
1.18

New York 5th
0.79

California 26th
1.18

California 44th
0.79

Massachusetts 3rd
1.18

California 13th
0.79

Rhode Island 1st
1.17

Alabama 3rd
0.79

Illinois 12th
1.17

Alabama 6th
0.78

Texas 33rd
1.17

New York 13th
0.77

Iowa 2nd
1.17

Missouri 4th
0.77

Washington 5th
1.17

New York 15th
0.77

Utah 2nd
1.16

California 2nd
0.76

Alaska at large
1.16

New York 8th
0.74

Texas 29th
1.15

New York 14th
0.73

Maine 1st
1.15

Illinois 7th
0.72

Oregon 2nd
1.15

Pennsylvania 3rd
0.72

Congratulations, Michigan’s 5th — you’re America’s most elastic congressional district! The Flint- and Saginaw-based district has an elasticity score of 1.24, which means that for every 1 percentage point the national political mood moves toward a party, the 5th District is expected to move 1.24 percentage points toward that party.12 In practice, that means the district votes differently from year to year and even within elections. For example, in 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton for president 50 percent to 45 percent, according to Daily Kos Elections, but Democratic Rep. Daniel Kildee for Congress 61 percent to 35 percent. In the top 25 are also six Massachusetts districts and one each from Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
As a general principle, the swingiest districts tend to be those with lots of white voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians. (By contrast, white evangelical voters are overwhelmingly Republican, while nonwhite voters — with a few exceptions like Cuban-Americans in South Florida; note the presence of Florida’s 25th and 26th districts in the top 10 — are overwhelmingly Democratic.) These voters are plentiful in the Northeast, and in the Upper Midwest, where they were vital to President Trump winning states such as Ohio and districts such as Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pennsylvania’s 3rd District, covering downtown Philadelphia, is the most inelastic district the nation has to offer. That makes sense, given that it’s majority-African-American, a group that consistently votes for Democrats at rates around 90 percent. Seven other majority-minority districts in New York City likewise make the bottom 25. Two of the bottom 10 are in Alabama, where most voters are either African-American (reliably Democratic) or evangelical white (reliably Republican), making it very inelastic overall.
The list illustrates what I noted earlier: that competitive districts can be elastic or inelastic, and elastic districts can be competitive or uncompetitive. For example, Massachusetts’s 1st District is quite elastic (1.22), but it’s not closely pitted between Democrats and Republicans (according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,13 it’s 27 points more Democratic than the country),14 so when it bounces back and forth, it’s usually between mildly blue and super blue. And there are competitive districts up and down the elasticity scale: Nevada’s 4th District (rated as “likely D” by our Classic model) has an elasticity score of 1.22, Iowa’s 3rd District (“lean D”) has an elasticity score of 1.00 and Georgia’s 7th District (“lean R”) has an elasticity score of 0.85.
Keep these numbers in mind as the 2018 campaign goes on. Right now, we have Democrat Steven Horsford as a 5 in 6 favorite in Nevada’s 4th, but if the national environment sours for Democrats, Republican Cresent Hardy could make up ground in a hurry because the district is so elastic. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux in Georgia’s 7th, by contrast, who’s a 3 in 10 underdog, will probably need to rely on goosing turnout among her voters, in addition to a good national environment, because that district is so inelastic.

For A Passing League, The NFL Still Doesn’t Pass Enough

The 3-point revolution in basketball was driven in large part by the finding that the three has a higher expected value than a midrange jump shot.15 While the math is simple and clear, the revolution didn’t occur overnight — or even in the first few decades after the 3-point line was introduced. Because those longer shots don’t go through the hoop as often as midrangers, missing a shot feels like failure. There is a slightly counterintuitive aspect to it.
Now imagine a world where 3-pointers aren’t simply worth more as measured by expected points, but where they also go through the hoop more often. The benefits of the three would be stunningly obvious. We might even question the competence of coaches and teams that didn’t attempt them as much as possible.
That’s where the NFL is currently living. The NFL is a passing league that somehow doesn’t pass enough. NFL teams know the medicine works yet stubbornly refuse to take a clinically effective dose.
To be clear, teams are certainly passing more often than they used to. Leaguewide passing attempts per game have risen from 32.3 in 2008 to 34.2 last year, and the increase in volume has not been accompanied by a decrease in efficiency. Leaguewide yards per attempt have increased slightly from 6.9 to 7.0, and more touchdowns are being scored by passing relative to running than at any time in league history. Completion percentage is up from 61.0 percent to 62.1 percent, and the interception rate has fallen from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent. Yet despite all these positive indicators, teams remain unwilling to break old habits and throw in many classic rushing situations.
The biggest culprit is first down, the most traditional run situation. It’s here where NFL coaches are consistently missing an opportunity to pass, particularly against defenses that have stacked the box or are playing at least seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage. I’m calling these situations FANS — First (down) Against Neutral or Stacked (boxes). FANS includes plays in which the defense brings extra men close to the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes and daring the offense to run the ball. I analyzed plays from the 2017 season using men-in-the-box data from analytics firm Sports Info Solutions and play-level data courtesy of Ron Yurko, a Ph.D. student in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. To more accurately represent regular game play and eliminate noise, I limited the sample to snaps outside the red zone when the opposing teams were within 7 points of each other.
With seven to nine men near the line of scrimmage and the subsequent dearth of extra defenders in the secondary, we’d expect passing to be effective in these situations. That’s just what we found. Last season, 30 of 32 teams were more successful passing than running on FANS as measured by success rate.16 And passing wasn’t just a little more successful than running. The difference in passing success was large: 27 teams had a success rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher when passing on FANS than running; 14 teams were more than 20 points better. The league average difference of 19.3 leaned wildly toward passing.

First and 10? Time to pass
NFL teams’ expected points added per play and success rate when running vs. dropping back for a pass on first and 10 facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

RUNS
DROP-BACKS

Team
EPA/play
Success Rate
EPA/play
Success Rate
Diff. in success rate

Tampa Bay
-0.18
26%
+0.37
64%
+38

Atlanta
-0.22
30
+0.37
65
+35

Houston
-0.20
25
+0.28
57
+32

Washington
-0.22
24
+0.28
54
+30

Baltimore
-0.23
27
+0.26
57
+30

Minnesota
-0.19
31
+0.10
59
+28

Broncos
-0.16
25
+0.15
52
+27

Steelers
-0.21
28
+0.11
54
+26

N.Y. Jets
-0.12
25
+0.16
50
+25

L.A. Chargers
-0.20
29
+0.60
53
+24

San Francisco
-0.10
32
+0.23
56
+24

N.Y. Giants
-0.08
34
+0.05
57
+23

Oakland
-0.34
21
+0.03
43
+22

Tennessee
-0.19
26
-0.03
48
+22

Carolina
-0.27
30
+0.06
49
+19

Arizona
-0.20
30
+0.19
48
+18

Jacksonville
-0.01
33
+0.37
51
+18

Kansas City
-0.07
28
+0.07
46
+18

Miami
-0.18
27
+0.18
45
+18

Buffalo
-0.21
30
+0.12
45
+15

Cleveland
-0.11
29
+0.07
44
+15

Cincinnati
-0.17
27
+0.06
42
+15

Dallas
-0.08
37
+0.23
51
+14

Seattle
-0.24
25
-0.26
38
+13

New Orleans
+0.03
38
+0.21
49
+11

Detroit
-0.21
26
-0.18
36
+10

Green Bay
+0.02
33
-0.10
43
+10

Chicago
-0.27
29
-0.38
38
+9

New England
+0.04
44
+0.32
47
+3

Philadelphia
-0.05
43
+0.03
44
+1

Indianapolis
-0.04
32
-0.15
30
-2

L.A. Rams
-0.09
43
+0.10
40
-3

Source: Sports Info Solutions

Even accounting for the potential negative outcomes of a dropback like sacks and interceptions, passing on FANS keeps a team “on schedule”17 in the down and distance more often than a run. Incredibly though, there were 31 NFL teams last season when facing this situation on first down — looking down a defense that was clearly gearing up to stop the run — that chose to run more often than they passed. Here’s the same table as above, now sorted by the frequency of play type.

The NFL can’t quit the first-down run
Share of plays in which NFL teams ran vs. dropped back for a pass on first down when facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

Share of plays

Team
No. plays
Runs
Dropbacks

Chicago
98
71%
29%

Oakland
80
70
30

Dallas
112
70
30

Washington
104
69
31

Carolina
94
69
31

Houston
109
67
33

N.Y. Jets
106
66
34

Buffalo
124
65
35

Cleveland
85
65
35

N.Y. Giants
97
64
36

Jacksonville
110
64
36

Indianapolis
114
64
36

Minnesota
94
63
37

Arizona
104
63
37

L.A. Chargers
100
62
38

Tennessee
128
61
39

Tampa Bay
90
60
40

San Francisco
119
60
40

Detroit
53
60
40

Broncos
63
59
41

New Orleans
79
59
41

Green Bay
76
59
41

New England
79
59
41

Cincinnati
74
58
42

Baltimore
91
57
43

Steelers
78
55
45

Kansas City
79
55
45

Miami
56
54
46

Seattle
76
54
46

Atlanta
94
53
47

L.A. Rams
49
51
49

Philadelphia
60
45
55

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The only team in the NFL that passed more often than it ran in this situation was also the only team to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Doug Pederson and the Eagles broke from the flock and dropped back to pass the ball 55 percent of the time — which was in some ways part of a larger strategy to break from convention. “A lot of NFL coaches have traditionally been averse to taking risks,” Pederson writes in his new book, “Fearless.” This desire to zig when the other teams were zagging showed up in Philadelphia’s fourth-down conversion attempts and two-point tries — two darlings of the statistical community.
What about other more traditional passing downs? Second-and-long certainly qualifies. The league still runs as much as they pass on that down and distance, with just four teams boasting a higher success rate rushing than passing.

How often teams pass vs. run on second-and-long (7 to 10 yards) when facing a stacked or neutral box, 2017

Play Type
Success Rate
EPA/play
Usage

Run
27%
-0.20
50%

Dropback
46
+0.10
50

Difference
+19
+0.30
0

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The average rushing success rate on second-and-long for the league is just 27 percent verses 46 percent for passing, a massive difference. The average of 18.7 percentage points in pass-run differential is only slightly lower than the 19.3 percentage points on first down. And this is despite teams passing 11 percentage points more often than on first down.
If we combine the two down-and-distance situations, a clear picture emerges showing the NFL’s reluctance to actually pass when the situation warrants it.

Even adding second-and-long, most teams are still running
NFL team success rates by play type on first- and second-and-long facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

Runs
Dropbacks

Team
Share of plays
Success Rate
Share of plays
Success Rate

Oakland
69%
23%
31%
49%

Chicago
68
31
32
41

Buffalo
65
29
35
43

Carolina
65
28
35
52

Dallas
65
33
35
45

N.Y. Jets
64
24
36
51

Indianapolis
62
28
38
35

Jacksonville
62
29
38
46

Cleveland
61
31
39
39

Tennessee
61
27
39
47

Washington
61
27
39
58

Detroit
60
22
40
40

Arizona
59
28
41
47

Green Bay
59
32
41
41

Pittsburgh
59
32
41
51

Houston
58
23
42
53

Minnesota
58
31
42
57

N.Y. Giants
58
33
42
57

Denver
57
28
43
54

L.A. Chargers
57
29
43
53

Cincinnati
56
26
44
38

New Orleans
56
33
44
50

Atlanta
55
29
45
63

Baltimore
55
26
45
52

New England
55
44
45
49

San Francisco
55
32
45
50

Miami
54
26
46
48

Tampa Bay
54
26
46
59

Seattle
53
24
47
39

Kansas City
52
33
48
45

L.A. Rams
49
43
51
37

Philadelphia
47
40
53
44

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The choices made on early downs are meaningful. The Oakland Raiders won six games in 2017 while leading the league in share of rushing on first- and second-and-long against a crowded box, at 69 percent of the time. If the Raiders had instead passed on 60 percent of those occasions, they would have seen a swing of 19.5 expected points, good for about half a win.
Sometimes gains from passing aren’t absolute gains. Poor offensive teams can benefit from passing even if only to mitigate against the greater loss from running the ball. Last year, the Tennessee Titans employed a run-first, smash-mouth offensive strategy that saw them rush in these FANS situations 61 percent of the time. Both running and passing plays were losing propositions for them, but passing was still the least worst option. Had they flipped the script and passed 61 percent of the time, the Titans would have saved themselves 7 expected points, good for about a fifth of a win.
Thursday night, the Atlanta Falcons kick off the NFL season against the Eagles in an NFC divisional round rematch. Last season, Atlanta was successful on a league-leading 63 percent of passing plays on first-and-10 and second-and-long against neutral or stacked boxes. The Falcons also led the league in pass-run success differential at 34 percentage points. Inexplicably, they ran the ball more than half the time. Had the Falcons passed at a level commensurate with their success rate, they would have earned 35.9 more expected points over the course of the year, good for an additional win.
Like most of the rest of the NFL, Atlanta can improve its chances greatly by taking a page from the Eagles. On Thursday, we’ll see if they learned from their adversary this offseason. In the league that struggles to embrace change, it’s no sure thing.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Here’s A New, Less Volatile Version Of Our Generic Ballot Tracker

On Tuesday morning, a poll came out from ABC News and The Washington Post showing Democrats ahead by 14 percentage points on the generic congressional ballot. On Wednesday morning, another generic ballot poll, from Selzer & Co., also rated as an A+ pollster by FiveThirtyEight, had Democrats ahead by only 2 percentage points.
True, these sort of disagreements happen some of the time in other polling series, such as for President Trump’s approval rating. And that’s not a bad thing — pollsters disagreeing with one another, and even publishing the occasional “outlier” that bucks the consensus, is proof that they’re doing good, honest work.
But these big disagreements happen a lot more often for the generic congressional ballot than for other types of polls. For whatever reason, generic ballot polls tend to disagree with one another. They also tend to be fairly volatile even within the same poll: CNN has shown Democrats ahead by as few as 3 points and as many as 16 points in generic ballot polling they’ve conducted this year, for instance.18 Whereas for presidential approval numbers, you usually only need a few polls for the average to stabilize, it can take a dozen or more polls in your average before the generic ballot stops bouncing around.
We learned about this the hard way, after seeing our generic ballot average wobble around, variously showing Democrats with leads of anywhere from 4 to 13 points at different points this year. Importantly, the average tended to be mean-reverting. Whenever our average showed Democrats with a lead in the double digits, it predictably retreated to a more modest lead — typically in the range of 6 to 9 percentage points. Likewise, when the Democrats’ lead fell below 6 points, it predictably moved back upward into that 6-to-9 point range. A metric should do a good job of predicting itself instead of bouncing around in this way. The more technical name for this problem is autocorrelation, and when you see it in a data series you’re generating, it’s often a sign that you haven’t designed the metric as well as you could have.
The reason we were surprised by this is that the settings for our generic ballot tracker had been imported from our presidential approval rating tracker — and we’d tested them extensively on past presidential approval data and were happy with how they were working this year. You’ll notice, for instance, that when there’s a change in our Trump approval rating average, it usually sticks around for at least several weeks if not longer. “Usually” does not mean always: Just as it’s a problem to show movement in the numbers when it’s really just noise, it’s equally problematic to have the average fail to pick up on real changes in Trump’s popularity because it’s too slow-moving. But our approval-rating average tends to strike a pretty good balance between being too aggressive and too conservative.

Our generic ballot tracker was not striking that balance well, by contrast, as we discovered when creating our House forecast. It was being too aggressive.

Using a slower-moving generic ballot average19 — one that uses a larger number of polls even if those polls are less recent — would have done a better job of maximizing predictive accuracy and minimizing autocorrelation in past years, so that’s what we used for the House model. And as of today, we’ve changed our generic ballot interactive to match the settings that our House model is using.20 The average is designed to be slightly more aggressive as we approach Election Day, but in general, it will yield a much more stable estimate of the generic ballot than the one we’d been using before. We’ve also revised our generic ballot estimates for previous dates to reflect what they would have been using our new-and-improved methodology.

You can see that the new average takes more convincing before jumping at a new trend. (The generic ballot numbers as originally published will still be available — you can see them using the link under the chart.)
As an aside, this is one of the reasons that averaging polls isn’t quite as straightforward as it might seem. How to manage the trade-off between using the most recent polls on the one hand and a larger sample of polls on the other hand is a tricky question and one where the right answer can vary between different types of elections. For the generic ballot, you should take a rather conservative approach. But that doesn’t necessarily hold for something like a presidential race — being too conservative would have caused you to miss crucial late movement toward Trump in 2016.

What Arguments About Sex Ed Are Really About

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Esteemed colleagues! We’ve gathered here to discuss what we’ve learned from our exploration of sex education over the past few days. First we discussed what we know about whether sex ed “works,” and whether certain kinds work better than others. Then we explored what to do about the parts of sex ed that aren’t about intercourse, especially as kids are going through puberty earlier than they did in the past.
But to pull back the curtain a bit … We had planned a lot more! And then we ran into all sorts of issues about what we know and don’t know about sex ed, and we’re here to discuss some of that.
So let’s take a step back. The country has been fighting about sex ed for decades. But when we fight about sex ed, what are we fighting about?
maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): What aren’t we fighting about? It covers gender roles, religion, politics, morality, social status, racism …
christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer): I’d say that a lot of the arguing is really about how we should think about sex.
cwick: Isn’t it also about more than how? When should kids think about sex? What should kids think about it? Why should kids think about it?
maggiekb: Turns out that the way we talk and think about sex is a proxy for a bunch of other stuff in society. Who knew? (Other than, like, every sociologist who ever studied sex in American society.)
anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, lead health writer): Which is weird partly because we probably have the most sexualized media on the planet.
Try though we might, we can’t really get away with not dealing with sex ed, because kids are going to learn about sex one way or another, probably at ages much younger than most parents and teachers are comfortable with.
cwick: Reminds me of the idea that movies with sex get R and NC-17 ratings more easily than movies with violence. Puritanism Dies Hard! (A PG-13 movie starring Bruce Willis, coming soon to a theater near you.)
maggiekb: As the parent of a 4- and 3-year-old who has had to answer questions about where babies come from while merging into rush-hour interstate traffic: Can confirm.
christie: So what’s your approach Maggie?
anna: And was it informed by all your recent research on evidence-based sex ed!?
maggiekb: It mostly revolves around tamping down my anxiety and only answering the exact question I was asked. So when I am asked, “Where do babies come from,” I don’t launch into, “OMG I GUESS WE’RE GOING TO TALK ABOUT INTERCOURSE NOW.”
Instead, it’s been this kind of slow progression, sort of backward up the reproductive tract.
My girls did, though, finally happen to ask, “How did the information from dad get inside you?” while I was driving and trying to merge. That was exciting.
cwick: Really trying hard not to follow that “information” comment with a message that will get me fired.
christie:
maggiekb: Same, Chad.
anna:
maggiekb: Or divorced.
christie: But sex ed isn’t just about sex. It’s also about bodies and how they function and move and touch and boundaries, right?
anna: Yeah, that was one thing that was really striking in the reporting — the missed opportunities that have resulted from the political complexities of sex ed. Sex ed is sexuality education, not sex education, in the eyes of sexuality educators. There’s a lot that goes into sexuality that has nothing to do with sex.
maggiekb: Right, Christie and Anna. And it’s also about relationships and setting boundaries and establishing personal confidence necessary to protect yourself. It has been WAY more awkward for me to try to have conversations with the girls about consent and “hey, you know it’s not OK for somebody to touch your vulva, right?” than to tell them what a vulva is and how it works.
anna: So, Maggie, that makes me wonder — a lot of sex educators I spoke to talked about how parents want basic information taught in school. A conversation I had with Elizabeth Schroeder, who has written or worked on many national sex ed curriculums, was really striking to me. We were talking about what elementary school-aged kids should be learning. She said that values don’t belong in the classroom — those should come from parents — but that kids deserve to get education about this really important part of humanity from people who are trained and that being a parent doesn’t give you training in sexuality education. She said she’d be terrified if she were the primary source of information about math for her son.
I’m curious if that’s part of what you’re getting at?
maggiekb: It is. Though I also think “don’t teach values in school” is kind of hilarious. How do you even talk about sex without also talking about values around it?
We ended up killing the story I was working on for FiveThirtyEight’s sex ed series, but it was supposed to be about how the sex ed that kids get differs depending on their class, race and other factors. The story kind of died because there hasn’t been a ton of research published on the topic. But there’s enough to see that our values and beliefs get embedded into how these classes are being taught. Even if we don’t think they are. That has to do with both resource access and with the stereotypes that specific teachers hold about the sexuality of their specific students.
So for instance, one of the people I spoke to was Jessica Fields, at San Francisco State University. She observed sex ed classes at three schools in North Carolina: one private, mostly rich and white; one public, mostly poor and white; and one public, mostly poor and black. These schools were close together. The kids were often living close enough that they were going to the same parks and stuff. But they were all getting very different sex ed, based, it seemed to Fields, on what the teachers thought the kids needed to know.
Rich, white kids got this comprehensive course that was about growing up and discovering yourself and never told them whether or not to have sex. Poor, white kids got a lot of emphasis on violence in relationships. Poor, black kids got a lot of emphasis on how to not get pregnant.
christie: I see what Schroeder is getting at, but taking values out seems impossible when they are so crucial to even a simple question like what information young people should get. During the Clinton administration, Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign from her job as surgeon general for talking about masturbation, after all.
When you have some groups who think that touching your own body can be shameful or that loving a particular type of person is immoral, I don’t see how you bridge that kind of values gap.
anna: So that’s part of what’s really interesting about the tension with sex ed. Some topics are basic information to some people about things kids will know about one way or another. For others, they are fundamentally off-limits, and talking about them is normalizing things deemed inappropriate.
cwick: So say that I’m uncomfortable with my kid learning about condoms, or even just about puberty and, say, erections. Why shouldn’t each community set sex ed to its own standards?
christie: Well, that’s sort of what happens now.
anna: Before we get to standards … one thing that’s important to know is that most states have opt-out policies, as in, parents can opt their kids out of sex ed. Which is one way that states have dealt with varying beliefs among parents.
But to your question, Chad, standards are pretty haphazard. Some states have requirements, some districts do, but they vary a lot around the country.
christie: And even when there are standards, they’re not necessarily followed.
maggiekb: I think one thing that was particularly interesting to me was just how haphazard what gets taught is. Even within the same district (same standards, same curriculum), how you’re learning, what is being emphasized … that can all vary wildly. It can even change from year to year in the same school if the teacher changes.
This is one of the things that makes sex ed really hard to study. Especially if you want to know anything more qualitative than “were kids shown how to use a condom, check yes or no.”
christie: And some schools bring in outside instructors. A few years ago, my local school district brought in an abstinence-only sex educator, whose talks were sponsored by a faith-based nonprofit, to give presentations to students. A lawsuit filed against the district says the speaker compared girls who have sex before marriage to a dirty diaper. And in this video, she compares them to “used tape.”
cwick: That diversity of implementation makes sex ed hard to cover and study from both a journalism and science perspective, right?
maggiekb: Yep.
christie: Very much so.
anna: Si.
maggiekb: I think it also makes it hard from a parenting perspective. Whatever your beliefs about what your kids should be taught about sex in school, there are people telling you that you ought to be paying attention to this, ought to know what the standards are, ought to be engaged and doing activism around it.
But there’s not a great way to know exactly what’s being taught and how until your kid is in there hearing it. And I definitely get why that’s stressful for some people.
christie: As I was reporting my story, one feature that seemed to be common in many of the evidence-based programs was an attempt to create a safe space for kids to ask questions. This might mean giving them a chance to submit them anonymously, for instance.
cwick: The blockchain can save sex ed!
maggiekb: I’m not sure I want my kids being taught about the blockchain.
christie: Would you prefer Reddit, Maggie?
cwick: It’s a public health issue if they aren’t, Maggie.
anna: Many pediatricians I spoke with brought question-asking up as well and mentioned it as one reason they think school is an essential place for sex ed, in addition to conversations with parents, doctors and others.
christie: It does seem like a good idea for kids to have a trusted adult who is probably not their parent to ask questions of and get reliable answers from.
cwick: It sounds like you’re all more or less in agreement based on your reporting. But did your reporting also change your mind about anything? What surprised you once you picked up the phone?
christie: In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how hard it is to really measure what “works.”
maggiekb: I think I was most surprised by how hard it is to answer whether sex ed “works.” JINX, Christie.
christie: To start with, you have to define what you mean by “working” and that’s where it all goes to hell. You’re immediately caught up in the culture wars.
anna: Right, I didn’t realize how limited the metrics were on that. Only something like three things really get looked at! Teenage pregnancy, STDs and age when kids start having sex.
christie: Is the goal to prevent kids from discovering sex? To prevent pregnancy? Make them feel OK about their bodies?
maggiekb: I want my kids to know about birth control, to know how their bodies work, to be able to ask questions and navigate relationships, but the metrics for studying whether they get that still kind of suck. All we ever ask about are, like: “Did the kids learn about birth control?” “Did they learn how to say ‘no’?” “Did they learn about pregnancy prevention and STD prevention?”
christie: And it’s really hard to measure most outcomes. The only way to know whether kids are having sex is to ask them. Researchers have some ways of getting around the problem of teenagers lying to adults about sex (for instance, they ask them a question like “how often do you lie?” and if the answer is “never,” they know they’ve got an unreliable survey taker). But at the end of the day, self-reported numbers aren’t going to be all that great.
maggiekb: And we also usually ask about this stuff really soon after the class. So almost no one is following up years later to find out what the outcomes were.
anna: And that’s partly because that kind of follow-up research is really expensive. So much of what’s studied is dictated by what there is funding for.
christie: Another thing that really surprised me is that the effects are pretty small even for programs that have been shown in studies to reduce, say, teen pregnancy or STDs. But on the other hand, you have to ask whether those are the most important metrics.
maggiekb: When you talk to people in the sex ed community, they often bring up OWL, Our Whole Lives — this fancy schmancy sex ed curriculum that’s used by the Unitarian church and that kids start taking through their Sunday schools at young ages all the way through high school. OWL is kind of presented as the best practice comprehensive sex ed. It’s been around for decades. But as far as I have been able to tell, nobody has ever done a longitudinal study to find out whether kids who went through OWL have any different outcomes (let alone “better” outcomes) than kids who didn’t over the course of their lives.
christie: Teen pregnancy has been on a yearslong decline, and no one is entirely sure why.
maggiekb: And it probably has nothing to do (or very little to do) with sex ed curricula.
christie: Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be something that any sex ed program can take credit for. It’s possible that the availability of very effective, long-term contraceptives like IUDs played a role, but that can’t explain all of the decline.
maggiekb: Which really affects the way I think about the culture wars debate part of it, right? Like, I don’t personally want my daughters taking abstinence-only sex ed. I don’t think it’s all that practical, and the way it has been documented as being done (the “dirty diaper” comparisons Christie mentioned, for instance) seem pretty damaging and, well, crappy. But I also can’t prove that shifting away from that and toward more comprehensive programs during the Obama years caused a decline in teen pregnancy.
christie: Well teens are having less sex. The latest CDC survey found that 39.5 percent of the high school students surveyed had ever had sexual intercourse. Which is down from previous generations.
maggiekb: The decline in teen pregnancies started around 1991 or so. So we’ve had some pretty big shifts in favored sex ed policy (the George W. Bush-era abstinence push and the Obama-era comprehensive sex ed push) … and the trend in fewer teen pregnancies seems to be chugging on independently of that. Meanwhile, rates of some STDs have been on the rise since 2000, again largely independent of whether the government was backing abstinence or comprehensive sex ed.
christie: I think what sex ed can do is make sure that young people have factual information about things like what kinds of activities can get you an STD or get you pregnant. But the decision-making itself has so many other influences.
And this is why a lot of comprehensive sex ed programs spend a lot of time on relationship-building and confidence-boosting and setting limits, etc.
anna: Let’s not forget the basics about body parts and such. Pediatricians have horror stories to tell about what young people don’t know about their bodies. Which speaks to the fact that we wouldn’t necessarily expect school-based sex ed to be the driver of all sexual behavior (which isn’t to say it’s not important).
maggiekb: Anna, arguably, the biggest factor for me as a teen was that nobody was offering me sex, but no school wants to buy my “let your child nerd themselves into involuntary abstinence” program.
cwick: More nerds is always the answer, Maggie.
christie: Well, if you think about it for two seconds, I think it’s easy to see how sex ed, as it’s taught in schools, is just one tiny influence on how young people think and behave.
maggiekb: Exactly, Christie! I’m pretty sure what I learned in sex ed played VERY LITTLE role in my choices about sex as a teen. In a way, this reminds me of the gun violence debate: We have these HIGHLY politically polarized arguments about what the right policy to reduce gun violence should be, and, meanwhile, rates of gun violence have been falling for decades and we don’t know why.
cwick: [[[ok, I think let’s end it there???]]
anna: Your last point about making sure kids have factual information is interesting Christie, cause that’s what Schroeder said that you gang, justifiably, thought was kind of impossible!! ‘What’s facts?’ is also value-based.
christie: [good point Anna]
anna: [nothing can ever be simple, can it?]
maggiekb: [not even chats]
cwick: [we don’t have to keep talking in brackets if you don’t want]