It’s Time To Stop Pretending That The NFL Preseason Isn’t Pointless

The curtain fell on the 2019 NFL preseason Thursday night — and judging by the volleys of rotten produce hurled at it by fans, writers and coaches, the NFL may never want to stage that show the same way again.

For decades, it’s felt like the NFL has had a predictable rhythm to how (and how often) starters play. A little in the first game, then a little more, and then the third preseason game is the “dress rehearsal,” when coaches game-plan, starters start, and the fans who paid full price for tickets get treated to something resembling their team. In the context of meaningless August football, this one game on the preseason schedule was the closest thing fans got to the real thing. The fourth preseason game, in which starters rarely played, has been a forgivable afterthought.

But the ugly, pointless football played Thursday night felt unforgivable — because the players fans pay to see barely played in the first three games, either. Even the last bastion of NFL preseason relevance seems to be vanishing. This year’s “dress rehearsals” hardly lived up to their billing. Carolina Panthers starting quarterback Cam Newton left the game after a minor injury. Almost all of the Green Bay Packers’ starters were held out. Houston starter Deshaun Watson got sacked to start the team’s first possession, the Texans lost starting running back Lamar Miller for the season on the next play, then Watson got sacked again, fumbled the ball and headed for the bench without throwing a pass. Indianapolis Colts starter Andrew Luck retired before taking a single preseason rep.

If teams are comfortable going the entire preseason with their starting quarterbacks barely taking the field, the league’s case for making their fans spend the time and money to watch these games is significantly weakened. Perhaps as no surprise, calls to reduce the number of preseason games are now coming from everywhere, from fans on Twitter to major news outlets. It feels like all of a sudden, the whole NFL-watching world has given up on the preseason.

Of course, calls for a shortened NFL preseason are nothing new. Analyst John Clayton called for it in The Washington Post earlier this month — almost two decades after he wrote for ESPN that players’ union representatives had already been pushing for it “for years.”

The year after Clayton wrote that ESPN article, the NFL expanded to 32 teams. Fourteen of those teams’ eventual Week 1 starters led their squad in preseason pass attempts. Even as their union reps were arguing that a four-game preseason was at least one game more than anybody needed, stars like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Daunte Culpepper, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were out there taking more reps than anybody on their team.

During that 2002 season, 34.4 percent of preseason passes were thrown by quarterbacks who would go on to start Week 1. A decade later, starters’ share of the workload was about the same. But from 2012 to last season, their leaguewide share of pass attempts dropped by 36.5 percent.

This season, it fell even more steeply. Projected Week 1 starters (via OurLads) accounted for just 11.7 percent of pass attempts.1 That’s a 43 percent drop in one year, after more than a decade of consistently giving fans at least a decent look at the most important player on the team.

The same pattern shows up when we look at how many starters have led their team in preseason attempts — and how many starters have brought up the rear. In 2002, 14 of 32 teams’ starting quarterbacks led their team in preseason pass attempts, and in 2012, 13 starters still led their team in preseason throws. But since 2015, no more than three have.

For most of the 2000s and into the middle of this decade, the number of starters who threw the fewest preseason passes on their teams stayed in the low single digits. Last year, it was a full half of the league’s starting QBs.

This year, no starters have thrown the most passes of anyone else on their team, and 22 threw the fewest. In just seven years, we’ve gone from almost half the league mostly playing their starters to over two-thirds the league barely playing them at all.

There’s also reason to believe that the decline of starting QB reps across the league this preseason is not a coincidence. The NFL and its players’ union have begun negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement, and truncating the preseason is reportedly a major negotiating topic. In that context, coaches and players are incentivized to force the owners’ hands.

Last week, with Luck likely to sit out the third preseason game, Colts head coach Frank Reich and Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy texted before the game and reached a mutual I-won’t-play-my-guys-if-you-won’t truce. A similar detente was reached between Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Baltimore Ravens skipper John Harbaugh after their week of joint practices.

In fact, joint practice sessions seem to be where the starters are getting all the reps they’ve been giving up.

“I think [joint practices are] the trend. I think that’s where we’re going. I think that’s the way the league is heading,” Pederson said in a recent press conference. “As coaches, we get to set the situation and control the environment, and sometimes you don’t get those in games. You don’t get that situation in a game, and this way we can control that and work on specific things and get some really good work done with our starters.”

That all makes sense: If a coach really wants to work on the two-minute offense, a preseason game offers no guarantee that a team will even get in a two-minute situation. The same is true for any other situation, matchup or personnel package. What doesn’t make sense, though, is charging fans full price to watch an uncontrolled scrimmage between a bunch of players who likely won’t even make their respective teams.

On Monday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien suggested that fans could whet their appetite for starter-on-starter action by the league televising joint practices in lieu of two preseason games:

If the coaches, players and fans all feel like the risk of injury has outstripped the value of playing the games, there’s no viable path forward for the four-game preseason. Only one question remains: Whether the coaches, players and fans can persuade the owners to get on a different path.

A Peaceful (But Not Peaceful) Transition Of Power In Riddler Nation

Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, we offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability.

Before we puzzle this week, some Riddler news: This is my final Riddler column as editor. I’m stepping away from FiveThirtyEight to spend a year researching how journalists should investigate and write about advanced artificial intelligence. Algorithms and robots, beware.

Editing this column for the past four years has been a pure joy, thanks entirely to you, its readers. You submit the innovative puzzles, you labor over the elegant solutions and you power this whole inventive mathematical enterprise — the exciting, challenging and educational numerical community that has become known as Riddler Nation. I have been merely a curator of your quantitative creations. Thank you.

And fear not. Riddler Nation shall persist.

I’m thrilled to introduce FiveThirtyEight’s new puzzle editor, Zach Wissner-Gross.

Zach studied physics and biology at MIT before completing a doctorate in physics at Harvard. These days he leads a team that’s developing a K–12 math curriculum, and by night he’s a proud member of Riddler Nation. I’m excited for his leadership of this column and community.

Regular readers of this column will already recognize the contributions Zach has made as a citizen of Riddler Nation. He’s authored puzzles about robot pizza cutters, misanthropic settlers and swindling car salesmen, and his many beautiful solutions have tackled alien invasions, railroad construction and martini glass spillage, to name but a few. Who knows where he’ll take us next?

You can find Zach on Twitter, and do be sure to email him all your favorite puzzles. As for me, I may no longer be editing but I will surely be reading — and solving. (Or, at least, always trying to do the latter.)

This week’s Riddler

For a long time, my favorite Riddler has been the Battle for Riddler Nation, first suggested a couple of years ago by Joel Baker. It brings together all of what makes this column what it is: a fantastical story, mathematics, large-scale interaction, the power of computer simulation, game theory and fierce (yet good-natured) competition. So let us battle once more. Here are the rules:

In a distant, war-torn land, there are 10 castles. There are two warlords: you and your archenemy. Each castle has its own strategic value for a would-be conqueror. Specifically, the castles are worth 1, 2, 3, …, 9, and 10 victory points. You and your enemy each have 100 soldiers to distribute, any way you like, to fight at any of the 10 castles. Whoever sends more soldiers to a given castle conquers that castle and wins its victory points. If you each send the same number of troops, you split the points. You don’t know what distribution of forces your enemy has chosen until the battles begin. Whoever wins the most points wins the war.

Submit a plan distributing your 100 soldiers among the 10 castles. Once we receive all your battle plans, we’ll adjudicate all the possible one-on-one matchups. Whoever wins the most wars wins the battle royale and is crowned king or queen of Riddler Nation!

For your strategizing benefit, you may consult Riddler Nation’s chosen attack distributions from the first, second and third sanctionings of this battle royale, which had the same rules. A summary of them is in the table below. Adapt and conquer!

Troop deployment strategies

How Riddler Nation distributed its forces in each battle royale

Average number of soldiers sent to castle …
Battle 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
May 2019 2 3 4 7 9 12 13 17 17 16
May 2017 3 4 6 8 10 12 15 17 14 12
Feb. 2017 3 3 4 7 9 13 16 19 16 11

Finally, it should be noted that your work is royally cut out for you. There is currently a two-time defending champion, Vince Vatter. Can anyone dethrone the king?

Submit your plan

Solution to last week’s Riddler Express

Congratulations to 👏 Stephen Wilson 👏 of Nashville, Tennessee, winner of last week’s Riddler Express!

Last week found you employed as an expert counterfeiter, specializing in forging $100 bills. You knew from experience that the bank could only spot your fakes 25 percent of the time, and that trying to deposit only counterfeit bills would be a ticket to jail. However, if you combined fake and real notes, there was a chance the bank will accept your money. You had $2,500 in real hundreds and an unlimited supply of counterfeits. The bank scrutinized cash deposits carefully: They randomly selected 5 percent of the notes they received, rounded up to the nearest whole number, for close examination. If they identified any note in a deposit as fake, they would confiscate the entire sum, leaving you only enough time to flee. How many fake notes should you have added to the $2,500 in order to maximize the expected value of your bank account? How much free money were you likely to make?

You should add 55 fake notes to your 25 real notes for a total deposit of $8,000. Your expected gain is $1,256.

The full counterfeit solution (counterfeit bills, that is … the solution itself is very real) comes to us from this puzzle’s submitter, Jason Ash:

Your expected gain is the weighted average of expected profit from successful deposits and expected losses from bank seizures. With 55 fake notes, there is a 47 percent chance — a combination of the chances of the bank selecting our fake notes for examination and of the examination revealing any fake notes — we avoid detection and collect a profit of $5,500, the value of the fake notes we were able to sneak into circulation. (Remember we started with $2,500, so only the fake notes count as profit.) There is a 53 percent chance we are caught by the bank and lose the $2,500 in real dollars we used as decoys. Therefore, our expected profit is (0.47)(5,500) – (0.53)(2,500) = 1,256.

How can we be sure no other strategy produces a higher profit? For example, suppose we combine 30 fake notes with 25 real notes instead. The bank will select three notes for its audit — that is, 5 percent of 55, rounded up to the nearest whole number. Depending on our luck, the bank could choose all three fake notes, all three real notes, or some combination in between.

Let’s assume the bank randomly chooses two fake notes and one real note for its audit. This occurs with roughly 41.5 percent probability, given by the formula (3 choose 2)(30/55)(29/54)(25/53). Each fake note is detected 25 percent of the time, which means at least one fake note from the pool of two is detected \(1-0.75^2\) = 43.75 percent of the time. We use similar logic to solve for the likelihood and detection rate of the audits with three fake, one fake and zero fake notes. The overall detection rate is equal to the weighted average across each potential audit.

For the 30 fake, 25 real strategy, the probability of success is 64.3 percent — again, we need to either avoid their selecting our fake notes for examination or, if they do select them, avoiding identification of them as such — and the probability of detection is 35.7 percent. Therefore, the expected profit is (0.643)(3,000) – (0.357)(2,500) = 1,038. That’s a decent payday, but we can do better. The chart below shows the profit for strategies with up to 200 fake notes, and it illustrates that the maximum is achieved when we use 55 of them.

We can see two patterns above. First, as we move to the right, we enter the “greedy danger zone,” in which the bank becomes more likely to discover our fraud and seize the starting capital, resulting in larger and larger expected losses. Second, we see “sawtooth” behavior caused by the bank’s practice of auditing 5 percent of deposited notes. The effect is significant: 55 is the ideal answer because if we deposit 80 total notes, the bank will audit four. If we use 56 fake notes for a total of 81, then the bank audits five notes instead, which cuts the expected gain in half!

A life of crime only pays if you’re good with numbers. But with great power comes great responsibility, Riddler Nation.

Solution to last week’s Riddler Classic

Congratulations to 👏 Jake Wiley 👏 of Wilmington, Delaware, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic!

Last week also found you employed in your second job as the resident mathematician of the Puzzling Pizza pizzeria. Your boss had purchased the equipment necessary to design the machine below.

Your job was to calculate the exact path and flow rate the sauce-dispensing arm should use to fill a 12-inch circular pizza with sauce as fully and evenly as possible. The dough sat on a platform rotating at a constant speed, and the arm traveled in a straight line across the pizza, distributing sauce in a circular shape with a 0.5-inch diameter. Once the arm started pouring sauce, it couldn’t stop until the pizza is covered, and the sauce can only be poured onto the dough. At the end, the pizza was meant to have an even layer of sauce on as much of its surface as possible. What path and flow rate should the sauce-dispensing arm take to give you the best pizza?

The full solution comes to us from this puzzle’s submitter, Tyler Barron:

Let’s start with the path the arm would take. The best method is to start at the middle and move outwards at a constant velocity until you reached the end. (It’s also possible to travel this route from the outside in.) This shape it would create is known as an​ ​Archimedean spiral​. Saucing a pizza like so would give you a path that looks like this — the spiral stops where it does simply because we’ve run out of room for more sauce:

This curve should move outward at a rate of 0.5 inches per rotation for 23.5 rotations, until the arm is 11.75 inches out. To introduce some formal notation to our pizzeria, this can be written as \(r(\theta)=\frac{0.5}{2\pi}(\theta)\).

Finding the flow rate is more difficult. To start, let’s get a baseline of what our sauce would look like if we distributed it at a constant rate through the entire path. If we did this, we would get a pizza that looks like this:

As you can see, the sauce is thinner on the edges and thicker in the center. Why? Imagine the final rotation where the arm travels around almost the entire circumference, compared to one earlier where it travels through the middle of the pizza. The distance traveled per rotation decreased but the amount of sauce per rotation stayed the same, so we’re left with a higher density of pizza sauce on the inner ring.

Therefore, we need to adjust the flow of sauce to the speed of the pizza traveling under the arm. This can be found by taking the derivative of the arc length equation. That beast — specifically, the​ ​Archimedean spiral arc length equation​ — is written mathematically as \(s(\theta)=\frac{b}{2}(\theta \sqrt{1+\theta^2}+\sinh^{-1}(\theta))\). Its derivative gives us the rate that the length changes as we rotate, and that is \(\frac{ds}{d\theta}=b\sqrt{1+\theta^2}\).

Finally (we promise) this can be converted to the relative flow rate by dividing the derivative by the rate of change at the edges, giving you the saucer’s arm speed compared to its maximum speed. That formula is: \(F(\theta)=\frac{b\sqrt{1+\theta^2}}{b\sqrt{1+(47\pi)^2}}=\frac{\sqrt{1+\theta^2}}{147.66}\).

That gives us a (nearly linear) increasing sauce-flow rate that looks like so. As the dough moves through its rotations, we increase the flow from almost nothing at the center to full strength at the edge:

Using this flow rate will give you an even spread of sauce on the pizza, which means we should program the pizza maker to use a path of \(r(\theta)=\frac{0.5}{2\pi}(\theta)\) and a relative flow rate of \(F(\theta)=\frac{\sqrt{1+\theta^2}}{147.66}\). The final result is the rather delicious-looking image below.

Now that’s a pizza Archimedes would be proud of.

Want more riddles?

Well, aren’t you lucky? There’s a whole book full of the best puzzles from this column and some never-before-seen head-scratchers. It’s called “The Riddler,” and it’s in stores now!

Want to submit a riddle?

Email Zach Wissner-Gross (!) at [email protected]

Significant Digits For Friday, Aug. 30, 2019

You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news. This is my final column as your digit wrangler. It’s been a pleasure — thank you for reading.


408,000 men and women

A new study in the journal Science — the “largest ever to analyze the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior” — examined genetic data from 408,000 men and women and found that genetics does play some role in determining who has same-sex sex. It’s not the result of a single gene, but many genes that contribute some small effect. The Times also reported that several scientists who are part of the LGBTQ community at the Broad Institute, which led the research, “said they were worried the findings could give ammunition to people who seek to use science to bolster biases and discrimination against gay people.” [The New York Times]


8 pages

During its failed establishment of a second headquarters in New York City, Amazon reportedly kept a “burn book” — “an eight-page, bullet-pointed, Calibri font testimony” of what the company saw as insults from politicians and labor leaders who opposed the deal. Maybe I’m a typeface nerd, but the thing that most bothers me about this news is the use of Calibri. [The Wall Street Journal]


405 police departments

Speaking of Amazon, Ring, its home-security company, published a map this week showing the police departments across the country with which it has signed deals. Ring has acknowledged active partnerships with 405 such departments. The deals vary, and include such things as police offering rebates to people in the community who buy Ring products and granting police “access to a portal they can use to request footage from Ring camera owners in their communities.” [Gizmodo]


3,000 applications

The Morris Animal Refuge in Philadelphia put out a call online recently for adoptees of a 26-pound (!) cat named BeeJay, a.k.a. Mr. B. Needless to say, given the collective preferences of the internet, the call went viral and some 3,000 applications were submitted. Mr. B did find a home, and the shelter is working with the foster family “to help resolve the cat’s health and behavioral issues so that they might eventually become his permanent home.” Good luck, big fella. [NBC News]


140 home runs

Records continue to fall in baseball’s latest home-run era. Most recently, the Minnesota Twins broke the record for most homers on the road, smacking two in the third inning yesterday against the Chicago White Sox for a total of 140. That previous record was 138, set by the San Francisco Giants in 2001. [Associated Press]


From ABC News:
SigDigs: Aug. 30, 2019


2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 20 and 30

For decades, an Edmonton, Alberta, man named Bon Truong played the exact same lottery numbers, derived from important dates in his life: 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 20 and 30. And last fall, he finally won — $60 million. Truong said he has waited nearly a year to claim his winnings because he was “overwhelmed by the size of his luck.” I, for one, am overwhelmed by the size of his persistence. [The Washington Post]


Love digits? Find even more in FiveThirtyEight’s book of math and logic puzzles, “The Riddler.”


What If The Third Debate Were Based On Different Polls?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

The deadline to make the third Democratic primary debate has passed, and thanks to harder qualifying rules, just 10 candidates made the stage. This, of course, was unwelcome news among candidates such as billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who were on the cusp of making the debate. Steyer needed just one more qualifying poll, and Gabbard needed two.

And this got us thinking: What would the debate stage look like if the list or type of eligible polls were different? Gabbard, in particular, has taken the Democratic National Committee to task for the specific pollsters included in its list of approved polling organizations, arguing that had the list of pollsters been expanded, she would have had at least 2 percent support in more than 20 polls conducted during the third debate qualification window. And in fairness to her, understanding how the DNC determines its list of approved polling organizations can be confusing. Gabbard did hit 2 percent in YouGov’s latest national survey sponsored by The Economist, but it didn’t count toward qualifying for the debate.

So to better understand how including different pollsters or relying on different pollster methodologies could affect who made the debate stage, we checked to see who would have qualified if:

  1. all polls had been counted;
  2. just polls from pollsters with a grade of at least B- or better, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Pollster Ratings (as this grade captures a mix of high-quality phone polls and respected online polls); and
  3. only live phone interviews polls, which are often considered the gold standard in polling.

And in this thought exercise, we also kept many of the DNC’s requirements for the third debate, meaning we also included only polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28 — and only counted a candidate as qualified if he or she hit 2 percent support in four polls and attracted the support of 130,000 individual donors (including at least 400 individual donors in at least 20 states).2 We also adhered to the DNC’s rules that limit qualifying polls to national and early-state surveys3 and that said two polls by the same pollster in the same geography can’t be counted.4

OK, so first up: Who would have made the stage in our most generous scenario where all polls are counted? Well, maybe not as many candidates as you’d expect given the parameters. Gabbard and Steyer would make the stage with nine and seven polls, respectively. And author and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson comes a little closer to making it with two qualifying polls. (She also has met the donor requirement.) But this still leaves out seven candidates that FiveThirtyEight considers “major” as well as the candidates who have dropped out since the second debate.

What if all polls had been counted for the third debate?

Candidates who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC used all polls* in the FiveThirtyEight database released from June 28 to Aug. 28

Met DNC criteria Met hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls All polls
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Tom Steyer

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

So, OK — what about the scenario in which we limit our scope to pollsters with at least a B- grade, according to our pollster ratings? It makes sense that the DNC would want to limit at least some of the pollsters included. So we chose pollsters that are still high quality, but our list of pollsters ends up being a little more expansive than the list of DNC-approved pollsters. And under this scenario, the same 12 candidates would make the stage as in the “all polls” scenario, but it’s a much closer cutoff — Steyer would have ended up with exactly four qualifying polls and Gabbard five — just one fewer than former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

Only pollsters with a grade of at least B- counted?

Candidates who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC included pollsters that FiveThirtyEight has given a grade of at least B-, with polls* released from June 28 to Aug. 28

Met DNC criteria Met Hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls Pollster rating of at least B-
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro
Tulsi Gabbard
Tom Steyer

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

On the other hand, what if the DNC had been more — not less — strict with its requirements? For instance, what if the DNC had chosen to just use pollsters that use live phone interviews? Yes, these polls are facing many challenges right now, including low response rates and high costs, but they remain the best performing type of poll. So if the DNC had limited qualification to these types of polls, the number of debate participants would have actually shrunk from 10 candidates to nine. The odd man out would be Castro, who would have ended up with only three qualifying polls, ahead the two for Gabbard and Steyer.

Only polls conducted by telephone counted?

Candidates* who would have qualified for the third debate had the DNC only included pollsters that do live telephone surveys, with polls* released from June 28 to Aug. 28

MET DNC Criteria Met Hypothetical
Candidate 130k+ Donors 2% in four polls Live phone Polls
Joe Biden
Cory Booker
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Amy Klobuchar
Beto O’Rourke
Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren
Andrew Yang
Julián Castro

For candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight.

We adhered to the DNC’s donor requirements and polling support threshold. To qualify for the third debate under the DNC’s rules, a candidate had to reach 2 percent in at least four national or early-state polls from qualifying polling organizations and needed at least 130,000 unique donors, including at least 400 donors in at least 20 states.

*We excluded polls conducted by partisan pollsters, head-to-head polls, polls with open-ended questions and polls in the same geography by the same pollster.

Sources: Polls, Media reports

So big picture, you could say the exact DNC rules don’t make a huge difference — most of the same set of candidates makes it on stage regardless. Of course, for the individual candidates on the edge of qualification, that give or take is everything. Suffice it to say, the rules matter quite a bit to them. And in this case, there’s an argument to be made that the DNC’s list of eligible pollsters helped make or break qualification for those candidates on the bubble — Gabbard and Steyer in particular.

Other polling bites

  • New polling from Politico/Morning Consult suggests that Democrats prefer “Medicare for All” to building on the Affordable Care Act. The survey found that 65 percent of Democratic primary voters were either “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to back a presidential candidate who supported a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All over “preserving and improving” the ACA. Just 13 percent said such a position would make them “much less likely” or “somewhat less likely” to support such a candidate. Among all voters, 53 percent supported a Medicare for All-type health system compared to 34 percent who opposed it.
  • A new report from the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. And though Pew found stark partisan divides over abortion policy, it did find evidence that there was more support for policies advocated by the Democratic Party (42 percent) than the Republican Party (32 percent) – though 24 percent said they don’t agree with either party’s policies.
  • In a recent report on trust, media and democracy, Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that Americans are at least somewhat worried about local news organizations being consolidated under large media companies, especially if the parent company had strong political views. Sixty-six percent said they would be “very” concerned that the political views of the parent company “would influence the fairness of news coverage,” and 26 percent said they would be “somewhat” concerned. Large majorities also said they were worried about the inclusion of more news from outside the local area and less investment in news gathering and reporting.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders said last week that he would hold companies accountable for their role in climate change, and YouGov Blue/Data for Progress found that about 62 percent of voters would support holding energy producers legally liable “if it could be proven that they misled the public about the consequences of climate change.” Another 20 percent opposed the idea. And perhaps unsurprisingly, support for the idea fell along partisan lines — 77 percent of Democrats supported the idea as did 63 percent of independents, while 39 percent of Republicans supported it.
  • Ahead of Labor Day, Gallup released a survey on labor unions in the United States, finding that 64 percent of Americans approve of labor unions; that is one of the highest approval ratings in the past 50 years. Since the late 1960s, approval of labor unions has mostly hovered below 60 percent.
  • Pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the United Kingdom’s parliamentary session would be suspended until mid-October, not long before the Oct. 31 deadline for the U.K. to agree to a managed transition to leave the European Union. Johnson’s move gives members opposed to exiting the EU without an agreement less time to maneuver against a “no deal” Brexit, and a new poll from YouGov found that 47 percent of Britons oppose Johnson’s decision, while 27 percent support it.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 54.2 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president, while 41.3 percent approve (a net approval rating of -12.9 points). At this time last week, 41.5 percent approved and 54.0 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.5 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.4 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.9 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.7 percentage points (46.4 percent to 39.7 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.3 points (46.2 percent to 39.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.9 points (46.1 percent to 40.2 percent).

Why Running To Win Women Didn’t Work For Gillibrand

The 2020 Democratic primary’s historic field of women candidates just got a little smaller. On Wednesday, after failing to qualify for the September debate, two-term New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced that she was ending her candidacy.

It’s not hard to see why Gillibrand dropped out — the writing was on the wall. She still hadn’t met the donor threshold for the September debate, and had only hit 2 percent in one qualifying poll (she needed three more). Her debate performances didn’t do much to help her stand out from the other candidates — even on women’s issues, which she had made the centerpiece of her campaign. And although her name recognition rose over the course of the campaign, she didn’t become better-liked.

Her poll numbers barely shifted, too. In the month after she announced she was running for president, she hit a high of 3 percent in one February poll, but she never reached 3 percent again.

In the end, Gillibrand just couldn’t convince women voters — or most voters for that matter — that she was their candidate. But why her candidacy never picked up steam was always a little bit of a mystery. Of course, she had some hurdles to overcome. Like the other women running for president, she faced voters’ biases against women candidates. She also had the baggage of sparking Democratic Party heavyweights’ ire after she called on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign when sexual harassment allegations against him came out in 2017.

On paper, though, Gillibrand’s campaign didn’t seem especially quixotic. She was on the national stage for more than a decade before throwing her hat in the ring, and established herself as a strong advocate for women’s rights issues such as paid family leave and sexual assault in the military. She was also explicitly pitching her candidacy toward groups like white college-educated suburban women, whose political enthusiasm had just helped sweep a record-breaking number of women into office in the 2018 midterms.

So Gillibrand’s biggest problem may have simply been that there wasn’t a clear base for her in the Democratic electorate — at least not one for which there wasn’t also fierce competition in the rest of the primary field. After all, she was running against a number of other women who are also strong on issues like abortion rights and equal pay. Without another signature issue to help her stand out, she often got lost in the melee of the primary.

For instance, when several states passed laws dramatically restricting abortion in May, Gillibrand seemed like she could have had a breakthrough moment. She even traveled to two of the states to hold rallies in support of abortion rights, and she called for a federal law that would stop state legislatures from passing limitations on abortion — but so did Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and even Cory Booker. In the second debate, Gillibrand tried again to seize the spotlight by taking Joe Biden to task for his position on a childcare tax credit in 1981 — but unlike Harris’s attack on Biden for his stance on school busing a month earlier, the moment didn’t really land.

In those moments and others, her rivals seemed to harness policies that were key to Gillibrand’s candidacy more effectively than she did. It was Harris, not Gillibrand, who grabbed headlines for her plan to penalize companies for failing to pay men and women equally. And in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, respondents said that Warren was best qualified to address gender equality, followed by Biden, Sanders and Harris — Gillibrand didn’t even crack the top 10.

In some ways, Gillibrand’s campaign may have also shown just how tricky outreach to women voters can be, even in a year where issues such as abortion and the #MeToo movement are prominent. Women make up about 60 percent of the Democratic base, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that they gravitate automatically toward female candidates because of their shared identity, or even because of shared priorities. In that Politico/Morning Consult poll, for instance, only 5 percent of Democratic women voters said that gender equality was a top voting priority. And Warren and Harris appear to be polling only very slightly better with women than men; that gap is actually bigger for Biden.

Finally, although Gillibrand said she had no regrets about calling for Franken’s resignation, it may have hurt her among donors and party elites. Her campaign at one point suggested that anger over her role in Franken’s departure was hurting her among major party donors. That may be true: Despite having been a formidable fundraiser in the past, she raised substantially less than others in the field. Moreover, unlike her fellow senators, who all drew the backing of political influencers from their home states, Gillibrand netted only one endorsement.

As the first woman to leave the race, Gillibrand’s departure is noteworthy, particularly since she could, in theory, have stuck around and tried to make it into the October debate — after all, the criteria to qualify isn’t changing. So her decision to drop out now may signal some strategic decision-making for candidates who are prominent within the party. and therefore have more to lose by staying in the race too long. It’s possible that even if the White House isn’t in the cards for Gillibrand this time, she may be thinking about running for another office, like governor of New York, and doesn’t want to fall out of grace with the party. Or she may be withdrawing with the goal of helping to pave the way for Harris or Booker — both of whom are friends.

The question now is whether other candidates follow Gillibrand’s lead. She is the sixth candidate to have dropped out this summer, and it’s possible that her departure could be a harbinger of more winnowing. Particularly for anyone else who is thinking about running for office in the future, and wants to stay on the Democratic Party’s good side by helping to narrow the field.

Is There Much Hope For The Colts With Jacoby Brissett As QB?

It surprised everyone. The news that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring Saturday night set Twitter on tilt and was met with skepticism from grizzled beat reporters, boos from the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd and even disbelief from new starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett:

The only person who appeared unmoved by the announcement was — unsurprisingly — Bill Belichick.

When the rest of the football world recovered, the consensus outlook for the Colts under Brissett wasn’t particularly good. On Sunday, Las Vegas dropped the line on the Colts win total from 9.5 to 6.5 wins. Our FiveThirtyEight Elo system dropped the Colts from a 9.2 win team to 7.5 wins. And as seen on Sunday Night Football, the model developed by Pro Football Focus put the new Colts win total at 7.1, down from nine wins.

Looking at Brissett’s performance over his career, it’s easy to see why the math and the markets are bearish on the Colts’ prospects. Indianapolis has a 4-11 record in games Brissett started, and the quarterback has averaged 6.6 yards per attempt over his career, below the league average of 7.2 for the years Brissett has been active. Brissett averaged just more than 200 yards passing per game in his only full season as a starter — a season in which he compiled a QBR of 41.5 — and his career completion percentage is just 59.1 percent. These numbers are not good.

We can try to find a silver lining. Completion percentage can sometimes be misleading. Quarterbacks who attempt deeper passes at a higher rate than their peers will see their stat line punished despite the fact that they are helping their team by attempting more valuable throws. If we account for how deep Brissett’s passing attempts have been over his career, however, we find that there aren’t many depths where he’s above league average — although the sample sizes at some depths aren’t large enough for us to conclude this with certainty.

Among active QBs, Brisset ranks in the bottom 10 percent in completion percentage over expected. His poor performance is exacerbated by the fact that Brissett also doesn’t attack downfield as often as Luck did. Brissett’s average depth of target — a measure of the distance downfield a quarterback throws — is just 7.2 yards, 1.4 less than Luck’s 8.6. The Colts will need Brissett to target star wideout T.Y. Hilton often to compete offensively, and Hilton’s average depth of target is located well downfield at 12.4 yards. This is a legitimate cause for concern. In 2017 — the only full season Hilton and Brissett have played together — Hilton saw his targets drop to just 109 after 155 in 2016.1

There’s really no sugar-coating the Colts’ 2019 prospects. Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard has been widely praised for the work he’s done since taking over from Ryan Grigson in 2017. But losing a franchise quarterback when you’ve built a team around the idea that you’re currently in a championship window will stress the skills of even the most competent GMs. Ballard’s options are unpalatable but clear: Try to win now with the team he’s assembled and risk being trapped in a purgatory of mediocrity while the cheap talent ages out of their early contracts, or front-load the pain and tank this season in an attempt to secure a high pick in what looks to be a promising quarterback draft class.

In a league where having a franchise quarterback is damn near everything, Brissett’s value to the Colts might be highest as air cover for a front office and coaching staff trying to lose as many games as possible.

After Two Debates, Warren Is Getting More Popular

If you had walked into a Democratic party (that is, a social gathering of Democrats) back in May and asked, “What do you think of the 20+ Democrats running for president?” people may not have been prepared to answer the question. But it’s been a summer of education, as two debates have introduced the Democratic presidential candidates to a broader swath of the potential electorate. More Democrats than ever have an opinion of the 2020 hopefuls, so let’s check in once again on whether those opinions are positive or negative.

Since the beginning of the year, FiveThirtyEight has been tracking polls of the candidates’ favorable and unfavorable ratings. Those ratings are important because, unlike in general elections, primary voters are often considering several different candidates, even if they tell pollsters they have a first choice. (And at this point, only a small percentage of Democratic primary voters — 12 percent, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from July — say they have made up their mind about whom to vote for.) Candidates who are well-liked are in a much better position to pick up support than those who are not.

Below is the share of Democrats1 who have a favorable and unfavorable view of each candidate FiveThirtyEight considers “major,” according to an average of national polls2 taken between Aug. 1 and Aug. 25 (i.e., since the second debate). From these numbers, we’ve also calculated each candidate’s net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) among Democrats and the share of Democrats who can form an opinion of them (favorable rating plus unfavorable rating), a rough proxy for name recognition.

Warren is popular, de Blasio is underwater

2020 Democratic candidates ranked by their net favorability ratings among Democratic respondents, according to an average of national polls conducted Aug. 1 through Aug. 25

Candidate Share With Opinion Favorable Unfavorable Net
Warren 83% 68% 15% +54
Biden 94 73 21 +52
Sanders 92 72 20 +51
Harris 79 60 20 +40
Buttigieg 63 49 14 +34
Booker 69 50 18 +32
O’Rourke 68 50 19 +31
Castro 56 41 16 +25
Yang 52 37 15 +22
Gillibrand 59 39 20 +18
Klobuchar 53 35 18 +17
Bennet 38 23 15 +8
Gabbard 49 28 21 +7
Bullock 35 21 14 +7
Steyer 40 22 17 +5
Ryan 44 24 21 +3
Delaney 40 20 20 +1
Sestak 27 13 14 -2
Williamson 47 22 26 -4
De Blasio 56 25 31 -6

For the 20 candidates considered “major” by FiveThirtyEight

Source: Polls

By this measure, Democrats’ favorite candidate is not polling leader and former Vice President Joe Biden: It’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who sports the highest net favorability rating (+54 percentage points). Indeed, according to The Economist’s 2020 primary tracker, slightly more people are considering voting for Warren than are considering Biden, even though Biden is currently the most popular first choice. He leads in most (though not all) polls.

In fairness, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders aren’t far behind Warren, with +52 and +51 net favorability ratings, respectively. But Warren’s standing is still impressive because she is not as well-known as Biden or Sanders. While 90+ percent of Democrats have an opinion of the two men, only 83 percent offer one on Warren; in other words, a higher proportion of people who have an opinion of Warren like her. This could suggest that Warren has not yet reached her full potential and may eventually climb from third place to first in the horse-race polls.

In fourth for both net favorability and the share of Democrats with an opinion of her is Sen. Kamala Harris, who has remained in the top tier of candidates after a breakout performance in the first debate. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes fifth place with a +34 net favorability rating despite relatively low name recognition, resembling Warren’s feat. Although Buttigieg’s polling surge has faded, he is still beloved among those who have gotten to know him, and he has the potential to grow, as more than a third of Democrats don’t have an opinion of him. By contrast, more Democratic voters have opinions of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker (which means that, yes, Cory Booker is a household name), but they each have a lower net favorability rating than Buttigieg.

The other candidates are not as well-known, and only a few are actively disliked. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has managed to get 31 percent of Democrats to view him unfavorably — no small feat, given that only 56 percent can form an opinion of him. His -6 net favorability — among members of his own party, remember! — is the biggest anomaly in the field. And Marianne Williamson is only slightly better off. Her net favorability rating is -4 among the 47 percent of Democrats who have an opinion of her. Only one other candidate is underwater: former Rep. Joe Sestak, who has a -2 net favorability rating. But he has more of an excuse: He is the least well-known candidate in the race. And it isn’t unusual for low-name-recognition candidates to have roughly equivalent favorable and unfavorable ratings, as they are essentially blank slates. Many other 2020 candidates started at this point but became better-liked as they became better-known.

Indeed, much of that growth has happened in just the past few months, coinciding with the first two debates. Since we wrote about the candidates’ favorability numbers in May, every current Democratic aspirant for whom we have data3 has become better-known — many of them significantly so. (More than half boosted the share of Democrats with an opinion of them by double digits.) But this hasn’t necessarily translated to making a better impression on the electorate; 10 of the 18 have actually seen their net favorability ratings decline since May.

This is exactly what happened to Williamson. The share of Democrats who could form an opinion of her grew by 24 points (the biggest increase in the field), but her net favorability rating declined by 7 points. Another candidate who made big moves was former Rep. John Delaney, who greatly upped his name recognition after playing a starring role in the second debate. But audiences may not have liked what they heard, as his net favorability rating has also decreased by 5 points since May. But there were candidates who made the most of their moment in the sun. Andrew Yang’s net favorability rating rose by 12 points — around twice as much as any other candidate increased theirs — as he boosted the share of Democrats who were familiar with him from 30 percent to 52 percent.

And changes in candidates’ net favorability didn’t just come about because more people got to know them: The data suggests that some people who already had an opinion of Biden and Warren changed their minds. Warren’s net favorability rating increased by 6 points even as total opinions of her crept up by only 4. Meanwhile, the share of Democrats with an opinion of Biden barely changed (in fairness, it’s hard to increase your name recognition when almost everyone has already heard of you), but his net favorability fell by 8 points — the biggest drop of any candidate.

The debates — especially the first one — were rough on Biden (and good for Warren), but Biden’s declining popularity has actually been a trend we’ve observed since February. Comparing against an average of national favorability polls conducted from Jan. 1 through Feb. 5, Biden’s net favorability rating has plummeted 17 points so far this year. During this time period, of course, Biden went from above-the-fray party elder to active candidate under scrutiny for his interactions with women, his checkered record on civil rights and his advanced age. But so far, Biden has stayed on top of the polls, although his numbers have appeared soft at times. As the months wear on, something to watch is whether more Democrats will switch from liking to disliking Biden. If they do, then all bets are off.

Derek Shan contributed research.

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How Views On Gun Control Have Changed In The Last 30 Years

Another tragic weekend — in which separate gunmen killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, and nine people in Dayton, Ohio — has once again brought gun policy to the political forefront. And by now we know all too well how that debate tends to go: Americans generally support specific gun reforms like a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks, but the two parties are extremely polarized on guns as a cultural issue, so little ever gets done.

As unshakable as this stalemate may seem, public opinion on gun control is not static. Support for regulating gun ownership can ebb and flow in response to mass shootings, probably in part because of how rapidly stories about any given mass shooting tend to rise and fall in the news cycle. For example, a Quinnipiac poll taken in February 2018 — just days after the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — found that 66 percent of Americans said they supported stricter gun laws and 31 percent said they were opposed. It was the highest support that Quinnipiac had ever measured. But by April, support was down to 56 percent and opposition was up to 39 percent. Other pollsters have also shown that, while the effect of mass shootings on public opinion does fade, support for stricter gun laws has never fallen all the way back to the level it was at before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

Indeed, the big-picture trend appears to be that, after bottoming out in the polls almost a decade ago, gun control has gotten more popular recently. Almost every year since 1990, Gallup has asked Americans about whether laws governing the sale of firearms in the U.S. should be made stricter, made less strict or kept as they are now. Because Gallup asks this question regularly, and usually not directly after a mass shooting has occurred — although this has not always been the case, and the polls conducted in the aftermath of mass shootings do tend to stand out — it gives us a less-noisy sense of how public opinion has shifted in the last 30 years. As you can see in the chart below, support for stricter gun laws has fallen from its historical high but is now trending back up.

In the early 1990s, huge majorities of Americans — even more than do so today — supported stricter gun laws; it was in this environment that both the 1993 “Brady bill” and the 1994 assault-weapons ban were enacted. But support for stricter gun laws then fell in the ensuing years (although there was a mini spike just before the assault-weapons ban expired in 2004) to the point where, at the beginning of this decade, roughly the same number of people favored stricter gun laws as were happy with the status quo.

However, since then — even ignoring the spikes apparently caused by the shootings in Parkland and at Sandy Hook — support for stricter gun laws has once again increased (although it’s still not as high as it was in the early 1990s). The latest Gallup poll, conducted in October 20181 found that 61 percent of Americans supported stricter gun laws, compared with 30 percent who thought the laws should remain as they are.

Other pollsters also find a favorable signal for gun control amid all the noise. From the first to the most recent time Quinnipiac asked about stricter gun laws, support has increased from 52-45 in November 2015 to 61-34 in May 2019. And a series of Marist polls that were taken after mass shootings show that the heights of post-shooting spikes in support are only getting higher — from 60 percent support for stricter gun laws after Sandy Hook2 to 64 percent after Las Vegas to 71 percent after Parkland. So it seems that mass shootings in recent years have had a cumulative effect, pushing public opinion to the left on gun policy.

Perhaps even more importantly, a different Gallup question found that Americans have also begun rating gun policy as a more important issue over the last few years. In a December 2018 poll, Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans said it was “extremely” or “very” important that Congress and the White House deal with the issue of gun policy in the following year, which was a significant increase from the 54 percent of Americans who said gun policy was extremely or very important to them in January 2014. However, we still have a while before guns are the most important issue to Americans. In July 2019, only 1 percent said guns were the number-one problem facing the country — barely changed from the 0 percent who said so for most of the 2000s. And while this number does spike in response to mass shootings — it got as high as 7 percent in the six months after Sandy Hook and hit 13 percent after Parkland — so far, it has never stayed at those elevated levels for very long. So while public opinion has swung more toward the side of gun control in recent years, it may not yet be dramatic or consistent enough to force politicians to act.