And yet, for many Democrats a constant anxiety — that somehow seems to spike with each dose of good news — persists.
Four years on from Trump’s stunning victory, the psychic wounds of Hillary Clinton’s loss remain fresh. When a flurry of new polls were released this week that showed Biden’s advantage widening, the collective reaction from liberals, especially among the highly engaged online crowd, ranged from a shrug to near indignation.
The nervy responses are largely rooted in a desire to ward off complacency in voters who might be fooled into thinking Biden has the race in the bag. But for the Democratic operatives who lived the Clinton disappointment up close, even the slightest flicker of positivity can cause them to recoil.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, independent polling forecasters — unlike actual pollsters, who previewed a close race — portrayed the contest as Clinton’s to lose. Then, she did. In the absence of a shared and coherent understanding of what many experts missed, Trump was ascribed a supernatural power over the reasoned science of polling. Prominent Democratic operatives-turned-pundits who dismissed anxious supporters as “bedwetters” issued mea culpas.
When the latest round of 2020 polls dropped showing Biden ahead, a kind of social media backlash followed shortly behind. Their response, in short: “Ignore them!” or “Don’t get complacent!”
The tension is being amplified, in material terms, by concerns over Trump and some Republican lawmakers’ efforts to suppress the vote or cast doubt on the outcome of the election. Trump’s refusal to say he’ll accept a losing outcome, regardless of what he does in the end, is itself a tool for depressing voter enthusiasm, experts say. And there are fears that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could impact the reliability of turnout on both sides.
Still, the odds — by almost every available measure — favor Biden if the process goes off without interference. Not that it makes Democrats feel better.
David Axelrod, former chief strategist to President Barack Obama and a CNN commentator, said the countdown to Election Day had unleashed a compounded level of uncertainty.
“Now there is bed-wetting,” he said, “about the absence of bed-wetting!”
Concerns turn to cash
The prospect of Trump being re-elected represents a “cataclysmic disaster,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank and a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton.
The letdown in 2016 was “soul crushing,” she said, and left her with “superstitions and anxieties” that make it “hard to sleep at night” even with the numbers looking favorable to Biden.
“If I told you there was just a 25% chance your house would be bombed tomorrow, that wouldn’t be reassuring to you,” Tanden said. “I think that is what is happening.”
Asked on an otherwise upbeat call with reporters Friday if he still carried the scars of four years ago, Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, the super PAC of choice for Clinton and now Biden, deadpanned, “I am not familiar with this 2016 you speak of.”
Distress among Democrats and a near denial of the good news in front of them, he added, could be a potent tool in the final weeks until the election.
“We are putting that fear to good use,” Cecil said, pointing to increased organization and donations. “Am I optimistic? Yes. But I do continue to have serious concerns and we do have to continue to run through the finish lines.”
The dollar numbers, at least, bear him out. Democrats up and down the ballot are pulling in massive amounts of cash.
Biden is set to announce the second straight month of raising more than $360 million over a four week period, an astonishing figure that has helped the once cash-strapped Democratic campaign surpass Trump’s significant early fundraising advantage.
The money boom has also trickled down to Senate and House races — and not just across the traditional battlegrounds.
In Iowa, a reach state for Democrats, Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield brought in an astonishing $28.7 million in the third quarter. Al Gross, an independent who won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Senate in Alaska, raised $9.1 million over the same period, an unheard of number in a state that was an afterthought for most Democrats earlier this year. And former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who spent months scrounging for cash to prop up his quixotic presidential bid, announced this week that his Senate campaign had received $22.6 million in the last three months.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime party fundraising champion and CNN contributor, said he’s “never seen the level of donor excitement,” a phenomenon he attributed to a mix of anticipation Biden will win and fear Trump could still pull it out.
“I am glad (Democrats) are acting like this, because 2016 is seared into everyone’s mind,” McAuliffe said, noting that Clinton was leading, albeit by a smaller margin, than Biden is now in most late season polling. “If you believed the polls (in 2016), Hillary Clinton right now would be cruising to re-election and Donald Trump would be doing a reality TV show on the Golf Channel. That is not where we are.”
Democrats hardly need reminding.
“Honestly, I didn’t even click on it. I didn’t even click to see how and why it was so wrong. So if that gives you any indication of how worthless somebody who does this for a living feels about (the Quinnipiac poll),” said Kevin Cate, who makes his living as a Democratic strategist in Florida. Two years ago, he watched his candidate, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, lose by about 32,000 votes — less than one-half of one point — to Trump-backed Republican Ron DeSantis.
Still, Cate expressed confidence that the presidential contest would end differently, pointing to a skyrocketing rate of ballot returns among Democrats, and predicted that Biden would defeat Trump in Florida by 2% — a blowout by Sunshine State standards.
“Anything over 1% in Florida is a landslide,” Cate said, “because we don’t have mountains.
‘Am I giving an accurate narrative?
Pollsters, meanwhile, are projecting confidence in their numbers, even as both Democratic and Republican partisans — albeit for different reasons — question their authority. Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said that he was keenly aware that his poll results are “bound to generate some kind of reaction” from interested outside observers, but that he didn’t allow it to enter this thinking.
“My concern is, am I giving an accurate narrative of what’s going on?,” Murray told CNN. “There’s a range of uncertainty there and we need to convey that. But within that range, the numbers are the numbers. We’re trying to get an understanding of why the electorate is moving in the way that it’s moving, if at all, and what are the key issues that are driving folks and what are they concerned about.”
Murray has also taken steps to illustrate the variability by releasing three numbers from most rounds of polling: results among registered voters, the broadest universe, and then two among different “likely voter” models, which are shaped by pollsters’ educated expectations of who is actually going to vote.
Asked about Democratic concerns that potential Biden voters would be moved to complacency, and stay home, when presented with any of those numbers, Murray said he doubted it — the dynamics driving the 2020 campaign, he believes, are much different from four years ago.
“Part of the reason why people stayed at home (in 2016) was because they really didn’t feel strongly that that either candidate was going to change their lives in any meaningful way,” Murray said. “Even if they liked disliked one candidate more than they dislike the other candidate. In this case, it is a clear decision between Trump and not Trump. And the vast majority of voters are strongly on one side of that line or the other.”
Eyes on the prize
On the ground, grassroots groups — as dedicated to electing Biden as they are to launching pressure campaigns from Day One of his potential administration — are laser-focused on driving voters, especially young progressives, to the polls and assuring their ballots get counted.
Nelini Stamp, director of strategy and partnerships for the Working Families Party, said that Democrats don’t need to choose between angst and action.
“We want to win by a landslide. It’s so important for all of us to keep our eyes on the prize. We shouldn’t let up. It’s good news, but things can change and with everything that’s going on, especially with the year 2020, we don’t know what’s in store,” Stamp said. “So we need to be able to, as much as possible, get out the vote in every way.”
The tone of Democrats’ relationship and interaction with polling has taken a jarring U-turn from only a few months ago, when they had a substantial influence of the direction of the primary. Polls numbers, along with fundraising, were candidates’ tickets onto the debate stage, leading many campaigns to agonize over every point.
“For Democrats, the primary was jockeying to pick the best nominee from a group of friends; the general is confronting and undoing the national trauma and consequences we experience every day from the 2016 election,” said Tim Hogan, an aide to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s primary campaign. “No matter how good the polls look, the latter exercise will always be more anxiety-inducing.”
The steady stream of general election polls that show Biden leading, he added, have the cumulative effect of someone telling Democrats to “calm down.”
“But that’s never going to work when the world is on fire around you.”