Democrats fear 2016 repeat despite Biden’s lead in polls
Public polls show former Vice President Joe Biden entering the post-Labor Day sprint to November holding a substantial lead over President Trump — and all Democratic Party activists and operatives can think of is the looming sense of déjà vu hanging over their heads.
In interviews, those who work on Democratic campaigns voice suspicion over Biden’s lead, confident that something else will go wrong just as it did four years ago when Hillary Clinton’s advantage evaporated in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Many go so far as to compare their skepticism to a form of post-traumatic stress.
“It’s just PTSD,” said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist who runs a pro-Biden super PAC. “There’s nobody actually working on this race that feels overly confident at this point. There’s a long way to go.”
Some Democrats worried that Trump’s focus on protests in big cities would swing an electorate that has so far paid more attention to the botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
But a new round of polls show Biden maintaining his advantage after both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Since the end of the GOP convention, Biden has led public surveys in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida. Trump has led in one survey of Florida voters, and the two men are tied in another, released Tuesday by NBC News.
Nationally, Biden’s post-convention lead stands anywhere between 2 points, in an Emerson survey, and 10 points, in polls conducted by Quinnipiac University, the University of Southern California and CBS News.
Democrats say they aren’t buying it.
“The polls are good omens, but if you didn’t think Trump could win in 2016 and you don’t trust him now given all his administration has done to break trust with American citizens, then you’re hesitant to call it,” said Katy Siddall, a Democratic strategist in Iowa, another state where polls have showed a surprisingly close race.
Biden’s standing is stronger than Clinton’s was at this point four years ago. Polls taken just before or after Labor Day in 2016 showed Clinton leading by 1 to 8 points; one CNN survey even showed Trump ahead by 1 point.
Biden also appears to have a broader path to the 270 electoral votes he will need to win the White House than Clinton did.
Four years ago, Clinton’s team focused on a small number of battleground states, before pivoting to a late defense in traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. This year, Biden has already spent a substantial amount of money advertising in traditionally red states that have trended to the left, including Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina.
“In 2016, it was cool to criticize people raising concerns in the Clinton-Trump polling as ‘bed-wetters’ and confidently point to the blue wall. Today that’s not really an acceptable point of view, so instead everyone is over-indexing for doom and gloom,” said Andy Barr, who runs a Democratic consulting firm in Arizona. “As an industry we’re always more cocky after winning the previous cycle and always more nervous after losing.”
But with hindsight, Democrats say they underestimated Trump’s appeal to voters and that some may have allowed their certainty that he could not win to get the better of them. There is no such apathy this year.
“Democrats could almost not conceive of a path to a loss,” said Joe Zepecki, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist. “It’s better to be holding a statistically significant lead and be nervous as all hell than to hold a modest lead and not be nervous at all.”
Democrats also marvel at the zeal that Trump’s most committed fans show. Flotilla parades, like one this weekend on Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, that inadvertently sank five boats, are easy punch lines, but the Trump flags that fly from homes are not so easily dismissed.
“The devotion of Trump voters, the many flags and homemade signs they fly, and the level of ardor they are showing is remarkable. Those visible signs you don’t usually see for a political candidate,” said Dave Waymire, a Michigan-based operative. “You see those signs and go, whoa.”
Some party strategists roll their eyes at the constant paranoia, the sense that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. But they say they can use those nerves to keep up a frenetic pace through Election Day.
“The wild swings between complacency and panic are not helpful, but I’d rather have people be nervous than take anything for granted,” said Josh Schwerin, a senior adviser to Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC. “Our expectation is that the race will tighten as we get closer to Election Day, and it’s going to take a level-headed grind from everyone involved to win this thing.”
Every four years, presidential contenders tell their voters that the upcoming election is the most important in their lifetime. This time, as the pandemic spreads and the economy lies in tatters, the party strategists working on the race believe it to their core.
“The stakes are just off the charts,” said Brian Brokaw, who ran Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) 2010 campaign for state attorney general. “It’s better to be up in the polls than down, but on the other hand at this point we’re smart enough to know that you can never get comfortable.”