In this final dash of the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden holds a solid lead and his backers are working themselves to exhaustion. Yet Democrats still find that they can’t sleep at night.
Their nightmare of 2016 — front-runner Hillary Clinton's stunning upset by Donald Trump — keeps jolting them awake.
“Everybody is anxious,” said Paul Begala, a longtime advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton and a founder of the Democratic fundraising behemoth Priorities USA. “It is not just post-traumatic stress disorder. We have permanent traumatic stress disorder. We will never get over what happened in 2016.”
Biden operatives are obsessing over the ways that everything could go sideways in this unpredictable election. The pandemic has upended how people vote and surveys of public opinion are delivered with a list of caveats.
The specter of a repeat seems to be reflected in everything Democrats are doing, from the panicked tone of fundraising pitches to campaign ads that run as often as 65 times a day in key battleground markets.
There is a legitimate case for jittery nerves. The national polling averages that show Biden with a double-digit lead obscure a narrower gap in the swing states essential to win a 270-vote Electoral College majority.
A slight shift in voters' mood in those places could mean the difference between a Biden blowout and Trump eking out another narrow victory even as he loses the popular vote — as he did to Clinton four years ago.
That is a point Priorities USA drove home in a recent “Battleground Bulletin.” The memo laid out how the race could quickly become a tossup if just a tiny fraction of working-class white voters abandon Biden in swing states and turnout for people of color is slightly smaller than anticipated.
So intense is the hand-wringing that even the smallest sign of a glitch on the campaign trail is confronted with an urgency unheard of in the last presidential election.
A recent dip in Biden's support among young Black and Latino voters, as reflected in a UCLA poll, moved Democratic operatives to reassess their work in places including Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.
Some Democrats are second-guessing the decision to suspend door-to-door campaigning early in the pandemic. The narrowing of Biden’s lead in Florida — with its coveted 29 electoral votes — has set off alarms.
“Florida keeps me up at night,” said Chuck Rocha, founder of Nuestro PAC, a pro-Biden group focused on turning out Latino voters. Nevada has him unnerved too, he said.
“The COVID disaster has hit workers face-on, but the argument that it will motivate Latinos to vote because Donald Trump did not take it seriously makes me hella nervous,” Rocha said. “They’ve got kids going to school in the living room, they are worried about keeping the lights on, while I am trying to talk to them about filling out an absentee ballot.”
Also fueling insomnia are concerns about the kind of potent disinformation campaigns that are believed to have suppressed turnout and contributed to Clinton’s defeat. The U.S. intelligence community has warned that Russia, and other foreign actors to a lesser extent, are seeking to disrupt the voting again.
“When I think back to 2016, all the things we learned about after the fact are keeping me up at night now,” said Karen Finney, who was a senior Clinton advisor then. “What are the things we don’t know about and can’t see happening under the radar?”
Finney is also fixated on Democrats' need to listen to local operatives. Perhaps the Clinton campaign's biggest mistake in the last cycle was ignoring activists on the ground who warned that it was wrong to be complacent about Michigan and Wisconsin, both longtime Democratic strongholds.
“The campaign manager made the decision that [computer] modeling was telling him something different than the buzz on the ground,” she said. “We ended up taking Black voters for granted.” Clinton lost both states.
Even as the Biden campaign and allied groups are hyper-focused on mobilizing swing state Black voters, recent polling data from UCLA hasn’t calmed their nerves.
It showed Trump making slight inroads with Black voters younger than 45, with 21% signaling support for the president, double his share in 2016.
“At this point, everything worries me,” Finney said.
That sentiment is shared by the former Obama White House staffers who broadcast the “Pod Save America” program popular with liberals.
The title of Monday’s episode: “How Trump Can Win.” They mapped out various scenarios in which Democrats could find themselves reliving their 2016 nightmare.
The hosts warned that if Trump were to quickly notch wins in Florida and Pennsylvania, Democrats would have to win every other battleground state, and election night Nov. 3 could become a gut-churning repeat of 2016's drama.
They mused about the potential for underhanded tactics by a “shadow campaign” of well-funded conservative groups and fretted about disinformation driving a late surge of support for Trump.
The wave of mail voting by Democrats, while welcomed by the party, also has operatives worrying about associated risks — mail-in ballots have a higher chance of disqualification due to voter error.
Democrats are also anxious that young progressives, who are mailing ballots at much lower rates than older voters, in the end won’t show up to vote on election day.
“Democrats are right to be worried about turning out the youth vote,” Katie Eder, executive director of the advocacy group Future Coalition, wrote in a memo to supporters. “Less than half of young people voted in the 2016 presidential election.”
Yet some Democrats say the angst is over the top.
“People have exaggerated the lessons of 2016 because it was such a jolting moment,” said Cornell Belcher, who was a pollster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “I get the hand-wringing and the anxiousness. But for people who have done this for a living for a while, and are students of electoral politics, the fundamentals for Joe Biden are sound.”
Biden’s strong polling numbers, combined with Trump's dismal approval rating amid the pandemic and racial division, put the Democratic nominee on stronger footing than even Obama was in his races, Belcher said.
Early voting statistics, he noted, show that 7 million voters who did not show up in 2016 have already cast ballots, a promising sign for Democrats.
Voters of color who came out in force for Obama, but not for Clinton, have signaled they will do so for Biden. And the former vice president is polling stronger with white voters than Obama did.
“We set up these false expectations,” Belcher said. “When 10% of African Americans are voting Republican, it is like, ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling.’ No, it isn’t. How about let’s try turning out as many of the 88% of Black voters supporting us as we possibly can?”
When Brookings Institution scholar William Galston mapped out what it would take for Trump to win at this point, he found few similarities to 2016.
Galston, who advised six previous Democratic presidential campaigns, said the biggest risk for Biden may be overreaching as red states like Texas, Georgia and Ohio have come within striking distance.
“There is always a temptation to reach for a sweeping victory,” Galston said. “But in the current circumstances, reaching for sweeping victory and falling just short of victory altogether would be a catastrophe.”
That leaves Democrats returning to a long-standing political maxim they seemed to forget in October of 2016: Always campaign like you are several points behind.
Forecasters, Begala noted, still see a greater than 1-in-10 chance that Trump pulls out a victory. Four years ago, Trump's slim odds from the analysts at the FiveThirtyEight website helped fuel Democrats' complacency.
Now they are looking at the numbers in a very different way.
“If there is a 1-in-10 chance a plane will crash, will you get on it?” Begala said. “Until the number is zero, I am going to worry.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.