Every now and then, something approximating optimism can set in. Joe Biden, already comfortably ahead in the polls, has only put more daylight between himself and the president in recent weeks. Donald Trump, meanwhile, seems to be struggling in quicksand—the harder he fights to get out, the deeper he sinks. And some Republicans seem worried that they’re sinking with him, with Texas Senator John Cornyn becoming the latest GOP lawmaker to try to distance himself from the president. As America labors through one of the bleakest stretches in modern history, one made immeasurably worse by Trump and his allies, it’s tempting to see these indicators as glints of light at the end of the tunnel.
And indeed, they might be. But Democrats fear they could wind up being the butt of the same cruel joke from 2016, when Hillary Clinton seemed a sure bet to trounce Trump but was ultimately edged out in the Electoral College. The two races aren’t precisely alike. But there’s enough residual shell shock among Trump’s opponents, and enough variables in the race, to keep anyone from getting too comfortable.
“Because of what happened to us in 2016, folks still remain cautious,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes told the Washington Post. “Nobody is taking anything for granted, even the folks that we’re meeting at doors and talking to on the phones.”
That uneasiness may be a good thing. Even as polls show Biden leading by double-digits, leading or tied in swing states, and even putting some traditional Republican strongholds in play, his campaign is urging supporters to treat the final weeks of the race as if the Democrat is trailing—to take nothing for granted, and to keep fighting. “The very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo to supporters over the weekend. “The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest.”
“If we learned anything from 2016,” she added, “it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign.”
Trump has taken his maximalist approach to politicking to another level in the final months of the race, throwing everything he’s got at an election whose outcome could determine whether he faces legal consequences for his prolific corruption and grift. He’s hit the trail hard—barnstorming as if we’re not in the middle of an intensifying pandemic, leaving a trail of infections in his wake—in an effort to build some kind of momentum. That strategy might be limited, appealing to the base that is already voting for him but only reinforcing everyone else’s Trump fatigue. But even if his more traditional tactics seem to be failing him, there’s also his underhanded efforts, including but not exclusive to voter intimidation, rank disinformation, and disputes over the legitimacy of the results.
There’s cause for hope: Democrats have driven a surge of early voting, suggesting turnout—which Trump sees as a threat to his electoral prospects—will be high, despite the president’s efforts to keep participation low. Moreover, Trumpworld’s efforts to smear Biden the way they smeared Clinton in the final weeks of the 2016 election don’t seem to be working. The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his indicted former strategist, Steve Bannon, have attempted to cast his opponent as corrupt with a trove of emails supposedly taken from Hunter Biden’s computer—but the scheme has mostly just highlighted the sleaziness of Trump and his allies. Trump has leveled all manner of wild accusations against Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, to incite fear about their agenda and sow doubt about the former vice president’s capabilities. But those manufactured issues have been seemingly overpowered by the very real ones gripping the nation, like the coronavirus crisis and social unrest. That Biden holds huge polling leads on those issues is promising.
But much uncertainty and anxiety remains—both around whether polls can be trusted and whether the apparent anti-Trump headwinds are blowing hard enough to knock down the challenges to the election’s legitimacy he’s already leveling. Will turnout be as large, and blue, as it seems? Will all votes be counted? Will another dramatic event, in a season full of them, knock this race off its axis? One would hope that voters are as eager to reject Trump as they seem to be, and that the nation’s institutions can pass the stress test the president is putting them through. But as 2016 taught us, nothing can be assumed. Around this time four years ago, polls had Clinton leading Trump by as many as 14 points. As NBC News pointed out, her polling advantage was far more precarious than Biden’s seems to be. But Clinton’s fate last cycle is nevertheless a cautionary tale for Biden in 2020, especially in this year of unprecedented volatility. “There are more known unknowns than we’ve ever had at any point,” Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, told Politico.
The stress, then, isn’t likely to lift until Biden is sworn in and sitting behind the Resolute Desk. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; a little anxiety could ensure that comfort doesn’t give way to complacency. “We’re sort of like a high-jumper jumping as high as we can without yet knowing how high the bar will be because Republicans will set that on Election Day,” Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told the Post. “The sense among Democrats is a deep-rooted sense that anything could go wrong at every moment, so we have to do everything we possibly can.”
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