The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Biden and Democrats, confidence comes with a chaser: Fear

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a presidential campaign event in Darby, Pa., on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Joe Biden’s campaign, and his Democratic Party, are feeling an emotion they have not sensed in quite some time, and one that prompts more than a little fear: confidence.

Poll after poll has placed the presumptive Democratic nominee ahead of President Trump, with comfortable national leads that in some cases have swollen to double digits. He is ahead by narrower but consistent margins in battleground states, and Biden himself has grown increasingly bullish on the idea that Democrats will win back the Senate majority, a possibility not even dreamed of until recently. Once an anemic fundraiser, he is now routinely drawing multimillion-dollar hauls.

Trump is presiding over a Depression-style economy, a global pandemic and boiling social unrest. His administration has lost several high-profile Supreme Court cases, his former National Security adviser’s new book has painted a damning portrait and he is now in perhaps the weakest position of his presidency with less than five months before the general election. The images of a half-empty arena for Trump’s much-hyped rally in Tulsa on Saturday only underscored the perception of a diminished incumbent, one who has long seen crowd size as a barometer of success.

But for Democrats, the very idea that they are doing well provokes an underlying skittishness. They worry about voting during the coronavirus crisis, amid restrictions that could make it harder to cast ballots. Some fear a coming misinformation campaign and say the party risks underestimating Trump’s ability to turn the country against their nominee.

They also worry their party still does not fully understand what led voters to Trump in the first place, and they are terrified that overconfidence, like some of them enjoyed four years ago, will lead to complacency.

In Tulsa on June 20, President Trump called out former vice president Joe Biden, his presumptive rival in November, at Trump's first campaign rally since March. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It feels like 2016 all over,” said Andrew Werthmann, a member of the city council in Eau Claire, Wis., who has been almost cringing as he watches Biden surge in the polling he cannot help but keep looking at.

“It’s not a good energy to think you have a presidential election in the bag,” he said. “Especially not in our state. Where exactly that happened last time.”

Biden’s campaign believes the pathway to the presidency runs through states in the industrial Midwest — such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three usually Democratic states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. But they are also increasingly optimistic about once-unthinkable states such as Arizona, Texas and Georgia. They have twin goals of trying to motivate black voters in urban cores and college-educated voters in the suburbs to turn out in bigger numbers than Clinton drew.

“I’ve always had an expanded map in my head that includes Texas, maybe even South Carolina, maybe Georgia. We’re not going to concede anything,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the co-chairman of Biden’s campaign.

“You still run a race like you’re behind. But the truth of the matter is we’re not behind,” he added. “Doesn’t matter if it’s two up, five up, or 10 up, the polls all show us increasing . . . the trend is good for us.”

Still, while Biden at this point is faring better against Trump than Clinton did, the next few months hold challenges for him. He has failed so far to excite Latinos, a fast-growing electoral bloc, and some young black voters still view him skeptically. Trump retains a solid base of supporters. Two weeks ago, an unexpectedly favorable employment report raised the specter of a boosted economy, one area where Trump continues to poll better than Biden.

But Biden also has been helped by factors outside his control: Trump, who unlike in 2016 has a record to be measured against, has not yet found a line of attack that has resonated with voters. And the president is facing not only Democrats in whom he inspires unprecedented anger but a revolt among Republicans, some of whom have formed anti-Trump networks that are airing ads against him.

On Thursday, Biden launched a $15 million advertising campaign targeting many of the swing states. Some of the ads will air on Fox News and during NASCAR races, aiming to win over former Obama voters who switched to Trump four years ago. English- and Spanish-language ads will air in key markets in Florida, where Trump’s campaign is planning to hold rallies and parties as part of his nominating convention.

Democrats in several key states believe Trump will likely turn out his unshakable supporters. In their view, the key to a Biden victory rests in turning out Democratic voters who sat out of the 2016 election.

“He’s got a very aggressive, loyal base. But that base on its own, I don’t think, is enough,” Brandon Dillon, a former Democratic Party chairman in Michigan, said of the president. “His path is complacency among Democratic voters and independents who despise him — that they think this is somehow in the bag. That’s the biggest threat.”

Biden’s campaign is beginning to coordinate more closely with state Democratic parties and expects to have 600 field organizers working in the battleground states by the start of next month. This past week alone, the campaign held 39 organizing events in Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and Michigan. They have a director of African American outreach in Michigan, a Latinx outreach director in Arizona and a full-time youth vote director in Wisconsin.

The Fix’s Natalie Jennings analyzes what former Vice President Joe Biden meant when he said President Trump would try to steal the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Eau Claire, Wis., a city of 70,000, Biden supporters are hoping to harness the energy of thousands of people who have showed up for Black Lives Matter protests. A large batch of campaign signs are soon heading for rural Michigan, meant to combat the visibility that Trump has on farms and highways.

In Florida, the coordinated effort between the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee is adding 40 staffers to the roster of about 160 organizers the state party has had working over the past year. Florida Democrats are also seeing a surge in voters registering to vote by mail, a reversal of past trends.

“Republicans used to crush us on that. It was just the mentality of Democrats not trusting the postal system,” said Juan Peñalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “But now that Trump is telling Republicans not to do it, Democrats all want to do it. It’s been the best thing for us. Everybody is flocking to it.”

“In Florida we have a history of fumbling at the two-yard line. I don’t think we’re going to do that this year,” he added.

Some Democrats continue to worry about Biden’s relative lack of visibility or question whether his instinct to criticize the “Defund the Police” movement places him out of touch with the raw nerves on the streets.

But many other Democrats think it does not matter. Among more moderate voters particularly, they say, Biden has to do enough to show that he is a suitable alternative — or, as Biden himself often jokes, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

“I’m not trying to convince people to like him. I’m trying to convince people to vote for him,” said Khary Penebaker, a DNC committee member from Wisconsin. “There is no extra box. When you fill in that bubble or punch that box, it doesn’t say, ‘Are you excited?’ All you got to do is vote.”

“Even people who don’t like Joe Biden are saying, ‘I’ll vote for a paper bag over Trump,’ ” he added.

In Iowa, a state Trump won by just under 10 points in 2016, a recent Des Moines Register poll had him up by only one point. The same poll had Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) trailing her Democratic opponent Theresa Greenfield by three points. In Texas, a state Trump won by nine points, a Quinnipiac poll had Trump leading by one point. Eventually, the campaign will face hard decisions about where to spend its money, but for now, Biden is fanning the specter of winning in unforeseen places.

“Texas is an important battleground state for our campaign in 2020,” Biden said during a virtual appearance for the Texas Democratic Party’s convention two weeks ago. “I think we have a real chance to turn the state blue because of the work all of you have done.”

Managing the optimism has created new challenges for the Biden campaign. Even as his team believes the past few weeks have moved the race in his favor, at least temporarily, they are trying to encourage supporters to disregard the recent good news.

“We are not up 15 in Michigan. We are not up 14,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said on the most recent episode of “Campaign HQ,” a podcast hosted by David Plouffe, referring to Biden’s polling lead there.

O’Malley Dillon said she was making that point in part to avoid “the bedwetting that is to come when those numbers narrow.” “This is going to be a very close race; everyone needs to understand that,” she said.

Plouffe, who ran Obama’s first campaign, also warned that Democrats should assume Trump will win back some support as the campaign progresses and voters start paying more attention.

“I am a little bit worried that people are getting super excited about these numbers,” he said. “And you’d much rather have them than not. But when you look at how these votes ultimately come down on Election Day, it seems to me you’re going to see some tightening.”

Nancy Quarles, a commissioner in Oakland County, Mich., remains scarred by 2016, still baffled by the support Trump won in crucial counties that she never expected.

“I’m very nervous about the race. I see all the groundwork for the Democrats to win, however, I don’t discount the current president. He’s very motivated to win,” she said.

Quarles, who is a DNC committeewoman, worries Biden is not doing enough to motivate voters who are on the fence or are not paying close attention to the presidential race.

“Even personal friends, I don’t think they’re going to vote for Trump,” she said. “But they need more of an edge to know Biden is willing to roll up his sleeves and do what needs to be done.”

The Biden campaign’s efforts in key states are meant as a hedge against a repeat of Clinton’s trajectory.

“One of the criticisms in 2016 was Hillary didn’t physically come to Wisconsin,” said David Bowen, a state lawmaker from Milwaukee. “You see a different strategy by the Biden campaign not to abandon Wisconsin, not to take resources meant for Wisconsin and divert them elsewhere to states that were really a crapshoot.”

Will Buergey, the party chairman in Gogebic County, Mich., got a call about a week ago. The campaign wanted him to get to work in the rural area, where Obama won in 2008 and 2012 but where Trump beat Clinton by nearly 15 points. He said he is encouraged by the expected shipment of lawn signs; in 2016, the area felt neglected by Clinton as Trump’s allies papered the area with symbols of their support.

“I like Joe Biden, I think he’s a good candidate. But I think this election is going to turn more on people who see the real Donald Trump,” he said. “I think a lot of people were hoodwinked by him in 2016 . . . I do feel better that the country as a whole — if they’re not strongly pro-Biden, they’re anti-Trump.”

That is one reason Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) is increasingly optimistic Biden will be the first Democrat to win his state since Bill Clinton carried it in 1996.

“Time’s running out. This election doesn’t end in November. It ends in early October, when early voting starts in many of these swing states,” he said.

“If Trump somehow hasn’t changed his campaign and himself by early October, he is in severe problems. He won in 2016. But it’s possible, and more likely, that it was a fluke. And not a trend.”