Less than four months out from the November election, the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has been consistently polling ahead of Donald Trump.
The president’s approval numbers remain underwater, and Democrats believe they can seriously compete in traditionally red states including Texas, as Trump faces sustained criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis linked to it, as well as the ongoing anti-racism protests against police brutality.
For Democrats, these are not the only indicators that things are going well. Infighting between the progressive wing of the party and the establishment wing has been relatively minimal, as they come together to focus on Biden’s campaign to push Trump out of the White House.
Some top party officials are feeling ambitious, and want to ride another potential “blue wave” to try to win races that are usually out of reach in states like Georgia and Ohio. But there’s a strain of caution running through the Democratic party as well. Things looked great for them for a while in 2016, too, but Republicans ended up with control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, and the memory of that cataclysmic loss is still fresh.
“I mean, we are emotionally and mentally scarred in such a way that we are not going to feel comfortable until a week after Biden is sworn in,” said the Democratic strategist Tom Bowen.
In any election cycle, campaign officials use cautious phrases like “we’re not leaving anything to chance” or “campaigning like we’re 10 points down until election day” – and the 2020 presidential race is no different. But coupled with that is an argument that Trump’s case for re-election is not reaching the voters he needs to.
A recent Biden campaign surrogates memo by his deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, said: “No matter how hard he tries, the only candidates Trump’s attacks harm are himself and the down-ballot Republicans who’ve handcuffed themselves to him. Simply put, the American people just aren’t buying his fabrications about [Biden].”
The memo went on to tick off the problems with each of Trump’s arguments.
On Tuesday, in another sign that Democrats see a rare opening to compete in what are usually Republican strongholds, the Biden campaign began airing a 60-second general election ad in Texas, fueled by a six-figure ad buy. That ad is the first in a $15m multi-state blitz in six battleground states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump America First Action Super Pac is pouring $23m into Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin but not Michigan – a state that Trump needs to win re-election. Trump himself has been campaigning over the last few months in reliably red states. Private polling for Republicans also shows the president in trouble in what are usually reliably conservative states.
All of which suggests Democrats have the upper hand over Republicans. But Democratic state officials and operatives expect polls to tighten and the summer high to end. In multiple interviews, these officials were hopeful but also realistic that the next few months won’t be easy.
Democrats often cite 2016, where polls showed Hillary Clinton as the clear favorite to win the presidency. At that time, and again now, some Democrats also felt retaking control of the Senate was possible.
“I’m not going to argue that there isn’t some anxiety there, and I think that 2016 put that in our being because we were feeling very secure that we would have a Democratic president, and things changed so rapidly,” said the Kansas Democratic party chairwoman, Vicki Hiatt.
Democrats are hoping to win a US Senate seat in Kansas this cycle, which would usually be unheard of. “I think over the past three and a half years we’ve seen some very unpredictable things happen that we would never have expected. I think that is where that anxiety comes from. For me personally, I’m not going to rest until we have this thing done. I’m cautiously optimistic but I’m not taking anything for granted.”
From September, Biden and Trump will face each other in three televised debates, something Republican campaign officials hope the president will be able to dominate. Democrats are also expecting some kind of “October surprise” from the Trump campaign and a barrage of warnings about Democratic control of the White House and Congress.
“That tightening will happen. It’s natural. So what we need to be doing is building up our reserves now,” said the Maryland Democratic party chairwoman, Yvette Lewis. “So we can’t waste time right now worrying about the what-ifs.”
The Tennessee Democratic party chairwoman, Mary Mancini, said that Republicans have not yet thrown their full offensive force against Democratic candidates this cycle.
“Now what they could do and what they’re trying to do is fearmonger their way into winning,” Mancini said. “I think the most damaging and frightening thing is we have yet to see the all-out assault from the Republican party in terms of using fear to motivate voters. We’ve seen a little of it but it’s the tip of the iceberg for the Republican party.”
The pandemic has also changed the reality of campaigning for office. More voters will be voting by mail rather than in person, potentially delaying the final results on election night. Trump has argued, contrary to established evidence, that voting by mail is vulnerable to fraud.
“I think my greatest fear is what the Republicans do now and over the next few months to delegitimise the election,” said Aryeh Alex, the executive director of the Ohio Democrats’ state house campaign arm.
Julian Mulvey, a veteran Democratic ad maker, added: “Every Democrat should be worried. Every Democrat should be nervous because it won’t be over till it’s over. But I think everyone is nervously optimistic right now.”