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WASHINGTON – Democrats have heard this story before.
Their standard-bearer builds a sizable lead in the race for president against Donald Trump. Everything seems pointed in their direction. Pundits start talking about a Democratic victory like it’s inevitable.
Then it doesn’t happen.
Still licking their wounds four years after Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss, Democrats are grappling with heightened expectations that didn’t seem possible at the start of the year. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden cruised to a double-digit lead nationally weeks ago, and has stayed there, as President Trump takes a pounding over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, high unemployment and the fallout from nationwide protests over police brutality.
Not only does Biden lead polls in every battleground state – a wider command than Clinton ever had – the former vice president is either ahead or competitive in states that the GOP must carry, including Texas, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Missouri. Once improbable, Democrats also have a path to take control of the Senate.
Related: 'Donald Trump failed us,' Biden critical of Trump
On one hand, Democrats are gushing about their prospects: A chance for a sweeping victory, not just eking out a win, to deliver a clear repudiation of the Trump era and unseat Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader.
But they’re not able to shake off their painful memories of 2016, when many Democrats falsely assumed that the Republican Party’s nomination of a reality TV show host with no elected office experience would ensure a Clinton victory in November.
"That memory can't be erased," said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Education Association, the state's teachers union, and a Democratic National Committee member. He recalled watching swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan quickly collapse for Democrats on election night. “That memory is still very fresh, especially for me.”
"You remind people that a poll is just a poll. It's a moment in time on Tuesday morning when somebody answered a call. Let's not get carried away. We should be winning by 20 points given the circumstances. Winning by 6 points is still too close for us to say that we're ahead of the game."
Different dynamics in 2020 than 2016
In interviews with DNC members from six battleground states, including state party leaders, each came back to an old campaign cliché: “Take nothing for granted.”
Democratic anxiety is assuaged a bit by the dramatically different circumstances this time around: Trump is now an incumbent, unable to run as a businessman outsider fighting to “drain the swamp.” Multiple crises – including a pandemic that’s resulted in more than 128,000 American deaths – are part of his record. He just wrapped up arguably the most difficult month in his presidency, capped by a new controversy over reported bounties that Russian offered the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers.
Perhaps most significantly, Biden lacks the low favorability and trustworthiness marks that doomed Clinton, whose polarization gave Trump an opening many Democrats did not see.
There is a major warning sign, however, for Democrats: Despite Biden’s sizable lead, his supporters are significantly less enthusiastic about him than Trump’s loyalists are of Trump, polling shows.
“Democrats across Wisconsin have two reactions to this moment,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “The first is that Trump is an unmitigated disaster and polls demonstrate that everyone knows he’s bad. The second reaction is that we have learned our lesson from 2016.”
He said Democrats “can’t take their foot off the gas even for a second” by buying too much into the polls, noting that Clinton led Trump by as many as 15 percentage points in Wisconsin following the Democratic National Convention in August 2016. Trump ended up winning Wisconsin less than 1 percentage point.
“I would encapsulate it as ‘grim resolve,’” Wikler said of the mood among Democrats, adding that it’s “mystifying that Trump even has the scraps of support he has” given his recent troubles. He said Democrats fear Trump is “willing to cheat his way back into power” by limiting voter access and refusing to accept results.
There’s also four months still left before the election, enough time for the race to upend yet again.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is the unknown unknowns,” Wikler said.
'We'd all love for the election to be over today'
Trump’s wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three pivotal states that historically vote Democratic, proved fatal for Clinton in 2016. Winning back the Rust Belt is key for Biden, who currently holds a polling lead of 6-points or greater in each, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Democratic leaders in these states say they began rebuilding campaign infrastructure quickly after their 2016 defeats in preparation for 2020.
“I don’t think anybody is comfortable with these numbers,” said Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “There were people in 2016 who, very early on, because of who Donald Trump was, thought, ‘How could this nation possibly choose Donald Trump?’ Now that that’s happened, we recognize that we should never count anybody out.”
Barnes said the Clinton campaign started focusing on Michigan “late,” following the party conventions in the late summer, but said the Biden campaign is already working closely with the state party’s operations.
“We all recognize the importance of this moment and the opportunities here, but they are only opportunities for us if we take advantage of them by doing the work,” she said.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and a DNC committee member, said Biden’s strong numbers show that workers are worried about the economy, the pandemic and “they’re seeing no leadership from Washington, D.C.”
“But that doesn't mean they're going to hold. Trump has shown an incredible ability to be down and then back up. A lot can happen in those (final 120) days. In 2016, people thought, 'Oh man, if they nominate Trump, this thing's a waltz.' It wasn't of course. We shouldn't assume it's going to be this time."
He added: "We'd all love for the election to be over today. But we also know that's not the case.”
Asked if he feels good about Biden carrying Pennsylvania, Bloomingdale said, “I was confident that Hillary was going to win Pennsylvania. If we do the work, we’ll win. If we don’t do the work, we won’t win.”
Wikler said Democrats in Wisconsin have “erased” the advantage an incumbent typically has by laying groundwork since 2017.
Like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump carried Wisconsin with strong support from white working-class voters, winning rural counties across the state with greater than 60% of the vote. Since then, Wikler noted, Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin won her re-election in 2018 bid by double digits. He said he believes Biden can make more inroads in rural areas where farms have been hurt by Trump’s trade policies.
“We know that Trump is targeting Wisconsin as an absolute-must state for re-election,” Wikler said. “For us that means we have to fight for every vote and we’re investing accordingly.”
Biden has bigger lead than Clinton at same point
Biden leads Trump nationally 53%-41% according to a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released this week and holds a 9.4% lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
At this juncture in 2016, Clinton’s advantage over Trump was smaller, 46%-40% in the USATODAY/Suffolk poll, and Trump had started to close the gap. In the Real Clear Politics average of polls on July 1, 2016, Clinton led by 4.8% points, a tightening from her double-digit advantage in the spring.
Although it's often popular to slam the accuracy of polling after Trump won in an upset, Clinton's final lead in the popular vote, 48.2% to 46.1%, closely matched final polls. Trump's edge in the electoral college came from close wins in swing states.
Troubling for Trump this go-around: Only 20% of voters surveyed in the USA TODAY poll said the U.S. is headed in the right direction. The majority (67%) said the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. Biden also lacks the same negatives as Clinton, including on questions over character.
Fifty percent of voters surveyed said they find Biden honest and trustworthy, compared to just 30% for Trump. Six weeks before the 2016 election, it was Trump leading the trustworthy question. A Washington Post/ABC poll found only 33% of voters found Clinton honest and trustworthy, but Trump trusted by 42%.
David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, said the 2016 electorate was swung by “the haters” – voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton. He said ultimately the “intensity against Hillary Clinton ended up being higher than Trump, especially in the swing states.” Trump benefited by a race that turned highly negative because Clinton was more polarizing.
“This year, you don’t have that,” Paleologos said. “He’s likeable. He’s likeable Joe.”
For Trump, Paleologos said, “That’s really the challenge ahead. He doesn’t have an opponent who people hate or have a visceral reaction to.”
Biden’s biggest vulnerability could be the enthusiasm gap. Most of his supporters back him because he’s “not Trump,” according to Paleologos. While half Trump backers say they are "very excited" about their candidate, only 27% of Biden backers say that. “The people for Trump, they love him. The people for Biden, they shrug their shoulders.”
Giving Biden a boost, however, he leads overwhelmingly among voters not enthusiastic about either candidate. “That’s right now taking its toll on the Trump campaign,” Paleologos said.
Trump campaign launches wide-range of attacks against Biden
Biden downplayed his lead during his first press conference since April following a speech this week in Wilmington, Delaware. He was asked about his unorthodox campaign, which has operated almost largely from his home in Delaware during the pandemic. Biden said “the irony” is he’s probably been able to reach more voters through virtual campaigning.
“So far, it remains to be seen, I don’t want to jinx myself, I know the polling data is very good. But I think it’s really early. It’s much too early to make any judgement,” Biden said.
Trump and Republicans have struggled to find an attack against Biden that’s stuck.
During a conference call with reporters, Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh threw the gauntlet at Biden.
He slammed Biden for not denouncing the recent tear-downs of monuments, called him a “disaster” on the economy, talked extensively about U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, questioned Biden’s ties to China, and argued the Obama-Biden administration’s handling of the H1N1 pandemic left Trump with a shortage of N95 masks. He accused Biden of using COVID-19 as a “political weapon in a cynical attempt” to undermine public confidence.
“Joe Biden is hoping to ride out the rest of these four months without taking any of these questions,” Murtaugh said. “He’s not undergoing thorough vetting before the American people and he’s not facing scrutiny because his handlers know he is not up to it.”
Comparing the 2020 and 2016 elections, Robby Mook, Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, last week said, “I almost look at it as: Is there very much that’s the same?” He was appearing on the podcast of David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager. “First and foremost, I’d say COVID has changed everything.”
Mook, president of the House Majority PAC, said Trump is taken "more seriously" and "being held to account in a way that he wasn’t in ’16.” Whereas Trump’s "petty" remarks were treated as a “novelty” in 2016, they’re now seen “in a context of a true lack of leadership," he said.
Political experience tends to be a liability in campaigns, Mook said, but it’s viewed as a strength for Biden during the pandemic. “I think Hillary kind of got the opposite end of that." He predicted the race would tighten up as voters, as they historically do, "go home to their parties," but not if Trump can't "get his act together."
“Biden wants this to be a referendum on Trump, and he’s winning that right now. Trump needs to re-engineer that to be a choice – and he can’t even offer what that choice is," Mook said. "So how in the world are they supposed to get this on firmer ground for their strategy?”
Dems claim to understand the 'pulse' of US right now
None of the Trump taglines on Biden has gained traction like “Crooked Hillary” and chants of “Lock her up” four years ago.
Democrats, despite their cautious optimism, are bullish about the issues being in their favor: a pandemic they contend has exposed failed presidential leadership and Trump's “law and order” response to protests over systemic racism and police brutality as polling shows more Americans are now favorable to the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We understand what the temperature and the pulse of the country looks like right now,” said Sheila Huggins, an attorney from Durham, North Carolina, and DNC committee member.
She said her Democratic friends aren’t talking about a 2016 repeat as much as they once were.
"We’re too busy listening to a president who is talking nonsense pretty much every day,” she said. “You're easily reminded that 2016 is not what needs to be on the forefront of what we're thinking about. We need to be thinking about 2020."
In Arizona, Heredia said he believes Democrats have momentum to carry the state for Biden, win the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Mark Kelly and Sen. Martha McSally and flip both chambers of the state legislature, where Republicans have slim majorities. The last Democrat to carry Arizona for president was Bill Clinton in 1996.
“There's a perfect storm building up in Arizona, I would call it a perfect ‘haboob’ in our state,” he said, referring to the dust storms that pop up in the Southwest”
Kevin Evans, a DNC member from Florida, who runs a camp for children in Fort Lauderdale, said he knows many "nonpartisan people" in Broward County who voted for Trump because they couldn’t back Clinton, but plan to vote for Biden in November. He said the president’s handling of the coronavirus was the last straw.
“That’s making the difference. That’s what’s going to bring out the vote,” Evans said, defending voter enthusiasm for Biden. “They’re excited to bring normalcy back to White house” after growing "tiresome" of all the Trump drama, he said. “People are tired.”
When it comes to Biden being ahead in polls, though, Evans returned to four years ago.
“So was Hillary, right?” he said.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With Joe Biden up big and Senate in grasps, Dems haunted by fear of letdown