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Politics & Policy

Democrats Are Twitchy, Watching Carefully for the Next October Surprise

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden gives a thumbs up when asked about how Kamala Harris will do in the vice-presidential debate as he arrives to record campaign messages in Wilmington, Del., October 7, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In today’s Morning Jolt, I note that one reason Twitter, Facebook, and a lot of blue-checkmark journalistic elites went to DefCon One over the recent New York Post story is that it triggered traumatic flashbacks to FBI director James Comey’s sending a letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the email probe on October 28, 2016, eleven days before the November 8 election.

On paper, the most recent national and swing state polls show Joe Biden just about locking it up. Things could change in the next three weeks, but Biden leads the RealClearPolitics average of national polls by 9.2 points (!) and most of the battleground states, outside the margin of error, and the minor-party candidates appear set to be minimal factors this year. As far as public surveys can tell, Biden is running well ahead of Hillary Clinton, and she didn’t lose by much last cycle.

But the shock of 2016 means that many Democrats will never really enjoy hearing news about a polling lead again, or at least not for a long while. Some of them will always have that nagging doubt that the polls are misleading, or actually show a little tightening that is easily overlooked, and that their opponent is inching into position to overperform expectations in just enough places to reach 270 electoral votes.

For the better part of two years, they constantly read and heard that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a well-oiled machine, and that the Trump campaign was a bunch of infighting stumblebums . . . and then the alleged stumblebums won the presidency. Lots of Democrats want to believe Biden is well ahead, but having been burned before, they’re on high alert for any sign that they’re living in an illusion.

Thomas Edsall’s cautionary column in the New York Times is getting a lot of attention, particularly an assessment from “a Democratic strategist who closely follows the data on a day-to-day basis” that “since last week, the share of white non-college over 30 registrations in the battleground states has increased by 10 points compared to September 2016, and the Democratic margin dropped 10 points to just 6 points. And there are serious signs of political engagement by white non-college voters who had not cast ballots in previous elections.” Edsall notes that in recent months, there have been substantially more Republicans added to the rolls than Democrats in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Edsall also notes “a modest drop in the Democratic margin of support among Hispanic Catholics, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center” and “modestly weakened support [for Biden] among Black women.” By themselves, none of these trends appear to be a serious problem for the Biden campaign. But cumulatively? After 2016, who feels confident completely dismissing the possibility of an upset?

Does this mean Trump will win? Not necessarily, but it’s fair to wonder if the turnout models used for polling are accounting for these increases in newly registered Republicans, or if the swing-state samples are large enough to account for shifts in these smaller demographics. Many Democrats have been conditioned to expect a last-minute disaster, and they will react — or overreact — to anything that comes along and fits their criteria.


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