• Fri. Oct 23rd, 2020

Five Questions Democrats Anxiously Want Answered

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Like anxious fliers in turbulence or dogs in a thunderstorm, Democrats tend to scare easily this time of year.

Given the stakes and turmoil of this political moment, such angst is to be expected.

But the result these days — four years after many in the party believe they did not take seriously enough the prospect of a Trump presidency — is a kind of high season for Democratic panic.

It is a time for gaming out worst-case scenarios; for second-guessing a nominee’s every twitch; for straw-man conversations about complacency, held among Democrats likelier to assume that President Trump has supernatural campaign powers than they are to dismiss his chances at another comeback.

Recently documented Democratic symptoms include: overinterpreting one-off polls, tabulating local yard sign statistics and thinking thoughts about James Comey. (A Showtime mini-series on the former F.B.I. director drops later this month!)

So with less than nine weeks to go, let’s assess some of the latest worries we’ve been hearing most often from Democratic voters and strategists.

Are the polls tightening?

They are, in some cases. To a point. Maybe. And while Joe Biden’s campaign has been predicting this for some time, that will be no remedy for liberal nausea if it happens in earnest.

Generally, Mr. Biden has retained a national polling edge in the neighborhood of the mid-to-high single digits — a showing that would probably safeguard him against a Trump upset even if the president is once again advantaged by the Electoral College system.

The picture in swing states has been murkier, in part because there had not been many high-quality polls released recently from some key battlegrounds. But we did get a few snapshots on Wednesday: A Pennsylvania poll released by Monmouth University found Mr. Biden’s lead among registered voters shrinking from 13 points to four points since July. Fox News polls of likely voters had Mr. Biden ahead in Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Aren’t the polls wrong anyway?

A defensible position after 2016! While national polling tracked more closely with the final numbers than some state polling four years ago, many voters in both parties are understandably leery of the whole enterprise.

Here’s the bottom line: Polls are fallible, pollsters are fallible, and rigorous-but-fallible polls are still more instructive than none at all. What the rigorous-but-fallible polls show right now is that the race is far from over but also not spectacularly volatile to date. For all the day-to-day upheaval in Washington and beyond, national surveys — and voter appraisals of Mr. Trump — have often been remarkably consistent month over month.

Still, some meaningful shift in election dynamics, or even a modest polling error in the president’s direction, could make all the difference for him.

Why hasn’t Biden been doing more?

Intraparty back-seat driving is as rich a campaign tradition as rope-line handshakes and tributes to “the great state of” wherever. So it is no surprise that Democrats have wondered aloud, first quietly and then a little less quietly, about whether Mr. Biden has done enough to combat perceptions of his understated campaign schedule.

While his team has said it will continue to follow the pandemic science, Mr. Biden does plan to ramp up travel. On Monday, he delivered a speech in Pittsburgh. On Thursday, he and his wife, Jill Biden, will visit Kenosha, Wis., the site of simmering unrest after another police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

Mr. Biden probably would have accelerated his pace of campaigning anyway as the fall approached. But suffice to say his advisers heard the complaints.

What if Trump throws the results into chaos?

Democrats suspect his baseless attacks on mail balloting and his persistent conspiracy-mongering are designed to do just that, and the anxieties run along two tracks: Mr. Trump’s capacity to affect the election itself — by using the powers of his office to obstruct the voting process — and the possibility that he will move to undercut confidence in any final result he doesn’t care for. (This is a man who has questioned the veracity of an election he won.)

In an article today, my colleague Trip Gabriel detailed one Democratic (and small-d democratic) nightmare scenario: Mr. Trump declaring victory on election night when early results show him leading, before Mr. Biden overtakes him after mail-in votes are fully counted. Given Mr. Trump’s track record, this does not strike election experts as idle paranoia. Nor, frankly, do concerns about foreign interference playing a role once more.

How is it still two months away?

Perhaps the strongest argument against Democratic self-assurance is simply the great unknown. Consider all that happened between this date in 2016 and Election Day: stolen emails, “Access Hollywood,” a letter from a certain former F.B.I. director.

2020 has already felt endless enough to stuff multiple election cycles inside of it — a sort of turducken of misery. And there is a lot of meal left, regardless of the national appetite.

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