In this final dash of the presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden holds a solid lead and his backers are working themselves to exhaustion. Yet Democrats still find that they can't sleep at night.
Their nightmare of 2016 — front-runner Hillary Clinton's stunning upset by Donald Trump — keeps jolting them awake.
"Everybody is anxious," said Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton and a founder of the Democratic fundraising behemoth Priorities USA. "It is not just post-traumatic stress disorder. We have permanent traumatic stress disorder. We will never get over what happened in 2016."
Biden operatives are obsessing over the ways that everything could go sideways in this unpredictable election. The pandemic has upended how people vote and surveys of public opinion are delivered with a list of caveats. The specter of a repeat seems to be reflected in everything Democrats are doing, from the panicked tone of fundraising pitches to campaign ads that run as often as 65 times a day in key battleground markets.
There is a legitimate case for jittery nerves. The national polling averages that show Biden with a double-digit lead obscure a narrower gap in the swing states essential to win a 270-vote Electoral College majority. A slight shift in voters' mood in those places could mean the difference between a Biden blowout and Trump eking out another narrow victory even as he loses the popular vote — as he did to Clinton four years ago.
That is a point Priorities USA drove home in a recent "Battleground Bulletin." The memo laid out how the race could quickly become a toss-up if just a tiny fraction of working-class white voters abandon Biden in swing states and turnout for people of color is slightly smaller than anticipated.
So intense is the hand-wringing that even the smallest sign of a glitch on the campaign trail is confronted with an urgency unheard of in the last presidential election. A recent dip in Biden's support among young Black and Latino voters, as reflected in a UCLA poll, moved Democratic operatives to reassess their work in places including Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia. Some Democrats are second-guessing the decision to suspend door-to-door campaigning earlier in the pandemic. The narrowing of Biden's lead in Florida — with its coveted 29 electoral votes — has set off alarms.
"Florida keeps me up at night," said Chuck Rocha, founder of Nuestro PAC, a pro-Biden group focused on turning out Latino voters. Nevada has him unnerved too, he said.
"The COVID disaster has hit workers face-on, but the argument that it will motivate Latinos to vote because Donald Trump did not take it seriously makes me hella nervous," Rocha said. "They've got kids going to school in the living room, they are worried about keeping the lights on, while I am trying to talk to them about filling out an absentee ballot."
Also fueling insomnia are concerns about the kind of potent disinformation campaigns that are believed to have suppressed turnout and contributed to Clinton's defeat. The U.S. intelligence community has warned that Russia, and other foreign actors to a lesser extent, are seeking to disrupt the voting again.