The run of strong polls for the Biden campaign over the last week – including both national polls with eye-popping leads and swing state results with growing margins – has led to some cognitive dissonance.
On one hand, the sheer volume of promising results has launched a streak of "it's obvious that President Donald Trump is going to lose" analysis from influential outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Politico. When added to other factors like the drumbeat of bad news for the president, the shrinking calendar, and a mounting Democratic advantage in swing state TV advertising, confident Democratic whispers have been spreading.
On the other hand, many remain haunted by 2016. All this year, each fresh piece of encouraging news has had an almost perverse effect, as Democrats now harbor Pavlovian expectations of letdowns, like a never-ending "Debbie Downer" skit on Saturday Night Live.
The dilemma is that accepting recent evidence at face value feels jinx-y and complacent. Ignoring it feels oblivious and obstinate.
But there is a coherent middle ground to stand on: it is reasonable to believe both that Biden's position is strong, and yet that lingering pitfalls ahead – especially given the astronomical stakes involved – are grounds for caution.
Here are seven reasons that Democrats can feel justified to tap the brakes on their optimism without feeling like they are being hopelessly paranoid.
1) The way people respond to polls could make recent results more blip than bump.
Big news events can make members of one party more likely to respond to polls, introducing a temporary bias. This could very well be happening right now in the wake of revelations about Trump's taxes, Covid diagnosis, and wild first debate performance.
Even if it is limited, this bias doesn't have to be much to account for recent results. Biden's margin in polling averages (a far better measure of where things stand than individual polls) has actually increased only two or three points, well within the range of quirky polling effects. His average margin in the swing states has only increased by a point. This is why Democratic operatives feel good about the consistency of Biden's polling leads up to now, but are not too enthusiastic about the recent surges. When a series of gaudy Quinnipiac state results emerged on Wednesday, Priorities USA Chair Guy Cecil took to twitter to call shenanigans: "I…will chime in here to simply say we are not up 11 in Florida and 13 in Pennsylvania."
2) Tightening down the stretch could still put key swing states within reach
There is a long-held belief that high-profile races tend to get closer at the end, as wavering partisans drift back to their political home base. The evidence is inconclusive: the fact that almost all presidential elections since 1980 have ended up tighter down the stretch is an indication, but hardly dispositive.
The more pertinent factor is that the a comparison of polling averages in top battleground states between 2020 and 2016 shows that Trump's deficit right now is basically where it was four years ago. Biden's average advantage is 4.7 points. Clinton's was 4.8. Biden is in a much stronger position than Clinton was in many ways, and methodology adjustments from pollsters have probably made it less likely that there are systematic errors masking Trump strength. But still, even a couple points of tightening (especially from a possibly temporarily inflated average – since the margin was only 3.7 a week ago) would bring a number of swing states into real palm sweat territory.
3) The skullduggery factor
If the swing state margin ends up closer to 3 or 4 points, we start to enter "The Suppression Zone": a range where determined Republican efforts to undermine the Election Day vote could tilt the outcome. As an example, while Democrats are generally a lot more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year, two-thirds of African American voters prefer to vote in-person. At the same time, this will be the first Presidential election since 1980 where Republicans have been freed from a legal consent decree preventing them from, among other things, "seeking to discourage African-Americans from voting through targeted mailings warning about penalties for violating election laws and by posting armed, off-duty law enforcement officers at the polls in minority neighborhoods." Not only has Trump pledged to resume these kinds of activities (following explicit, albeit slightly more subtle, efforts to "suppress" black votes in 2016), but his Russian allies are actively trying to bolster his efforts by once again targeting racial divides.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton's underperformance in just 10 majority-black zip codes in Wisconsin cost 24,000 votes in a state Trump won by 23,000. Targeted Election Day vote suppression aimed at key African American majority precincts could easily close moderate swing state polling gaps this year. Already, stunningly long lines for early voting, targeted removal of (disproportionately Black) voters from voting rolls, and elimination of ballot drop-off locations are disrupting the ability of Black Americans to vote.
4) Counting rules
Matters are far from smooth on the mail-in voting side either. Given that absentee ballot requests from Democrats are outpacing Republicans' in swing states by as much as 3 to 1, Democrats are right to be concerned about the craggy landscape of state counting rules. Democratic attorneys have mounted a robust legal effort to protect mailed votes, but many lawsuits have ended with "mixed results." New rulings portend serious problems: in Pennsylvania, for example, a state Supreme Court decision discounting so-called "naked ballots" puts more than 100,000 votes at risk.
The vote-by-mail proposition has always been fraught. Back in 2008, experts estimated that "3.9 million requested ballots were never received; 2.9 million ballots mailed to voters were never returned; and 800,000 returned ballots were rejected." People who vote from home are also more likely to make mistakes, and signature mismatches remain a significant source of rejected ballots.
While states have been working hard to improve their ability to process the vastly higher volume of mailed votes this year – and mitigate the kinds of problems that go with them – many remain hamstrung by rules that will add confusion and conflict. A number of key states such as Iowa, Michigan, and New Hampshire only start to process mailed ballots a few days before Election Day; Wisconsin and Pennsylvania do not start until November 3rd itself. Delays, confusion, challenges, and the inevitable wave of post-election lawsuits are exactly what Trump is hoping for in order to shave down Democratic vote margins or create a contested election adjudicated by federal courts.
5) The Supreme Court
This is such a longstanding and well-plumbed source of Democratic stress, with a few significant new pieces emerging in recent weeks. The current 5-3 Republican-appointed Court seems to be leaning toward applying the "Purcell Principle" to various state voting disputes, which holds that courts should avoid last-minute changes to election laws that could introduce confusion. It's a reasonable proposition, but the problem is that without such changes this year, it will be hard to fix problems that will lead to even greater voter confusion and wrongly-discarded votes. Already, the Court has reinstated a South Carolina ballot witness requirement on these grounds, and it seems poised for similar vote-limiting rulings in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There is also justifiable worry about what a Justice Amy Coney Barret would do in a contested election: there are certainly a number of realistic scenarios where the Supreme Court could get involved to resolve the outcome, and she has refused to recuse herself.
While some experts have downplayed this danger because "the Constitution places a heavy thumb on the scale toward counting every vote…[and] there is no legitimate role for the Department of Justice during an election contest," there is little indication either that the current Attorney General will apply the law evenhandedly or that the Supreme Court will faithfully interpret the Constitution. The 2000 Bush v. Gore case put an end to the quaint idea that the Supreme Court would not employ tortured logic to deliver a partisan outcome.
6) The Senate
The presidency delivers an awesome degree of power (though not quite in the way people usually think). So a Biden win is critical, especially compared to the alternative. But a Senate majority would give Democrats a real chance at instituting badly-needed pro-democracy reforms that could save our entire system of government, and then passing actual policy through legislation. And the race for the Senate is poised on a knife's edge. Between the Cal Cunningham "scandal" in North Carolina, close polls in key states, and Georgia's unusual primary system--and the possibility of Democrats stumbling over themselves--there is good reason to feel that no amount of Democratic surge is too much, especially since these races will be subject to all of the same potential for suppression, confusion, and delay as the presidential race.
7) 270 is not enough
As I've argued previously, thinking of the presidential contest as merely being about achieving 270 Electoral Votes is no longer sufficient. Given the surprisingly high chance of a complete collapse of the American system of government following a close election this year, Biden likely needs to win by multiple states' worth of Electoral Votes for Americans to feel reasonably sure they've averted a catastrophe.
In sum, politics is hardly a predictive science. So it is still entirely possible that Biden and Senate Democrats will win in a romp, and if that happens, plenty of pundits will say that the signs were there all along. But there are also some darker linings to the past week's worth of silver clouds. Democrats certainly have plenty of firm evidence to feel good. They are also well-justified to continue to feel uneasy.