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You’d be forgiven for sensing a disconnect between perceived reality and the political rhetoric coming out of Joe Biden’s high command this weekend. It’s not an accident.
Even as national polls show Biden leading President Donald Trump in head-to-head surveys by ever-widening margins, there are still viable paths towards a second term for the President when the election ends on Nov. 3. Sure, Biden raised more cash than Trump for the final report before Election Day and is swamping him on the airwaves, but Trump has proven a preternatural survivor. Democrats have a clear advantage over Republicans when it comes to early ballot returns, but the Republicans have always shown more adept at voting on Election Day. And Republicans have spent the last four years adding GOP partisans to the voter rolls, while purging Democrats.
“If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign,” Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon wrote in an Oct. 17 memo to supporters. In an email to his fundraising friends, bundler Alex Slater told his list that same day to resist complacency. He warned of voter registration imbalance, Trump’s potential non-acceptance of the results and a scenario by which the pair ties and the House sends the White House to Trump. “What does this mean? Don’t bed wet. Act,” Slater wrote.
The Biden campaign is refusing to allow anyone to be tempted to coast on the good polls toward Nov. 3, and is instead actively projecting the need for around-the-clock efforts until the end. For the rank-and-file campaign staff, that’s translated into something of an internal miasma. They look like they’re part of a winning team but are being told to feel like they are running 10 points behind. Most of the staff was hired after top Biden hands decided it was too risky to keep everyone packed into campaign HQ in Philadelphia. Team building is happening via Zoom and Slack, but it is way less fun to run on four hours of sleep a night when the all-nighters are done solo and without bad cold pizza on folding tables in the breakroom.
Separately, Democrats familiar with private surveys conducted for the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC show Biden well ahead in Trump 2016 states like Michigan by 6 points and Pennsylvania by 5 — but not by more than some surveys showed Clinton winning four years ago. Most polls are impossible to compare in apples-to-apples ways, but nervous Democrats were quick to note that 2016 is still haunting their party. “We should be feeling good,” says one Democratic consultant who is close to the Biden team who blames “2016 PTSD” for the caution. “If you’re a Biden supporter, there’s no reason you should be feeling this bad.”
The campaigns’ approach to reaching voters in the final weeks before Election Day has also left the Biden team feeling insecure. Biden’s team has been out-spending Trump on the airwaves by almost a quarter-billion dollars in six hard-fought states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Arizona. Only in North Carolina is Trump slightly ahead in spending dollars. In the final weeks, Biden has the airwaves almost to himself in places like Ohio and Iowa. Trump has also bailed on some TV ads in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada. And online, Biden’s spending on Facebook by week has been ahead of Trump’s twice as often as Trump’s has bested Biden since Labor Day, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital firm.
But in the field, Trump’s team is at a clear advantage. His campaign claims they’re knocking on more than a million doors each week, whereas Biden’s team had largely conceded this tactic, arguing that Biden is the candidate who is taking coronavirus seriously and doesn’t want to risk staff, volunteers or supporters with the door-to-door campaign. Biden’s team only recently started to engage in limited on-the-ground organizing.
Most polls still show Biden in comfortable shape against Trump. In national polls, he’s consistently on more solid ground than Clinton ever was in terms of favorability, the size of the lead, his standing with seniors and without a threat from a third-party vote, as NBC News notes in its excellent analysis. But national polls are largely irrelevant to how we pick Presidents. State-by-state contests determine those outcomes, and there are notably tight races, such as Florida and Pennsylvania. Polls show Biden in a more comfortable position than Clinton ever really enjoyed in Wisconsin and Michigan. The path to 270 electoral votes has many options for Biden, but fewer for Trump.
But rationality alone isn’t calming the die-hards on Team Joe, as the Biden campaign brands itself. Campaigns for the White House are inherently emotional affairs, and Team Joe feels under siege despite a spate of good proof points that should calm worries about making rent. The polls show Biden ahead where he needs to be, yet their chief is saying not to imagine victory just yet. The television buys across the country are a lopsided shade of blue that was once unimaginable. Biden has never been a talented fundraiser, whereas Trump’s re-election bid called its fundraising machine a “Death Star.”
In hindsight, there may have been a fatal flaw with that analogy: no one on Team Trump had apparently ever watched the “Star Wars” films until the end, when the Death Stars always are nuked by the Resistance.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org