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As Biden sees multiple paths to win, Democrats face 'crippling fear' of 2016 redux

A Democratic operative who worked on Hillary Clinton's campaign says he's "ping-ponging back and forth between utter dread and cautious optimism."
The Democratic nervousness persists despite Joe Biden's roughly 8-point lead over President Donald Trump in the NBC News national polling average, a considerably larger advantage than Hillary Clinton's 2016 election eve edge.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden heads into Election Day with a unique coalition and multiple paths to victory against President Donald Trump — but some Democrats can hardly believe the polls, haunted by the ghosts of 2016.

"I'm ping-ponging back and forth between utter dread and cautious optimism," said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who worked as the director of rapid response on Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Many Democrats were overconfident about the 2016 election, and they paid a heavy price for it. Now it's the opposite. They appear to be in a better position, but party operatives and loyalists are persistently on edge, trying to remain hopeful but often quick to panic at warning signs.

"At certain moments, I have a crippling fear that everything's going to fall apart like it did in 2016. Waiting at the Javits Center with high hopes and leaving in utter despair — that's a moment that will live with me for the rest of my life," Petkanas said.

"And on the other hand, feeling cautiously optimistic because an objective view at the numbers show key differences in the races, 2016 and 2020, in terms of the base of support that Joe Biden has — a lot of it brought on by the failures of President Trump," he said.

Biden leads Trump by about 8 points in the NBC News national polling average, a considerably larger advantage than Clinton's edge on the eve of the 2016 election.

He's favored and outperforming her in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the three battleground states that put Trump in the White House by a collective margin of about 80,000 votes, after polls underestimated his support.

Unlike Clinton, Biden is campaigning in Wisconsin. He has put a premium on Michigan, hosting a rally Saturday in Detroit with former President Barack Obama. He has made a dozen trips to Pennsylvania since he claimed the Democratic nomination, including a "souls to the polls" event Sunday in Philadelphia.

Flipping those three and holding the states Clinton won in 2016 would be enough for Biden to make Trump a one-term president.

The narrow Biden victory scenario

There are other paths.

Biden has narrowly led Trump in Arizona, where Clinton trailed in the final stretch of 2016, and his campaign has expressed confidence about winning it.

He's polling neck and neck in Georgia and Texas, where Trump consistently led and which he comfortably carried in the last election.

Arizona, Georgia and Texas have been bastions of Republican strength over the last half-century, but they all are rated as "toss-ups" in the NBC News Political Unit's battleground map. Other "toss-ups" include North Carolina, Iowa and Ohio, which Democrats have won at least once in the last three elections.

If Biden captures the states where he's favored along with every toss-up, it would be a landslide.

The Biden blowout scenario

For Biden, there is a range of possible outcomes. But his campaign has sought to pave the Sunbelt path with investments in those three states.

Biden has taken trips to Georgia and Arizona down the stretch, while his vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, made a three-city Texas swing Friday through Fort Worth, McAllen and Houston.

Biden has visited North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008, and Ohio and Iowa, which Obama won twice before Trump carried them handily in 2016 by running up his margins among white voters without college degrees.

Polls show that Biden has cut into those margins and siphoned off white college graduates and seniors who traditionally support Republicans. They may put him over the top. But achieving a landslide would also require big victory margins and high turnout among Black and Latino voters, who vote irregularly and are vital to the Democratic coalition.

That's far from assured. Some recent reports warning of lagging early-vote turnout among Latino voters in Florida and Black voters in Pennsylvania have revived that haunting 2016 feeling among Democrats. And a new poll released Saturday by the highly respected J. Ann Selzer found Trump leading by 7 points in Iowa, the same margin she found Trump leading by just before the 2016 election.

Could Trump do it again?

Jesse Ferguson, Clinton's deputy national press secretary in 2016, said "the stakes are even higher" this time.

"There is a blend of confidence that this election is very different than the last one, and dread," he said.

The narrow Trump victory scenario

A victory for Trump would require him to win every state rated a "toss up" by the NBC News Political Unit, as well as an extra 11 electoral votes. His best opportunity is probably Pennsylvania, which he carried by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.

Biden leads by about 5 points in the FiveThirtyEight average of Pennsylvania. Trump has consistently trailed there but by less than the high single-digit deficits he faces in Michigan and Wisconsin polling.

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Trump visited Pennsylvania on Saturday and promised a redux of 2016, even though he'd need a polling error even bigger this time to score another upset win.

"I will say, 2016 was an incredible, earthshaking event," Trump said in Bucks County, near Philadelphia. "But 2020, and I never thought I'd say this, 2020, what we're doing right now through Tuesday, what we're doing is far bigger."

And in Florida, a must-win state for Trump, some Democrats are looking warily at the early turnout figures, while the president's allies say they feel comfortable, insisting that there are enough "shy" Trump voters there — and elsewhere — to give him another term.

"We are in good shape here," Florida GOP Chair Joe Gruters said.