WASHINGTON — On the eve of a nominating convention unlike any other, many Democratic insiders are deeply apprehensive about the November election.
They've seen standard-bearers seize leads in the summer only to swoon in the fall. They've watched President Donald Trump pull an Electoral College rabbit out of a red "MAGA" hat. And now, they are looking on in real-time horror, seemingly powerless, as Trump discredits and guts a Postal Service necessary for mail-in balloting.
That admixture all contributes to concern that mid-August polling — an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday showed Democrat Joe Biden with a 9-point lead over Trump — doesn't reflect the reality of where the race will stand come November.
"If people think this isn't going to be a close election, they're out of their minds," said Tom Nides, a longtime party fundraiser who served as deputy secretary of state in President Barack Obama's administration.
It also means the first virtual version of a national convention comes at a time when political strategists and activists will be watching closely to see whether Biden and newly named running mate Kamala Harris, a Democratic senator from California, can capitalize on a chance to focus the voting public on their message to get a bounce in public opinion.
"They're going to be competing with people's lives that have been completely upended," said Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, an organization that registers Latino voters. "They have the Democratic faithful tuning in. The real question is, are they going to have the infrequent voter and the most marginalized voter? Will they be tuning in?"
Planners have truncated the four-day convention so that its main events will run for two hours each night, culminating in speeches from Harris on Wednesday and Biden on Thursday. Other featured speakers include former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton; former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who ran for president in 2016; and unsuccessful 2020 Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.
They hope to keep viewers' attention with a faster-moving, video-heavy version of a convention that includes some celebrity appearances and promotes the stories of Americans who they say have been hurt by the Trump presidency.
"In a traditional convention in person, the core element of the program is a speech to an excited and full arena, and it’s the one thing we don’t have available to us," said a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, who asked not to be identified. "You have to produce a program that can keep people’s attention and get your message across without that element at your disposal."
Democrats and Republicans learned in 2016 that the most compelling figure at a convention is not necessarily an elected official. That year, Khizr Khan, the father of Humayun Khan, an Army captain killed in Iraq, grabbed national attention for a speech denouncing Trump over a plan to ban Muslims from the U.S. and other proposals and statements. The remarks got under Trump's skin and produced an angry response to the father of a fallen soldier at a time when some Republican officials were still unsettled by Trump's behavior.
Democrats say a successful convention would energize the party as the homestretch to the election begins while also giving Republicans and independents reasons to vote for Biden. The speech by Kasich, who was a favorite of small-government conservatives when he led House Republicans in efforts to balance the budget and overhaul the federal welfare system in the 1990s, is expected to be a centerpiece of that outreach, along with the stories of so-called regular Americans.
"We have to transcend the traditional lines that divide us," the senior Biden adviser said.
There are reasons for Democrats to be both optimistic and worried about their chances right now.
On Sunday, Biden held a 7.9 percentage-point lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. On Aug. 16, 2016, the same date four years ago, Hillary Clinton held a 6.7 percentage-point lead over Trump.
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Given the margins — Trump's victory could have been reversed by fewer than 80,000 votes spread across three states — and the state-by-state accumulation of Electoral College votes, national averages are an imprecise metric. But they suggest the contest has not broken open in the way that many Democrats had hoped it would in the wake of Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, economic devastation and protests against systemic racial injustice.
More than 170,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus; 16.3 million are unemployed, according to the metric used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and 61 percent say the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been unsuccessful — including 58 percent of independents.
Some Democrats say they expect undecided voters to break heavily for Biden in the end, the way that they went toward Trump in the last week of 2016. Others are worried that Biden's marginal edge in key swing states — including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida — doesn't look terribly different from Clinton's.
For Kumar, who pores over data as her organization works to get more voters ready to go to the polls, it doesn't look like either side really has an advantage right now.
"It's a dead heat," Kumar said.