The data predicting a big Joe Biden win are no match for Democrats' anxiety

Biden is ahead in polls, early voting and cash on hand a week from Election Day. So why does everything feel so anxious and chaotic?
Image: A lot of smiling Joe Biden's wave on a background of blue circles.
Biden seems inevitable if you look at the data alone — but a lot can happen in a week.Chelsea Stahl / MSNBC

As we careen toward Election Day, as much as I want to listen to the data, I can't let myself stop obsessing over all of the unknowns that lurk between now and then.

By most tangible measures, former Vice President Joe Biden is in the final countdown to an electoral win, seeming to condemn President Donald Trump to a single term. National polling has been almost eerily consistent since Biden sewed up the Democratic nomination. As of Monday, the latest NBC News National Polling Average showed that Biden holds a 7.4 percentage-point lead over Trump — 51.3 percent to 43.9 percent.

National polls can be misleading, though — a fact that still lingers like a bruise on the amygdala from four years ago. Zooming in on the battleground states, though, the tightening we saw in Trump's race against Hillary Clinton just isn't at play here. In states that are necessities for Trump, it's hard to see the gaps closing. According to the RealClearPolitics average, we're seeing Biden up by 8.1 points in Michigan, by 5.4 points in Wisconsin and by 6.0 points in Minnesota. Those states — paired with Pennsylvania, where he's up 4.8 — are enough to push Biden over the edge if the rest of the map remains the same from 2016. Biden, in a bit of confidence that some might call hubristic, declared on Monday that he'd win all three Midwest must-wins.

And states that once seemed out of grasp are apparently in play. Does anyone think for sure that Biden is going to win Texas? Not with any certainty. But the fact that we're even talking about it — and that Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, is being sent to campaign there in the homestretch — is absolutely wild.

Part of the reason they're able to devote resources to longer shots like Texas and Georgia — which Biden is visiting Tuesday — is the bonkers cash advantage the Biden camp has over the president's re-election bid. October began with Biden sitting on a war chest of $432 million, versus $251 million in the Trump camp.

Trump has tried at recent rallies to spin this fundraising dip as a sign that he's the less corrupt of the two candidates, since he's not calling up companies and PACs to beg for money, even as he's spent his entire term breaking down ethical barriers between the White House and the wealthy. He's, in fact, being forced to spend time fundraising instead of campaigning to make up for his campaign's having burned through roughly $1 billion.

That's before we even get into the early voting numbers. NBC News' data here, too, show an advantage for the Democrats thus far. Of the 55.5 million ballots already cast, 45 percent of those from voters whose party affiliations are known are from Democrats. The early turnout doesn't exactly guarantee the results when votes are tallied next week. It is, though, votes in the bank that reduce the number of people who have to be turned out to the polls next Tuesday.

Of the intangibles, it feels like assured victory at the ballot box for Biden, even if the reporters and their editors don't want to frame it that way. Politico recently noted that, if anything, the political media are doing everything they can to avoid stressing that narrative in these final days of the campaign:

"In normal times for normal candidates, the politician running significantly behind suffers from every news story starting with a dependent clause: 'With time running out and supporters increasingly worried of an electoral debacle ...' Or perhaps: 'Amid finger-pointing among campaign aides and despair among party allies ... .' Cumulatively, this creates a penetrating odor of death around a campaign before the actual death arrives.

"Generally, Trump has avoided this phenomenon. While there is lots of coverage illuminating the reasons he is in trouble, or even forecasting that defeat is significantly more probable than victory, the dominant storyline is far from, 'Why even bother waiting for Election Day — let's just admit this thing is over.'"

So, with all of these facts in hand ... why won't my heart stop pounding?

Psychologists at San Francisco State University found in a 2018 paper that the emotional aftershocks of the presidential race two years previously were severe enough in the young people they studied to resemble PTSD. The narrative then had been that Trump would suffer an ignominious, if narrow, defeat and we'd go about four years of a relatively boring second Clinton administration. Instead, as the researchers found, "the average stress score of students was comparable to the scores of witnesses to a mass shooting seven months after the event."

That feeling is hard to shake, despite all the omens. "I am feeling anxious and trapped between a sense of unbridled optimism and sheer dread," Abington Township, Pennsylvania, Commissioner Bill Bole told The Washington Post in a recent story. I understand that, and I feel the same.

That looming sense of catastrophe is only stoked when you pause to remember how hard the Trump campaign is hustling to ensure that the Electoral College map in 2020 looks as close to the one the president has memorialized in countless speeches and events since 2016. It has filed lawsuits in more than a dozen states to limit the number of ballots that can be counted. And a new Supreme Court justice whom Senate Republicans raced to seat and who has dodged any questions about how she'd rule during a disputed election awaits those cases.

Even before Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation vote, the Supreme Court issued a 5-3 ruling preventing Wisconsin election officials from counting late mail-in ballots. Justice Brett Kavanaugh gave a preview of how he'd rule in a potential Trump v. Biden case in his concurring opinion. He not only approvingly cited the infamous Bush v. Gore case — even though the court said at the time that it shouldn't be used as precedent — but he also focused on an argument from William Rehnquist, the chief justice at the time, that the other conservative members of the bench couldn't back at the time.

Kavanaugh, like Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts, worked on that case on behalf of George W. Bush's legal team, leaving a lot of people warily eyeing what happens if and when the election is tossed into the court's lap. Trump, meanwhile, has openly stated that Barrett needed to be seated to be able to help decide in his favor should that happen.

And where most people see only gains for Democrats in early voting tallies, Bloomberg News reports that the Trump campaign thinks some analysts are missing a major point:

“As of this week across eight battleground states, Republicans have registered about 179,000 more voters than Democrats since 2016, including big net gains in two states that could decide the election — Florida and Pennsylvania. After the 2016 election, famously decided by about 88,000 voters in three Midwestern states, that margin could prove significant on Election Night.”

Those sorts of numbers, Bloomberg added, would really have an impact only in a particularly close election, which it's not looking like this will be. Or will it? Because yes, the mail-in voting numbers, especially, are telling us one story so far thanks to the divide over trust in mailed ballots that Trump has instilled — but that narrative may be shifting as in-person early voting begins. In Florida, Republican voters have already begun narrowing the gap in the Democrats' lead. What's going to happen in a week when Trump voters actually go to the polls on Election Day?

Meanwhile, last week, the director of national intelligence highlighted the threat of Iranian meddling in the election while downplaying Russia's. The New York Times reported over the weekend, though, that most current and former intelligence officials said this was likely not where the focus should be, giving this example of what mischief Moscow could pull:

Officials say Russia’s ability to change vote tallies nationwide would be difficult, given how disparate American elections are. The graver concern is the potential effect of any attack on a few key precincts in battleground states.

[...]

But officials were alarmed by the combination of the targets, the timing — the attacks began less than two months ago — and the adversary, which is known for burrowing inside the supply chain of critical infrastructure that Russia may want to take down in the future.

The officials fear that Russia could change, delete or freeze voter registration or pollbook data, making it harder for voters to cast ballots, invalidating mail-in ballots or creating enough uncertainty to undermine results.

Until we open the box of this particular quantum experiment and see whether the cat is alive or dead, Trump has both won and lost re-election simultaneously. A future still exists in which the GOP's push to enroll new voters in swing states, combined with a Republican rush to voting sites on Nov. 3, shows massive leads for the president as states hindered in their counting by courts begin their frantic rush to process ballots once the polls close. Russia, meanwhile, taps a few keys inside one of the systems it has accessed, casting substantive doubt on the election's results as a multiplier to Trump's ephemeral cries of cheating.

That would fit neatly into Trump's declarations that any loss would be because the whole election was rigged. And he's still insisting that the election must be decided by the end of Election Day, teeing up a chaotic period a week and a day from now when Trump tries to declare victory and we're suddenly living through the nightmare scenario that Barton Gellman laid out in The Atlantic in September. As it stands, there's no guarantee that without a massive blowout on Election Day itself the president won't use every lever available to him in the legal system and the executive branch to prolong the confusion and cling to whatever slender hope remains of being sworn in once more in January.

All this is to say there's comfort to be found in the cold, unassuming embrace of numbers and data. Unfortunately, my brain is choosing to reject that embrace in favor of the red-hot needles poking into my brain that are anxiety. I can only hope that in reading this, you realize you aren't alone in this horrible purgatory. At least we have only a week left to spend here — hopefully.


While you wait for your heart rate to come back down after reading that, here are some links to start your morning.

  • Mother Jones: Yes, the Trump administration broke the asylum system. But the cracks were already in place after decades of policies that have "always been fraught, shot through with xenophobia and racism and the callous geopolitical reasoning of who, exactly, is worthy of protection from persecution."
  • The Washington Post: This article from religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey introduced me to a growing trend of Christian nationalism in the U.S., as told through the story of "a Patriot Church, part of a rapidly evolving network of nondenominational start-up congregations that say they want to take the country back for God."
  • E&E News: In one of those stories that leaves you going "well, of course!" but in a good way, a new investigation shows that researchers at both General Motors and Ford Motor Co. knew that emissions from cars would cause the climate to change back in the 1960s and '70s. We all know what happened next.
  • Wired: And are you curious about how Wikipedia plans to come out the other side of Election Day without being pulled into a massive disinformation campaign? You and me both, so thankfully this article exists.