Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Experts Warn Biden's Lead In Polls Doesn't Mean Democrats Should Be Optimistic


The 2020 election is looking like an uphill climb for President Trump. He's behind in the polls, shaking up his campaign staff and lashing out at the media. But Democrats aren't sure that means they should be optimistic. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There's just not a lot of good news for Donald Trump right now.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump is now the underdog. A new poll shows Joe Biden with a 14-point lead...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The deepest polling deficit for an incumbent since George H.W. Bush. And you know what happened to him.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Trump currently trails Joe Biden by 5 points in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The polls are painful for Donald Trump.

LIASSON: Trump may know he's behind, but he's not admitting it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're phony polls. They're suppression polls. But to think that after saving the oil and gas business and millions and millions of jobs - I'm leading Texas by 1 point? I don't think so.

LIASSON: Right now in the electoral map, Joe Biden is either tied or leading the six battleground states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. And he's even looking good in the two expansion states that Democrats have dreamt about turning purple for years - Texas and Georgia.

HOWARD FRANKLIN: I was just looking at the average of polls. It showed Joe Biden finally eclipsing Donald Trump.

LIASSON: That's Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist in Georgia. And these days, as he looks at voter surveys in his state, he has to pinch himself.

FRANKLIN: Five, 10 years ago, Democrats who are running statewide would be happy to be within the margin of error. To see Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in the polls without having really put a full-court press into the state of Georgia, I think that the sky's the limit.

LIASSON: Franklin would like to see the Biden campaign, which is now flush with cash, invest in Georgia not just for itself but to elect Democrats to the House and Senate. But other Democrats worry that Biden support is soft. Tara McGowan is the CEO of Acronym, a Democratic group investing in the battleground.

TARA MCGOWAN: Trump's losing right now - definitively. That does not necessarily mean that Joe Biden is winning. And so even though he's benefiting from how low in the polls Trump is, he's still got to really fight for enthusiastic votes and turnout from the Democratic base.

LIASSON: And, like most operatives in both parties, McGowan is prepared for the race to tighten.

MCGOWAN: We cannot afford to miss movement among voters that are newly moving away from Trump. If they've just moved away from Trump because of this crisis, that means that they could just as quickly move back to support him.

LIASSON: Ask any Democrat basking in the warm glow of the current polls what could go wrong, and they'll give you a long list, even the Georgia booster, Howard Franklin.

FRANKLIN: Not only the experience in 2016 proper, but then all the international meddling in the election process, the fact that we have not addressed a number of the security issues around our voting machines or the introduction of the variable of COVID-19.

LIASSON: McGowan says the pandemic is a wild card that's really hard to plan for.

MCGOWAN: We've never had a presidential election in a pandemic. We actually don't have any data or research to tell us what turnout is going to look like. And so much of political calculation about how to spend money and where to spend money in a presidential campaign is based on historical data.

LIASSON: Veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala says his biggest worry is overconfidence.

PAUL BEGALA: I worry about complacency. One of the reasons Hillary lost is everybody thought Hillary would win.

LIASSON: Complacency after what Democrats went through in 2016? Not a problem, says Anita Dunn with the Biden campaign.

ANITA DUNN: Democratic voters not only aren't lulled into complacency, I would say they live in a state of daily panic based on 2016.

LIASSON: That's when Democrats believed they would win but woke up to discover they lost.

DUNN: So there's certainly no complacency in the Biden campaign. We are supremely focused on getting to 270 electoral votes.

LIASSON: And that, says Dunn, means making sure Democrats win the states they need before they try to expand the map. For Howard Franklin, the state of the race is either great news or deja vu all over again.

FRANKLIN: We found out that it is possible to lose even when things feel really good. So, to me, when you overlay, you know, coronavirus and, you know, police brutality and civil unrest, Democratic operatives are still - we're cautiously optimistic.

LIASSON: The Biden campaign did make a small advertising buy in Texas, more to get buzz than anything else. But at some point, if the current trends continue, the campaign will have to decide if it wants to invest real money in states like Texas and Georgia, a dilemma that may sound too good to be true for a party that still has collective trauma from 2016.

Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.