A recent CBS News/New York Times poll had Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a virtual tie. The number of Americans who believe Clinton will be the next president dropped 20 points in recent weeks, according to a new Reuters poll. Trump is up in Iowa and Florida, within the margin of error in Virginia and Nevada, and nearly tied in once-safe Michigan. And even though an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll Wednesday found Clinton up six, one of FiveThirtyEight’s polling gurus wrote that “Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the White House are still near an all-time low.”
Cue the Democratic freak-out in 3, 2, 1…
“Actually, I am not losing any sleep over any of this,” says Anne Hess, a Manhattan philanthropist who’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton. “I have great faith in the American electorate.”
My conversations with nearly a dozen donors, operatives and elected officials working for or close to the Clinton campaign revealed a similar sanguinity. No one is measuring the drapes quite yet, but the general feeling seems to be, “Trump? Really?”
“I think there is a belief by many people that there is no way the country will elect someone so unfit to the presidency as Donald Trump,” says Steve Israel, a Long Island congressman who for years was tasked with electing Democrats to the House.
This is a marked departure from Democratic donor despair of presidential cycles past. “Bed-wetters,” Barack Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, called them back in 2008, referring to the tendency of rank-and-file Democrats to become unglued at every gaffe, or to imagine voters must be lying when polls showed their candidate clearly ahead.
This time, Democrats point to their apparent advantages in the Electoral College, which shows a narrow path for Trump to get the necessary 270 electoral votes; in demographics, with the number of white men who make up the Republican base shrinking; and in data and grassroots organizing.
“We have the most sophisticated outreach effort the world has ever seen and 50 field offices in Florida that have been open for months,” says one Democratic official who was not authorized to speak to me in an official capacity. “He’s got a 12-year-old running an empty field office in Tampa.” (Actually, the 12-year-old running a Trump field office is in Colorado, not the Sunshine State.)
So how do Democrats explain that the polls remain tight, despite those realities, and their ongoing efforts to point out Trump’s boorishness?
“I just don’t believe in the accuracy of the polls,” says Alan Patricof, a venture capitalist and longtime friend of the Clintons, who last year hosted the former first couple for a pancake breakfast fundraiser at his home in the Hamptons. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe Hillary supporters aren’t answering their phones or something.”
Patricof cites a recent technology conference he attended in Los Angeles, where he says he couldn’t find a single Trump supporter, and an online survey of private-equity investors that found over 90 percent support for Clinton.
“I haven’t been to Cleveland, or to Cincinnati, but I talk to people from there, and they say they don’t know any Trump people either,” he says.
In 2012, the notion of not believing the polls was a Republican talking point. Back then, surveys showed Obama with a steady, comfortable lead over Mitt Romney. Which could only mean, Republicans said, that the polls were skewed – so much so that a cottage industry grew up around “unskewing” them. The phenomenon reached its apex on election night, when Karl Rove, live on Fox News, refused to believe that Romney had lost Ohio, even as the network called the state, and the election, for Obama.
Now it’s Democrats who are pouring over polling crosstabs, accusing survey-takers of undercounting likely voters or fiddling with margins of error.
“I don’t think pollsters are reaching all the people they need to be reaching,” says Hess. “I wear my Hillary button, and I walk around New York, and people come up to me and say, ‘Are you for Hillary?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I am a Hillary girl.’ And you know what? They smile.”
Democrats I spoke with say recent polling is reflective of a tough few weeks for Clinton that included wall-to-wall coverage of her pneumonia diagnosis and her “basket of deplorables” remark. They say voters haven’t been paying attention, even though conventional wisdom says voters start to tune in after Labor Day. They blame a press corps that they say jumps on every Clinton gaffe but lets Trump slide by with non-answers, falsehoods or outrageous statements.
And they say the first debate will set things right. Though not everyone agrees.
“There is a belief that Secretary Clinton will do extremely well in the debates and Trump will flame out. I am not sure that is correct,” says former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “There is a chance that Trump will go off the rails, but if he doesn’t – if he sticks to the script – this is going to be a close race all the way through.”
Rendell, for his part, remains firmly on the unreconstructed nervous side, a camp that has its own set of adherents, including filmmaker Michael Moore, who wrote on his blog last month, “Donald J. Trump is going to win in November.” Democrats in this camp point out that Clinton remains unpopular with young voters across the party, and that the Trump phenomenon, with its oversized rallies and continuous cable coverage, continues to upend expectations.
“There is an enthusiasm gap. Trump voters are more enthusiastic than Clinton voters, and that gives him a slight edge,” says Rendell. “We just don’t know if our base is going to turn out for her.”
But for most Democrats I spoke with, having doubted up until the votes were counted in 2008 that the nation would actually elect its first black president, they are done with worrying.
“The numbers will shift slightly from day to day or from week to week. It is just the normal flow of the campaign,” says Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “I think folks have come to realize that bed-wetting doesn’t solve the problem.”