Democrats are feeling good about their chances of winning the White House and scoring a decisive blow against Trumpism in November, as they ride high in the polls and are led by one of the party’s more battle-tested veterans.
That same mood followed Hillary Clinton out of the Democratic National Convention four years ago before she crashed and burned, leaving a lingering dark cloud expected to stalk Joseph R. Biden out of his virtual coronation this week.
It prompts the question: Was 2016 an aberration, or should Democrats be prepared for another soul-crushing defeat in November?
Democrats say they are optimistic about beating back the ghosts of 2016 with Mr. Biden at the helm and with Mr. Trump under fire over the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to more than 172,000 deaths in the U.S. and is wreaking havoc on the economy.
Mr. Biden is preparing his Thursday acceptance speech that is expected to hammer Mr. Trump on those perceived weaknesses, calling the president a failure on coronavirus, the economy and racial justice.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, told The Washington Times much has changed over the past four years, starting with the fact that “voters now know what a Trump presidency is in real terms.”
“As a first-time candidate, people gave him the benefit of the doubt. Now people know what he is and how he views the job,” he said.
Mr. Vilsack said former first lady Michelle Obama hit the nail on the head with her keynote speech on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention.
“Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are,” Mrs. Obama said, adding that Mr. Trump has shown he is “clearly over his head.”
“It is what it is,” she said.
For his part, Mr. Trump says the polls showing Mr. Biden in the lead are “fake” and suggested the former vice president will be exposed as a cognitively challenged disaster over the coming months.
And he is predicting the Democrat will meet a similar fate as Mrs. Clinton, who carried decades of political baggage into the race and was met with palpable hatred from Trump backers.
“People forget how divided our Country was under ObamaBiden,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter this week. “The anger and hatred were unbelievable. They shouldn’t be lecturing to us. I’m here, as your President, because of them!”
Seeking to avoid a repeat, Democrats have used the opening days of the convention to define the race as a stark choice between a good, empathetic man and a self-centered jerk.
Speakers described Mr. Biden as a “down-to-earth, get-the-job-done guy” with an old school style that will enable him to slice through irreconcilable differences and divisions in Washington.
Addressing the convention Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton said she wishes Mr. Trump been a better president “but, sadly, he is who he is” and said she hopes voters are more focused this fall.
“For four years, people have said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was, I wish I could go back and do it over,’” she said, according to speech excerpts. “Or worse, ‘I should have voted.’”
“Well, this can’t be another woulda coulda shoulda election,” she said.
Mr. Biden has benefited from a unified desire among Democrats to oust Mr. Trump and from being less polarizing than Mrs. Clinton, who came out on the losing side of a race that some voters saw as a choice between the lesser of two evils.
“Voters are inclined to think more highly of Joe than Hillary,” Mr. Vilsack said. “May not be fair but it is a fact.”
In other ways, the political landscape looks similar to 2016.
Mrs. Clinton at this point in the race was polling nationally 6 percentage points ahead of Mr. Trump. She also was up 4 points in Florida and close to 9 points in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Mr. Trump ended up sweeping those states.
Four years later, Mr. Trump is trailing once again.
Mr. Biden is up more than 7 points over Mr. Trump in national surveys and leads him by similar margins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the biggest differences from four years ago are that Mr. Trump also is running slightly behind Mr. Biden in Arizona and the race lacks the third-party punch that Green Party candidate Jill Stein brought to the table in the last go-round.
“The last election, I think there was overconfidence among Democrats and ultimately Trump snaps victory from the jaws of defeat,” said Mike Noble, chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, a polling outfit in Arizona. “So dynamics wise I don’t think they should count their chickens before they hatch because in a year of murder hornets, a 100-year-pandemic and the riots and protests and such, 2020 has shown it is a year in which anything can happen.”
That applies to Mr. Trump as well, according to Republicans who say he faces a different set of challenges this race.
“It was a lot easier to run against the riots as candidate Trump than it is as President Trump, and I would say the same thing in terms of other issues. You own them, you own the coronavirus response, which was not particularly good,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think anybody outside the president’s family gives him high grades on how he handled the COVID virus.”
On the flip side, Mr. Mitchell said Democrats should be concerned about Mr. Biden because he is likely going to have to be more visible over the homestretch of the campaign.
“Trump has been running against Trump for a long time,” he said. “When the convention is over, Biden has to come out of hiding, and at some point when that happens Biden will make mistakes. He just simply will make mistakes. I think he is just incapable of not making mistakes.”
History isn’t on Mr. Trump’s side.
Just two incumbent presidents lost reelection in the last 75 years. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush ended up as one-termers running during an economic recession, which is the same landscape on which Mr. Trump is forced to fight.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a major Biden backer, said he hopes Democrats learned a lesson from 2016.
The polls, he said, likely do not reflect what he referred to as the “Rizzo effect” in Philadelphia.
That’s a reference to the late Frank Rizzo, the former mayor who once urged his supporters to “vote white” and whose statue was removed this year amid national calls for racial justice.
“He always did on Election Day three or four points better than he did in the polls,” Mr. Rendell said. “People were reluctant to admit to pollsters that they were voting for Frank Rizzo.”
He said he sees a similar effect for President Trump.
“I’d say the lead is probably six or five in Pennsylvania and with 77 days to go, a six- or five-point lead in politics doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said. “I mean, I’d rather be six points ahead than six points behind, but six points doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win.”
• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.