For a party sailing into the 2020 election homestretch with a sizable and steady polling lead, Democrats at their national convention this week seemed awfully nervous. The convention often sounded like one big anxiety-fueled get-out-the-vote drive.
With hyped-up urgency, speaker after speaker cautioned against voter apathy; recalled how close the 2016 vote had been; and warned of potential GOP vote-suppression efforts and obstacles to voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewers were told to request mail ballots — right this minute! — and to vote like their “lives depended on it.”
“If you can vote early in your state, do so,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Thursday, on the convention’s closing night. “There are those who are disgracefully using this pandemic to spread misinformation and interfere with voting.”
It fell to Joe Biden himself, in his Thursday night acceptance speech, to give the counterpoint to that pervasive sense of anxiety, with his declaration that if Americans “entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”
It was the capstone argument to get people out to vote — for him, not just against Trump.
All week, speakers had been delivering scathing critiques of Trump’s failings — most notably from the unlikely voices of former President Obama and his wife, Michelle, neither prone to direct personal vitriol. Having pinned blame on Trump for much of what ails America, they set the scene for Biden to pivot to his own governing philosophy.
Biden offered a vision of hope for a post-Trump era where he could combat COVID-19, create jobs, and tackle racial injustice.
“This is a life-changing election. This is going to determine what America will look like for a long, long time,” he said.
Biden’s acceptance speech capped a weeklong convention program that set a high bar for him to match: A parade of speakers and videos portrayed him as a generous man of empathy, a working-class hero, a master of Washington policy and politics.
That advance billing set a test for a man with an unpredictable relationship with the spoken word. As a child Biden stuttered and worked hard to overcome it. He has turned delivering eulogies for public figures into a high art. But he is famously long-winded, and his soaring rhetoric is occasionally marred by gaffes and miscues.
There were no gaffes Thursday. He demonstrated many of the qualities previous speakers had described, especially empathy and optimism. His well-delivered 24-and-a-half-minute speech — the shortest Democratic acceptance speech in at least 36 years — could help solidify a lead for him and his party heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
But even with Biden enjoying a persistent advantage in national and battleground-state surveys, Democrats this week showed open concern about turning polling strength into victory at the ballot box.
That’s in part because they suffer a continuing political hangover from the stunning result of the 2016 election, when overconfidence about Hillary Clinton’s chances, a lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy among key voting groups and depressed Democratic turnout contributed to Donald Trump’s unexpected victory.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama, in her breakout speech to the convention early this week, pinned part of the blame on voter apathy.
“Four years ago, too many people chose to believe that their votes didn’t matter. Maybe they were fed up. Maybe they thought the outcome wouldn’t be close. Maybe the barriers felt too steep,” she said. “Whatever the reason, in the end, those choices sent someone to the Oval Office who lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.”
Some Democrats believe that the best safeguard is for Democrats to aim not just to win but to score a landslide to keep Biden from suffering Clinton’s fate.
“We need numbers overwhelming, so Trump can’t sneak or steal his way to victory,” Clinton said in her speech Wednesday night.
Although Biden campaign advisors predict record turnout this fall, they worry about the challenges of holding an election amid a national public health emergency. Their campaign is already intensely focused on offering advice to voters on obtaining ballots and navigating a baffling array of different state requirements — a topic that campaigns typically don’t pivot toward until the fall.
Many party luminaries at the convention ended their lofty convention speeches with a riff that sounded like a public radio pledge drive, sending voters to a website that explains their state’s voting requirements.
“Whether you’re planning to vote wearing a mask or vote by mail, please, take out your phone right now and text VOTE to 3-0-3-3-0,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
The Thursday program included two state officials who oversee election procedures, not commonly the kinds of people found at a convention podium. Secretaries of State Alex Padilla of California and Jocelyn Benson of Michigan have both pushed for state officials to encourage voting by mail.
“Let’s talk about this election,” said Padilla. “Despite what he says, Donald Trump can’t cancel it. But he and Republicans are making it too hard for so many to cast their ballots. And now he’s attacking vote by mail to distract and confuse voters. “
Amid the confusion and challenges of voting safely in the pandemic, Democrats also issued a steady stream of warnings about Trump administration efforts to obstruct the vote. Recent service cuts at the U.S. Postal Service, coupled with Trump’s statements that explicitly linked his resistance to more money for the post office with his opposition to mail-in voting, have Democrats on high alert.
“I’ve heard Donald Trump say some pretty unhinged things; I’ve heard them over and over and over again,” said comedian Sarah Cooper, known for her sendups of Trump. “But nothing is more dangerous to our democracy than his attacks on mail-in voting.”
In urgent terms not typical of his “no-drama” presidency, Obama also sounded the alarm about nefarious efforts to tamper with the vote.
“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” he said. “Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
But Democrats’ dire warnings about Trump over the last few days may not be enough to motivate voters in an intense campaign homestretch: Raising fear of Trump was Clinton’s strategy in 2016, and it fell short.
Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, acknowledged as much in comments during a virtual fundraiser Thursday.
“We are motivated by optimism,” Harris said. “This is not against something. This is a fight for something. Let that be our fuel as we go through these next 75 days.”
Making that argument represented the final task for the convention, and it fell to the nominee.
“This is our moment. This is our mission,” Biden declared. “May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here, tonight.”