US Democrats in full-blown ‘freakout’ over Biden

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A pervasive sense of fear has settled in at the highest levels of the Democratic Party over President Joe Biden’s reelection prospects, even among officeholders and strategists who had previously expressed confidence about the coming battle with Donald Trump.

All year, Democrats had been on a joyless and exhausting grind through the 2024 election. But now, nearly five months from the election, anxiety has morphed into palpable trepidation, according to more than a dozen party leaders and operatives. And the gap between what Democrats will say on TV or in print, and what they’ll text their friends, has only grown as worries have surged about Biden’s prospects.

“You don’t want to be that guy who is on the record saying we’re doomed, or the campaign’s bad or Biden’s making mistakes. Nobody wants to be that guy,” said a Democratic operative in close touch with the White House and granted anonymity to speak freely.

But Biden’s stubbornly poor polling and the stakes of the election “are creating the freakout,” he said.

“This isn’t, ‘Oh my God, Mitt Romney might become president.’ It’s ‘Oh my God, the democracy might end.’”

Despite everything, Trump is running ahead of Biden in most battleground states. He raised far more money in April, and the landscape may only become worse for Democrats, with Trump’s hush-money trial concluding and another — this one involving the president’s son — set to begin in Delaware.

The concern has metastasized in recent days as Trump jaunted to some of the country’s most liberal territories, including New Jersey and New York, to woo Hispanic and Black voters as he boasted, improbably, that he would win in those areas.

While he’s long lagged Biden in cash on hand, Trump’s fundraising outpaced the president’s by $25 million last month, and included a record-setting $50.5 million haul from an event in Palm Beach, Florida. One adviser to major Democratic Party donors provided a running list that has been shared with funders of nearly two dozen reasons why Biden could lose, ranging from immigration and high inflation to the president’s age, the unpopularity of Vice President Kamala Harris and the presence of third-party candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

“Donors ask me on an hourly basis about what I think,” the adviser said, calling it “so much easier to show them, so while they read it, I can pour a drink.”

The adviser added, “The list of why we ‘could’ win is so small I don’t even need to keep the list on my phone.”

On the day after news broke that Biden had trailed Trump in fundraising last month, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey raised the pressure on donors as she introduced the president to a crowd of 300.

The cluster of fundraising events Biden attended in Boston that day were expected to bring in more than $6 million for his political operation. But Healey said that wasn’t good enough.

“To those of you who opened up your wallets, thank you,” said Healey, a Democrat in her first term. “We’d like you to open them up a little bit more and to find more patriots — more patriots who believe in this country, who recognize and understand the challenge presented at this time.”

Laughter rippled through the room. But Healey’s voice turned serious. With unusual urgency for Healey, the governor implored the room of high-dollar donors and local Democratic leaders to “think long and hard” about the stakes of the election.

There have been few moments in Biden’s term as president that haven’t been second-guessed, and his aides have made sport of sneering at grim predictions, compiling dossiers of headlines and clips in which the president was underestimated. Biden campaign aides and allies point to some positive polls, including in the battlegrounds, and Trump’s comparative lack of campaigning and infrastructure in the key states, including staff, organizing programs and advertising.

A Biden campaign adviser granted anonymity to speak freely stressed that the president’s team never made any indication that Trump’s hush-money trial would help — or hurt — him. Instead, the adviser contended that Trump will be forced to defend cutting back abortion rights, attacking democracy and advancing corporate interests as president.

“Trump’s photo-ops and PR stunts may get under the skin of some very serious D.C. people as compelling campaigning, but they will do nothing to win over the voters that will decide this election,” Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz told POLITICO. “The work we do every day on the ground and on the airwaves in our battleground states — to talk about how President Biden is fighting for the middle class against the corporate greed that’s keeping prices high, and highlight Donald Trump’s anti-American campaign for revenge and retribution and abortion bans — is the work that will again secure us the White House.”

Biden supporters who remain optimistic say they’d rather be him than Trump, before rallying around abortion and issues of reproductive rights, which Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, called “a fundamental game-changer.”

“We have to run a campaign, where honestly, we drive home the message that Donald Trump takes us back to the 19th century. Biden takes us further into the 21st century,” Kildee said.

He did not remark on whether such a campaign is being run, or run to his satisfaction.

“A lot can happen between now and then,” acknowledged Rep. Ann Kuster, a Democrat from New Hampshire, who is retiring after the fall election. She, too, pointed to eroding abortion rights under the conservative-led Supreme Court remade by Trump. “I know a significant number of voters are going to be motivated by the Dobbs decision.”

But Democratic critics of the campaign’s approach — while agreeing that abortion should be a winning issue — said they’re challenged when pressed by friends to make the case for why Biden will win.

“There’s still a path to win this, but they don’t look like a campaign that’s embarking on that path right now,” said Pete Giangreco, a longtime Democratic strategist who’s worked on multiple presidential campaigns. “If the frame of this race is, ‘What was better, the 3.5 years under Biden or four years under Trump,’ we lose that every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

In the swing state of Michigan, Democratic state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky suggested Biden’s standing is so tenuous that down-ballot Democrats can’t rely in November “on the top of the ticket to pull us along.”

“In 2020, there was enough energy to get Donald Trump out and there were other things on the ballot that brought young people out in subsequent elections.”

She said, “That’s not the case this time. I worry that because we’ve had four years with a stable White House, particularly young voters don’t feel that sense of urgency and might not remember how disastrous 2017 was right after the Trump administration took over.”

Whatever the Biden campaign has been doing over the past two months — and it’s a lot of activity, including $25 million in swing-state ad spending, according to AdImpact — it has had only a limited effect. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s average job-approval rating on March 7, the date of his State of the Union Address, was 38.1 percent. As of Friday, it’s 38.4 percent.

And his standing against Trump has also changed little. On April 22, the day Trump’s criminal trial began, the presumptive GOP nominee held a 0.3-point lead in national polls, according to FiveThirtyEight. Trump is up about a point since then, currently leading Biden by 1.4 points in the FiveThirtyEight average.

Asked about polling, Munoz said: “The only metric that will define the success of this campaign is Election Day.”

Trump, meanwhile, has already started his incursion into safe blue states. His campaign’s psychological warfare in New York, California and New Jersey — where House districts will determine control of Congress’ lower chamber — is spiking Democrats’ already-elevated blood pressure.

“New York Democrats need to wake up,” said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine. “The number of people in New York, including people of color that I come across who are saying positive things about Trump, is alarming.”

Biden’s weaker numbers bear that out. A Siena College poll released Wednesday showed Biden leading Trump in New York by only 9 points — 47 to 38 percent among registered voters. Four years ago, Biden won the state by 23 points. The president is under water with every demographic delineated in the poll — other than Black voters. Fifty-three percent of Latinos and 54 percent of whites reported having an unfavorable opinion of him. To that end, Biden released TV and radio ads in the Empire State on Thursday, ahead of Trump’s campaign rally in the Bronx.

Levine has been something of a Paul Revere in New York, sounding alarms two years ago when a Trump-aligned Republican gubernatorial candidate, Lee Zeldin, appeared to be gaining on Kathy Hochul, the moderate Democratic incumbent. Hochul narrowly held him off.

“I’m worried it’s going to be a 2022 situation, where everyone wakes up in the last seven weeks and has to scramble,” Levine said of his state, which hasn’t swung to the GOP since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

This cycle, Democrats also have to contend with the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which has deeply divided their ranks and contributed to a sense of chaos. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat known for his ardent defense of Israel, was similarly concerned for his party, though he pointed to the higher cost of groceries and goods that started during the pandemic and has yet to abate.

“The greatest political challenge confronting the president starts with an “i,” but it’s not Israel, it’s inflation,” Torres said. “The cost of living is a challenge that we have to figure out how to manage.”

He said Biden should focus on issues around affordability and continue to tout his success in capping insulin costs in areas with high rates of diabetes, like his Bronx district.

“The election is more competitive than it should be, given the wretchedness of who Donald Trump is,” he said. “In a properly functioning democracy, Donald Trump should have no viable path to the presidency. The fact of a competitive race is cause for concern.”

Trump has railed against blue-state officials, starting with the justice system in New York. In California, he dispatched his daughter-in-law, Lara, and one of his sons, Eric, to hold up the West Coast’s Democratic heavyweight as a cautionary tale.

“I’m sorry you have to live in communism,” Eric Trump said Wednesday at the Stampede, a country music venue in Temecula, an inland community between Los Angeles and San Diego. Trump casually dismissed California Democrat Gavin Newsom as the nation’s “worst governor.”

“Make no mistake,” Trump said, “there is a war happening in this country.”

The elder Trump is set to appear in early June at the San Francisco fundraiser hosted by tech investor David Sacks and his wife, Jacqueline, a clothing brand executive wife, along with venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya.

Palihapitiya’s past political donations run the gamut, from Elizabeth Warren to a super PAC supporting Kennedy Jr. He also gave to the recall committee against Newsom in 2021 and briefly considered running for governor. Silicon Valley’s red pilling has brought even more unwanted national attention on issues of open-air drug use, homeless encampments and gangs of thieves who ransack retail stores across the Bay Area.

And as in New York, California Democrats are bracing for more incoming from Trump.

“San Francisco has changed with the taxpayers, the job creators, the tech CEOs who want to engage with the city and its politics,” said Harmeet Dhillon, the RNC committee member from California.

Dhillon was reflecting on her run-ins with Democrats in the city, where she spent years leading the local GOP before her law firm represented Trump in legal fights to remain on state ballots. Few Democrats are willing to confide in Dhillon about their fears, she conceded, but no one is sharing a sense of enthusiasm for Biden, either.

“The most diplomatic thing I hear from Democrats is, ‘Oh my God, are these the choices we have for president?’”

Lisa Kashinsky, Steven Shepard, Daniella Diaz and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.