It was late on election night in 2016 and Melissa Retano couldn’t sleep. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had won Florida, then Pennsylvania, then Wisconsin, then the presidency, and Retano, a Democrat who’d canvassed for Hillary Clinton and thought she had it in the bag, felt blindsided.
Like so many women in the Philadelphia suburbs, the East Norriton resident channeled her rage into action, attending protests and sending postcards and making phone calls for Democrats.
Retano, 43, wants to feel confident heading into Nov. 3 about the polls that show Joe Biden is leading, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide.
But she can’t.
She feels misled by pundits who in 2016 projected Clinton would be the first woman in the White House. Retano knows pollsters made changes over four years, but worries “people aren’t necessarily honest when asked who they’re voting for.” She worries about why, just weeks ahead of the election, more Pennsylvanians registered as Republicans than Democrats. She worries about an article she read in Time by a reporter who traveled the country and concluded misinformation is rampant.
“You start thinking, ‘God, so many people, they don’t follow the news like I do,’ ” Retano said. “And then you start getting scared that the same thing will happen again that happened four years ago.”
Less than two weeks ahead of the presidential election and Democrats across the region are feeling anxious, recoiling as they remember the shock of 2016. Many aren’t allowing themselves to believe the polls that consistently show Biden ahead of Trump, nationally and in critical swing states. They worry the slightest bit of optimism will set them up for another heartbreak.
It doesn’t help that Biden’s campaign and its supporters have downplayed the data themselves, like the chair of a pro-Biden super PAC taking issue with a poll that showed the candidate up big in two swing states, or the campaign’s Pennsylvania director tweeting this month: “polls don’t mean s—.”
And so many are convinced their idea of a personal hell is going to happen again, polls be damned. Because in some ways, it does feel a bit like we’ve been here before. Trump has been behind for months — most analysts say he is about to lose. Pennsylvania matters a lot. There are articles citing anonymous Trump staffers complaining they’ll be jobless soon. There’s even October news about the Democrat and some emails, though this time around, it’s a lot more murky.
But this is not 2016. Trusted pollsters have corrected what experts saw as the biggest problems, including better accounting for education level, and the polls are much more stable than in 2016. There are far fewer undecided voters, and no strong third-party candidate. And voters in general simply don’t hate Biden like they did Clinton, whether because of baggage or gender or something else entirely.
Still, polls represent a snapshot in time and the race could tighten in the coming days. And some liberals are reliving election night 2016 like it was a traumatizing shared event, wondering aloud to friends: “Where were you when it happened?” Many took their mail-in ballots to a drop-off location the first moment they could out of fear the mail would be too slow.
Craig Pearlman, a 48-year-old Democrat who lives in Center City, already voted, but is refusing to take his foot off the gas, encouraging everyone he knows who is on the fence to vote ASAP.
“The last four years, you kind of look back on it and here we are again, and we have a candidate who is ahead in the polls,” he said, “and you see a certain level of complacency happening. At this stage, it’s not time to be complacent.”
Others have taken to superstition, scraping for some semblance of control in a situation that’s utterly uncontrollable.
Lindsay Maxwell and her husband have specific election night plans to order a pizza from Santucci’s and drink wine in their home in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital section, exactly what they did in 2016. The 36-year-old Democrat who works in marketing and business development said on the evening of the 2018 midterms, they did the same thing, reversing the jinx in their minds when Democrats took control of the House.
The plan helps a bit with the anxiety that Maxwell said feels something like being on the winning team in the last 30 seconds of a basketball game: “I just wanna run out the clock.”
But worry comes from those 2016 flashbacks and the fear she doesn’t know her own state. On the night before the election last time around, Maxwell stood in a line that felt miles long to see Clinton speak on Independence Mall, and it felt like the world was on her side.
“Her losing Pennsylvania surprised me more than her losing the entire election,” she said. “It may be the Philadelphia bubble, but I just didn’t know anybody in Philadelphia that voted for Trump. ... We just had no idea.”
Aimee Wilson was less surprised. A single mother who lives in Elkins Park and works in human services, Wilson said she phone-banked for Clinton and had conversations with voters that led her to believe they were enthusiastic about voting for the Democrat. But she noticed that a lot of friends on Facebook were reluctant to say who they were voting for. She suspected Trump, and commented to a family member: “I think he could possibly win.”
It’s why today Wilson, 50, doesn’t “really believe in the polls, per se.” She has a close friend who’s quiet about the election these days, and Wilson is avoiding bringing it up, because “this time, it’s a harder pill to swallow because of the racial injustice, because of COVID-19, just a lot of things that he failed on.”
While Wilson said she still has her concerns about Trump’s “silent” supporters, she’s feeling energized, saying “the level of civic engagement went up exponentially," especially in Pennsylvania’s urban centers.
But “rural America in Pennsylvania has not gotten the attention that they actually need ... they are more of the wild card,” she said. “If they can come to grips with the fact that Trump made promises he didn’t keep, then I’m solidly sure Pennsylvania will go for Biden. I think it’s going to be very close.”
The expectation that the race in Pennsylvania will be tight keeps plenty of Democrats up at night. Paulette Whitfeld, a 67-year-old who lives in North Philadelphia, said she’s not convinced the results will be honored if the president exploits the time it will take to count mail ballots and declares victory before all the votes are tallied.
Whitfeld sat in the backseat of a car last week, sporting a mask that said “register and VOTE,” while waiting to hear former President Barack Obama campaign for Biden in front of a drive-in crowd in South Philly. She doesn’t want Democrats to “rest on our laurels,” saying she won’t feel content with anything short of a landslide Biden victory.
“To me, our democracy is at stake,” she said. “The only way 2016 happens again is if it’s illegal.”