For many Democrats, this week has been a rapture of Republican dysfunction. Just since Sunday, the Trump campaign has been buffeted by scandals involving possible illegal cash payments from a pro-Russian Ukraine government to the campaign’s chair, staff shakeups that have put disgraced FOX News chair Roger Ailes and controversial Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon in key positions, and a raft of swing state polling that looks deeply troubling for Trump. It’s the kind of news and numbers that would make Hillary Clinton giddy—if Hillary Clinton was the giddy type.
But behind closed doors, there is a shared, quiet paranoia among Democratic strategists and voters alike: don’t get too publicly confident… or voters won’t show up in November. The thinking is that if too many Democrats believe the Trump threat has been neutralized, they won’t turnout for Clinton. Democratic voters, after all, are not as reliable as Republicans—a point proven every mid-term election.
And the importance of oppositional threat as motivating factor would seem to be historic this year in particular, given how much of this season’s Democratic enthusiasm is built on the indignation, fear, and shame around a Trump administration, rather than a particular enthusiasm for a Clinton presidency. Guy Cecil, chief strategist for the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA, explained that, according to his group’s research, “any sense of an enthusiasm gap has essentially vanished. When we compare it to 2012, by almost every measure, we are equal to or ticking slightly above the enthusiasm models in the 2012 election.” This is, Cecil explained, is largely due to “some combination of anger, fear and concern about Trump.”
Given how much Democratic support is driven by fear of a Trump presidency, I asked Cecil he’s ever worried about complacency—that with increased news and poll numbers like this week’s, Clinton voters might get too confident about a Trump loss and stay at home on November 7th.
“I get paid to worry,” he said. “So the short answer is: yes. I regularly remind people that three weeks ago, most of the people that do polls and predictions were suggesting there was basically a 50/50 chance Trump would be president. By the way, this was after he had said some pretty egregious things; this was after he was running an angry and divisive primary. While we are in a strong position, it does not take a long memory to recall Trump running strong in the polls just a few weeks ago. And that can happen again.”
According to Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for the Obama 2012 campaign and a founding partner of 270 Strategies, the most tangible negative effect of overconfidence and complacency is on a campaign’s volunteer organization. “Urgency fuels activism,” Stewart explained.
In a moment like this—where the Republican campaign is beset by sagas and sinking numbers, stuff that may delight Democratic voters but decrease their personal drive to stop Trump—Stewart said he can “understand the need to manufacture urgency” to keep Clinton supporters engaged.
But Stewart explained that if a campaign is too negative about its chances, this can have the opposite effect when it comes down to actual voting. His research shows that “people want to feel like they’re part of something bigger, and to go along with the crowd.” In other words, they want to be on the winning, or at the very least, ascendant side.
By way of an example, Stewart recalled the 2012 presidential campaign, during which Republican legislatures passed a number of restrictive voter ID laws. “We were careful about the language we used regarding how Republicans were making voting more difficult,” he said. The Obama campaign avoided using phrases like “the lines are long, turnout will be low” because, Stewart said, “that would have had the opposite effect. People hear that and they’d think: ‘Republicans are making it harder to vote?’ People wouldn’t want to turn out.”
(Ironically, Stewart said, “What Trump doesn’t realize is that the ‘rigged’ language he’s using depresses his own turnout. It’s a disincentive for voters to participate.”)
In this way, there is a strange alchemy to modern campaigning: a candidate must highlight the urgency of the choice facing voters and suggest the possibility—but not probability— of defeat. These days, Clinton’s supporters might be less inclined to believe in the probability of her defeat, but she must somehow keep alive a healthy sense of paranoia about the possibility of it.
Cecil, who admitted he is “a pretty regular reminder that we need to be on guard about being too optimistic—in the same way we are on guard about being too pessimistic,” offered insight about how, precisely, the Clinton forces do this: “By reminding voters about the stakes in the election. We need to continually remind people of that.”
That, unsurprisingly, was exactly the calibrated message coming from the Clinton campaign on Wednesday afternoon, when campaign manager Robby Mook spent the majority of a conference call with reporters detailing the ways in which Donald Trump was an extremist, one far outside of the American mainstream, rather than offering any bullish assessments of Clinton’s chances to expand the electoral map. As Team Clinton understands it, the constant drumbeat about the high stakes nature of the choice at hand is a bulwark against complacency. To voters, they seemed to be saying: external events may be unfolding in favor of our candidate, but the alternative is so dire that external events don’t really matter.
Given this, I asked Cecil why his group, Priorities USA, this week made public its decision to pull down pro-Clinton ads in the swing states of Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Yes, Clinton is leading in those states by very healthy margins (11, 9 and 14 points, respectively), but didn’t this run the risk of telegraphing to voters in those states that they didn’t have anything to worry about—the dreaded complacency that might undercut a spirit of action?
Cecil responded, “How many people know we paused our campaign in those states? Those are high information voters. I’m not sure beyond that it means so much.” As if to further minimize the importance of that decision, he added, “And we’re still doing digital ads.”