RACINE, Wis. — The group of Democrats looked happy — cheering, whooping, and waving flags for Joe Biden on the last Saturday before the election — but coursing through the enthusiasm was an undercurrent of dread.
“We’ve got DeJoy in charge of the post office,” said John West, 44, of Postmaster General Louis Dejoy as he ticked off a long list of Things That Could Possibly Go Wrong.
“They will litigate ballots that were cast in good faith,” West, a landscape designer from Chicago who had traveled to this swing state to volunteer, said of Republicans. “These appellate judges, Trump has filled them all. … They’re trying to recreate the rules in their favor to disenfranchise voters.”
And how could he forget the possibility of interference from foreign actors? Or the fact that the president himself controls various levers of power he could flex to contest the election? Those were on his list, too.
“We have this tenuous tightrope we’re being asked to walk,” West said. “It’s a really difficult predicament.”
After four long years with President Trump, Democrats should have a lot to be happy about as Election Day arrives. Their candidate is leading national polling averages by about 8 points and is up in polls in practically every battleground state and then some, including Wisconsin.
But there is a strange reversal afoot. Democrats, still scarred by Hillary Clinton’s upset loss to Trump in 2016, are wracked with anxiety, and it is Trump and his base who are reveling in a victory they swear they can taste.
“I think he’s going to win by a landslide,” said Sandi McNichol, who was waiting in an hours-long line last week to vote early for Trump in Chester County, Pa., and pointed to Trump’s rally crowds as proof. “When he shows up, he has thousands and thousands of people, unlike Biden, who only has 20, 30 people.”
Trump himself has stoked and fed off that feeling of confidence, dancing to the song “YMCA” at his rallies with crowds in the thousands, like the one that came to see him last week in Lititz, Pa., draped in flags and masks bearing his name and jabbing their fists up and down.
“They have a big surprise coming, don’t they?” Trump asked.
No one on the side of the Democrats in the final days of the campaign seems to be dancing.
They are worried about polling errors and about the president’s out-in-plain-sight attempts to sow doubt about the results, his vows to have the election decided by a Supreme Court now stacked with conservatives, and Republican lawsuits to get ballots thrown out. They are self-medicating with alcohol, long phone-banking shifts, and even trips to Target to make low-stakes purchases to get their mind off things.
The level of malaise has surprised some of the Republicans newly allied with Democrats in a bipartisan attempt to send Trump packing.
“I’ve never worked with Democrats so much before and there is clearly something different about the Democratic base and panic,” said Mike Madrid, of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “I attribute this largely to what happened in 2016 and the ghost of 2016. They don’t trust anything now.”
“It’s kind of sad,” Madrid said. “I feel kind of bad for people.”
The contrast is one more reflection of a disjointed nation, one that has endured a rancorous campaign during a deadly pandemic. Storefronts in such cities as Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York are being boarded up in case of unrest. More people are buying guns. And just about everyone is steeling themselves for the possibility of an ugly legal battle that could further stoke the national anxiety.
Neither side seems to trust the other. Democrats believe Trump is trying to steal the election. Trump’s supporters think Democrats will get violent if they don’t win — and they are convinced the polls are as wrong now as they were in 2016.
Those who attend his rallies are comforted by the large and energetic crowds.
“I just don’t see how he could lose, really, I mean he’s got all the police behind him, the military,” said Mike Tilotta, a 48-year-old who traveled from Baltimore to see Trump in person at a rally in Reading, Pa., on Saturday. “He’s so positive, everything that comes out of his mouth is positive.”
In some ways, Democrats have been anxious for the last four years — a feeling that seems to run from the top of the party all the way down to the grass-roots.
“I definitely feel that anxiety because I remember 2016, very vividly,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin. She recalled going on the evening news on Election Night in 2016 and dismissing out of hand the possibility that Trump could win her state, only to see Trump take Wisconsin by less than a percentage point. “I think Wisconsin in particular has flashbacks and worries and anxiety.”
That is certainly the case for Denise Gaumer Hutchison, an education organizer who lives in Green Bay and who had four words for a reporter who asked why she was feeling uneasy.
“Al Gore. Hillary Clinton,” Hutchison said, naming the two Democrats who won the popular vote in recent years but still lost the presidential election. “Need I say more?”
What’s more, she added, the literal signs in her ideologically mixed neighborhood have not been encouraging.
“There’s a lot of signs for Trump in my neighborhood … signs for Trump from people who I didn’t think would still want to support a man who believes like he does,” Hutchison said. “That makes me very sad. And also very worried,” she continued, before correcting herself to say she was “anxious” instead.
Those signs are fueling the hubris of Trump’s supporters — and they also believe there are more of them who simply keep their preferences quiet.
Kevin Bean, a 61-year-old funeral director who also attended Saturday’s Reading rally, said he believed there are “shy” Trump voters, including himself, who don’t answer pollsters' questions, which explains why Biden is winning in the polls.
“I say I keep my political preferences to myself, thank you for calling,” Bean said of his response to phone surveys. Still, Bean said he wouldn’t be “shocked” if Trump lost, though he would be “very fearful for the future of the country.”
Some Democrats are trying to harness anxiety to urge their supporters not to get complacent.
“Poll after poll shows Biden pulling ahead,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told a group of volunteers on a freezing morning this weekend in Green Bay. “We know what this was like in 2016.”
But not every Democrat is publicly projecting anxiety.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” said Harry Reid, a Democrat and the former Senate majority leader who has seen his share of tough elections.
In an interview Friday, Reid praised Biden’s “long coattails” and ticked off a list of races he believes the Democrats can win.
“I feel that Pelosi’s gonna build on a margin in the House and I believe that we’re going to take the Senate,” he said. “I think we’re going to win in Colorado, Montana, Maine, North Carolina, at least one seat in Georgia, we’re ahead in Arizona, we’re ahead in Iowa — we’re even ahead in Alaska right now. That’s where we are!”
And Bonita Collins, 60, a retiree from Norcross, Ga., wasn’t feeling worried at all. On Monday, she left a campaign speech in Atlanta by former president Obama floating on cloud nine, convinced this year — finally — is the year her state will turn blue and help snatch the presidency from Trump.
Collins has champagne, wine, and “the hard drink if I need it” lined up for a Tuesday night celebration — as well as a whistle that she planned to blow outside in her neighborhood whenever the news becomes official.
“Just relax,” she said. “It’s a win. People are tired and fed up.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.