Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the years in which former President Donald Trump left office and Hillary Clinton was the Democratic presidential nominee.
(The Hill) — Democrats are getting a sinking feeling when it comes to Donald Trump: They can see him winning again.
A New York jury in a civil trial on Tuesday found the former president liable for sexual assault and defamation, but a number of Democrats say their party is underestimating Trump, who, despite a series of scandals, is the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
“There is a concern from a lot of people like me, for sure,” said one prominent Democratic strategist. “There’s a disconnect between the consultant class of our party and the voters. They think they can just run a bunch of ads talking about how crazy Donald Trump is [and] that will be enough. That’s just not the case.”
Another strategist warned others in his party: “Be very f—ing worried.”
For a part of the party, it seems unfathomable that Trump could regain the office he left in 2021 — just weeks after a mob of his supporters forced the evacuation of Congress and interfered with the certification of the election.
Trump now faces a string of lawsuits and controversies, yet some polls show him beating President Joe Biden in a one-on-one matchup.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found Trump leading Biden by 6 points, 45 percent to 39 percent, but Democratic operatives and even some Republicans have criticized the survey as an outlier, with many saying privately and publicly that the data appears inconsistent.
Yet the ABC/Post poll isn’t the only one showing Trump with an edge.
A Harvard-Harris poll from late last month placed Trump ahead of Biden by 5 points, while another by the Wall Street Journal gave Biden a smaller 3-percent lead.
Last week, Democrats got another glimpse into the state of play: Trump and Biden in a dead heat. An Economist/YouGov poll put them each at 46 percent.
Polls also show a lack of passion in Biden’s reelection effort, with many saying they’d prefer a different Democratic candidate.
One bright spot for Democrats came from Trump’s tepid campaign launch, which was rife with personal grievances and complaints about the last election. His lackluster kickoff gave Democrats some optimism that he’d be weaker in 2024.
Over the spring, Trump’s problems got worse, with an indictment in New York and various pending legal battles leaving many to question whether he could realistically secure the Republican nomination, let alone win the general election.
“It’s reasonable to think that as the country focuses on Joe Biden versus the Republican alternative and on the contrasts that will present, Joe Biden’s standing will improve in that binary choice scenario,” said a former campaign aide to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Biden has not drawn primary challengers seen as significant, and his message has focused on the idea that the country cannot afford to go back to the Trump days. His campaign video depicted images of the insurrection on the Capitol on Jan. 6 to remind voters of what happened under Trump’s encouragement.
Yet Biden also has real weaknesses, with many voters holding doubts about his stamina given his age. Biden is 80 and would turn 86 at the end of a second term.
Some Democrats say they think it is too early to be worried about a bad poll, and voice confidence that if voters are offered the choice of Biden or Trump, the Democrat will win again.
“I’m not surprised Trump’s numbers are high in the GOP or that Biden is low with Democrats,” said Nayyera Haq, a former Obama administration official.
“In theory yes [he could win], I just have a hard time seeing it,” Haq said of a Trump victory.
Another prominent Democrat, veteran political strategist Simon Rosenberg, who predicted his party’s success in the midterms against the conventional polling wisdom, said there are more indicators now that point to Democrats’ momentum.
The party gets better organized each cycle and some of the unexpected wins in 2022 were built on the groundwork laid in 2018 and 2020, he said. More engagement, grassroots volunteers, and small-dollar donations are pouring in to help fuel the party in a way he argues the GOP is underestimating.
“Commentators have to be very cautious about gauging intensity levels in this next election,” said Rosenberg.
The roiling politics of abortion are another factor, something seen in Wisconsin, where Biden narrowly defeated Trump in the last election. After the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, voters came out in support of the Democratic candidate for state Supreme Court.
“You’ve now had three consecutive elections where Democrats’ performance has been at the upper end of what’s been possible for us,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg and other Democrats also believe their party will show up to vote against Trump, if he is the GOP nominee.
“Anyone who thinks that this anti-MAGA majority that did so well for us these last three elections is all of a sudden going to not show up, well, I have a red wave to sell you,” he said.