[Read our full guide to the final presidential debate between Trump and Biden.]
For many Democrats, election night in 2016 unfolded with the sickening trajectory of a horror movie in which the teenage protagonists break out the beer and party on, unaware that the serial killer they thought they had vanquished is looming outside the window.
The watch parties, the pantsuits, the balloons, the blue-tinted cocktails, the giddiness, the sense of history, the electoral projections showing that Hillary Clinton would surely defeat Donald J. Trump — to Democrats, these now look like quaint snapshots from some credulous prelapsarian world. And now, with the next presidential election approaching and Joseph R. Biden Jr. well ahead of President Trump in the polls, the traumatized, anxious Democratic voters of 2020 are not making the same mistake again.
“I’m assuming in my mind that Trump wins, because I can’t deal with being let down like that again,” said Helen Rosenthal, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side on the New York City Council. “Secretly, in a little corner in the back of my mind, I’m wishing and hoping that Biden wins. But most of my brain is saying, ‘OK, Trump wins and New York is not getting a fiscal bailout and we’re going to lose more ground on the environment, we’re going to lose on Roe v. Wade, we’re going to lose on health care.’”
“I’m already depressed about it, if that helps,” she added.
It’s hard to overstate the degree of anxiety in America right now, as the country confronts a Hydra of troubles: the pandemic, the economy, the fires, the protests, the violent plots against public officials, the assault on voting rights, the state-sponsored disinformation, the sense that democracy itself is on the ballot.
A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that 68 percent of American adults said that the 2020 election was a “significant source of stress” in their lives. (Among Democrats, the figure was 76 percent; it was 67 percent for Republicans and 64 percent for Independents.) Across the board, 77 percent of Americans said they were stressed about the future of the country.
“This is the most stressed electorate that I can recall,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, who has been conducting polls for more than 40 years. He mentioned delays in the U.S. Postal Service. He sounded a little stressed himself.
“There’s a lot going on that’s new and disturbing,” he said. “You start each day not knowing where you’re going to end the day. It’s very bumpy and you’re riding along the highway and you have pothole after pothole. The news cycle is probably under 30 minutes right now.”
No one is happy in this strange and awful time. But there is a particular circle of unhappiness reserved for Democrats.
“What we’re seeing among Democrats is the sense that ‘we were in this position four years ago, so we’re not getting our hopes up,’” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Republicans are consistently more confident that the election is going to go the way they want.”
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He worries, he said, “that a significant number of Republicans won’t accept the outcome if Donald Trump loses, because they’ve convinced themselves he’s going to win.”
He doesn’t feel great, either. “I do feel anxiety and quite frankly, it’s not just as a pollster, over whether the polls will be right or wrong,” he said. “There’s the potential for a real existential crisis for the republic.”
On Twitter last week, the writer Susan Orlean posted a state-of-the-psyche tweet describing the mood four years ago versus the mood today.
“In 2016, our election night plan was to party-hop and celebrate what we were sure was going to be a historic victory,” she tweeted. “This year, staying home (of course), and too nervous to plan anything.”
The responses flowed in, as other Twitter uses recalled where they were during the last election. Many ended with some variation on the theme of “and then we got drunk and cried ourselves to sleep.”
“Absolute PTSD over here,” said one.
“2016/2020 … from Champagne to Xanax,” said another.
“I am still traumatized by the memory of our Hillary cupcakes,” tweeted Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America.
The day after the election, Isabelle Anderson, 33, went to a get-to-know-your-colleagues happy hour for staff members of the Bay Area middle school where she worked as a psychologist. Many of their students were undocumented immigrants.
It was the unhappiest of gatherings.
“Everyone just sat there, feeling so lethargic,” said Ms. Anderson, who now lives in St. Louis. “Some people were crying. We were wondering what was going to happen to our students, to the parents.” The wake-like atmosphere became so oppressive that everyone finally just went home.
In Woodstock, N.Y., Abbe Aronson is still haunted by the wrenching experience of her 2016 election party, which began as a celebration and ended with a group of zombified adults weeping in the living room.
Ms. Aronson, a publicist, has not organized anything this year. She is battling pre-election stress with an arsenal of diversionary activities: baking, volunteering, doing crossword puzzles, potting plants, posting innocuous feel-good images on social media, taking “sanity walks” in the woods with a tiny pod of friends.
“The walk lasts until everybody is feeling better or at least not crying,” she said.
But anything can set her off. Recently, her longtime mail carrier, an older man who brings biscuits for her dog and to whom she gives a Christmas present every year, mentioned that he had started listening to “this really funny guy named Rush Limbaugh” on the radio. “Do you know what a ‘feminazi’ is?” he asked.
“I told him, ‘Ernie, I am one,’” she said.
They have not spoken since. She is sleeping between two and five hours a night. “I’m talking to you and my neck is throbbing and I’m having a visceral response,” she said. “I have a recurring pain in my left shoulder and my left neck, from being middle-aged and furious.”
In Eudora, Miss., Cyd Fenwick, 56, is feeling the stress that comes with being a blue voter marooned in a sea of red. The other day she had an unpleasant confrontation with two unmasked women at the grocery store. Her 80-year-old mother, whose car is decorated with Obama stickers, has nearly been run off the road by truck-driving Trumpites, she said.
“I try desperately to be optimistic,” Ms. Fenwick said. “I have a lovely bottle of melatonin.”
Nate Silver, editor of the FiveThirtyEight polling website, recently produced a list of suggestions for how people could “stay sane” over the next few weeks. Some of them seem counterintuitive, from the point of view of Democrats’ mental health. Tip No. 2: “Don’t assume the race is in the bag for Biden.”
David Gill, who is 39 and lives in Atlanta, has already taken that perspective to heart, thank you very much.
“Polls give people a false sense of security, and they think they don’t have to turn out to vote,” he said. “Is there going to be a peaceful transfer of power? That’s a big question. The big worry is that he won’t accept the results, or he’s going to incite violence.”
Many Democrats seemed to be triggered, to use a triggering word, by the word “Trump” itself.
“I don’t ever say his name; I don’t ever listen to him; I won’t write his name,” Ms. Aronson said.
“I find this individual so disgusting,” said Jane Kelly-Forest, 61, who lives in a suburb of Des Moines. “You want to believe the polls, and you want to believe that people will see what’s right in front of their eyes. I’m disappointed with the electorate and the population as a whole because they can’t see him for what he is.”
What about Nov. 3? If they can make it through these next two weeks, how will Democrats approach the vexing question of how to cope with election night?
“I know I have only so much power,” Ms. Aronson said. “But you know how people get on planes and start talking to God? In my own moments, I’m just reminding myself that I know that even if things don’t go the way of sanity, we are going to have to keep fighting. But in my more emotional moments I think, ‘How much more fight do I have in me?’”
On Twitter, someone called @PigWings11 said the country had just about had it with this campaign.
“I am wondering,” @PigWings11 wrote, “if I can ask my doctor to be anesthetized until November 4.”