Democrats Stir From a Post-debate Paralysis

The ground may be starting to shift under President Joe Biden after his scattered and sometimes disoriented debate performance last week.

Across the party, widespread agreement is emerging that Biden’s chances of beating Donald Trump have dramatically diminished. “No one I have talked to believes Biden is going to win this race anymore: nobody,” said one longtime Democratic pollster working in a key battleground state who, like almost all of the party insiders I interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.

That reticence about going public was symptomatic. A general reluctance to publicly express those concerns, or to urge Biden to step aside, has been obvious—particularly because the White House has pushed back fiercely against critics, and many senior Democrats have issued supportive, if not ironclad, statements. And even some of those Democrats who considered Biden’s performance calamitous continue to believe that replacing him with Vice President Kamala Harris or another candidate would endanger the party’s chances more than staying the course.

“Universally we’re in this state of suspended animation,” the leader of a prominent Democratic advocacy group told me.

But the first signs that this paralysis may be lifting are appearing. Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois suggested yesterday that Biden may need to consider leaving the race; Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas also called on him to do so yesterday, as did former Representative Tim Ryan, the party’s 2022 Senate candidate in Ohio, and Julián Castro, a rival for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. A senior House Democrat told me that many colleagues who are running in competitive districts express similar views and concerns in private. “The frontliners are melting down,” this high-ranking representative told me.

Notably, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended Biden on MSNBC yesterday, but acknowledged that after the debate, “It’s a legitimate question to say: Is this an episode or is this a condition?” (She said that question should apply to both candidates.) Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island likewise said that Biden must provide reassurance about his cognitive and physical abilities.

Despite these first few individuals going public with their doubts, no organized effort has yet coalesced in the party to encourage or pressure Biden to leave the race. Most Democrats feel helpless to affect Biden’s decision, even as they grow more concerned that his vulnerabilities may be paving the way to a Trump victory that would create an existential threat not only to the party’s policy priorities but to American democracy itself.

That’s the overwhelming conclusion from my conversations over the past few days with a broad cross section of Democratic leaders, including members of Congress, the directors of several major advocacy and constituency groups, large donors, and longtime pollsters and strategists.

“I think it’s a collective-action problem, where no one wants to go first, but as soon as someone does, it is going to feed on itself,” one prominent Democratic fundraiser told me.

Publicly, the furthest that almost all Democrats have been willing to push Biden has been to call on him to schedule a flurry of voter town halls and media interviews through which he could try to offset the flailing and vacant impression that his debate performance left. “He needs to relentlessly speak to the American public in unscripted events over the next week,” Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that has led this push, told me. “The only way to replace a bad impression is with a good one. Success with unscripted events like town halls and press conferences can show that the debate was an anomaly.”

Biden’s campaign has scheduled an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC and a campaign appearance in Wisconsin, both on Friday, but it hasn’t announced anything like the volume of appearances that Third Way and others have urged; overall, the president’s schedule this week is light on public events. On Monday night, Biden gave very brief remarks responding to the decision handed down by the Supreme Court’s Republican majority that provides presidents with broad immunity for their actions in office.

The fact that Biden has not already announced such high-profile unscripted interactions is being interpreted by those worried about Biden’s prospects as confirmation of their fears. “You would have thought they would have quickly put together a roundtable with steelworkers, which is relatively safe, or have Shawn Fain pull together something with autoworkers,” the director of the advocacy group told me, referring to the United Auto Workers president. “Anything where he can be seen in conversation with people … and people will see he can function without a script. They haven’t done it, because clearly, he can’t.” This official also noted how little Biden has interacted with the media in office and said the White House has virtually shut off small meetings between the president and key groups in the Democratic coalition.

One leader of a major liberal advocacy group told me that the organization viewed a gantlet of public events for Biden as a win-win proposition for the party. Either he performs well and eases concerns about his capacity, this official said, or he performs badly and explodes the idea that his debate performance was the result of a bad night—an idea that no one I spoke with, in fact, accepts.

This official at the liberal advocacy group told me that many in the party were focusing on the way Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, one of Biden’s staunchest congressional allies, has phrased his support for the president since the debate. Clyburn has analogized Biden’s poor showing to a single strike during an at bat, saying, “If this were a ball game, he’s got two more swings.”

The official said that some Democrats are taking that to mean Clyburn could urge Biden to step aside if the president continues to struggle in public settings. The high-ranking House Democrat I spoke with said that nervous members in competitive districts similarly view Clyburn—whose endorsement at a crucial moment in the primary was vital to Biden’s 2020 nomination—as the congressional leader with the greatest capacity to influence the president’s decision. Clyburn, this Democrat told me, has been telling those members to wait and see how Biden performs in the coming days. But, the Democrat added, Clyburn has also frustrated vulnerable members by so emphatically defending Biden in public, which they feel has limited their room to take a more critical stance.

Clyburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether Democratic allies are correctly interpreting his three-strikes comments as a signal that he may be willing to break with Biden, if more episodes suggesting incapacity occur.

The president of another Democratic constituency group told me that multiple factors are discouraging activists from airing concerns about Biden, despite private anxieties that have exploded since the debate. “I don’t see anyone, whether it’s an elected official or nongovernmental organization, getting out there publicly saying he needs to go,” this official told me. “A: It’s not going to matter if we say it; and B: If he does win, we’re totally cut off from any conversation. So what’s the point?”

The group president continued: “I can say privately, and I have said it—I think it would be better if he was replaced. It’s a risky move but we are in a dark place, and I think it would be better if it’s someone else. It almost doesn’t matter who it would be. But none of us are going to say that publicly.”

This constituency-group leader and several others told me that a big part of the challenge in coalescing any organized pressure on Biden is that though virtually everyone agrees the debate weakened the president’s chances of beating Trump, no one can say that Biden has no chance of winning—or that a replacement candidate would surely run better. In addition, Biden is benefiting from the same dynamic that allowed Trump to once confidently claim that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any support: Most of the electorate is so dug in at this point that almost nothing could move them toward supporting the other party.

Generally, public and private polling so far has not shown a collapse for Biden in the horse-race numbers against Trump. A national USA Today/Suffolk University survey released yesterday showed Trump slightly widening his lead to three percentage points; a CNN survey conducted by SRSS, also released yesterday, showed Trump holding a daunting six-point advantage, but that survey has typically been the worst major poll for Biden, and Trump’s lead was no larger than in the survey’s previous result, in April. A national CBS/YouGovAmerica poll released today put Trump’s lead at two percentage points, a statistically insignificant one-point decline from its previous survey.

Biden’s team has put forward its own campaign pollsters, Geoff Garin and Molly Murphy, to argue that the debate did not materially change the race. Garin and Murphy are widely respected in the party, but the Democratic strategists worried about Biden’s chances say that this optimism ignores two key messages from even a best-case reading of the polling.

One is that even a status-quo polling result after the debate leaves Biden on track to a probable defeat. Democrats almost universally agree that Biden’s campaign sought this early debate because it understood that he was losing and needed to change the dynamics of the race. Party strategists believe he has fallen almost out of range in his southeastern target states of Georgia and North Carolina, and faces a substantial, if less insurmountable, deficit in his southwestern targets of Arizona and Nevada.

Even before the debate, Biden’s most plausible path to 270 Electoral College votes was to sweep the three former “blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But before last week, most Democrats viewed his odds as no better than 50–50 in any of them—and the odds of winning all three below that (the chance of three successive coin flips falling on the same side is only one in eight).

The Democratic pollster working in one of these blue-wall states told me that his initial post-debate polling shows Trump slightly widening a lead he had taken in the weeks before the encounter. The question after the debate, this pollster said, was not whether Biden could stay within range of Trump (as the White House argues he can), but whether the president now could ever find the last few thousand votes he would need to overcome his Republican opponent.

“I don’t know where he gets the votes—his favorable ratings are so bad,” the pollster told me. “I think his odds in this state, which were probably getting close to 50–50 at best, are now at least two to one against.” (Another set of post-debate poll results from a different pollster circulating among liberal groups that was shared with me last night also found Biden’s deficit widening to an ominous level in these key states.)

The pollster’s comments point to the second polling problem facing Biden: The top-line number in polls, which generally show Trump ahead, is typically the best result for Biden. His standing in all the subsidiary polling metrics is almost without exception weaker. In yesterday’s CNN survey, for instance, Biden’s job-approval rating fell to 36 percent, the lowest level that poll has recorded for him. More than seven in 10 voters in the survey said that Biden’s physical and mental ability was a reason to vote against him.

The longtime Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, the senior campaign pollster in Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, over the weekend released so-called dial groups tracking moment-by-moment voter reactions to the debate from Democratic-leaning groups that are not fully committed to Biden, including younger, Hispanic, and Black voters, as well as those considering support for a third-party candidate.

These respondents went into the debate supporting Biden by two to one, Greenberg reported, and Trump did nothing in the debate to improve their preponderantly negative perceptions of him. Those watching gave Biden credit on some fronts, such as standing up for the middle class, but “when asked the overall impression, the first was on his cognitive and physical fitness, expressing concern about his age, mental acuity, saying words, ‘confused,’ and ‘frail,’” Greenberg wrote. “Then, they commented on difficulty articulating his thoughts and his train of thought.” By his account, almost two-thirds of these Democratic-leaning voters concluded that he was too old to be president, with most of them “strongly” agreeing with that proposition.

“Those doubts make it pretty certain that he is going to … be behind in almost all the Electoral College states,” Greenberg told me. “You are going to go into the convention with that backdrop. In a very difficult year, it has become dramatically more difficult.”

A final line of defense for Biden is that even many Democrats who accept that he has been badly hurt remain uncertain that removing him would improve the party’s chances against Trump. The pollster working in one of the blue-wall states told me that although House and Senate candidates are alarmed about Biden’s position, “I think they are scared to death about Kamala. And they are scared to death about the fight. There isn’t a grand plan.”

The high-ranking House Democratic member told me that the party leadership in the chamber has given no indication that it would push for Biden to step aside—but it has signaled that if he does, the leadership will seek to quickly unify behind Harris as the alternative. (Likewise, Clyburn declared yesterday that he’d urge the party to consolidate behind Harris if Biden withdraws.) Other Democrats have noted that under campaign-finance rules, only Harris could utilize the $240 million in cash that the Biden ticket has stockpiled (although some believe that another candidate could find a way to access that money).

The prospect of Harris replacing Biden, as I’ve previously written, deeply divides Democrats. One reason Biden didn’t face much pressure to drop out earlier is the double fear many of his critics have that she can’t win either, yet that denying the nomination to the first woman of color would tear the party apart.

Still, based on my conversations, even some of those skeptical of Harris are moving toward the belief that she presents a better bet than continuing with a diminished Biden. “People have seen something they can’t unsee about this guy. And his performance will not get better; it won’t,” the official at the liberal advocacy group told me. “Harris is better. She has the ability to rally the troops and create some energy with turnout in these places in a way that Joe Biden can’t.” The former Senate candidate Ryan, a centrist popular in Democratic circles usually skeptical of Harris, made similar points in his social-media posts yesterday. “@VP has significantly grown into her job, she will destroy Trump in debate, highlight choice issue, energize our base, bring back young voters and give us generational change,” he wrote.

If Biden steps aside, plenty of influential Democrats would prefer the party to pass over Harris as well, for other alternatives such as Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Governor Gavin Newsom of California. “I don’t think everybody is going to step aside,” James Carville, the longtime party strategist, said when I appeared on his podcast yesterday. With the Sun Belt swing states already moving out of reach, many Democratic strategists fear that Harris could not win nearly enough of the working-class white voters essential to success in the Rust Belt.

Other Democrats, though, are dubious that any major party figure would enlist in a contest with Harris for the nomination, a confrontation that would inevitably be racially fraught, especially given the uncertain prospect that anyone who succeeds Biden could beat Trump. With that in mind, the finding in yesterday’s CNN survey that Harris, though still trailing, was polling better against Trump than Biden definitely raised eyebrows among Democrats. If Biden’s skeptics scale the mountain of removing him from the ticket, they may conclude that accepting Harris, with all her own limitations, is a more plausible option than climbing the second mountain of dislodging her too.

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