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  • Gabriel Armstrong

Debate Disaster: Biden’s Poor Performance Sparks Democratic Crisis


By Gabriel Armstrong


The dust has settled on 2024’s first presidential debate, and a consensus is clear: Joe Biden lost against Donald Trump. It is not the fact that Biden lost, however, that has been cause for so much feverish discussion about the future of the election, but the way in which he did so. Stumbling over words, losing his train of thought, grasping at the vague memory of a statistic just out of reach from his mind … his clear mental weakness demonstrated simply is now too much for many. The question for the Democrats is what should be done about this.


During the event, which was broadcast last Thursday, both candidates were given the chance to demonstrate to the American people that they should have their vote. For many, however, it will have reconfirmed their feeling that they do not want either. Watching through their fingers, viewers were subject to Trump outright lying about his record, his scandals, and everything in between, all the while seeing a tottering, elderly grandfather struggle to form any sort of convincing rebuttal or inspiring alternative. Inane bickering over each other’s golf handicap may well have been enough for some to turn the whole thing off.


The frailty from Biden, both mental and physical, was the real headline, however, not Trump’s lies. Everyone knows that Trump is a liar, and the ones who do not accept this fact surely will not have been persuaded by the debate. By contrast, the debate was a turning point for many about Biden’s state. Even some of the most ardent Biden supporters have had significantly more doubt about his ability to perform within the role after his horrorshow, with calls ringing out for him to step down. Pieces from The New York Times, the Economist, and MSNBC are among a host of voices suggesting that for the Democrats to win, Biden must drop out before it is too late. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both imply the same. Wherever you look, from podcasts to opinion polls, the feeling is that this debate was not just a bad night for Biden, but a window into his general level of competence which will only further deteriorate over the coming years. The simple fact is the American people, now more than ever, see Joe Biden as unfit to be a President. 


"Even some of the most ardent Biden supporters have had significantly more doubt about his ability to perform within the role after his horrorshow, with calls ringing out for him to step down."

Where these articles are unambiguously correct is in their assessment that Biden lost, and lost badly. A poll from YouGov puts twice as many viewing Trump as the victor compared to Biden, reiterated by a poll from a Morning Consult poll finding 62% believed Trump won. Moreover, a CBS poll shows that 72% believed Biden lacks the sufficient mental and physical health for the Presidency, up from 65% at the start of the month, and a Democracy Corps survey found that Democratic-leaning voters used “confused”, “frail”, and “dementia” to describe his performance. 


The more contentious question is whether Biden should actually step aside. Among the frontrunner replacements are Vice President Kamala Harris, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, but their approval ratings are under those of Biden, and would be at least as many points behind Trump in the polls. The Morning Consultants poll, for example, shows support from Democrats to be no higher than 30% for any, and a Data for Progress poll suggests that Harris, the highest-rated alternative, would do no better than Biden. It seems that despite Joe Biden’s awful showing at the debate, to actually replace him would do more damage than good. Numbers might suggest the Democrats are doomed to lose. 


The caveat to this comes in two stages. The first is that national opinion polls matter insofar as they encompass the attitudes of voters in the 6 key swing states, and further the attitudes of the undecided voters within them. It is these people, after all, who really will decide who is elected in November. Political entrenchment has been on the rise for years in the United States, meaning that safe states have gotten safer and most voters had made their mind up about the candidates long before the debate last week. What is important is how the critical undecided voters think, and whether the debate has made up people’s minds. 


The second is that a large reason why approval ratings are so low for replacement candidates (who are not Kamala Harris) is because people do not know enough about them. Newsom or Whitmer are not rated more unfavourably than Trump on a head-to-head, instead the majority vote is “I don’t know”, according to Data for Progress. Being voted in as a presidential candidate would change that.


Together these significantly strengthen the reason for Biden to step down. If undecided voters need to be won over, Biden is currently doing the opposite due to his mental and physical condition. This condition will not get better as he ages. Moreover, the candidates in the wings have the potential to gather the support of the uninformed, in light of Trump’s poor national popularity. It may be a gamble, but in the face of Biden trailing in every single swing state, a gamble is better than what seems, more and more, like defeat for the Democrats and the re-election of Donald Trump. Biden’s refusal to face this fact himself begs the question: is there anything that can save America from his hubris?


Image: Flickr

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