Biden’s Abysmal Debate

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

As much as partisan Democrats seek to put lipstick on a pig, Biden’s first and probably last presidential debate was a disaster, if not fatal. Not only did it fail to do what it was supposed to do but it also confirmed public perceptions about Biden and trendlines in the presidential race that had largely been frozen for nearly six months.

Even before this debate there were growing concerns about Joe Biden’s age and cognitive capacities.  Four years ago the public was concerned about Biden’s age and that has only grown since he was president.  Biden has held the fewest number of press conferences since Ronald Reagan was president, and his public appearances have mostly been canned and scripted. For many, he looks like their aging grandfather who has good and bad days, with many wondering that while we see Biden on his good days, what is he like on those days which are not so good?

Polls indicate a majority of Americans are concerned about his age and think he shouldn’t run for reelection.

Even beyond the age factor, political science models all suggest that Biden was going to lose the 2024 election. While the models are not perfect, they look to presidential approval rating and perceptions about the economy as key to predicting reelection.

Biden has approval numbers worse than Trump did in 2020. In fact, no incumbent president has ever won reelection with the numbers that Biden has.  In many cases, the economy looks good yet the public remains very fraught and fearful about inflation and the future of the economy.

Even if we did not look at a traditional political science prediction model, polls indicate that for at least the last six months, Joe Biden and Donald Trump have been frozen in terms of what the numbers say in the five or six swing states that are going to decide the election. Last October I looked at Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Five swing states that will decide the 2024 election. Joe Biden was behind in enough of those swing states that were the election held back then he would lose to Donald Trump in the Electoral College. A couple of months later, the New York Times did a similar analysis, but added Nevada to the list. It too found that Joe Biden would lose to Donald Trump and the Electoral College.

Leading up to this debate, the polls indicated in those critical swing states that Biden and Trump are close, but Trump enjoyed a consistent if not narrow lead. Generally this election as I’ve argued will come down to about 150,000 to 200,000 swing voters in five or six swing states. We are looking at an incredibly small number of people who effectively will decide the election.  Biden needed to move these voters.  They are probably low-information voters not paying a lot of daily attention to politics, but might nonetheless be affected by mass, pop culture or otherwise impressions of the candidates.

Biden and his staff too were looking at the polls in the swing states.  They needed to do something to shake up the dynamics of the race.

Thus an early debate.  Thus far, neither abortion politics as it did in 2022, nor fears of Donald Trump being reelected seem to be enough to change the trajectory of the Biden campaign. He and his staff placed a lot on the value of this first debate.

The debate did little to move the trendline. There is no indication thus far that it altered people’s perceptions of Trump versus Biden in a significant way or at least in a way to Biden’s advantage. But what it did do was to confirm what many people believed about Biden and that he lacked the wherewithal to serve out a second term as President of the United States.

After the debate party loyalists did their best to address Biden’s bad performance.

They said that it was just one bad day and he will be able to recover from it. In doing that, they drew parallels back to 2012 where Barack Obama had a bad debate against Mitt Romney but managed to recover. But that analogy is not appropriate. No one questioned Obama’s cognitive capacities in 2012. There was not a belief that he was too old or too feeble to be president. He had a bad debate.

Biden’s bad performance confirmed what most people are believing. The debate might have been a bad day, even if Biden had a good day afterwards it does not alter the  impression that he is an eighty-one-year old in cognitive decline.

It is nearly impossible to shake those types of public impressions for those few undecided voters who are out there if they were paying attention. There’s an old adage you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. This first impression for them might well have been decisive.

Party loyalists are also trying to argue that they would rather have a president with a sore throat and who stammers a little ahead of a president who lies. It may be true that the debate was between a person who lied about the facts and one who forgot the facts. But it still doesn’t change the fact that there is no indication that this debate changed perceptions about Biden or changed the trajectory of the race. Does this mean that people, especially those 150,000 to 200,000, are more likely to vote for Trump? Perhaps not. It certainly doesn’t mean they’re more likely to vote for Biden. They could very well stay home on election day. They could vote for an alternative third party candidate. But certainly Biden did nothing to win them over.

The reaction to the debate shifts to the question of decision making. All indications are for the last several months there were concerns among some in the Biden campaign regarding his mental capacities. But nonetheless the Biden campaign and partisans are rallying around him.  Party loyalty and loyalty to Biden seems stronger than the resolve for the Democrats to win the election. They fear an open convention more than they appear to fear losing. They fear being politically ostracized within the party. Much like Congressman Dean Phillips was when he said Biden shouldn’t run.

Somehow, Democrats are thinking he can still win this one.

Perhaps they hope abortion fear of Donald Trump or some other black swan will intervene and change the trajectory of the election, perhaps even a second debate.  While I think a second debate is unlikely because Donald Trump has no incentive to do it. The risks of a repeat of this are too great for even Biden to consider. Yet he probably will do it or insist on it.

There is something wrong with this level of insularity in decision making. If a candidate who was so unpopular and now so demonstrates lack of cognitive capacity even only occasionally still is nominated, there is something wrong in how political decisions are being made.  Yet despite all this, unless a black swan emerges, the theme of the Biden campaign might as well be “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.