It Wasn’t Just the Debate

When is a bad debate performance more than just a bad debate performance? When you’re depending on it to save your campaign. Joe Biden’s televised meltdown last night punctured the last remaining theory of how he could plausibly defeat Donald Trump.

Heading into the 2024 election cycle, Biden narrowly but consistently trailed Trump in the polls. But his supporters offered several theories of how he would close the gap.

Theory No. 1: Trump amnesia would dissipate. People might be telling pollsters that they would vote for Trump, but that was only because they had forgotten the chaos of his presidency. As the campaign heated up and Trump began dominating the news cycle once again, voters would remember just how much they disliked him and swing back to Biden.

Theory No. 2: The economic mood would improve. Biden’s poor polling numbers had a lot to do with voters’ frustration over the state of the economy, a discontent overwhelmingly driven by higher prices. But after peaking in mid-2022, inflation had plummeted to near-pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the economy was doing great by almost every other measure. Absolute prices were still much higher than before the pandemic, but in time, people would adjust.

Neither of those predictions came true. Even as Trump began campaigning in earnest and reinjected himself into the news cycle, the polls hardly budged. As for the economy, things did briefly seem to be looking up for Biden. From December to March, consumer sentiment rebounded dramatically, suggesting that the reality of lower inflation was starting to sink in. But Biden’s approval numbers didn’t move, and the polling gap between him and Trump narrowed only slightly. Then, from April to June, consumer sentiment cratered again. Even among Democrats, ratings of “current economic conditions” experienced their largest three-month drop since inflation peaked in mid-2022. Americans could, in theory, miraculously start feeling great about Biden’s handling of the economy sometime between now and November, but it’s hard to see what would bring that about.

Out of desperation emerged Theory No. 3: A Trump conviction would kill the former president’s support. After all, many voters had told pollsters that they would be unwilling to vote for a convicted felon. Then Trump was in fact convicted of a felony by a New York jury. This does appear to have weakened his support, at least temporarily, but only a little. In the weeks after the verdict, the polling gap narrowed slightly, but Trump retained his lead in the polls, including in the must-win swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Perhaps a conviction in one or both of Trump’s two federal criminal cases would move the needle more, but the Supreme Court and a Trump-appointed federal judge have likely foreclosed the possibility of those trials starting before the election.

Over the past few weeks, it became clear that Biden could no longer depend on Trump, the courts, or the economy to do the work for him. Everything began to hinge on a final theory: that Biden could change the narrative himself. If voters didn’t believe that Trump was a terrible president, Biden would have to remind them. If they didn’t believe that Biden was a good one, he would have to convince them.

The first mini-test of this theory came with Biden’s State of the Union address in March. The results were strong. A vigorous Biden easily cleared the low expectations that had been set for him. His poll numbers started to modestly improve. Perhaps with enough opportunities, Biden could tell a story of an America on the mend, remind voters of the chaotic Trump years, and prove himself to be a competent, stable leader.

This was evidently the thinking behind Biden’s decision to agree to an early debate with Trump. Appearing onstage opposite Trump, in prime time, would be the ideal way to make his case to the American people. Voters, finally reminded of the differences between the two candidates, would recognize Biden as the superior option.

That theory completely fell apart last night. From the first moments of the debate, Biden seemed lost. His voice, a raspy whisper, was barely audible. He struggled to complete his sentences and adopted an awkward slack-jawed face when Trump was speaking. Trump was eminently vulnerable: He’d encouraged a violent effort to overthrow the previous election, was recently convicted of falsifying records to cover up an affair with a porn star, and spent his portion of the debate spouting absurd, easily debunked lies about his record in office and the state of the nation. But Biden couldn’t land a punch. He could hardly throw one.

As of last night, there are no plausible theories left of how Biden could win the election. Last night was the test of whether Biden was up for the job of campaigning, and he failed it. This wasn’t just a weak performance, like Ronald Reagan’s first debate in 1984 and Barack Obama’s in 2012. The man could hardly speak. To believe that things will somehow turn around come September, when the next debate is scheduled, would be delusional.

The alternative to a Biden candidacy is for the president to voluntarily drop out of the race and either handpick his preferred successor or leave it entirely up to Democratic National Convention delegates to select a new candidate in August. Both come with significant risks; neither has a high probability of working. Vice President Kamala Harris, the most natural choice, may be even less popular than Biden, and other options, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom, are totally unproven at the national level. But the notion that a younger, more energetic, more articulate candidate could defeat Trump is at least plausible. Biden turning things around is not.

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