Biden Advisers Cite ‘Access Hollywood’ Scandal as Model for Survival

Former President Donald Trump participates in a presidential debate at CNN Studios with President Joe Biden on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta. Credit - Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

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Perhaps the most exasperating part of being President is the voters’ fast forgetting. The fleeting highs—the faux victory over the Taliban, the real death of Osama bin Laden—never linger too long. But the upside of Americans’ constant rewrite of our collective memories is that the bad ones don’t stick around, either.

That is the optimistic outlook President Joe Biden’s allies are spinning as they near the two-week mark after a disastrous debate that raised serious questions about the President’s mental acuity and cognitive abilities. With Democrats in open despondency and unable to force Biden’s hand, there’s a very good chance that the energy at next week’s GOP nominating convention in Milwaukee will feel more like a UFC fight than a C-SPAN hearing. That collective bullying is going to do Democrats few favors as it is only likely to redouble Biden’s resolve not to have his hand forced.

Internally and out, Biden’s top advisers are treating the fallout as hypersensitivity from pols and pundits inside the Beltway, most of whom seem to have forgotten it’s only July. Voting doesn’t start until September, and there will be two nominating conventions and the Olympics to shift the conversation among the electorate. And they’re pointing to perhaps the most notorious campaign moment of this century to press that argument: the infamous Access Hollywood tape and its audio of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault.

Released within a month of Election Day in 2016, many assumed the scandal would force Trump to step aside. Instead he moved right past it and voters went along with it. On Election Day, he prevailed—winning over 64% of white working-class voters, 62% of white men, and 47% of white women.

Some on Biden’s team are pointing now to that Access Hollywood episode, which actually moved Trump’s polling down by less than one percentage point for less than three weeks; the tape aired on Oct. 7, 2016, and he was back to his normal poll standing by Oct. 25, according to 538’s polling average archive.

The analogy is, of course, imperfect. But it matches other moments that evaporate. As U.S. News & World Report’s Olivier Knox pointed out to me the day after the on-stage meltdown in Atlanta, Barack Obama’s polling bump after bin Laden’s death lasted just six weeks in 2011. Separately, when Trump contracted Covid-19 and had to be airlifted to Walter Reed in 2020, his polling dipped again by less than one percentage point.

This is one way those steeped in Biden World are reassuring themselves—and the boss—that these things that seem huge among political junkies seldom really break through to the gen pop. Word went out from Atlanta in real time as the debate continued: a 90-minute error would not define the choice voters face in November. Also, they had time. Also, while Biden’s polling has slid, it doesn’t appear to be as bad as the collapse of poll numbers that many had predicted.

Even so, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Tuesday moved Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada from toss-up status to leaning Republican. The analysts also moved Minnesota, New Hampshire, and a lone congressional district in Nebraska from like Democratic strongholds to merely leaning Democrats’ way. Although some polls had Biden holding steady, others had him down 6 points in some places like Georgia and nationally. For the survey of likely voters, it was a three-point swing in less than two weeks.

All of it may prove temporary, Biden’s boosters argue.

The Trump candidacy provides plenty of reasons for Democrats to wince, but one winsome lesson: nothing lasts forever, not even a terrible showing that has prompted recriminations aplenty inside Democratic circles. As further proof: 51% of voters say they now approve of Trump's performance when he was President, a benchmark he never reached while in the job.

Biden’s team is counting on such a fickle electorate and hoping the nonstop replay of his admittedly terrible answers doesn’t stick.

"They think they can weather this, and so do I," said one lawmaker who has heard the Access Hollywood analogy and is a close ally to the White House. "Joe Biden is the only person to have defeated Donald Trump. Why would you swap that out, even for someone as promising as the Vice President?"

The big caveat to leaning on polls from 2016 is this: Trump’s return to his previous levels still left him trailing Hillary Clinton just about everywhere. Trump’s win came seemingly out of nowhere. This time, Trump is polling ahead of Biden in every swing state, and Biden has yet to break the 50% marker in any of them.

Biden, meanwhile, remains a highly unwelcome presence on the ticket let alone as its leader. As TIME’s Nik Popli reports from Capitol Hill, there is a begrudging acceptance that Biden is likely their nominee whether they want him or not. After only a handful of House Democrats had publicly urged Biden to exit the race, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have rekindled the issue Wednesday morning by suggesting on Morning Joe that Biden should reconsider. “We're all encouraging him to make that decision because time is running short,” Pelosi said, as if Biden hadn’t already made his position crystal clear for well over a week.

Biden seems like he is taking a page right from his predecessor: fake it until you make it. Trump pretended there was not a crisis until there was not one. Biden is trying to assure voters that he’s up for a task at hand for another four years, a challenge made more acute with each passing day of professed ambivalence. He told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous that he knew he had a bad night but also kindled a low-light firestorm over whether he used “goodest job” in one answer. (ABC News’ official transcript, edited at the request of Team Joe, concluded he used “good as job” in a sentence that didn’t become much more clear with the tweak.)

Plus, there's the added bonus that no Democrats actually think there are good odds of Biden stepping aside. A YouGov poll shows 72% of Democrats think they're stuck with Biden whether they like it or not. Biden is banking that Democrats by Election Day will forget they ever had doubts about his candidacy. Given how wait-it-out worked for others, it’s not an irrational play—and there’s clearly plenty of forgetting afoot already.

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