Voters Had Issues With Biden’s Age Long Before The Debate. That’s Why Democrats Are Worried.

A few days before the debate that upended President Joe Biden’s presidency, a Democratic pollster conducted an online focus group of swing voters in a Midwestern battleground state.

The first question asked for the word or phrase that “immediately comes up when you think of President Biden.”

In the public opinion exercise reviewed by HuffPost, the vast majority of the participants responded by referring negatively to either Biden’s advanced age or his mental acuity and competence.

One respondent used the word “incompetent.” Asked to explain what made them feel that way, they cited interviews in which Biden seemed “incoherent.”

The Democratic pollster, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, had been seeing the same response for months, like clockwork. While inflation and cost-of-living concerns were the top issues hurting Biden with these voters, it was difficult to separate those worries from the lack of confidence in Biden’s mental and physical abilities as a leader.

In recent months, the pollster said, “it does seem like people have more specific memories of his infirmity. I hear more examples of people comparing him to relatives of theirs.”

Focus groups like that one ― and similar polling ― help make sense of the chorus of voices calling for Biden to withdraw from the presidential race mere minutes after he turned in a disastrous debate performance. 

To the Biden campaign, the limited movement against Biden in some post-debate polls has reinforced their view that the debate is being blown out of proportion. A national CNN poll released Tuesday found former President Donald Trump leading Biden by 6 percentage points ― the same margin Trump led by in April.

President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday.
President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday. SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

“In modern campaigns, singular moments do not spell the outcome of any race. Whether it’s a debate, whether it is a scandal, whether it is an individual hot mic moment,” Biden campaign pollster Molly Murphy said in an MSNBC interview on Sunday. “They will potentially bump the polls up or down in one direction or another, and that may last a week or two.”

The Biden campaign has some experience riding out bad polling or media coverage associated with his age. The president succeeded in quelling doubts about his age in 2023, when a significant share of Democratic voters were telling pollsters they wanted an alternative to Biden on the Democratic ticket. He quieted enough of the skepticism to prevent a credible primary challenge from emerging.

But a candidate needs more than their base to win a general election. And less than five months from Election Day, pollsters like the Democrat who spoke to HuffPost see the lack of movement in Biden’s favor since the debate as a failure that has made recovery difficult.

“Even if you accept the premise that the vote is not really that much worse than it was before the debate, presumably there’s a dramatically higher share of people who think Biden is not up for the job, meaning it gets a lot harder to move people toward Biden given those concerns,” the pollster said.

And indeed, the share of voters who say Biden does not have the mental and cognitive health to serve as president went from 65% before the debate to 72% after the debate, according to a CBS News poll.

I hear more examples of people comparing him to relatives of theirs.Democratic pollster

“We had an enthusiasm gap the day before the debate. Folks were more excited to vote for Trump than our folks were to vote for Biden,” said a senior Democratic strategist in a swing state who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “Our path to victory was we needed to win probably two-thirds of the double haters: the people that didn’t like either one of them. Not only was that a tough path to begin with, I don’t know how you find that path now.”

In the first 24 hours after Biden’s debate performance, a string of unexpected voices called on him to withdraw, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and the New York Times editorial board.

The Biden campaign subsequently succeeded in slowing the rush to the exits. Just three Democratic members of the House have called for him to step aside. And following a meeting with Democratic governors at the White House on Thursday evening, Tim Walz (Minn.), Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) and Wes Moore (Md.) emerged to reiterate their support for Biden and attest to his fitness for office.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a progressive who twice endorsed the presidential runs of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is also standing by Biden.

“All of this hand-wringing about what Biden should do is unhelpful,” Ellison told HuffPost. “If Biden has a pulse, he’s better than Trump any day of the week, and so I’m going to work hard to get Joe Biden elected president.”

But underneath, resentment is simmering from Democrats who want him out.

“The president is defiant. The people around him are feeding that defiance,” the Democratic strategist said. “I’ve been on several calls with the Biden campaign. Their mentality here is just whistling past the graveyard.”

Those supportive of Biden stepping aside are coalescing ― some eagerly, others reluctantly ― behind Vice President Kamala Harris as the most viable alternative.

The same CNN poll showing Biden’s standing unchanged had Harris trailing Trump by just 2 percentage points.

“I’m seeing both sides of the Democratic spectrum starting to break for Kamala,” said one progressive donor who requested anonymity. “I’m feeling suddenly sort of hopeful about that.”

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement helped propelled Biden to a primary victory in the 2020 presidential election, has said he would support Harris in the event Biden withdraws, though he also suggested he was open to a “mini-primary” among multiple candidates ahead of the August presidential nominating convention.

A number of donors aligned with Harris also spoke to The New York Times for a glowing profile on Friday, noting she had been preparing to take a more prominent role for months following new questions about Biden’s fitness in February.

Biden’s team has pitched his interview with ABC News on Friday as a chance to quiet doubts about his reelection bid. But other Democrats think swing-state polling in the coming days and weeks will prove decisive.

Referring to a mass exodus of support for Biden among elected Democrats, the pollster said, “A stampede could still be afoot here, and it really wouldn’t take much to open it up.”