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MSU politics expert says Biden-Trump debate effect could diminish

President Joe Biden speaks at the grand opening ceremony for the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center, Friday, June 28, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Tia Dufour
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U.S. Department of Homeland Security
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media while visiting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, right, in Washington, DC.

Democrats in Michigan and other swing states are considering their options following President Joe Biden’s widely panned debate performance against his presumptive Republican challenger, former President Donald Trump, Thursday night.

“We can’t fight Trump and fascism with a candidate who doesn’t present to America as a strong candidate. We need to consider a new candidate at the convention. There I said it,” posted former Michigan Representative Steve Tobocman. The post on X was captured in a screenshot by Bridge Michigan journalist Jonathan Oosting.

Former President Barack Obama was among those who jumped to Biden’s defense on social media.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself,” he posted on X.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is often mentioned as a possible replacement nominee. She is a Biden national campaign co-chair who has urged Democrats to stick with the president as he has struggled in the polls and messaging.

She issued an eight-sentence statement of support, but it made no mention of the fact that there even was a debate or anything about Biden’s performance.

“Joe Biden is running to serve the American people. Donald Trump is running to serve Donald Trump,” she said. “The difference between Joe Biden’s vision for making sure everyone in America has a fair shot and Donald Trump’s dangerous, self-serving plans will only get sharper as we head toward November.”

Michigan State University political science professor Matt Grossman said it is not clear whether the debate will have a lasting impact on the election.

“In the past, debates move polls by about two points on average and that movement usually doesn’t last so we shouldn’t necessarily expect an earthquake,” he told the Michigan Public Radio Network. “But we were already in an election that was close to 50-50.”

The Biden campaign started its recovery mission Friday with an energetic address by the president in North Carolina. But Grossman said retail campaign appearances don’t match the audience and media reach of debates and convention speeches.

He said those also have an outsize impact because voters who don’t closely follow campaign coverage often rely on their impressions from those marquee events to make their decisions.

That means, Grossman said, debates are not just for political junkies.

“They also appeal to people who don’t like politics but think they can get a sense of the candidates that they wouldn’t normally get,” he said. “The trouble is that’s kind of exactly the vulnerability Joe Biden had last night.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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