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Debate Raises Question of What's Next for Democrats

President Joe Biden's shaky performance on Thursday evening overshadowed everything else that came out of this debate. Midway through the debate, Biden's campaign said he had a cold.  But Biden's struggles went far beyond his raspy voice.  His mumbling and meandering, his inability to find the words and finish his thoughts, were evident from the opening minutes.   It was difficult to watch.  Democratic spinners tried to make the "substance over style" argument, and noted that Biden improved over the course of the debate.  Meanwhile, however, former President Donald Trump let flow numerous lies and untruths—what The Bulwark's Will Saletan termed a "torrent of bullsh*t"—which swept by Biden.  While many news organizations did fact checks to point these out, it was Biden's disastrous performance that was the story of the evening.  Behind the scenes shock waves and panic spread among Democratic leaders and officials, leading to talk behind the scenes about whether Biden might stand aside and even that there might somehow be an open convention.

Within 24 hours of the debate, many influential opinion leaders called on Biden to step aside.  In The New Republic, staff writer Alex Shephard penned an article headlined, "Ditch Biden. That Debate Performance Was a Disaster."  In The Nation, in an article headlined "Trump Was Terrible. But Biden Was Worse," national affairs correspondent Jeet Heer wrote that the only plausible "Plan B" scenario is for party eminences to persuade Biden to withdraw, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to become the nominee.  In The American Prospect, editor at large Harold Meyerson wrote, "The Democrats Must Dump Biden. Here's How."  The New York Times editorial board opined, "To Serve His Country, President Biden Should Leave the Race."  With little more than four months until the election, effecting this change would be difficult.

According to Nielsen, 51.3 million viewers watched the debate on television, which CNN said was the highest rated program and the largest livestreamed event in its history (+).  A second presidential debate is scheduled to be hosted by ABC News on Sept. 10, but whether it will occur as planned remains to be seen.

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Fact Checks
News organizations devoted a lot of resources to fact checking.  The New York Times announced it would have 60 journalists on hand to cover the debate including "29 Times reporters to check the facts live, led by Linda Qiu."  Some fact checks are presented in live, in real time over X (twitter).  Later they may be packaged into more polished reports.  In these reports, the use of different fonts, font sizes, and font styles is important to readability.  Many fact check reports present the fact checks chronologically, so if the reader is interested in a particular subject he or she has to scroll through the entire report.  PolitiFact did it differently, organizing 31 different claims into 13 different topic areas, with a clickable list at the top.  Important aspects of fact checks are labeling and links to corroborating source material.  Different news organizations handle the labeling differently.   PolitiFact led with the label in bold (Pants on Fire!, False, Mostly False, Half True, Mostly True, or True) followed by analysis.  AP presented the candidate claim followed by "THE FACTS," but instead of distinct labeling, AP included language like "that's not accurate" or "is wrong to say that" in the analysis.

The Poynter Institute's PolitiFact
The Associated Press
The New York Times
The Washington Post
CBS News
USA Today
The Bulwark

Fallout from the Debate: A Very Intense Couple of Weeks

June 28 (cover date Aug. 5)

July 4 (cover date July 6)
(cover date July 17)
President Joe Biden's shaky/disastrous performance in the debate poses an existential threat to his candidacy.  Biden  adopted a defiant stance, and his campaign has plowed on, putting out a steady stream of communications heralding his activity and support.  At the same time there is widespread discussion among Democratic officials, donors, and activists about possible paths out of the mess, including a drip, drip, drip of calls for him to step aside.  The July 13 assassination attempt on former President Donald Trump pushed this discussion into the background, but Biden's July 17 diagnosis of COVID has really amped up the pressure. 

If Biden were to step aside, the two most
likely scenarios would be for Vice President Kamala Harris to take up the mantle, outlined in the anonymous July 3 memo "Unburdened by What Has Been: The Case for Kamala" [PDF] or for an open contest, as outlined in the "blitz primary" proposal by Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith [PDF].

Here are examples of activity and communications in the two weeks following the debate:

June 28  |  June 29
  |  July 2  |  July 3  |  July 5  |  July 7  |  July 8  |  July 9  |  July 10  |  July 11  |   more