Friday, June 28, 2024

BTRTN: Democrats at DefCon One… Biden Has an Epic Fail, and Panic Ensues

It was the worst-case scenario: both candidates validated our gravest worries about their liabilities. Biden appeared old, weak, and muddled, and Trump is more of a pathological liar than ever. God help us.

Well, that was about as depressing as it gets.

In the first Presidential Debate of the 2024 cycle, Joe Biden had an epic fail.

Biden had endless phlegm in his throat. He was tentative at times, rushed at others. Sentences trailed off. He stuttered. He paused, appearing to lose his thread. He droned in a monotone. The timbre of his voice was thin. He spoke in lists, not in terms of vision and passion. He appeared shriveled and diminished behind his podium.

He let Donald Trump put him on the defensive, and he was not able to fight back.

No question: Donald Trump was far more vigorous and more energized than Joe Biden. It’s the oldest saw: debates are decided by visual appearance, not by policy discussion or political philosophy.

By that measure, Donald Trump won the debate by a mile.

The problem: Donald Trump was lying every time he opened his mouth.

Trump was so extreme, so exaggerated, and so buffoonish in his claims about the wonders of own Presidency -- and so absurd in his egregious accusations about Joe Biden -- that moderate Americans likely saw him clearly for the carnival barker that he is.  Trump did not come close to winning the debate.  Biden lost it.

CNN did nothing to rein in the madness. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash let Donald Trump fling utterly unsupported assertions for the entire night. They abdicated any responsibility for ensuring that assertions made on their network have a basis in reality.  

All three parties to this debacle – Trump, Biden, and CNN – succeeded only in measuring the degraded state of our political dialog.

The evening created grave concern among Democrats that Joe Biden is not hearty enough to be President, and yet also undoubtedly raised concern among independents that Donald Trump does not have the honesty, character, demeanor, or integrity to be President.

Suddenly, all bets are off.

CNN’s Jon King started the post-debate analysis by saying that his phone was lighting up all night long with major Democrats in full panic, screaming Def Con One and calling for Biden to step aside. Van Jones, the staunchest defender of Joe Biden in television news, damn near threw in the towel, acknowledging that there would be calls for Biden to “take another path.”

My God, what a mess. Don’t ask me who won last night.

All I know is that we all lost.


Joe Biden is a good man. He has had a successful first term in office by many measures, achieving important bipartisan legislation at home and building vital alliances to sustain Ukraine in its war with Russia. His economic policies have threaded a needle of tamping inflation without triggering recession.

Last night, when Joe Biden was able to articulate his positions and policies, they were sound.  Compared to Trump, who literally constructed a fantasy world of utterly preposterous assertions and brazen deceits, Biden was grounded, solid, informed and truthful.

But the instances in which Biden was forceful, compelling, concise, and clear in defense of his policies were in the minority.

Everyone knows how this game works.

Presidential debates have always been a high wire act: candidates are keenly aware of the existential danger of a single gaffe, and that in a single, brilliant moment, one candidate can mortally wound his opponent.  On October 6, 1976, Gerald Ford said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Poof! So long, Jerry.  Ronald Reagan said “there you go again” to Jimmy Carter, and made light of Walter Mondale’s “age and inexperience.” Neither recovered.

It only takes one moment of plutonium-grade toxicity in a presidential debate to bring down a candidacy.

Sadly, it must be reported that Joe Biden’s performance last night was not just one moment. It was an entire evening… it was the Chernobyl of Presidential debates. He was simply unable to do anything to shut down the fire hose of bellicose, brazenly deceitful self-aggrandizement flowing from the former President. He let Trump define the debate, and Trump defined a fantasy world in which his Presidency was perfect, and Joe Biden has ruined all the greatness of the Trump administration.

Trump could not contain his own need to phrase everything in the most extreme form.  He could not escape his own personal psychosis of projecting each of his own failings onto his opponent. The two classics of projection: Trump literally said that “everything Joe Biden says is a lie,”  and “what this man has done is absolutely criminal.” Trump grew more brazen as the night went on, ever needing to one-up his own bile of loathing for Biden, literally making up completely unsupportable claims. Here is but a sampler of Trump's deranged assertions:

“Joe Biden is the worst President in the history of the country.”

“He wants our country to be destroyed.”

“If he wins this election, we won’t have a country left.”

“He wants to raise your taxes by four times. He wants to raise everybody’s taxes by four times.”

“Biden takes money from China.”

“So that means he can take the life of the baby in the ninth month and even after birth, because some states – Democrat-run – take it after birth…So he’s in – he’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby.”

“His military policies are insane. We are closer to WW III than ever.”

“I had the highest approval rating for veterans, taking care of the V.A. He has the worst.”

“And yet, during my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever. And my top environmental people gave me that statistic just before I walked on the stage, actually.”

“Ukraine would have never started if I was President.”

“Our veterans and our soldiers can’t stand this guy…They think he’s the worst commander in chief, if that’s what you call him, that we’ve ever had…And they like me more than just about any of them. And that’s based on every single bit of information.”

“We are a failing nation.”

When Trump was reminded of some of his worst quotes (for example, that those who served in World War II were “suckers and losers,” or that “Hitler did some very good things”), Trump simply claimed that the quotes in question were made up.

The more bombastic, irresponsible, reckless, and foolish Trump’s character assassination went effectively unchallenged, the more Trump doubled down.  Trump sensed that the evening was going his way and remained generally composed, never succumbing to the childish screaming rants and interruptions that characterized his 2020 debates. But his constant hectoring of Biden, and the utterly unfounded charges of corruption, criminality, failure, and incompetence reinforce his own negative narrative as a nasty, deceitful, hopelessly self-involved delusional. Again: Trump did not win. Biden lost.


Whether it is fair or not isn’t really the issue. The problem is that Biden’s performance profoundly reinforced the single greatest concern most Americans carry about Biden: that an 81-year-old man – and this 81-year-old man in particular -- cannot handle the brutal rigors of the Presidency of the United States.

When any debate gaffe or weakness appears to reinforce a core concern, its impact is multiplied as if on a Richter Scale. When an entire evening reinforces that concern, a narrative forms. In the echo chamber of the 24-hour news cycle, the narrative is repeated so frequently and so intensely that it takes on its own reality. It becomes a snowball racing down a mountainside, gaining both mass and velocity.

For the next week to ten days, Joe Biden is going to be taking many, many calls from Democrats. The calls for him to step aside will grow louder.

Moreover, the media will find the story line irresistible: video clips of Biden’s worst moments will populate the airwaves for weeks. Pundits will speculate: which Democratic leaders could convince Joe to step aside? What process could the Democrats use to choose an alternative candidate? Rules for an open convention will be discussed. Campaign donations may sag, which will pour kerosene on the fire.

Then, it will become the story.

Black Democrats may speculate that if Biden steps aside, the nomination should automatically default to VP Kamala Harris. Black Democrats may have their loyalty tested when they discover that very few people in the party share that view.

As potential names are floated, polls will be taken that will show that younger potential Democratic candidates – Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar – are much more likely to beat Trump than Biden. If Biden has not reached a decision to step aside, such polls could become overwhelming.

The bottom line: after a night like this, it becomes very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

You can expect that Joe Biden is going to spend a great deal of time on the phone in the next week. He’s a tough guy, a fighter. He’s likely to try to toss it off as an off-night.

But Democrats pride themselves on being the party of facts, objectivity, and reality. And the new reality is that Joe Biden’s re-election bid was just dealt a devastating and potentially existential blow.

Yes, presidential debates do change history.

I’m a Joe Biden fan. Readers of BTRTN know that I’ve spent months telling readers to stop whining and get to work to re-elect Joe Biden.

But above that, I am a political realist. The real story tonight, for anyone who could see it, was not Joe Biden. It was that we absolutely must defeat Donald Trump in November.  The man is unstable, delusional, morally bankrupt, cruel, and yes, very capable of destroying our democracy.

Re-electing Joe Biden is not how I’d phrase the objective.

Our objective is to defeat Donald Trump.

If last night made clear that someone else may have a better chance of beating Donald Trump than Joe Biden, then maybe this debate was not the utter disaster that it feels like at 12:38 a.m. on Friday, June 28.

We should all allow a few days to pass rather than race to a rash decision. Let’s hear what Joe Biden has to say. Let’s see polls of how people reacted to this debate.

Then let’s be fair, and let’s be smart. There’s a right answer.  We must never be afraid to find it.



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Tuesday, June 4, 2024

BTRTN: Trump is Now a Convicted Felon -- What Will Be the Impact on the Election?

Tom with the May 2024 BTRTN Month in Review, on the conviction and the state of the 2024 presidential election.

MAY 2024

On the face of it, long before the trial began, it seemed rather obvious that Donald Trump had conspired with various sordid players to concoct and execute a scheme to hide his affair with porn star Stormy Daniels from the electorate in the days before the 2016 election.  The issue was whether he would be convicted of that crime in a court of law.  The feds had chosen not to pursue the case; a felony conviction required a novel legal theory linking two cover-up-related crimes, one at the state level (the financial deception), the other at the federal (the election deception); the case would have to rely heavily on the testimony of a convicted liar, Michael Cohen; it would take only one juror to gum up the works; and, of course, the prosecution would have to overcome Trump’s notorious lifelong “Teflon Don” ability to avoid serious legal consequences for his actions.  Many predicted, right up until the verdict was read, that once again Trump would slither away unscathed – and with it the only chance to hang the term “convicted felon” on him before Election Day.

But that was not to be, and on Thursday, May 30 at 5:08 PM Eastern time, Trump became the first president to be convicted of a crime, on no less than 34 counts of financial chicanery.  The prosecution put together a meticulous case and presented it in a strategically sound method, holding Cohen back from testifying until a parade of other, more credible witnesses, including David Pecker, Hope Hicks and various accountants (and Stormy Daniels herself), established the basic facts with ample documentation.  Cohen’s story, when he told it, hewed carefully to that framework, reinforcing it, and his additions to it -- necessary for a conviction -- thus seemed credible.  The judge enforced court discipline, controlling Trump’s behavior, while issuing rulings that were balanced rather evenly for and against the prosecution and defense.  The jury demonstrated keen attention to the proceedings, seemingly meticulous in their deliberations, yet delivering a relatively swift and certainly decisive verdict.  Even Trump’s lawyers, perhaps hamstrung by some of Trump’s own “suggestions,” did the best they could in defending the indefensible.  It was, despite future efforts to toss it out on various flimsy grounds, in many ways a model trial.

While sentencing remains (in July) and appeals are a certainty (and would be decided well after the election), the damage has been done.  Now it’s up to us.  As unprecedented as a conviction of a former president is, what is even more noteworthy is Trump’s status as the presumptive GOP nominee in the upcoming election.  It is utterly unthinkable that any of his predecessors could have survived such a tawdry scandal.  Obviously, JFK and many other presidents and presidential contenders were guilty of affairs, but most governed or ran in a time when the press turned a blind eye to such matters, so there was no need to cover them up.  Those who lived in the more modern era paid the price, from Gary Hart to Mark Sanford to a host of others in between, and Bill Clinton’s reputation certainly has taken a hit for his indiscretions.  But Trump’s behavior has been outright abominable; he is simply a serial philanderer and abuser, and his complete indifference to the concepts of monogamy and business ethics has now (finally) resulted in two civil convictions and now a criminal one.  The reckoning is well underway.  

And yet, the Republican Party not only tolerates him, they embrace him, enable him, hold him up as a symbol and follow his lead.  His grip on the party has never been tighter.  Those who oppose him are either shown the door (Lynn Cheney leading the rather sparse parade) or return to the fold on bended knee (Kevin McCarthy, for one, and now Nikki Haley).  And, of course, they have nominated him, despite the fact that his only real campaign issue is the myth of the stolen election, his only motive is to avoid jail time from his federal offenses, and his only compass is his own fate, fame and fortune.  Most Republican officials, and certainly the leadership, know that he is a sham, but are unable to find the moral courage to unite and destroy him – and save their party.

So, there is no discussion of removing him from the ticket.  Supposedly God-fearing men like Mike Johnson, who should be condemning him, are instead mimicking his endless beefs about the unfairness of the charges and his trial. 

Have they no decency?

And what must Mitch McConnell be thinking?  McConnell is the one who had the absolute best opportunity to rid us all of this heinous disease.  Had McConnell backed the second Trump impeachment (and the follow-on vote to bar him from holding future office), this would be over.  Had McConnell voted in a manner consistent with his speech at the time, which condemned Trump even while sparing him, and managed to bring along another ten Senate GOP colleagues, Trump would be disgraced and finished, relegated to the footnotes of history, and facing multiple federal charges with no power to avoid them.  But his political life continues, and the federal charges are in peril.

So, down to brass tacks.  What is the current state of the election, and how might this conviction play out?


Nate Cohn of The New York Times finally got around to admitting something we have known for nine months – that the Trump/Biden race is much closer than commonly believed.  What he failed to note is that he himself is the primary culprit in promulgating that belief.  His relentless braying about Biden’s swing state gap – which is real but not large and far from unassailable -- has been demoralizing to Democrats since last fall.  I know because I hear it all the time and have been pushing back more or less continuously against the “all is lost” narrative.

The actual facts are quite simple.  Biden is more or less even with Trump, or within cab-hailing distance of him, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and if Biden wins all three, he wins the election.  There, that does not seem so hard, does it?

It is difficult to measure the effect of Cohn’s negativity on Democratic voters (and donors), but it is hard to argue it has been a good thing.  The reporting last fall caused David Axelrod, who should have known better, to call for a reconsideration of Biden’s presence on the ticket; non-stop handwringing among the faithful; and, who knows, maybe a few thousand thick wallets being left unopened.

The most riveting new news in Cohn’s analysis – something he should have known and shared last fall – is that, across the swing states, among registered voters who actually voted in 2020, Biden leads by +2 points.  Among the others – that is, registered voters who did not vote in 2020, whom Cohn designated as “less engaged” voters, Trump led by +14.  This, of course, demonstrates that Trump is counting on a group of potential voters who may not ever make it to the polls in 2024, or at least will likely do so in lesser proportion than Biden supporters.  This is a very significant finding.

The national polls show an ever-tightening race, although that tightening (now down to just about a half-a-point gap) is occurring at an excruciatingly slow pace, seemingly one turn of the screw per month, at least in the two-way polls.  In the five-way polls, which include various third-party candidates, who may not even end up being on the ballot in every state, the Biden/Trump gap is slightly larger, about two points, indicating those other candidates are having slightly more of an impact on Biden than Trump, although even that impact is very close.  Again, baked into those numbers, which are based on polling of registered voters, is the "engaged/non-engaged" split that Cohn identified, which suggests actual likely potential voters are favoring Biden.

The swing states remain close as well, especially Wisconsin and Michigan which are more or less a dead heat, and Pennsylvania where Biden trails by just three percentage points.  The other states are leaning toward Trump, but all are reachable.  The Nevada gap (7 points) is one of those “average of polls” numbers that mask a range of poll outcomes:  one poll has Trump and Biden even, while the other two polls have Trump at +9 and +13.  These types of variations are hard to reconcile.

Our verdict:  it’s a close race!  (Duh.)  But – Biden is certainly doing better than the Cohn-driven headlines.

We have been noting the fantastic number of potential “catalysts” that could, in the next five months, shake up what has been a relatively static race, including the trajectory of the economy, the Israel/Hamas conflict, the candidates’ health, the debates, Supreme Court decisions and so many more.  But perhaps the leading potential catalyst is the outcome of the hush money case.  Now that that has occurred, we all wait with bated breath to see whether the guilty verdict will change the race dynamics in any meaningful way.  It is too early to tell definitively.

There were a few tidbits from polling conducted before the trial ended, revealing that 6-7% of Trump supporters would abandon him if there was a guilty verdict.  This confirmed similar results from last fall.  That may not sound like much -- and in fact it is not much, on an absolute basis.  However, in the context of a very close election, it is an enormous result; if in fact it materializes, one that could tip the race in Biden’s favor, since 6-7% of Trump supporters roughly translates to at least a three percentage point change in the race, and perhaps as much at six if they all flipped to Biden.

There have been four national polls since the verdict, which is still early, since there has been very little time for the “reaction” impact – including the media coverage and the spin -- to sink in.  But the average of those polls indicates a slight movement toward Biden, enough, in fact, to put him slightly ahead of Trump in terms of the actual numbers.  (Both the pre- and post- polling margins are best described as a “dead heat” from a national perspective.  Keep in mind that because of the inherent bias of the Electoral College to the GOP, Biden has to be up by +2 to +3 points nationally for the race to be truly considered even.


More tidbits have come in two other surveys taken right after the verdict.  A Morning Consult survey revealed that 54% of voters approve of the Trump conviction, and 8% of Trump supporters want him to drop his White House bid.  And a Reuters survey taken after the verdict indicated at 10% of Republican registered voters are less likely to vote for Trump following the conviction.  Perhaps even more significantly, 25% of Independent registered voters said the conviction made them less likely to support Trump (though 18% said “more likely” and the balance said no change).

There have been no post-conviction polls in the swing state.

All of these numbers suggest that, on the margin, the conviction could hurt Trump materially.  “On the margin” is the operative phrase.  I am frequently asked about the impact of this, that or the other thing on the election outcome.  Will Biden’s fundraising advantage make a difference?  Will the SCOTUS mifepristone ruling flip some votes?  Will Trump’s VP choice matter?  How about if the Fed announces a rate cut?  Abortion on the ballot in Arizona?

In this election, the answer is: “of course” – anything that has the potential to shake a few voters towards or away from one candidate or the other rises to “game changer” level.  And the early evidence this conviction could indeed nudge voters, if not Biden’s way, then at least away from Trump.  More polls will give further direct evidence on the race.

It is non-sensical to make the argument that the conviction will help Trump, as the GOP has been spinning.  Sure, it riled up the base and has given a boost to small donor donations.  But Trump does not need more votes from MAGA-land.  He needs them from persuadable swing-state voters, and they seem to be exactly the ones who are most affected – negatively -- by the verdict. The storyline that Trump is a convicted felon will have long tentacles, in ways we cannot anticipate.  Who knew that the state of Washington has a law on the books that prevents convicted felons from appearing on the ballot?  And there will be no Election Day coverage of Trump going to a ballot booth to cast his own vote – his home state of Florida does not allow a felon that right.

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in March dropped to just under the 40% line, and his net negative further expanded to -17 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The generic ballot continues to be a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" remained at +33, driven by split and modest movement by the five economic indicators.  But the +33 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).



The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +33 for May 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 33% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +33, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is much higher, the GDP is MUCH higher.  Only the price of gas is higher, which is a proxy for general inflation.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +33 under Biden.

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