Monday, July 1, 2024

BTRTN: What Next? Should Joe Go?

 Tom with the BTRTN June 2024 Month in Review.

The 2024 presidential election to date has been characterized by its static nature.  World and domestic events erupt with regularity, in Gaza and Ukraine, at the Supreme Court and courts in New York, Georgia and Florida, in the halls of Congress, at the border, on Wall Street, in our climate and, well, seemingly everywhere.  And yet, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been locked in a very close election, for months on end, separated at most by mere percentage points.  Even those momentous events, with their massive impacts on the state of the world and the country, have been unable to catalyze any meaningful change. 

That might still be true after the epic meltdown of Joe Biden, the furious lying and dark spiritedness of Donald Trump, and the illumination of their vast differences in worldview and policy at the already-historic June 27 CNN debate.  We do not know as yet.  But what we'll learn over the next week will make all the difference in how the aftermath takes shape – and answer the enormous question of whether Biden should stay in the race or withdraw.

Biden surely put on the worst performance of the televised debate era, which has been around since 1960.  He was tentative, hoarse and, at many junctures, incoherent, weak on defense and no better in articulating his most popular policies.  There were many lowlights, including an early-on interminable, stumble-and-then-silence sequence (actually, it was 8 seconds) that finally ended with a nonsensical non sequitur on Medicare.  Perhaps most egregious was his performance on abortion, his best issue, in which he failed to note that the vast majority of Americans supported Roe v. Wade (instead he referenced its support by constitutional lawyers); failed to dimensionalize the pain that has resulted in the Dobbs era; inexplicably pivoted from abortion, his best issue, to immigration, his worst; and failed to mention abortion (or January 6) at all in his closing statement.  And, of course, he rather consistently reinforced his biggest negative, which is that he is old and perceived by many, even in his own party, to not being up to the job.

Trump, for his part, did nothing to reassure voters that he has evolved in any way.  While he did not interrupt Biden (the “mics off” rule doubtlessly helping him to avoid his worst instincts), he was still the raging victim, defending the January 6 rioters and insisting the 2020 election was rigged, spouting utter nonsense, including repeated suggestions that America under Biden is violent, disrespected, in decline and a joke.  He was indeed vigorous, but also semi-crazed, and those looking for some semblance of presidential temperament and aptitude walked away empty-handed.  And the lies!  Biden got it right in his remarks after the debate; it was not clear if Trump said a single thing that was accurate.

In the few days since, the various constituencies have coalesced into competing camps.  From virtually the outset, the national media and the pundits, led by The New York Times, David Axelrod and James Carville, echoed by many others, have called for Biden to step down.  Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have laid low, conceding that Biden had a bad night but sticking by their man.  In this they are simply following Biden himself, who quickly made energetic campaign appearances in New York and North Carolina, full of vigor, self-deprecation and earnest defense of his governing abilities, if not his physical condition and debating skills.  Donors have been alternately moaning, weighing in, and waiting to see how it all plays out.

The debate impact is actually a three-part drama.  There is the debate itself, which was watched, at least in part, by 51 million viewers on TV (and more live on the Internet).  The second part is the impact of the clips of the debate, where the worst bits (“…we finally beat Medicare!”) have already been seen millions of times on social media, a number still growing.  Part three is the media coverage, which has been universally and relentlessly negative to Biden and weighted to evaluations of his performance rather than Trump’s.  In obvious ways, parts two and three are even worse than the debate itself.  Biden’s good moments – and he did get better as it went along, albeit from a disastrous start – are long lost, and Trump’s general awfulness has been  overshadowed.

The net effect is that it will take days for the debate impressions to harden, and thus the various “snap” polls may not capture the full extent of the impact.  I would not pay too much attention to polls that were fielded on June 28/29/30; we need to wait until it has all sunk in.

What next?

What everyone should be waiting for are the views (and verdict) of the most important segment of all:  the voters.  And that will come in the next week, both in public polls that we will all see, and in private polls that the Biden team almost certainly already had in place, to measure pre/post-debate impacts.

Before making any decisions, the Biden team and anyone in a position to influence its thinking must first look at the impact of the debate on Biden’s approval rating and the national election polls (both the “two way” polls which pit Biden against Trump and the “five-way” which include the minor candidates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein and Cornel West).  If Biden has taken a substantial blow – say, a five-point or more drop in his approval rating, from the pre-debate level of roughly 40% to 35% or lower, and the gap with Trump widens to five points or more, our view is that Biden should step down.  If the effect is more marginal, a point or two, he can continue his quest to write off the debate as a bad night, akin to those suffered by Reagan and Obama in their first reelection debates, and move on.  (The race is currently more or less a dead heat.  Obviously, if swing state polling is available or commissioned, that would be important, too.  Public swing state polling has been sporadic at best.)

Many think that Biden is intractable, and under no circumstances will he withdraw.  That might very well be true.  But the worse the polls are, the more intense the pressure he will feel, and the cumulative effect of donors, wise old hands (say, Obama, the Clintons, Al Gore, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, etc.) and esteemed (by Joe Biden) members of the media (say, Thomas Friedman and Joe Scarborough) could be consequential.  Such a decision will be made by Biden in consultation with his inner circle of family (foremost Jill Biden and Biden's sister Valerie) and the most trusted of his long-time advisors (Kauffman, Klain, Richetti, Donilon, Dunn and Bauer).  But if the numbers are indeed dire, he has a grave responsibility to the party and to the American people, to confront directly the question, is he still the best hope to defeat Donald Trump -- and conclude the answer is no.

What then?

Keep in mind, an alternate candidate will only arise with Biden’s cooperation.  There will be no challenges to him if he chooses to continue.  It would be political suicide to any aspiring candidate to buck him publicly, and political homicide on Biden’s prospects versus Trump.  While the convention rules do contain language that would allow pledged delegates to go elsewhere, this avenue is unthinkable.

If Biden stepped down voluntarily, the presidential selection process might resemble political life in the decades and centuries before 1972.  In that year the parties basically turned over the nominating process to the public via a full set of state-by-state primaries in which candidates could accumulate delegates and perhaps march into the convention with enough in hand to be the presumptive first-ballot nominee.  Before 1972, primaries were few and more seen as testing grounds.  Once John F. Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary (after winning in neighboring New Hampshire), thereby proving that a Catholic could win in a Protestant stronghold, the remaining half-dozen primaries were largely irrelevant (and at times won by favorite sons and the "non-committed" line on the ballot, to maximize convention leverage).  Old style political conventions were the hotbed of deal-making, tickets created through the clouds of the legendary smoke-filled rooms, while the nation waited breathlessly to see who emerged in the balloting, which at times went on for multiple rounds and even days.

I suspect if Biden stepped down he would recall his talk of a “transition presidency,” mouth words about “accomplishing what I set out to do" and "the need for a new generation of leadership."  There would be  sentences about "focusing my attention on the issues at hand" such as Gaza and immigration.  

He would also say glowing things about Vice President Kamala Harris.  But he would also surely release all of his delegates and say that the party deserves a chance, at the convention, to choose its standard bearer.  This would leave the door open for new candidates.

Many fear that unleashing such a process might lead to chaos, or unintended consequences.  There are risks, to be sure.  But there are significant upsides to this approach.  The focus of the election would suddenly not be on Biden’s frailties and vexing, troubling issues (for him) such as Gaza and immigration, or Trump’s trials and dark madness, but instead on a fresh slate of candidates, who would generally be supportive, of course, of Democratic policies (and more articulate about them), but could also part with Biden on those troubling issues.  The sheer excitement and novelty of this free-for-all, the breaking of a tired tradition, and the opportunity, finally, for choice, would surely ignite the Democrats.  Remembering that over half the party wanted Biden to not run even before the debates, it is hard to argue the sudden offering of a choice could be a misstep.  It is plainly what the people want, now more than ever.

The usual suspects are being rolled out, including, perhaps at the top, popular Governor Gretchen Whitmer of swing state Michigan.  She resides in the heart of the northern industrial belt of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that were critical both to Trump’s win in 2016 (when he flipped them and punctured the myth of the “Blue Wall”) and Biden’s in 2020 (when he won by flipping them back).  Gavin Newsom is also a high profile potential entrant.  With Whitmer (age 52), Newsom (56) and Harris (59), suddenly age would become a weapon to use against Trump, and the future would have abruptly arrived, personified by the candidate.

Other names that will come to the fore are Governors Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, both succeeding in red and nearly-red states, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, all succeeding in red or swing states.  Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who outperformed Harris in the 2020 race, could throw their hats in.

Fears that Democrats would continue to lose Black voters (if Harris lost) ignores the very real possibility that their numbers would be easily overtaken by the return of young voters, the transformation of “double haters” into “single haters” (of Trump), and tip the scales of the persuadable middle, who finally might have someone to get excited about.

All of the contenders would have six weeks to barnstorm America and introduce themselves to the electorate (and to donors).  Some will do well; others will bomb (see: Ron DeSantis).  The convention would be epic, one for the ages, a reality show that Donald Trump could not possibly match.  The ratings would be through the roof, as America would be riveted by the contenders' impassioned speeches, the real-time uncertainty, various unscripted happenings and even scripted ones such as Joe Biden’s valedictory appearance and the wisdom of the Obamas and the Clintons, which would take on new significance.  Then would come the balloting process, a Super Bowl-esque night with ratings to match, and then, a Vice Presidential choice worthy of a century ago, with the promise of a VP slot dangled to those with delegates to offer to seal the deal.

Then the nation could watch the same old Donald Show at the GOP convention, and not help but notice the incredible contrast between a vigorous party teeming with young leaders looking to the future, and a dark, diabolical grievance- and retribution-ridden charlatan rooted in the past.  The Democratic candidate would head into the fall with momentum, perhaps even a lead in the polls, which would force Trump to agree to a debate.  And we would be back, staring at two podiums again, waiting to see how the combatants fare.

Now all of that is certainly a “best case scenario” for the Democrats – things could certainly go off the rails.  The principal problem with all of those potential candidates is that they are not truly battle-tested on a national stage, although some had a level of experience in 2020. 

And again, this scenario should only be explored if the debate dramatically changes Biden’s electorate prospects.  If that cannot be demonstrated, there is little reason to change horses.  If the voting public can absorb the very worst of Biden and shrug it off – as the GOP shrugged off Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – then the debate will rightly fade into history, and Biden’s “back on the saddle” approach will be the correct choice.

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in June remained at 39%, and his net negative further expanded to -18 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The generic ballot is once again a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" increased slightly to +35, driven by a drop in gas prices and a rise in the stock market.   The +35 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 +35 for June 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 35% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +35, 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 in a negative direction (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 +35 under Biden.

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