‘It scares me’: voters voice disappointment and alarm over Biden’s debate performance

Ron Ringlund is the president of a machine shop in southern Wisconsin. At 71 years old, he knows what it’s like to keep working after many have retired and had shrugged off concerns about Joe Biden’s age – until last night.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s just the Republicans are putting that out there to make him look bad,’ you know – but he looked bad last night,” said Ringlund, who said he usually votes for Democrats, and views Donald Trump as a threat to democracy. “Wisconsin’s neck and neck right now, and just one thing can make the difference. And I think last night could have been the difference, and it scares me.”

After Biden’s difficult debate performance on Thursday, Democrats and independent voters in swing states say they are increasingly disappointed and alarmed by the choice before them in November.

Top Democrats are reportedly discussing whether Biden can step aside and allow someone else to get the nomination at the party’s national convention in August.

Ringlund said he is open to the idea of someone else stepping in for Biden, but wasn’t sure who would have the national name recognition.

Related: It’s risky, but Joe Biden needs to give way to someone who can beat Donald Trump | Jonathan Freedland

“I’m not sure that it would work, but it might be the only chance,” he said.

Mike Crute, who co-hosts a progressive talk radio show in Wisconsin called The Devil’s Advocates, threw a debate watch party in deep-blue Madison last night. The mood in the venue was grim.

“It was hard,” Crute says. Even hosting the party, he could barely watch.

“I walked out of the room, I drank copiously and I came back in the room, and, you know, it was still Joe.” Crute, who describes himself as a “Berniecrat”, said he had nonetheless resigned himself to pushing for Biden during the campaign. And as rough as the debate was, he’s not sure Biden can be convinced to step down.

“If you’re the most powerful man in the world, who wants to say, ‘No, I’m too old to do the job’? I don’t know. It would have to come from his wife,” Crute said. “I don’t know who else would tell Joe: ‘Hey, Joe, it’s time to hang up the spurs.’”

The New Georgia Project Action Fund hosted a debate watch party at a cigar bar about a mile from the debate stage. Biden’s talking points were already hard to make out as he struggled to finish lines, and the acoustics in a bar full of loud conversation didn’t help. A phrase here or there would rise out of the din – like Trump talking about how more people died under Biden during the pandemic.

One man on his third scotch shouted at a friend at the bar: “He’s lying! That’s a lie. That’s one lie. I know that as a fact.”

With no real-time fact-checking being done by the moderators – or, really, Biden himself – observers at the bar were left with impressions from the candidate’s appearance, mannerisms and tone.

For Biden, that was devastating.

Midway through the debate, Bridgemon Bolger, a political activist who has been working ground campaigns for Democrats in DeKalb county for decades, was rolling his eyes and started laughing. “This is terrible,” he said. “It’s not looking good.”

The next day, Bolger described the debate as a disaster, from “the moment Biden shuffled out, it was apparent then”.

You didn’t have to hear every word to understand what was happening, he said. “I think that it matters to swing voters. People who are undecided. Trump lied a lot, but he was coherent and articulate with his lies. If you’re not a policy wonk, you don’t know that everything he said was false. He sounded better. He looked better. And Trump did a better job appealing to those swing voters.”

Bolger is a party activist, and nothing about the debate changes his vote. But this isn’t about him, he said. “I talk to Black men who aren’t hardcore, and they’re looking at this and they’re thinking about voting for Trump or staying home. I’m very, very concerned.”

Devin Barrington-Ward, a progressive activist and city council candidate in Atlanta, said he was unimpressed with Biden’s performance, noting that his weakness allows an opening for younger voters to have their demands heard, like ending support for the war in Gaza. “If he does that, there may be a pathway to victory.”

Sam Hutcheson, an engineer in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker, said Trump is still far worse than Biden, but he’s afraid that swing voters will see what happened last night and stay home, vote for a third party candidate, or vote for Trump out of spite.

“In 2016 it was a really bad idea,” he said about Trump’s candidacy. “In 2020 it was a worse idea. But since then, he literally participated in fomenting a rebellion against the guy that beat him. If that doesn’t disqualify you and you got back into power, nothing will.”

Hutcheson said he marvels at the double standard applied to Biden. But he’s also angry that Biden appears to be the last line of defense for American democracy, and that what he watched last night is the modern substitute for substantive debate.

“I like Joe Biden as a person,” Hutcheson said. “He’s the most decent people to be in the office since probably Jimmy Carter. But he’s an 80-year-old man and he did what 80-year-old men do.”

“It’s not ageist to state the truth,” he added.

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