Biden campaign tells donors president can recover from subpar debate performance

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign sought to reassure his top fundraisers on Thursday that his weak debate performance wouldn’t derail his candidacy and that he can recover, according to a recording of a conference call made by a participant and obtained by NBC News.

On the conference call, senior Biden campaign officials conceded that Biden blew an opportunity to improve his chances, but that voters watching the debate also came away with deep misgivings about former President Donald Trump.

“I will start with what we all know, but we are seeing it in our own polls, as well: The president had a bad performance in Thursday’s debate,” Biden pollster Molly Murphy said on the call. “He has been upfront about that, and that is coming through in our polls. We’re looking at that. We are not ignoring that and we want to understand what that means for voters.”

Joe Biden. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file)Joe Biden. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file)

Joe Biden. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images file)

The call was aimed at tamping down the anxieties that have gripped Democrats since a raspy-voiced Biden took the debate stage and repeatedly failed to complete or coherently express his thoughts.

The officials read aloud tough questions posed by the donors, who asked about the quality of Biden’s debate preparation and his capacity to serve another term.

Biden’s campaign chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, mentioned the physicals he’s received in office. Biden’s doctor summarized his health in a six-page report in February that proclaimed him “fit for duty” despite a series of chronic ailments that included sleep apnea and a stiffened gait.

Biden did not receive a cognitive test, his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said at the time, adding that none was necessary.

During the call, O’Malley Dillon said that Biden is “probably in better health than most of us.”

“He’s also 81,” O’Malley Dillon said, “and he knows that he has to prove that he can do this job from a stamina standpoint, but also from substance.”

One donor told NBC News they were not convinced by the campaign’s reassurances, and that if Biden stays in the race, they will redirect their money to outside get-out-the-vote groups.

“I  won’t sit on the sidelines, but it’s hard and getting a lot harder to donate directly to the campaign given their judgement,” the donor said.

The donor added that they were galled by the campaign’s attempts to blame bad post-debate polling on an overblown media narrative, calling the effort “pretty Trumpian.”

Coming off the debate, many Democratic officials and strategists are privately mulling whether Biden should remain on the ticket or step aside in favor of a younger candidate who might stand a better chance of defeating Trump. Thus far, Biden has shown no sign he’ll drop his candidacy.

One Democratic member of Congress told NBC News that “there’s only one person who’s going to impact that decision: Jill Biden,” the first lady.

As for the campaign staff, “they’re all insular and they don’t care what anybody thinks,” the lawmaker said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.

A message that the campaign team sought to impress upon the fundraisers is that Trump’s debate performance was hardly a triumph. Through the 90-minute debate, the campaign tested the reactions of a group of swing voters from the Midwest to gauge what they thought about the answers. The so-called “dial tests” revealed that this slice of the electorate did “not like hearing from” Trump and found Biden to be the more likable of the two, Murphy said.

“They do not like what he stands for,” she said of Trump. “They do not like being reminded of the way he governed when he was president.”

Trump, she continued, “had a bad debate on substance.”

A memo for the campaign from another of its pollsters, Geoff Garin, said that a survey of registered voters in seven battleground states showed that “a large majority” of those who voted for Biden in 2020 and disliked his debate performance were still planning to vote for him.

The officials said that Biden will take part in a second debate, planned for September. Asked what might change in Biden’s pre-debate preparation, they didn’t answer the question directly.

O’Malley Dillon noted that it’s not unusual for sitting presidents to falter in their first general election debate. She made reference to former President Barack Obama’s troubles in his first debate with Republican opponent Mitt Romney in 2012.

She said on the call that “every incumbent president that I can remember in my lifetime has had a s—– first debate.”

“Obviously, the stakes are higher for us because we are up against Donald Trump,” she continued. “Obviously, we have more work to do because the president is 81, but it was also a terrible debate in 2012. I was there. I remember it clearly.”

Obama recovered and went on to win re-election.

Biden’s path could be the same, the officials argued.

“We are in June,” O’Malley Dillon said. “We know that we have time to continue to reach people very clearly and we are going to put every single element that we have into driving this. We also know that Donald Trump is not going to have anything in comparison to what is being built by this campaign in the states. He is not out there traveling. He is not out there engaging with volunteers. He is not talking about the issues people care about.”

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