Democrats say Biden survived brutal debate — and that's enough

Democrats don’t think Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE had the best performance in the first presidential debate on Tuesday night. But they also don’t think it matters much. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE, they say, is losing the presidential race and he did nothing to reverse course in the first debate. He only made matters worse — causing Republicans to worry that his performance turned off undecided voters. 

“It wasn’t a spectacle that anybody wants to be a part of,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former surrogate for Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a ‘liar’ and a ‘clown’ at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: ‘I’ve got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready’ MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign who acknowledged things could have gone better for Biden. 

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“There were opportunities that Biden had that he missed, partially because of his own skill as a debater and the moment and because it was wrestling in the mud,” he said.

But in the end, Tasini said that given the circumstances, Biden “did pretty well.” 

Trump frequently interrupted and talked over both Biden and the debate’s moderator, Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE of Fox News, who struggled to have any control over the proceedings. 

The president sought to get in Biden’s head with insults and taunts, including shots at the drug addiction of Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son.

Biden was frequently pulled into the mud fight and threw his own punches and insults, calling the president a “clown.” 

It’s a debate that many were calling the worst and ugliest in their lifetimes. 

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Yet with time to ruminate on it, Democrats on Wednesday said they felt good about where Biden stood. 

The former vice president entered the debate with a clear lead in swing state and national polls, and Democrats felt fairly certain that would not change — or at least move in Trump’s direction — as a result of the Tuesday night brawl.

On Wednesday, a Quinnipiac University poll even showed Biden trailing Trump by one point—48 to 47 percent— in South Carolina, a traditionally ruby-red state. 

Polling after the debate showed more viewers thought Biden won the debate. A CBS News survey showed that 69 percent felt “annoyed” by the debate, while nearly one in five—19 percent — felt “pessimistic,” a reflection of the nastiness of the debate.

“At the end of the day, Biden did well enough,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “Trump has been steadily behind by 6-to-10 points for months, so the president’s challenge is to close that gap and he did not even begin to do that in the first debate.” 

One Democratic strategist said the bar for Biden was low on Tuesday night — partly because of expectations from the Trump campaign, which had cast the former vice president as struggling to put sentences together. 

While Democrats recognized the Trump expectation-setting could backfire on the GOP, they also had their own concerns. 

They feared Biden would stumble as he had done during the Democratic primary debates. They also worried about his propensity for gaffes. 

“But none of those things happened,” said one Democratic strategist. “He didn’t make any major blunders and just that alone was a victory. We didn’t have any setbacks. 

“Trump, on the other hand, he was a disaster on wheels,” the strategist said. “No Republican I know thinks he did their party any favors.” 

Indeed, Republican lawmakers on Wednesday were criticizing Trump for a debate moment in which he failed to forcibly denounce white supremacists. 

At the same time, the strategist acknowledged that Biden may have won the debate by default, failing to seize the moment and tell voters about his policies. 

“No one wants to talk about this much because Trump was just so bad, but Biden didn’t land many punches,” the strategist said. “There was no moment in that debate that left people completely wowed by Biden. It was more that they were disgusted with Trump.”

The strategist said Biden needed “a notch more of outrage” to show this election is a referendum on Trump and his policies.

Basil Smikle, a former aide to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton after debate: ‘Everyone better vote’ Hillary Clinton: ‘Black Lives Matter’ is ‘very profoundly a theological statement’ House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power MORE who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said Trump “did nothing to expand his support” while also alienating voters with his comments related to white supremacists and his attack on Biden’s children. 

But Biden also “could’ve been more aggressive not in trading barbs with Trump, but focusing more on getting his policy prescriptions across to anxious and out of work Americans,” Smikle said. 

“Yes, you want to demonstrate strength and backbone but not at the expense of the empathy and decency that have been his hallmarks,” he added. “The contrast should have been the bully versus the statesman but voters didn’t get to see that.” 

Democratic strategist Christy Setzer also acknowledged Biden “could’ve been stronger, sharper, tighter” in the first debate. 

Still, she said when Biden spoke directly to voters by looking right at the camera instead of Trump, it “probably pulled a few more voters into his camp.”

But she added, “the debate was sort of the election in microcosm. It was all about Trump and everyone had already made their minds up anyway.” 

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