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After shaky presidential debate performance, what comes next for concerned Democrats?


President Biden's shaky debate performance during the first presidential debate has led to a remarkable wave of panic among rank-and-file Democrats and people worried about the prospect of a second Trump administration. Public calls for Biden to step aside have flooded airwaves and websites, but notably are not being shared in public by elected Democrats. On this morning's Sunday shows, high-profile Democrat after high-profile Democrat defended the president.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Do you think President Biden should drop out of this race, Senator?

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Oh, absolutely not.


WES MOORE: Joe Biden is not going to take himself out of this race, nor should he.


CHRIS COONS: The only Democrat who's ever beaten Donald Trump is Joe Biden.


COONS: He is our candidate for November, and he has the best shot to beat him.

DETROW: That was Senator Raphael Warnock on NBC's "Meet The Press," Governor Wes Moore on CBS's "Face The Nation" and Senator Chris Coons on ABC's "This Week."

So what happens next? There's no one better to ask than Domenico Montanaro, NPR's senior political editor and correspondent. Hey, Domenico.


DETROW: So what are Democrats saying now, days after this performance? And is there any chance he drops out or is replaced?

MONTANARO: You know, going into the debate, I would have said that there was a 0% chance that Biden would be replaced. Now, I'd say, well, there isn't a zero - a nonzero - it's, like, a non-0% chance, right? It's very highly unlikely still.

But the debate was that bad, that concerning, that even though you hear lots of Democratic leaders, as you played there, publicly still backing Biden, behind the scenes, it's a very different conversation that's going on. There are basically people in three categories. They're either flatly supportive, they think that he should bow out or they're waiting on polls in the next few weeks to see if it changes anything. And we know not much has changed in this race.

DETROW: So since you're saying there's a chance - to use the phrase - just, let's walk through how he could even be replaced. Like, how would that work if that did happen?

MONTANARO: Well, the Democratic National Convention isn't until August. If he dropped out now or before the convention - which, again, not likely at all - there would be a contested convention with one person needing to get a majority of the delegates, all those backroom sort of conversations that would have to go on like we saw in the old days. If Biden waits until after the convention, the party and Biden can have a little bit more control over who would - who the person would be. They'd avoid a degree of chaos at the convention.

But that's still two months from now, and every day that goes by could hurt a potential nominee. I mean, the real problem when I talk to Democratic strategists is who would that person be?


MONTANARO: Vice President Kamala Harris is the obvious person, but she doesn't poll well either. And not making the first Black vice president the nominee, not by her choice, would likely split key Democratic constituencies. So this is not easy at all.

DETROW: So what will this all come down to?

MONTANARO: Well, this really comes down to the president himself and his family specifically. When you think about his family, his wife, Jill, and his sister, Valerie, who has been a close adviser. She ran his Senate campaigns and his 2008 presidential campaign. You know, the family is actually huddling today at Camp David at a get-together that was on the schedule, as the White House points out, before the debate for a family photo, a family get-together. But this is sure to be a topic of conversation there.

DETROW: Well, let's think about this this way. Arguably, why wouldn't he drop out? Every public metric we have shows that he is trailing. He has expressed his concern about what Donald Trump's return to the White House would mean, and this catastrophic debate was all about something that was already his biggest vulnerability, which is age.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, I would say that this race is pretty close to tied, but although maybe a tip of the scale to Trump at this point. But every politician has an ego. You know, you could say that overcoming obstacles has really been at the heart of the Biden brand. Biden has always reflexively disliked the naysayers.


MONTANARO: But the real obstacles he's faced in his life are very different than this one. Each day that passes, we all get older. Father Time is undefeated, you know, and Biden's team hopes that - and they might be right - that half the country or more does not want Trump to be president. So people aren't exactly suddenly just going to switch teams from Biden to Trump. But that debate really showed why people have been saying for so long they're unhappy with their choices and for very different reasons.

DETROW: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro, who I'm also going to say is a key part of the NPR softball team that today won the D.C. media league championship for the very first time. So, Domenico, thank you and congratulations.

MONTANARO: I'm so proud of everyone. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.