UVA Experts: Biden’s Debate Performance Puts Party in a Hard Place

June 28, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

President Joe Biden’s shaky performance in Thursday night’s presidential debate may inspire Democrats to consider replacing him on the November ballot, two University of Virginia political experts agree.

Professors Mary Kate Cary, a Republican, and Jennifer Lawless, a Democrat, agree that Biden lost the debate despite a series of fabrications and misrepresentations made by Trump.

“Everyone knows that Donald Trump takes liberties with what he says and sometimes just explicitly recasts what he said as the opposite. That’s not a surprise to people,” Lawless said. “What was a surprise, I think, was the way that Joe Biden looked and the way that he didn’t seem to follow what was going on.” 

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Lawless and Cary talked Monday in a session recorded by UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy for its bipartisan pre- and post-debate commentary series.

Lawless continued: “Joe Biden was unable to articulate his views last night and gave the American people pause as to whether he’s fit to be president of the United States. That’s a very, very different set of concerns than concerns about what Donald Trump will do if he were elected president again.”

“Trump was Trump; that was not a surprise,” Cary said. “I don’t think he hit it out of the ballpark like he could have, but the Biden performance was absolutely devastating. The difference between the two of them stylistically was just jaw-dropping. Despite the fact that they’re only three years apart, it seemed a far bigger gap in their age. I really don’t see how Biden recovers from this.”

Jennifer Lawless Portrait

Jennifer Lawless, a UVA professor of politics and a Democrat, says Biden and the party need to consider whether the president should step away from the election and choose another candidate. (UVA Department of Politics)

Cary said Biden’s performance could have won Trump some voters.

“He could have picked up a few independent voters last night who said, ‘As bad as Trump is, we can’t have Biden,’” she said.

Cary and Lawless together are teaching a fall course, Election 2024, that will examine U.S. presidential and congressional campaigns through the lens of the 2024 election cycle. The course will include guest speakers and experts from across the American political spectrum.

Cary, who served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, is the director of Think Again @ UVA, a Karsh Institute project that promotes critical thinking, freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. Lawless is the Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics and professor of public policy and chair of the Department of Politics.

Both Lawless and Cary agree that the debate was a clear loss for Biden. The question, they said, is what Democrats will do about it.

Mary Kate Cary leaned on a brick wall outside on a chilly day

Mary Kate Cary, director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Think Again @ UVA project, said Biden’s debate performance may have convinced some voters to go for Trump. (UVA Department of Politics)

“Democrats have to figure out a way to defeat Donald Trump, who they believe is an existential threat to everything they believe in,” Lawless said. “The stakes have never been higher from the perspective of Democrats. If that’s the case, that doesn’t necessarily mean just abandoning Joe Biden, but it does mean figuring out the best way to move forward.”

Should Biden not be the Democratic candidate, that could change dynamics for the Republicans, Cary and Lawless agreed.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that each of these guys needs the other. Each of them thinks they’re the only one who can beat the other,” Cary said. “If, let’s say, the Democratic nomination goes to Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom or Pete Buttigieg or somebody like that, then I think it throws Trump’s strengths out the window, versus Biden. I think both parties could be upended, if Biden steps aside.”

Lawless said she believes the decision to drop out of the race must be made by Biden, not party officials.

“If Joe Biden is not going to run for a second term, it has to be his decision. And I think he should be accorded the respect and dignity to step down from the office,” Lawless said. “It comes down to the fact that he has the opportunity, at this point, to think about what happened, to think about the future and to determine what being an elder statesman means. 

“And if he doesn’t make the right decision, I think his legacy might not be the legacy he was hoping it would be.” 

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications