Exclusive poll: 6 in 10 people who watched the debate don't think Biden can complete another term

A plurality of respondents said that Trump does not care about regular Americans, but more question Biden's fitness

Published July 1, 2024 2:49PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A survey released Monday by Democratic pollsters BSG and exclusively provided to Salon found that people who watched last week's debate thought Donald Trump did better than President Joe Biden by a more than 2-to-1 margin, with six in 10 respondents saying they don't think the incumbent is likely to finish a second four-year term in office.

While the poll found viewers of the debate evenly split between the two candidates in the event of an election, a majority of the 509 people surveyed said they found the rematch "frightening" (56%) and "depressing" (63%). Some 41% of respondents said the debate made them less likely to vote for Biden, compared to 30% for Trump, findings that come amid a heated debate within the Democratic Party over whether Biden remains the best candidate to defeat Trump in November.

"For Donald Trump, the best spin is that this is a referendum on Joe Biden's preparedness for office and record in office," BSG Managing Director Mike Kulisheck told Salon. "For the Biden campaign, they have to talk about how this is one evening after three-and-a-half years as president, it's not representative of his performance as commander-in-chief and that as evidenced by later campaign events, he is 100% up for the job and proud to run on the record he's put together."

BSG, a consulting and strategic research firm, has worked with a range of nonprofits, corporations and Democratic political leaders, including former President Barack Obama. It conducted the poll online over the 16 hours immediately following the CNN debate on Thursday, which was watched by more than 51 million people. The survey of likely voters has 4.3% margin of error.

Despite Biden's poor performance at the debate, Trump did not rise to the occasion either, in eyes of viewers, coming across as self-interested and dwelling on the past, according to the survey. Most respondents said that Trump was fighting "for himself" rather than "people like me" (+14) and was speaking to his "base" rather than to "all Americans" (+15). While those surveyed gave Biden positive ratings on both attributes (+14 for talking to "all Americans" and +4 for fighting for "people like me"), they also rated him as unlikely to finish his second term (+24) and his performance in general as far inferior to Trump's.

When compared directly to each other on policy issues and temperament, Biden was described as more respectful of the law (+20), more focused on the future rather than on past grudges (+14), having the right approach to abortion and contraception (+12) and more truthful (+12). Trump was favored as having the energy to be president (+34), being exciting (+32), knowing how to deal with immigration and the border (+16), and knowing how to get inflation and prices under control (+8). However, the Republican is also considered to be more "dangerous and unpredictable" (+14).

The Trump campaign has consistently characterized Biden's age and mental capacity as rendering him unfit to lead, or perhaps incapable of staying in office until 2029, and the Democratic nominee's bumbling response to Trump's often misleading or false claims did little to allay voter concerns. Three-quarters of respondents said that Biden performed fairly/poorly (+53), but split down the middle over Trump's performance, with a slight majority rating his performance as excellent/good (+1).

Trump's relatively confident showing led respondents to say that they were now more likely rather than less likely (+9) to vote for him than before; viewers saying they were now less likely to vote for Biden outnumbered those who said they were more likely to vote for him by 16 points. The pair are tied, however, in both a direct match up and a potential race including third-party candidates.

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The Trump campaign was quick to share a voiceover-free ad that let Biden's worst stumbles in the debate speak for themselves. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, raced to flood social media with clips of Biden more vigorously attacking Trump at a rally in North Carolina the next day and invoking the old adage that "when you get knocked out, you get back up."

For a chorus of editorial boards, political analysts, party donors and many Democratic voters, Biden needs to take a more drastic step: give up the campaign and hand the nomination to someone younger and more capable of taking the battle to Trump. A CBS/YouGov poll taken the morning after the debate showed that 49% of Democratic respondents believed that Biden should be replaced on the ticket, while only 30% said he should remain. And despite the public deference of Democratic elected officials, numerous reports have indicated a far more panicked response behind the scenes.

So far, Biden's surrogates are expressing confidence in his ability to lead the Democratic ticket. The president himself met with his family over the weekend amid what Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., described as talk "at all levels" over whether he should be replaced. Others have criticized calls for Biden to drop out as a distraction from Trump's own follies.

Though the debate is now stuck in voters' memories no matter how Biden tries to spin his performance, Kulisheck added that there is still a long way to go and many opportunities for Biden to re-build confidence until election day.

"This is not the last time voters will hear from Joe Biden," Kulisheck noted. "They will hear him on the campaign trail, they will hear him at the Democratic National Convention, they will hear him at the second presidential debate, and all of those appearances are going to be weighed against the 90 minutes of last Thursday's debate," he said. The question stalking the air is whether Biden will be up to the challenge or not.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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