What Democratic Delegates Are Really Thinking

Almost a week has passed since Joe Biden’s feeble debate performance. The president’s defenders are sticking with a rehearsed one-two punch: “It was a rough start,” they say, but “let’s focus on substance.” In the opposite corner, Biden’s critics are calling on him to bow out while he can still muster a coherent resignation speech.

But what of the delegates, numbering nearly 4,000—the actual humans set to nominate the man at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago next month? This week, I reached out to a small sample of them. The consensus I found is that they believe Biden is a good guy who had a bad night. In that, they echoed the president’s defenders. But most were willing to go a little further: They don’t necessarily think Biden should step aside, but some were willing to entertain the idea that he might.

“To get that strongest candidate, if it means he has to step aside, I hope that happens,” the Michigan delegate Chris Cracchiolo, the chair of the Grand Traverse Democrats, told me, before quickly adding, “I don’t really want it to happen.”

“I would trust Biden’s inner circle and Biden’s judgment as to whether or not he should keep going,” LaShawn Ford, an Illinois state representative and a national delegate, told me. “He will do what’s best for the nation. If that means he’s going to step down and allow his VP to step up, then we shall see.”

A quick primer on convention mechanics. Delegates tend to be older longtime party activists, and their number includes many current and former elected leaders. Given those ties, delegates are generally more inclined to toe the establishment line—and that’s likely to hold even in the kerfuffle now developing.

Democratic delegates are sorted into two categories, pledged and unpledged. Pledged delegates must vote for a specific candidate mandated by their state’s primary results—and Biden has dibs on most of those. The unpledged class of delegates, also known as superdelegates, include members of the party’s top brass. According to a 2018 rule change, these delegates don’t actually vote unless there is a contested convention. Of course, if the president drops out, then what these delegates think could become much more relevant.

Most of the delegates I interviewed tried to explain away Biden’s 90-minute stumble session. “I’m listening to him now in North Carolina, and he’s his usual vibrant self,” Carolyn Bourland, a delegate from Michigan, told me. The debate “was just an off night,” she said. “He knew that millions of people would be watching, and, supposedly, he had a cold.” Biden certainly sounded perkier at the rally she was watching in the Tar Heel State, but the two situations were not really comparable. The president was using a teleprompter at the campaign event, which took place in the early afternoon, rather than late in the evening.

Many of these delegates reminded me that Donald Trump had a rough night too. The former president lied relentlessly, dodged the moderators’ questions, and was evasive about whether he’d accept the results of November’s election. “On substance, the contrast couldn’t be clearer,” Joshua Polacheck, an Arizona delegate, told me. “If you take what was said by Trump and show that to Democrats, independents, and McCain Republicans in my state, that will do nothing but build support for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

The problem for Democrats is that Americans have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to Trump’s lies and buffoonery; some even find the show entertaining. But many of them were unprepared for Biden’s limp display. (“I just … lacked the imagination for this,” one political commentator texted me during the debate.) Compared with the incumbent president, Trump seemed, well, alive. And even if looking alive sets a very low bar, it’s probably the bare-minimum requirement for someone vying to hold the nation’s highest office.

So the big question: Should Biden step down and allow another Democrat to take his place? None of the pledged delegates I spoke with were shouting “Yes!” from the rooftops. But their “No”s came with varying degrees of certainty.

Polacheck was offended by the suggestion that Biden might not belong in the race. “The clear majority of Americans believe that Trump should not be running,” he said. “I reject the framework of the question.” Biden is the candidate, State Representative Christine Sinicki, a delegate from Wisconsin, said. “He had one bad night. That’s not a reason to turn our backs on him.”

Despite their loyalty to Biden, most of the delegates I interviewed were willing to name potential alternatives, such as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Few mentioned Vice President Kamala Harris, even though she’s technically next in line for the presidency. It was hard not to hear an enthusiasm gap when I asked about her. “She would be all right,” Cracchiolo said. “The sister in me would be excited for the sister in her,” Missouri State Representative Raychel Proudie, who is Black, told me. “But the real question is, can she beat Donald Trump?”

Biden’s family is reportedly dead set against his withdrawal from the race. Combine that with the complex logistical problems of tapping a new candidate and redirecting an entire multimillion-dollar campaign, and you’re looking at a very unlikely scenario. Right now, senior Democrats are in cleanup mode. Biden, however—other than delivering remarks on the Supreme Court’s presidential-immunity ruling—has so far defaulted to his carefully paced campaign schedule. He has not made calls to Democratic congressional leaders to canvass their views, nor has he reached out to state governors, who are arguably his most important surrogates on the campaign trail ahead of 2024.

Proudie was the only delegate I spoke with who isn’t bound to vote for Biden and is instead pledged “uncommitted,” which means that she can vote for anyone in August. She’s frustrated, she told me, because if Biden isn’t going to step down, she’d at least like a strong message from the party about how to move forward, and what to tell voters who were disappointed by Biden’s debate performance.

“How do we overcome this,” Proudie asked, without pretending “we all didn’t see with our own eyes what happened last week?” She paused before adding a pointed question: “When was the last time you voted for someone who thought you were stupid?”

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