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‘It’s Frightening’: Democratic Voters Worried by Biden’s Struggles in Debate

US‘It’s Frightening’: Democratic Voters Worried by Biden’s Struggles in Debate

They started the night hoping that President Biden would use the first debate of 2024 to his advantage, that he would finally quash fears about his age and give the impression of a determined statesman compared with former President Donald J. Trump.

But for the roughly 40 Democrats who gathered Thursday night at a union hall in Sacramento, it did not take long for the mood to descend into something between grim despair and mild panic. Within minutes, even ardent supporters in the capital of California fell silent, exchanging glances and acknowledging quietly that Mr. Biden, his virtues aside, seemed less forceful than Mr. Trump, and weary. Toward the end, some of the younger attendees left before the debate was over.

“Neither of them inspires confidence,” said Dubrea Sanders, 25. “It’s going to be a very scary November for a lot of people, including myself.”

The crowd, mostly state workers, policy analysts, labor activists and members of a local Young Democrats organization, cheered from white folding chairs when the president took the stage and heckled Mr. Trump’s false claims, roaring with laughter as Mr. Trump mispronounced “China” and talked about “immaculate water.”

But the frailty in Mr. Biden’s voice gave them pause.

“Have you seen Twitter?” winced Nancy Van Leuven, 72, a retired media and communications professor, pointing to early criticism of Mr. Biden’s performance. “The thing is, Biden looks older. And Trump is still resolute; even if he’s not telling the truth, it still looks believable.”

Danielle Newton, 55, said she felt Mr. Trump was evasive and played to his base while Mr. Biden tried to answer the questions directly.

“But it’s terrifying, obviously,” Ms. Newton said. “I’m not excited about Biden being in his mid-80s. We could do better across the board, Republican or Democrat. That these two are our options? It’s frightening.”

Still, she and others in the audience said they were more opposed than ever to a second Trump term. Perhaps, they said, Democrats could put their faith in voter turnout and find more inspiration in down-ballot races.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Ethan Lares-Salinas, 26, a legislative assistant. “But I was optimistic in 2016.”

The highly anticipated first presidential debate on Thursday night left many Americans stunned, disappointed and even less happy than before about their choices this election.

It deflated Democrats loyal enough to attend a debate watch party with like-minded voters, as they watched fears over the age of their candidate terrifyingly come to pass on live television. And it gave no comfort to voters in swing states who were already flummoxed over how their country had arrived at such a political crossroads.

Kristen Morris, 60, a nursing student in a suburb outside Charlotte, N.C., who is deeply unsettled by both presidential options, said halfway through the debate that “the hyperbole on both sides is just really, really hard to stomach.” By the end of it, she said the intensity of her concerns had only increased.

Ms. Morris, an independent voter, supported Mr. Biden in 2020 but now feels troubled by his cognitive abilities and by his stream of verbal stumbles on Thursday night. Still, she said, she also felt extremely concerned as she listened to Mr. Trump continue to express no remorse over the Jan. 6 riot.

“This is just a reinforcement that these are not the candidates that we should be having for president of the United States,” she said. “We should expect stronger candidates.”

She was also dismayed to see the candidates devolve into a trivial squabble over their golf game, and disappointed that they did not express any common ground on some issues, such as helping veterans.

“I honestly believe that Biden tried to be more substantive,” Ms. Morris said. “But Trump really had much stronger form.”

In the end, the debate left her just as stuck. Choosing a third candidate would feel like throwing her vote away, Ms. Morris said. So she was left with one option for now: “I’m going to do some more pondering. Let’s put it that way.”

In Houston, the mood at Christian’s Tailgate, a bar where more than 100 mostly young Republicans gathered for their own watch party, was festive and confident from the start. Scores of people jeered at each of Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and cheered each time Mr. Trump brought up immigration.

“President Biden is not helping himself,” said John Branch, 46, who said he moved to Houston from Florida and began identifying as a Republican only in 2018.

A neon longhorn silhouette glowed in the burnt orange of the University of Texas over televisions playing the debate, sandwiched between others that variously featured old Houston Rockets highlights and clips of Ultimate Fighting Championship matches.

Many sat with bingo cards with squares for “MAGA” and “folks.” One was labeled, in smaller type: “Joe Biden loses train of thought.”

During the debate, when Mr. Biden mixed up trillionaires and millionaires, the room exploded in laughter.

“Our country is in so much trouble,” said Bob Hall, 83, who retired from the military and wore a “Take America Back” hat. “Biden still doesn’t know where he’s at,” he said. “He couldn’t collect his thoughts or make intelligent arguments.”

Mr. Hall contrasted Mr. Biden with Mr. Trump, who he said “is always quick on his feet.”

Elisa Sharp, 59, interjected to offer her assessment of the final result. “Biden is a dying candidate. Trump won this debate,” she said. “They’re probably going to do somebody else,” she added of the Democrats. “If they wanted to really save their ticket they would have done it already.”

In central Pennsylvania, Bob and Sharon Reed, 77, both retired schoolteachers and now farmers, watched the debate together on the sofa. They are Republicans, but they, too, are deeply disappointed about their choices in the general election this year.

Mr. Reed began the night leaning “a hair” toward supporting Mr. Trump; Ms. Reed was at a complete loss as to whom she would vote for. They ended the night feeling the same way, only more so.

“Biden looked kind of dejected,” Mr. Reed said. “Trump was more presidential. Though he didn’t answer the questions.”

Ms. Reed agreed about Mr. Biden’s performance. But her focus was on Mr. Trump. “He honestly did not answer questions that to me were critical,” she said. She mentioned in particular his avoidance of a clear answer when asked whether he would honor the results of the election. And she did not like his answer about Jan. 6, in which Mr. Trump blamed the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I’m still at the point where I don’t want to vote for either one of them,” she said. The essence of her view: “I don’t like what I do know about Biden, but I’m scared about what I don’t know about Trump.”

“What a poor choice of people to be the only two people we can pick from,” Mr. Reed said.

“I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Is this the best we’ve got’?” Ms. Reed said.

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