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Biden Campaign: If the Polls Dip After Debate, It’s the Haters’ Fault

A flurry of talking points and memos centers on the idea that critics are the problem, not the debate.

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Biden’s campaign told allies to emphasize that the president was “strong and forceful” in his post-debate campaign stop in North Carolina. Matt Kelley/AP

In messaging memos sent to key supporters this weekend, the Biden campaign laid out a stark post-debate choice for Democrats: You’re either with us, or you’re not a serious person.

NOTUS obtained talking points the Biden campaign circulated to Democratic mayors after the president’s campaign stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Friday. The takeaway is that Biden’s team is far from acknowledging the president’s Thursday night debate performance as a severe existential problem for his reelection campaign.

“President Biden was strong, and forceful this afternoon in North Carolina with a fired up crowd,” read the bulleted list of “key points” originally for mayors that eventually made their way to other elected Democrats in Washington. “As the president said: he doesn’t debate as well as he used to, but when he gets knocked down, he gets back up.”

The memo urged recipients to “uplift” social media posts from the Biden campaign that focused on former President Donald Trump’s lie-filled debate performance, which the Biden campaign argued hurt Trump with swing voters.

“The president outlined a clear vision for the future: protecting our democracy, protecting fundamental freedoms, and ensuring everyone has a fair shot,” read the talking points about the Raleigh speech. “He was clear on the threat that Donald Trump poses to working families, our democracy, and the future.”

The mayor’s memo was more confident than one obtained by NOTUS on Friday, which was distributed to Democratic officials on the Hill before the start of the Raleigh event. It offered explanations for Biden’s bad debate night, including one for the president’s raspy voice (he had a cold). Still, that memo previewed the Biden campaign’s line that a serious watcher would focus on Trump’s lies — not Biden’s stumbles. The Friday memo to officials on the Hill didn’t address calls for Biden to drop out at all.

The Biden campaign’s messaging memos to other audiences — from supporters to reporters — were more actively dismissive of anyone worried about Biden’s abilities to lead a campaign.

“Breaking news: People think Joe Biden’s old. They did coming into the debate, they do coming out of the debate,” read one campaign memo from deputy campaign manager Rob Flaherty to groups supporting Biden, posted by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. “At the same time, though, a lot of people have rose-colored glasses about the Trump years. The most important thing about the debate was always going to be that people were reminded of what they hate about Donald Trump: that he’s unhinged, out for revenge, and in it for himself.”

A “view from the battlegrounds” memo by Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, which was distributed to the Biden press list, said if public polling shifts away from Biden in the coming days it will be because of the people publicly raising alarms about Biden, not because of Biden himself.

“If we do see changes in polling in the coming weeks, it will not be the first time that overblown media narratives have driven temporary dips in the polls,” O’Malley Dillon wrote in the memo sent to reporters Saturday.

She was referring to the poll dip that followed President Barack Obama’s widely panned performance in the first debate of 2012 election cycle. Real-time dial-testing and snap polls didn’t show Obama losing the debate in the same way the media projected he would, O’Malley Dillon pointed out, and there have been some similar numbers since Biden’s Thursday night performance.

On Sunday, some prominent Democrats were already picking up the spin. Democrats’ and pundits’ poor perception of the debate is causing problems, not the debate itself. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, among the president’s most important allies, told CNN Sunday that an experienced eye could see that what went wrong Thursday was due to staffing, not the candidate. The implied message: Those who understand how debates actually work would not see any cause for concern about Biden.

“I’ve been around these things. I’ve been a part of debate preparations before, and I know when I see what I call preparation overload,” Clyburn said. “Debate preparation can be tough, but you’ve got to do a really good job of preparing the candidate not just with information but with style, with deflection, and the kinds of things we did not see with Joe Biden the other night, and saw it four years ago.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Matt Fuller, the Capitol Hill bureau chief at NOTUS, contributed to this report.