Biden rode the perception of electability to victory in 2020. But now it may be his undoing.

Joe Biden’s superpower inside the Democratic Party has been the belief he can beat Donald Trump — a belief that helped him prevail in the crowded 2020 primary campaign. But electability is quickly becoming his potential kryptonite as members of his party worry he’s poised to lose re-election and bring down everyone else with him.

“Live by the electability, die by the electability,” said Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at Denver University and author of a book about recent Democratic presidential primaries. 

Several Democrats held their fire after Biden’s disastrous debate performance, waiting to see how the criticism would play out in the polls. As the numbers have trickled in, the picture is complicated — meaning it neither quieted nor supercharged the calls for him to set aside.

On Wednesday, that was on display as a handful of Democrats joined the numbers saying he should step aside while one of the most senior leaders in the party, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, refused to stake out a strong position either way.

Electability has always been a hazy concept, as much about feelings as evidence and the imagined behavior of hypothetical swing voters. But Democrats chose Biden as their nominee four years ago because they thought he was the most electable. Now, the party is threatening to ditch Biden — the only person who has actually beaten Trump — because it is convinced he can’t win again and may take the rest of the party down with him.

“He’s only there because Democrats believed he was the most electable. And they were willing to push aside a lot of other candidates because they believed he was the only one who could do this,” Masket said. “But that may be a fragile thing to pin your presidency on.”

Nearly two weeks after a disastrous debate performance, Biden’s perceived electability has taken a nosedive as some Democrats running in battleground races called on him to step aside Wednesday.

“Trump is an existential threat to American democracy; it is our duty to put forward the strongest candidate against him,” Rep. Pat Ryan, D-N.Y., who won an upstate New York swing district in a high-profile special election, said on X. “Joe Biden is a patriot but is no longer the best candidate to defeat Trump. For the good of our country, I am asking Joe Biden to step aside.”

Ryan was the only swing-state Democrat in New York to survive the election in 2022, when several of his colleagues lost, so his political instincts carry weight with Washington Democrats.

Another battleground lawmaker, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., issued her own statement calling on Biden to step aside and telling reporters that while the party is divided about him, it is “unanimous in our desire to beat Trump.”

George Clooney, the A-list movie star and lifelong Democrat who hosted a fundraiser for Biden just a few weeks ago, wrote in a New York Times op-ed Wednesday that Democrats “are not going to win in November with this president” and can’t win the House or the Senate with him, either. 

“This isn’t only my opinion; this is the opinion of every senator and Congress member and governor that I’ve spoken with in private. Every single one, irrespective of what he or she is saying publicly,” Clooney wrote. “Joe Biden is a hero; he saved democracy in 2020. We need him to do it again in 2024.”

More than questions about his ability to do the job of the presidency or whether he misled voters about his conditions, those looking to replace Biden say the electability argument is the one that resonates with voters and party officials alike.

Actual evidence about Biden’s political health remains muddled. But Trump was ahead in the polls for months before the debate, and things deteriorated after.

Though modest and within their margins of error, polls have found some movement in Trump’s direction. Biden’s fundraising has weakened. And the Cook Political Report, the well-respected electoral handicappers whose analysis is treated as gospel in Washington, shifted six states toward Trump in its forecast.

It moved Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — all swing states Biden won in 2020 — from “toss up” to “lean Republican,” while it shifted bluer swing states Minnesota and New Hampshire from “likely Democrat” to “lean Democrat.”

Momentum seemed to be shifting back toward Biden this week as it became clear most House and Senate Democrats are still with him. 

But growing concerns about his electability prompted new defections, including the first from the Senate. 

“Donald Trump is on track, I think, to win this election and maybe win it by a landslide and take with him the Senate and the House,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said late Tuesday on CNN. “So for me, this isn’t a question about polling, it’s not a question of politics. It’s a moral question about the future of our country, and I think it’s critically important for us to come to grips with what we face if, together, we put this country on the path of electing Donald Trump again.”

Democrats are particularly eager to hear from senators up for re-election this year whose races are likely to determine control of the Senate. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have privately expressed doubts about Biden’s ability to beat Trump but have remained silent publicly. 

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, up for re-election in the critical battleground state of Wisconsin, wouldn’t tell reporters much, but she said Wednesday that conversations behind closed doors have been “focused on defeating Trump.”

Pelosi shocked Washington on Wednesday morning when she declined, repeatedly, to say Biden should run for re-election.

Numerous Democrats have expressed concerns about Biden’s impact on their races down the ballot. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a prominent New York Democrat, said on X that “there must be a serious reckoning with the down-ballot effect of whomever we nominate.”

Republicans, meanwhile, already plan to run ads featuring congressional Democrats praising Biden’s mental acuity.

Democrats are terrified by the prospect of another Trump term, and even Biden’s former White House communications director said he needs to a better job convincing the party he can do it.

“If they have data that supports the path to victory that they see, they should put it out there now and help people who badly want to beat Trump rally around it,” Kate Bedingfield wrote on X.

Senate Democrats will hear from Biden’s inner circle Thursday when campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon and senior advisers Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti speak to them at their weekly launch.

Meanwhile, several more House members came forward — though the public defectors remain a small minority of the caucus.

“[S]ince the debate, I have met with fellow Biden voters in Massachusetts who have real concerns about the President’s ability to beat Donald Trump. I share those concerns,” Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., a low-level member of House Democratic leadership, said in a statement Wednesday. “While President Biden has made clear he feels he is the best candidate to win this election, nothing that has happened over the past twelve days suggests that voters see things the same way.”

Lauren Harper, a co-founder of Welcome PAC, which supports moderate Democrats running in conservative-leaning swing districts, said its polling shows electability remains the overwhelming concern for Democrats when they think about whom they want as their nominee, including potential replacements for Biden.

“They want someone who can win,” she said. “And many don’t think that Biden can do it.”

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