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Experts think Biden's poor debate could hurt down ballot Democrat races

Stick man figures holding red and blue paper ballots on opposite sides of a ballot box
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Red and blue figures are holding ballots on opposite sides of a ballot box -- literally and figuratively

After President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance last week, state political experts and operatives of all party affiliation are more skeptical of his already slim chances of winning Florida in his reelection bid. Some are concerned that a lackluster showing in November from Biden could spell down ballot disaster for Florida Democrats.

Republicans in Florida have been doing a victory lap this week after Biden’s widely panned performance. Governor Ron DeSantis took shots at the president during a press conference.

“You compare him to 2019 to that debate, it's been a really significant decline, and the idea that that decline is going to stop, that somehow you can make it to age 86 given the trajectory is a joke, and everybody knows that's a joke,” he said.

The debate performance has even stunned Democrats, like political consultant Kevin Cate.

“The debate performance was awful. Everyone, including the President, has acknowledged that, and I think that that has ramifications nationwide, and that includes Florida,” he said.

Leaked internal polling has the president losing seven of the swing states that were key to his victory in 2022 by even larger margins after the debate.

While it was unlikely the president would win Florida even before the debate, Florida Democrats have been hoping to use a strong top-of-the-ticket draw to turn the tides in several local races across the state. UCF Political Science professor Aubrey Jewitt said keeping turnout high is key for Florida Democrats.

“If Democratic turnout rises to very solid levels, they ought to be able to pick up maybe one Senate seat in the Tallahassee area. Maybe six or eight House seats in the Florida Legislature, because there were 13 seats that Democrats lost in the Florida House that were won by Biden. And the reason they lost is because turnout was so dreadful in 2022,” he said.

But to Evan Power, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, Biden’s candidacy means Democrats won’t get that enthusiasm from their base.

“I see Joe Biden being a lot like Charlie Crist in his way to turn the way he turns out voters, whether it's black, the Black voting population, or whether general, hardcore Democrat voters are not going to be inspired by a guy who's not capable of leading the nation any longer,” he said.

If Biden does stay in the race, then young people in Florida may stay home, said political analyst and USF Professor Emerita Susan McManus. She believes the question many Floridians are considering is not Trump or Biden, but whether to even show up to vote at all.

“Okay, if I vote, who am I going to vote for? But really, am I going to vote at all? That's the big question. And there are a lot of people in Florida that are in that category, because 34% of our voters registered right now are millennials and Gen Zers. And you know, they're showing not much attention to this race already, either,” she said.

Florida Democrats are hoping ballot initiative for abortion rights and recreational marijuana will also help with turnout. But Barry University Political Science Professor Sean Foreman isn’t convinced it will help Biden. He anticipates many Floridians who show up to vote on the ballot initiatives either plan on voting for Trump, a third-party candidate, or no one on the presidential ticket at all.

“I don't think they can count on the amendments carrying Biden to the top. They just have to hope that they get good turnout in the right pockets of the State to win local races,” Foreman

Democrats across the country are having conversations about whether Biden should even stay on the ticket. With the current state of the race, Cate thinks Democrats’ messaging going forward should not be centered on Biden and more on attacking Trump.

“The real message the Democrats need to be spreading right now is, get registered. Get ready. Democracy is on the line, and whether it's President Biden or somebody else's name at the top of the ticket, we have to do everything in our power to keep a felon, potential dictator from the White House,” he said.

Recent polling has Biden trailing Trump by 10 points in Florida.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.