Biden says pressure on him is driven by elites. Voters paint a more complicated picture

President Joe Biden says the pressure on him to end his reelection campaign is coming from Democratic Party “elites,” the same kind of people who have doubted him throughout his long journey in public life

ByJOEY CAPPELLETTI Associated Press, ISABELLA VOLMERT Associated Press, MARC LEVY Associated Press, and JONATHAN J. COOPER Associated Press
July 11, 2024, 12:12 AM

SAGINAW, Mich. -- Considering her choices in this year’s rapidly approaching presidential election, Rochelle Jones thinks both major party candidates should step aside.

“They just need to get somebody that’s going to run this country right, that don’t have any health issues, that care about us people,” the 39-year-old culinary worker at Michigan State University said this week.

As President Joe Biden struggles to recover from a disastrous debate performance last month, he has argued that desires for him to leave the campaign are limited to his party’s “ elite.” But Jones’ sentiment reflects a more nuanced reality unfolding in some of the most politically competitive states, from here in Michigan to Pennsylvania and Nevada.

In interviews this week, many voters said they still support Biden. But they also expressed concern that a lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy could cause a lot of Democratic voters to stay home, handing the race to Republican Donald Trump. Some are concerned as well about the impact Biden’s continued candidacy would have on down-ballot races at a time when control of the U.S. House and Senate are also up for grabs.

Although Biden has gotten some of his strongest support in recent days from Black elected officials, many Black swing state voters said they were worried. Jones, who is Black, said she will probably vote for Biden when it comes down to it but feels he needs to address inflation, a top-of-mind issue for her.

The one unifying factor for most Democrats — elites and regulars alike — is the threat of a second Trump term. Biden has long argued that voters will reject Trump when faced with a one-on-one race, whatever their reservations about the incumbent.

Anxiety among rank-and-file voters comes as Biden fends off public and private pressure for him to relinquish the Democratic nomination and allow the party to field a different candidate to take on Trump in November. House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday said merely “it’s up to the president to decide” if he should stay in the race, Vermont Sen. Peter Welch called on Biden to withdraw from the election, becoming the first Senate Democrat to do so, and celebrity donor George Clooney also said Biden should not run.

“What I hear more so from people of color is, ‘if not him, what’s the alternative?’” said Craig Tatum, a pastor and prominent Black leader in Saginaw, Michigan. He said many people he speaks with found Biden’s performance troubling but remain committed to voting Democratic after seeing Trump’s presidency and character.

A demographic microcosm of Michigan at large, Saginaw County is the only Michigan bellwether to side with the winner in the last four presidential elections. The county’s namesake city, population 44,000, is about half Black, while surrounding areas are predominantly Republican.

Trump had a slight lead over Biden in two national polls of voters conducted after the debate. One of the polls — conducted by SSRS for CNN — found that three-quarters of voters, including more than half of Democratic voters, said the party has a better chance of winning the presidency in November with a candidate other than Biden. Around 7 in 10 voters — and 45% of Democrats — said that.

Biden’s physical and mental ability is a reason to vote against him, according to the CNN/SSRS poll. And around 6 in 10 voters, including about one-quarter of Democrats, said that reelecting Biden as president this November would be a risky choice for the country rather than a safe one, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll. That poll also found that Democrats were split on whether Biden should remain the nominee.

Ethan Williams, who teaches at a summer education program in Saginaw, will turn 18 before the November election. He said he and his friends who watched the debate were shocked by what they saw.

“We were not excited to say the least,” he said.

Williams said he found the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on presidential immunity, Trump’s felony convictions and the manifesto for a second Trump term known as Project 2025 to be particularly alarming. He plans to vote for Biden despite his age but may focus more on local and state races.

“In terms of best chance of beating Trump, it would have to be Biden,” he said. “But I don’t like that fact.”

Pamela Pugh, a lifelong Saginaw resident running in the Democratic primary for a battleground congressional district in Michigan, demurred when asked whether Biden should be the Democratic nominee. She said down-ballot candidates like her will need to rely on themselves for voter turnout and to attract voters “who don’t believe that those at the top of the ticket represent them.”

Pugh called Biden’s debate performance “beyond subpar,” and emphasized that he has “work to do in our communities” to earn another four years in office.

Members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus and other Black activists in the Democratic Party have emerged as some of the most forceful backers of Biden remaining the party’s choice and staying on the ticket. In 2020’s Democratic primary, Black voters elevated Biden to victories in early primary states with overwhelming support in South Carolina, on Super Tuesday and in Midwestern states like Michigan.

As long as Black people and young people vote in strong numbers, Biden will win, said Brian Humphrey, a 62-year-old activist in Pennsylvania, who is Black. But he frets about younger voters — such as his granddaughters, one 18 and one 19 — who lack enthusiasm for a man four times their age.

“I’m a little worried right now, to be honest,” Humphrey said. “ You know, because of his age and things and my young grandkids telling me ‘he’s too old’ and ‘I’m not voting for that old man’, you know, trying to convince them that he’s the better of the two candidates."

For Alyse Sobosan, a school counselor in Las Vegas, the turmoil over Biden's debate performance is a distraction Democrats don't need right now.

“It’s taking away from the campaign and the real issues,” she said. “That’s all anyone can talk about, so it makes sense to me if he steps down.”

Despite the ambivalence and anxiety among so many Democrats, Biden retains support ranging from enthusiastic to resigned.

James Johnson, a retired public school teacher in Pennsylvania, said Biden’s performance was “difficult to watch” but “did not in any way deter my determination to vote for him and see him elected as the next president.”

Teresa Hoover, a Democrat who went to hear Biden speak Sunday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, agreed.

“He was the chosen candidate and I think at this point we’re just months away, it’s kind of hard to switch gears," Hoover said.

For all the consternation, the debate did not change the fundamental reality that the candidates are both unpopular and Americans are unenthusiastic about their choices.

“I couldn’t bring myself to watch the debate because I’m struggling with both candidates,” said Christian Garrett, a 26-year-old manager of a summer education program in Saginaw.

Garrett said he is unsure of how he is going to vote, believing Trump is vindictive and Biden is incompetent to continue leading.

“So that’s why I feel that this case has become a joke, because we as Americans have sat by and watched this just unfold," he said. “And it’s almost as if we don’t have the power when really the power lies in us.”

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Cooper reported from Phoenix and Levy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Associated Press writer Rio Yamat in Las Vegas contributed to this report.