Biden’s Team Cites Trump’s ‘Access Hollywood’ Scandal as a Model for Political Resilience

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In First Presidential Debate

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Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of being President is the voters’ tendency to forget quickly. The fleeting highs—the simulated victory over the Taliban, the real elimination of Osama bin Laden—never last long. However, the upside of Americans’ constantly rewriting our collective memories is that the bad ones don’t stick around either.

This is the optimistic viewpoint that President Joe Biden’s allies are promoting as they approach the two-week mark after a disastrous debate that raised serious concerns about the President’s mental clarity and cognitive abilities. With Democrats openly discouraged and unable to force Biden’s hand, there’s a high likelihood that the energy at next week’s GOP nominating convention in Milwaukee will feel more like a UFC fight than a C-SPAN hearing. Such collective bullying will likely only serve to strengthen Biden’s resolve not to be pressured.

Internally and externally, Biden’s top advisors are treating the fallout as hypersensitivity from politicians and pundits within the Beltway, most of whom seem to have forgotten that it’s only July. Voting doesn’t start until September, and there will be two nominating conventions and the Olympics to shift the conversation among the electorate. They are pointing to perhaps the most infamous campaign moment of this century to press this argument: the notorious Access Hollywood tape and its audio of Donald Trump making lewd comments about sexual assault.

Released within a month of Election Day in 2016, many believed the scandal would force Trump to step aside. Instead, he moved right past it, and voters went along with it. On Election Day, he won—over 64% of white working-class voters, 62% of white men, and 47% of white women.

Some on Biden’s team are now referencing that Access Hollywood episode, which actually caused Trump’s polling to drop by less than one percentage point for less than three weeks; the tape aired on Oct. 7, 2016, and he was back to his normal poll standing by Oct. 25, according to 538’s polling average .

The analogy is, of course, imperfect. But it aligns with other moments that fade away. As U.S. News & World Report’s Olivier Knox pointed out to me the day after the on-stage meltdown in Atlanta, Barack Obama’s polling numbers surged after bin Laden’s death, only to subside just six weeks later in 2011. Separately, when Trump contracted Covid-19 and had to be hospitalized at Walter Reed in 2020, his polling numbers also rebounded, again by less than one percentage point.

This is one way those immersed in Biden World are reassuring themselves—and the boss—that these events that seem monumental among political enthusiasts rarely truly resonate with the general public. Word went out from Atlanta in real time as the debate continued: a 90-minute error would not define the choice voters face in November. Also, they had time. Also, while Biden’s polling has slid, it doesn’t appear to be as bad as the collapse of poll numbers that many had predicted.

Even so, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Tuesday shifted Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada from toss-up status to leaning Republican. The analysts also moved Minnesota, New Hampshire, and a lone congressional district in Nebraska from likely Democratic strongholds to merely leaning Democrats’ way. Although some surveys had Biden holding steady, others had him down by 6 points in some places like Georgia and . For the survey of likely voters, it was a three-point decline in less than two weeks.

All of it may prove temporary, Biden’s supporters argue.

The Trump candidacy provides ample reasons for Democrats to cringe, but one positive lesson: nothing lasts forever, not even a terrible showing that has prompted recriminations aplenty inside Democratic circles. As further proof: 51% of voters say they now disapprove of Trump’s performance when he was President, a benchmark he never reached while in office.

Biden’s team is counting on such a fickle electorate and hoping the nonstop replay of his admittedly terrible answers doesn’t stick.

“They think they can weather this, and so do I,” said one lawmaker who has heard the Access Hollywood analogy and is a close ally to the White House. “Joe Biden is the only person to have defeated Donald Trump. Why would you swap that out, even for someone as promising as the Vice President?”

The major caveat to leaning on polls from 2016 is this: Trump’s return to his previous levels still left him trailing Hillary Clinton just about everywhere. Trump’s win came seemingly out of nowhere. This time, Trump is polling ahead of Biden in every swing state, and Biden has yet to break the 50% marker in any of them.

Biden, meanwhile, remains a highly unwelcome presence on the ticket let alone as its leader. As TIME’s Nik Popli reported from Capitol Hill, there is a begrudging acceptance that Biden is likely their nominee whether they want him or not. After only a handful of House Democrats had publicly urged Biden to exit the race, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have rekindled the issue Wednesday morning by suggesting on Morning Joe that Biden should reconsider. “We’re all encouraging him to make that decision because time is running short,” Pelosi said, as if Biden hadn’t already made his position crystal clear for well over a week.

Biden seems like he is taking a page right from his predecessor: fake it until you make it. Trump pretended there was not a crisis until there was not one. Biden is trying to assure voters that he’s up for a task at hand for another four years, a challenge made more acute with each passing day of professed ambivalence. He told ABC News’ that he he had a bad night but also kindled a low-light firestorm over whether he used “goodest job” in one answer. (ABC News’ official transcript, at the request of Team Joe, concluded he used “good as job” in a sentence that didn’t become much more clear with the tweak.)

Plus, there’s the added bonus that no Democrats actually think there are good odds of Biden stepping aside. A YouGov poll 72% of Democrats think they’re stuck with Biden whether they like it or not. Biden is banking that Democrats by Election Day will forget they ever had doubts about his candidacy. Given how wait-it-out worked for others, it’s not an irrational play—and there’s clearly plenty of forgetting afoot already.

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