Was Biden’s Debate Worse Than Access Hollywood?

Ed Kilgore / New York Magazine

Many political observers spent the long Independence Day weekend anxiously watching for Democratic elected officials and other opinion leaders to drop the hammer on Joe Biden, particularly when it became clear the president was not going to abandon his reelection campaign in response to the Great Post-Debate Freakout of 2024. The intraparty dynamics have become painfully fraught. Worried Democrats are reluctant to undermine Biden in case he survives the crisis and remains the presidential nominee. Meanwhile, Biden is counting on this ambivalence to marginalize the small but significant number of publicly announced rebels.

There is really just one recent precedent for an effort to defenestrate a nominee this late in a presidential election, and it happens to involve the man Democrats fear and loathe so much that they are willing to consider drastic steps to block his return to the White House. On October 7, 2016, when early voting was already underway, Republicans who had been looking at many months of discouraging polls were hit by the Washington Post’s release of outtakes from the reality-TV show Access Hollywood that depicted their presidential nominee as an arrogantly predatory sexist. Despite Donald Trump’s efforts to write off his boasts of having a free pass to grope women as “locker room talk,” Republican elites reeled in horror. There was talk, emanating from no less a figure than the chairman of the Republican National Committee (Reince Priebus) and (according to one disputed report) involving Trump’s own running-mate (Mike Pence) of removing Trump from the ticket, as Business Insider later recalled:

In the panicked days that followed the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, the RNC came under intense pressure to replace Trump, and the organization’s lawyers reportedly discussed a little-known legal mechanism by which they could force the nominee to step down.

Meanwhile, a small group of billionaire GOP donors reportedly asked a Trump associate how much money Trump would need to be paid to abandon the race. According to one source, they were told $800 million, but it is unclear if Trump knew about the discussions or if the offer was made.

Priebus, then the chairman of the RNC, told had Trump that he could drop out of the race or lose in the biggest electoral landslide in US history, according to a new memoir written by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Priebus reportedly told Trump that Pence and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom Republican leaders were considering drafting to the ticket, were “ready to step in” to take over the campaign.

So far, Biden’s predicament isn’t as bad as the GOP’s 2016 freakout. Back then, Republican elected officials were jumping off the Trump bandwagon everywhere you looked. House Speaker Paul Ryan canceled a joint campaign event with the nominee in his crucial battleground state, saying of the tape, “I was sickened by what I heard today.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that the man who has never apologized for anything “needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere.” According to Politico no fewer than eight Republican senators — including Senate Republican whip John Thune and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain — de-endorsed their party’s nominee, as did three governors; another news outlet counted ten House members jumping ship.

The polling impact of the Access Hollywood tapes was a bit harder to discern but roughly equivalent to what we’ve seen since the Atlanta debate between Biden and Trump. A later academic analysis suggested the incident at least initially cost Trump two percentage points. My contemporaneous look at polling averages showed a similar impact but then a quick reversal:

If you look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages from that fraught juncture, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump only increased from 4.6 percent the day the Access Hollywood tape dropped, to a maximum of 7.1 percent ten days later. Then Clinton’s polling average lead continued to drop, more or less steadily, falling to 3.2 percent by Election Day (she won the national popular vote by 2.1 percent).

So what was the key to Trump’s reversal of fortune, other than his characteristic refusal to back down or bend the knee? The big factor in October 2016 was quickly intervening news that undercut Hillary Clinton while distracting attention from her opponent’s problems, as Rolling Stone later explained:

Beyond the Access Hollywood tape, two other events transpired online that day. The first was official acknowledgement by the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had targeted the 2016 election by hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton proxies — a story of momentous importance that would be immediately lost in the “locker room talk” news cycle. The second, coming just minutes after the Washington Post published its article with the Access Hollywood video embedded, was the fruits of the the aforementioned hack. This was the initial release of the “Podesta Emails,” laundered through the “transparency” organization Wikileaks. The document dump would be repeated dozens of times, amounting to more than 20,000 pages of stolen communications.

This was the ammunition that Trump depended on to mount his comeback.

Later came the “Comey letter” on October 28, which suggested there were reasons for additional investigations of Clinton’s handling of security for email accounts. The fundamental takeaway is that Trump and his supporters were able to put out the fire threatening his campaign by yelling “Fire!” and pointing at his opponent with the complicity of mainstream news media and the GOP candidate’s social-media followers. You would have to assume that this tactic is entirely replicable by today’s Democrats, given Trump’s many vulnerabilities and his lust for attention.

There are obviously discontinuities between Trump’s situation in October 2016 and Biden’s in July 2024 that cut in various directions. Trump was still a party outsider when the Access Hollywood story broke, fresh from the first stage of a hostile takeover of the GOP that was far from complete. Biden is a sitting president of the United States who has been a fixture of national Democratic politics for more than a half-century. Trump’s potentially disqualifying words were uttered privately a decade earlier and caught on a hot mic, though they did reinforce a long history of consistently sexist behavior. Biden’s debate performance was seen by more than 50 million people live and by untold millions more in news coverage and raised questions about his current and future competence to serve as president (or even as a candidate, some Democrats fear).

Most of all, few Republicans in 2016 (though those few did make a lot of noise) had anything like the visceral fear of an electoral defeat that animates so very many Democrats today. It’s a fear that drives some toward unflinching loyalty to Joe Biden and others toward fretful efforts to persuade him to “step aside.” The president is gambling that the former outnumber the latter. And he does have the precedent of a recent major-party nominee overcoming an apparent self-inflicted kill shot and rolling on to victory. That it’s the man he hopes to debate again in September makes the outcome of this saga especially hard to predict.