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Do presidential debates really matter? What history says about voters forgiving Biden’s rough night

Nearly everyone agrees — including President Joe Biden — that he botched the first presidential debate of the 2024 general election, but the question remains as to how much a debate performance matters when it comes to reclaiming the White House.

History shows the 81-year-old Democrat could still recover.

Pew Research shows that 63 percent of voters said the presidential debates were “very or somewhat helpful” in deciding which candidate to back.

But it’s not clear when voters make up their minds, potentially leaving some room for recovery. In 2016, only 10 percent of voters said they had definitively made up their minds “during or just after” the debates while 11 percent said they would decide on Election Day or the days or weeks leading up to it, according to Pew.

The “panic” that Democrats experienced after watching the president stumble on his words in Thursday’s CNN debate is not a first. If what’s past is prologue, Biden’s “dreadful” debate performance likely didn’t seal his fate in the November election.

Biden’s former boss Barack Obama had a lackluster performance in 2012 against Republican Senator Mitt Romney. The Democrat was accused of going through the motions as Romney pressed him on his first-term record.

Still, he persevered in his re-election bid.

Obama himself acknowledged his 2012 flop on Friday, giving a word of encouragement to his former veep on X: “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know.”

But before there was Obama’s debate flop, there was George W Bush’s.

In his 2004 first presidential debate against John Kerry, then-President Bush appeared “annoyed and irritated,” NBC News reported at the time, often scowling when Kerry made jabs about his record.

A contemporaneous survey from Pew Research

Read more on independent.co.uk