President Joe Biden’s performance in his presidential debate against Donald Trump on June 27th called his continued candidacy into question. In the days since, however, the campaign has tried to save Mr Biden, and has succeeded for now. Privately, Mr Biden’s surrogates worked to quell the anxieties of donors worried about throwing good money after bad, and down-ballot candidates worried about their own political survival. Publicly, they came up with a remarkable number of explanations for the president’s display: it was just a cold, a sore throat, a single bad night, a senior moment—well, 90 senior minutes, sure, but don’t you realise that Mr Trump is an existential threat to democracy?

June 28th, the day after, was the most vulnerable of Mr Biden’s campaign—the one that the history writers will examine in detail. Within hours the mainstays of the centre-left American media issued calls for Mr Biden to renounce his re-election bid. They were some of the president’s favourites: Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host whose programme the president watches closely; the Atlantic, where Mr Biden wrote an article announcing his reasons for his candidacy in 2020, published at least a half-dozen arguments from its columnists beseeching the president to step down; Tom Friedman, a foreign-policy columnist whom Mr Biden meets wrote that the debate “made me weep” because he could not “remember a more heartbreaking moment in American presidential campaign politics”; the editorial board of the New York Times followed that evening.

Because Mr Biden has already captured his party’s nomination, he would need to be convinced that his candidacy was untenable. If a rebellion had broken out among his fellow Democrats, that could have happened. Yet, among the Democrats in Congress and in various governor’s mansions, the omerta held. Not even lone backbenchers dared to come out and say publicly what they were privately fretting about.

The elder statesmen of the party rallied around Mr Biden. Perhaps most important of all, Barack Obama released a public statement of support saying that “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know.” Bill Clinton said he would leave “the debate rating to the pundits”. Nancy Pelosi rallied to his cause; so did Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who is a close ally of the president, calling it merely “strike one”. A rally in North Carolina where Mr Biden delivered a speech (aided by a teleprompter) with verve was greeted by Democrats with the jubilance of a family discovering a proof-of-life video.

Having survived one day, Mr Biden is likely to survive one week, and then until the Democratic convention, which will be held in August in Chicago. Mr Biden and his campaign’s defiance has increased steadily since the debate. Rather than a disaster, the debate was transformed in their minds into a victory. “I didn’t have a great night,” Mr Biden admitted at a fundraiser in East Hampton on Saturday. “Voters had a different reaction. Since the debate, the polls show a little movement, moved us up actually,” he said. “The big takeaway were his [Mr Trump’s] lies,” the president argued, wishfully. “People remembered how bad things were during his presidency, how much they disliked him.”

The campaign decided that the problem was not the president’s performance—it was how the media reported it. Jen O’Malley Dillon, the president’s campaign manager, released a memo on Saturday night stating that, in a “familiar story…the beltway class is counting Joe Biden out”. She touted fundraising success, claiming $27m in donations in the 24 hours after the debate; argued that their internal polls showed no movement against Mr Biden; and warned that any ensuing polling deficits would not be their man’s fault anyway. “If we do see changes in polling in the coming weeks, it will not be the first time that overblown media narratives have driven temporary dips in the polls,” she argued, before noting that “our team knows a thing or two about putting our heads down and doing the work to win hard races.”

Even the old lines about the president being some kind of Ubermensch when the cameras are off returned. “Not only does the President perform around the clock, but he maintains a schedule that tires younger aides, including foreign trips into active war zones,” a White House spokesperson told Axios, an American news outlet. If the one-bad-night argument were true, Mr Biden could sit down for unscripted interviews with journalists to prove it. He won’t.

Despite Ms Dillon’s pre-emptive dismissals, there could yet be a deterioration in Mr Biden’s polling numbers, as surveys fielded after the debate are released. But the static and polarised state of American public opinion—which had for weeks been harming the president by keeping him at a consistent deficit to Mr Trump—may now prove helpful. A poll released on Sunday by CBS News and YouGov found that 45% of registered Democratic voters said the president should step aside. Partisanship means they are unlikely to change their voting intention if he demurs.

Down-ballot Democrats have also been polling better than the unpopular president, particularly in the marquee Senate races. If their numbers slipped, private discontent might go public. A second way in which the campaign could feel pressure is if donations fall. Already the campaign-fundraising advantage that the Biden campaign held over Mr Trump’s has evaporated as a result of a strong few months for the Republican campaign (particularly after his conviction on 34 felonies by a New York court). This will not be the last time the White House has to defend the president’s fitness. Any small missteps will be harder to argue away. Another moment like the debate would probably prove fatal (in theory, he is committed to another debate in September). That means the campaign will try even harder to keep the candidate out of harm’s way.

It therefore remains likely that Mr Biden will run at the top of the Democratic ticket. Unlike in parliamentary systems, there is no real mechanism to dethrone him. Mr Biden and his surrogates have realised that the fear of division if he stepped aside is enough, for now, to keep the party in line. In that way the president seems to have learned a lesson from his nemesis, Mr Trump, who realised that if he simply ignored calls from his party to step aside in moments of crisis, they would all eventually fall in line. Right now, the Democratic Party is paralysed by the sunk costs of the president’s re-election bid, the lack of a charismatic vice-president, and, above all, a fear that disagreement only benefits Mr Trump’s chances. It will probably work in cowing the president’s own party. But it is a flawed strategy for convincing voters.

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