Despair in the air: For many voters, the Biden-Trump debate means a tough choice just got tougher

WASHINGTON (AP) — The sound you might have heard after the presidential debate this past week was of voters falling between a rock and a hard place.

Apart from the sizable and pumped-up universe of Donald Trump’s supporters, the debate suddenly crystalized the worries of many Americans, a portion of President Joe Biden’s supporters among them, that neither man is fit to lead the nation.

Heading into the first debate of the general election campaign, voters had faced a choice between two strikingly unpopular candidates. They then watched as Trump told a stream of falsehoods with sharpness, vigor and conviction, while Biden struggled mightily to land debating points and even to get through many sentences. It added to doubts about the 81-year-old Democratic president’s fitness to be in office for four more years.

Now, the options are even more dispiriting for many Democrats, undecided voters and anti-Trump Republicans. More than a few people came away from watching the debate very conflicted.

Outside a Whole Foods in downtown Denver on Friday, registered Democrat Matthew Toellner tilted his head sideways, mouth agape, in an imitation of his favored candidate, Biden, who was seen doing that at times on the split screen when Trump was talking Thursday night.

“I’m going to vote for Biden,” said Toellner, 49, leaning against the wood siding of the grocery store. “Actually, I might not.”

A few minutes later, Toellner looked out to the street and rethought again. “I’m going to vote for Biden, I think I’d be a fool not to. But I just hate that I have to.”

His appeal to Biden and Democrats: “Please step down, get somebody electable.”

On a Detroit park bench, Arabia Simeon was left feeling politically homeless after voting Democratic in the past two presidential elections. “It just feels like we’re doomed no matter what,” she said.

Trump’s disregard for the facts suffused his arguments, though he was rarely challenged on the specifics during the debate. On abortion, for example, one of America’s most divisive issues for generations, the former Republican president claimed there is universal agreement that states should decide on the legality of it. There is ferocious argument about that.

But did that matter? The public reaction, in dozens of interviews across the country, brought to mind Bill Clinton’s post-presidency assessment of what voters want in fraught times: “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.”

Jocardo Ralston, 47, from Pennsylvania, reacts as they look up to a television to watch the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at Tillie’s Lounge on Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Cincinnati. “Biden has my vote because there is nothing at this point that Trump can say,” said Ralston. For many voters in the U.S., there’s despair in the air after the presidential debate this past week. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The debate unmoored Simeon just as it did Toellner.

The 27-year-old owner of a Detroit start-up went into debate night deciding between Biden and an independent candidate, the most prominent of whom is long shot Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Now she’s leaning against Biden.

“I think it just kind of validated the feeling that I was having that this election is going to be extremely hectic, and it’s no longer the conversation of the lesser of two evils for me,” she said from a park bench on a work break. “It’s more like both of these candidates don’t feel like viable options.”

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