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Yes, Biden is really running in November. But a lot of voters say they doubt it

President Biden in Chandler, Ariz., on March 20. Biden is running for reelection, but a surprising number of voters don't believe it.
Brendan Smialowski
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden in Chandler, Ariz., on March 20. Biden is running for reelection, but a surprising number of voters don't believe it.

In November, President Biden and Former President Donald Trump will be at the top of the ballot, just like they were in 2020. But among voters, there is an undercurrent of disbelief that this rematch is really happening.

Take Debbie Pridmore, for example, who shared her suspicions with NPR last month after casting a ballot for Trump in the North Carolina Republican primary.

"I really don't see Biden running. I see them finding some way to get him out and get someone else in," she said.

To be clear, Biden — the incumbent president — is running for reelection.

But these doubts have been an undeniable theme in conversations with voters this year, voters who believe something — it's not clear exactly what — is going to happen between now and November.

"I don't know who they would get in. I've got my thoughts, but I don't want to share those," said Pridmore. "I don't think Biden's going to be able to run."

All evidence shows Biden is running. And yet, doubts persist

The Democratic National Committee is working in lockstep with Biden's campaign, raising and spending millions of dollars. There are campaign ads on television, offices full of staff and volunteers.

Biden has held numerous rallies and events in swing states. And a recent report from the president's doctor describes him as "a healthy, active, robust 81-year-old" who "continues to be fit for duty."

But there are plenty of voters, especially Republicans, who openly muse about a different possibility.

"I would think that hopefully the Democrats can come up with somebody better," said Ed Boyle, a Republican from a suburb of Raleigh, N.C.

Pressed on the fact that Biden faced no serious challengers and it was quite late into an election cycle to make a change, Boyle was undeterred.

"Who knows what they're up to," Boyle said of Democrats. "I would be surprised if they don't pick somebody different."

It's become "part of the ambient noise of the universe"

In Wisconsin, Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said he hears these doubts all the time from focus groups, and when knocking on doors and talking to voters. It's on TikTok and other social media. And he said it isn't just coming from people who don't pay much attention to politics.

Some people speculate about a "big surprise." Others muse about the idea of swapping out the president or the vice president for a new, better candidate. Wikler said he's even heard the occasional mention of "a body double."

"It's kind of part of the ambient noise of the universe," said Wikler.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on April 1.
Kent Nishimura / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on April 1.

"We are all conspiracy theorists now"

The surge in doubts about political facts is being fueled by an ecosystem of media and social media built up around amplifying disinformation, said Melissa Ryan, a consultant who specializes in combating disinformation.

"I mean, we are all conspiracy theorists now," said Ryan. "We are just in this place, societally, where everything is a conspiracy theory and no one trusts anyone."

She said right-wing influencers are playing up Biden's age and wild ideas about possible replacements as a strategy to build up their audiences, a sort of engagement bait. But this isn't new. She recalls it during the Clinton and Obama presidencies too.

"That kind of stuff has always been in the ether," she said. "But it no longer stays on right-wing talk radio. It's become so much more mainstream."

President Biden walks to board Air Force One on March 29.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden walks to board Air Force One on March 29.

For some voters, it's wishful thinking

Sarah Longwell runs focus groups as part of an effort called Republican Voters Against Trump. She said she has heard variations on this from voters all across the political spectrum.

She said some people have bought into a prevalent (and false) right-wing narrative that "Biden isn't just old, but actually has dementia and that somebody else is pulling the strings, that there is someone else who is sort of propping him up."

But in other cases, Longwell said she thinks some people are simply staring down reality and trying to wish it away.

"Sometimes I liken it to going through the five stages of grief," Longwell said, describing voters who don't want to accept that 2024 is a rematch between the same two men who fought it out in 2020.

This idea of, like, 'You could swap somebody out, you could have somebody new,'" said Longwell. "It's all part of, 'This can't be the reality that we're living in.' And it's why acceptance — getting to acceptance — is so important."

For their part, Biden campaign officials and allies said they expect that once people accept that Biden really is the nominee — and that he really is facing Trump — voters will come around to the stakes in this election.

Here's what happened in one recent focus group

During one of her recent focus groups involving people who had voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, a participant from Michigan identified by his first name only — Mike — said he doesn't think that Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee.

"I think they're going to do a switch like I've been hearing on the news," Mike said in footage of the focus group shared with NPR.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with President Biden and other Democratic officials at San Francisco International Airport on Nov. 14, 2023.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with President Biden and other Democratic officials at San Francisco International Airport on Nov. 14, 2023.

"Maybe (California) Governor (Gavin) Newsom's gonna come in there, or some think Michelle Obama will be going in there," he said. (The former first lady recently addressed these persistent rumors directly, making it clear that she is not running.)

A facilitator asked the focus group whether others agreed with Mike, and three people raised their hands.

They expressed doubts about Trump, too. Asked whether they think Trump's four criminal indictments could mean he ultimately is not the Republican nominee, four of the participants raised their hands.

And while Mike from Michigan said he would prefer an alternative, he said that given a choice between Trump and Biden, he would vote for Biden — reluctantly.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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