Major Democratic Donors Ask Themselves: What to Do About Biden?

The Democratic Party’s perennially nervous donor class descended into deep unease on Friday, as some of the wealthiest people in America commiserated over President Biden’s weak debate performance and puzzled over what, if anything, they could do to change the course of the race.

There were discussions with political advisers about arcane rules under which Mr. Biden might be removed from the ticket against his will and replaced at or before the Democratic National Convention, according to a person familiar with the effort.

In Silicon Valley, a group of megadonors, including Ron Conway and Laurene Powell Jobs, were calling, texting and emailing one another about a situation they described as a possible catastrophe. The donors wondered about whom in the Biden fold they could contact to reach Jill Biden, the first lady, who in turn could persuade her husband not to run, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

A Silicon Valley donor who had planned to host an intimate fund-raiser featuring Mr. Biden this summer decided not to go through with the gathering because of the debate, according to a person told directly by the prospective host. Another major California donor left a debate watch party early and emailed a friend with the subject line: “Utter disaster,” according to a copy of the email.

In group chats and hushed discussions, some wealthy Democrats floated interventions, others hoped Mr. Biden would have an epiphany and decide to exit on his own, and still more strategized about steering dollars to down-ballot candidates. The most optimistic donors wanted to wait for polling to see the scope of the fallout.

The crisis in the donor class — outlined in interviews with almost two dozen donors and fund-raisers, many of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss their private conversations — could not come at a worse moment for Mr. Biden. Former President Donald J. Trump has outraised him in each of the last two months, erasing the president’s once gaping financial advantage and opening one of his own.

By Friday evening, many donors were coming to terms with the unlikelihood of finding a viable alternative, even as some acknowledged diminished enthusiasm and grumbled about the Biden team’s lack of communication to major fund-raisers in the 24 hours after the debate.

Compared with small online donors, major donors require more maintenance, but those personal relationships can yield big dividends in pivotal moments, like the one Mr. Biden is facing as he confronts a wave of worry from Democrats about his political strength. The donor class is being closely watched for signs of whether he can ride out the doubts.

While the Biden campaign briefed some members of its national finance committee on Friday morning in Atlanta, other members were aghast that they had received almost zero outreach from campaign headquarters.

Reid Hoffman, one of the Democratic Party’s most influential donors, wrote in an email to friends on Friday evening that he had been inundated.

“I got a lot of emails in the last 24 hours asking whether there should be a public campaign to pressure President Biden to step aside after his (very) bad debate performance last night,” he wrote in the email, which was seen by The New York Times. “It certainly delivered a blow to the mood among donors and organizers.”

Cash is a sudden priority for the Biden campaign.

After opening a $100 million advantage over Mr. Trump a couple of months ago, the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee entered June with $212 million in the bank, compared with $235 million for the Trump operation and the Republican National Committee.

The Biden campaign had hoped to close the gap through a major fund-raising push in the 72 hours after the debate. The scramble coincided with the typically lucrative end of the second-quarter filing period, when campaigns rush to raise cash and project momentum.

Mr. Biden’s team planned a series of fund-raisers on Friday and over the weekend featuring the president and the first lady, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and celebrities in wealthy enclaves including Manhattan, the Hamptons and Park City, Utah.

If nothing else, the shaky debate performance cast a shadow over those events and led to concerns about diminished hauls.

The Biden campaign pushed back on any financial concerns, announcing that from Thursday into Friday morning it had raised $14 million in online donations, which are typically smaller than those from major donor. The hour after the debate — from 11 p.m. to midnight — was the single best hour of Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign, the campaign said.

The grumbling and strategizing by major donors played out in a rolling series of conference calls, text debates and Signal chats that started soon after Mr. Biden opened his mouth onstage in Atlanta on Thursday evening, and continued until late Friday. Some described the communications in tones that resembled a virtual group-therapy session.

“This is an immediate response to a disappointment,” said Craig Kaplan, a lawyer and major Democratic donor in New York.

During a weekly Friday morning Zoom call with major New York donors, Mr. Kaplan urged participants to prioritize giving to congressional and state races.

“The importance of the down ballot is heightened,” he said in an interview, by the perception of weakness at the top of the ticket., He added that he did not intend to abandon Mr. Biden.

Stephen Cozen, a Democratic donor who considers the president a friend, said he had tried to talk down donors who were urging a Biden intervention.

“He deserves the opportunity to reflect and say: ‘I still think I can do this. I still think I am the best choice,’” or to conclude that he’s not the best option, Mr. Cozen said, recounting his counsel. “That’s his decision. And I will stick with him until he makes it.”

In the upper crust of Democratic society, there was a gap between public and private communications.

Publicly, few were willing to brook any criticism of the president.

But privately, major donors were pondering matters that seemed like fan fiction just days ago, wondering to one another about which party elder — Barack Obama? Nancy Pelosi? Chuck Schumer? — might have the political juice to persuade Mr. Biden to stand down.

And they debated which Democrat might be best to replace Mr. Biden, with Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gavin Newsom of California among the more popular prospects.

Some donors argued that the debate’s significance was being exaggerated.

“He had a poor performance,” said Robert Wolf, the former chairman of UBS Americas, “but a 90-minute debate doesn’t offset 3 ½ years of his presidency, so I will be in there fighting for Biden.”

Chris Korge, the finance chairman of the Biden Victory Fund, said “now is the time we put our head down and fight as hard as we can.” He added, “Donors will never quit on Biden.”

Mr. Hoffman, effectively the leader of Silicon Valley Democrats, said he believed it was a mistake to pressure Mr. Biden, in part because it wouldn’t work. “Joe is our nominee; any decision to step aside is up to him and his family, period,” he wrote. “If anything, a public effort might compel the Bidens to try to prove the doubters wrong.”

Biden fund-raisers were hearing from plenty of people — one received a Facebook message from a business school friend whom he hadn’t heard from in over a decade — but precious little from the campaign itself. On Thursday around noon, members of the Biden financial brain trust descended on Atlanta for what was expected to be a valedictory gathering, the summer meeting of the several-hundred-strong National Finance Committee.

Fund-raisers at the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton were treated to presentations on campaign tactics and issues, according to materials distributed to donors in advance, plus a debate debrief. But many members of the finance committee — away on vacation, deterred by the inability to attend the audience-free debate or unable to make it on short notice — skipped the meeting altogether.

Meanwhile, the president and first lady tried to project normalcy to donors.

On Friday afternoon, Jill Biden was in New York for a reception entitled “Writers, Wit and Wisdom,” while Ms. Harris was in Park City for her own high-dollar event. Mark Gilbert, a Democratic fund-raiser who hosted her in Park City, said the debate had not dampened enthusiasm.

“Not only were there no cancellations, we received numerous calls asking if it were too late to attend,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Mr. Biden himself appeared on Friday in Manhattan with Elton John at the Stonewall Inn, followed by an L.G.B.T.Q.-focused fund-raiser at the Hammerstein Ballroom at Manhattan Center. On Saturday, he was set to travel to the Hamptons for an event at the home of the billionaire Barry Rosenstein, who said was preparing for more than 200 attendees, more than double his expectations. Later on Saturday, Mr. Biden was scheduled to attend a fund-raiser at the home of Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey.

Biden’s fund-raising at the end of Pride Month is chock-full of cameos from celebrities and those with ties to the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, including a garden party on Saturday in Los Angeles featuring a performance from Idina Menzel.

Still, Friday ended without a clear sense of what exactly donors could do about Mr. Biden.The best that some could muster was gallows humor — a meme, a GIF or a sense that things could always be worse.

“No one’s bailing,” said Steve Phillips, a prominent Democratic donor in California. “Everyone’s resigned to the situation.”

Lauren Hirsch, Liam Stack and Olivia Bensimon contributed reporting.