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A Big Night — but Will It Matter?

President Biden was not even halfway through his 68-minute State of the Union speech when Simon Rosenberg, the rare Democrat strategist who is bullish on Biden’s re-election prospects, fired off a note to the readers of his Substack newsletter.

“The President is Kicking Ass!” it read (though with many more exclamation points attached). The Biden campaign soon reported that the three hours surrounding the prime-time speech were the most lucrative fund-raising hours of the president’s re-election campaign so far.

The rousing speech was, at least for Democrats worried about Biden’s re-election prospects, a welcome success — and on a night when it mattered. There will be only one more moment before Election Day when Biden can be assured an interrupted block of time to speak to such a large audience of voters: his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in August.

Yet the rules for campaigning are changing in this era of splintered media markets and political polarization, in a contest between two candidates who are so familiar to the electorate and disliked by so many voters. These big-ticket moments are not the reliable move-the-needle events that they once were. Undecided voters can be targeted precisely in many ways, with TikTok the most au courant example.

This election is going to be decided by a sliver of voters in a mere handful of states. There is little reason to think that many of them spent 68 minutes on a Thursday night watching Biden talk to Congress.

“Doubt it will move vote with swing voters: Too early,” said David Plouffe, who was a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. “But for those with concerns about age, his vigor last night should help create a permission structure for them to vote for him.”

More than 32 million people watched the State of the Union speech last night, 18 percent more than the previous year’s audience. By any measure, that’s a huge audience, even if the pews might have been filled with voters who are already inclined to support Biden.

“You have an audience that’s comparable to a big N.F.L. playoff game,” said Robert Gibbs, who was a White House press secretary for Obama. “It is fair to assume that not every viewer is in the market for new information. But the sheer size of the audience has to be important to any candidate.”

Still, such moments are often forgotten by the time Election Day comes around. “There is no evidence a State of the Union speech this late in a presidency could be so consequential it changes the trajectory of a re-election campaign,” said Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster.

Viral moments — to use one unkind example, when the president stumbled walking up the steps to Air Force One — tend to have much more staying power.

There may be another high-profile moment coming for Biden and Trump before Election Day: the presidential debates, assuming that they happen. Trump has challenged Biden to a series of general-election debates, though nothing has been scheduled; Trump declined to participate in any of the Republican primary debates.

A debate would be far different from a convention or State of the Union speech: Biden and Trump would share a stage, in front of one or more questioners, and presumably a large audience, on a date much closer to Election Day, when any remaining undecided voters are beginning to make up their minds.

“Debates can be consequential, and could be in this race between Trump and Biden,” McInturff said. “It could help voters decide if Biden is up to a second term and if Trump can convey a governing agenda.”

The ultimate question for Biden and Trump is whether the voters are saturated with information about their candidacies. Do they already know everything they need or want to about the two men who have each spent time in the White House?

“Right now, people are tuned out,” said Plouffe. “That’s a really important question for the president: Are swing voters, young voters — are they still open to hearing from him? My suspicion is that they are. But that is an open question.”

On Tuesday night, a triumphant Donald Trump looked out on an adoring crowd at his seaside mansion in Palm Beach, Fla. He evoked the halcyon days of his presidency when, in his telling, there were no wars, and the nation was universally admired and united in egalitarian prosperity. Then he declared, “Our country is dying.”

Two days later, President Biden looked out on a sharply divided audience and conjured the mirror image: a country that is now “literally the envy of the world.” He described a recent past as “one of the toughest periods in the nation’s history,” when crime was soaring, a deadly virus raged and the nation’s chief executive had “failed the most basic presidential duty” — “the duty to care.”

With the presidential election now fully engaged, two speeches two days apart laid out the choice that voters face, with visions of past, present and future that are diametrically opposed. But both men seemed to share the political goal of rallying their own base voters rather than the more traditional task of pivoting to the center to appeal to fence-sitters and foes.

In this tale of two speeches, both were strikingly partisan, delivered by a pair of elderly politicians beginning their general-election rematch with nods to their ages, hyperbolic warnings about this moment in history, prescriptions for the future — Trump’s vague, Biden’s specific, down to a potato chip portion — and visions for the nation as different as they could possibly be.

“I see a future for all Americans,” Biden’s speech concluded. “I see a country for all Americans. And I will always be a president for all Americans because I believe in America.”

Mr. Trump’s finale struck a different tone.

“We’re going to have to deport a lot of people, a lot of bad people,” he said in concluding his 20-minute address, “because our countries can’t live like this, our cities are choking to death, our states are dying and, frankly, our country is dying, and we’re going to make America great again.”

Jonathan Weisman

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