Can Democrats Replace Biden? A Guide to the Party’s Options

(Bloomberg) -- The firestorm in the Democratic Party over whether President Joe Biden should remain the party’s candidate in the November presidential election continued into a third week following his poor debate performance June 27. Biden has said he will remain in his rematch against the presumptive Republican nominee, former President Donald Trump, 78. But Biden is under pressure to step off the Democratic ticket to make way for a more vigorous contender.

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Who’s pushing for Biden to step aside?

The roster of Democrats calling on Biden to quit the race is growing by the day, with big names such as actor (and party fundraiser) George Clooney and Vermont Senator Peter Welch adding their names recently.

Lloyd Doggett of Texas was the first Democrat in the House of Representatives to publicly call on Biden to withdraw from the race, prompting others to follow: Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Mike Quigley of Illinois, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Adam Smith of Washington, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Pat Ryan of New York, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Hillary Scholten of Michigan.

Others have distanced themselves from the president. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not-so-subtly suggested that Biden should reconsider his decision to stay in the race.

Some Democratic lawmakers are discussing whether to band together to call for a change atop the ticket. And top Democratic donors have said they would withhold or redirect their money unless Biden stepped aside.

What do the polls show?

Nearly three in 10 Democrats in swing states said Biden should drop out of the race — far more than the 9% of Republicans who said Trump should do the same, according to a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult tracking poll of battleground states conducted in early July. Still, the survey registered Biden’s best showing — trailing Trump by only two percentage points — since the poll began tracking the race in October.

Those findings run counter to two recent national polls, from the New York Times/Siena College and the Wall Street Journal, which showed a worsening picture for Biden. Trump notched his largest lead of the race in both polls.

What happens if Biden withdraws before he’s officially nominated?

It’s complicated by the fact that Biden is already his party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency.

When candidates compete in Democratic primaries, they are allocated shares of delegates to the party’s national convention that reflect the primary votes they received. Those delegates are pledged to support the candidate whose votes they represent. In his party’s primaries, Biden faced minimal opposition and secured 99% of the roughly 3,900 pledged delegates.

If Biden were to step aside, he could request that his delegates switch their support to a replacement he favors, with the most likely heir being his running mate, Vice President Kamala Harris. Or he could release them from their pledges, in which case they could choose among competing candidates.

Has anything like this happened before?

Yes. President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, decided not to seek his party’s nomination for a second full term in 1968, as protests against the Vietnam War mounted. In an Oval Office speech, Johnson made the surprise announcement that “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Instead, the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, who was defeated by Richard Nixon.

Johnson’s decision came at the end of March — at a time when the process for determining the major parties’ presidential nominees wasn’t nearly as front-loaded as it is today. Unlike Biden, Johnson hadn’t yet secured enough delegates in party primaries to nail down the nomination.

If Biden doesn’t withdraw, could he be removed from the ticket?

It would be difficult.

The delegates’ pledges aren’t binding. But absent extraordinary circumstances — and a backup plan — it’s unlikely they would remove him from the ticket.

There are more than 700 other delegates — called super delegates — that are not required to commit to any candidate and are able to vote if the convention is contested and goes to a second or additional ballot.

Any challenger to Biden would have to announce his or her candidacy before a formal nominating vote, meaning they would have to publicly challenge the incumbent in a high-stakes attempted intraparty coup.

Why is Harris the most likely replacement?

She’s on the ticket already. The money that’s been raised for the Biden-Harris campaign would already be available to her and a new vice presidential candidate. Modern presidential campaigns are hugely expensive undertakings, and financial considerations would play no small role. Biden’s campaign and party had $240 million cash on hand at the end of June. Biden’s campaign and the Democratic Party have already spent about $346 million trying to reelect Biden. Picking a different nominee could require spending even more money to introduce a new candidate to voters.

In addition, for Democrats to pass over a woman of color would risk alienating two of the party’s important voting blocs.

Who are other possible replacements?

They include California Governor Gavin Newsom, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. All of them have publicly supported the president. None of them have as much national name recognition as Harris.

What’s the timeline?

Typically the Democratic Party selects its nominee for the presidency at its national convention, scheduled to begin Aug. 19 in Chicago. This year, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had already planned to move up Biden’s nomination via a phoned-in roll call to satisfy an Aug. 7 ballot deadline in Ohio. Although the Republican-led Ohio legislature has extended that deadline, Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison said before Biden’s faltering debate performance that the party would go forward with the early roll call. That process cannot begin until the party’s credentials committee meets to certify delegates on July 21.

What if Biden withdraws from the race after the nomination?

The decision to replace him would be made by the DNC, which is made up of more than 400 party leaders from all the US states and territories.

The party would then face another challenge in the Nov. 5 presidential election: printed ballots with Biden’s name already on them.

Laws vary by state about how that situation would be handled, but regardless any votes for Biden would almost certainly go to his replacement when the Electoral College meets in December.

--With assistance from Bill Allison.

(Updates with additional Democrats calling on Biden to step aside or reconsider his candidacy)

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