Can Joe Biden Be Replaced as the Nominee? Here’s How It Could Happen

6 minute read

Concerns about President Joe Biden’s age and ability to win a second term have churned within the Democratic Party party for more than a year. Those fears became much harder to ignore after Thursday night, when he struggled through a presidential debate against former President Donald Trump. The 81-year-old Biden fumbled his words, trailed off at points, and repeatedly lost his trains of thought.

Republicans mercilessly mocked the showing and Democrats spiraled into open panic.

At present, there is no clear-cut mechanism to replace Biden as the party's nominee—he already won more than enough delegates during the primaries to secure his nomination ahead of the Democrats’ national convention in August.

Still, there are ways for Democrats to end up with someone other than Biden at the top of the ticket, especially if Biden willingly steps aside—but the timing, and the Democratic National Committee’s own regulations, has a lot to do with what’s possible, let alone plausible. (Not to mention the challenge of settling on a replacement.)

Here are some of the scenarios for how a Democrat other than Biden could become the party's presidential nominee.

Biden withdraws from the race before he’s formally nominated

In 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson, then-President and the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s nomination, shocked the country by announcing that he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination. The announcement came after he almost lost in the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy. 

Then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was nominated for President at the convention later that year, eventually lost to Republican nominee Richard Nixon after a campaign season that saw Robert F. Kennedy gunned down in Los Angeles and George McGovern briefly joining as a stand-in for that vein of liberalism. 

Biden has made no such announcement. But if he does decide to withdraw from the race in the coming weeks, delegates will be able to nominate a new candidate, though rules that vary by state will govern who they can back instead. 

According to Rule 13, Section J, of the DNC’s delegate selection rules, “delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in good conscience reflect the sentiment of those who elected them.”

This scenario would formally set off an intense fight for the party nomination among those with the name recognition and reputation to sway enough delegates in a very short period. Along with Vice President Kamala Harris, people who may actively vie for the nomination could include Governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois

Biden rejects the virtual nomination

Because of a quirk in Ohio law which had required all candidates to be legally certified by Aug. 7—more than a week ahead of Biden’s scheduled nomination at the convention that opens in Chicago on Aug. 19—Democrats are set to formally nominate Biden in a virtual roll call weeks before the convention. (Ohio lawmakers recently passed a law to iron out that quirk, but the DNC has said that the virtual roll call will continue just to be safe.)

Biden may choose to reject the virtual nomination, which was meant to be a formality, setting up delegates to select a new nominee at the Democratic Party’s in-person convention, where delegates will still participate in a traditional roll call.

Delegates have second thoughts about Biden before nomination

Despite some loud protest votes in primaries, Biden has won a strong majority of the delegates: of an estimated 3,937 pledged delegates assigned in the primaries held so far, Biden is slated to arrive at the DNC confab in Chicago in August with 3,894 promised to be with him on the first vote. The extent to which those delegates are obligated to stick with Biden varies, based on state-by-state rules.

Also in play are 739 automatic delegates—or so-called superdelegates. Those are the party insiders like ex-Presidents, union chiefs, and mega-donors who can vote for anyone they want. In 2018, the party chose to reduce the influence of superdelegates on the nomination process, agreeing that superdelegates would not automatically get to vote on the first ballot.

On paper, the math remains in Biden’s favor if he continues to want the nomination. Absent Biden releasing the pledged delegates and state rules allowing such flexibility, they’re with Biden through at least the first round of balloting.

But there are still ways for delegates to, essentially, stage a revolt. This is where Convention Chair Minyon Moore comes in. Under DNC rules, a ruling from the chair can shut down almost anything. Bypassing the ruling of the convention chair would require 25% of the delegates demanding a roll call vote. 

Confused yet? It’s about to get worse: every DNC jurisdiction—that’s each of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., American territories, and a jurisdiction representing Democrats who live abroad—has slightly different rules for how to handle thorny convention issues like bypassing a rule of the chair or making changes to their delegation. So how a brokered convention plays out could get incredibly complicated with the world’s eyes trying to make sense of arcane rules being adjudicated in real time on live TV.

Biden decides after the convention that he has second thoughts

This would actually be the cleanest scenario in terms of process and most opaque in terms of—lower-case D—democratic values.

Under Rule 8, Section G, of the Call for the Democratic National Convention, if the presidential and/or vice presidential nominee dies, resigns, or becomes disabled after the convention, “the National Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee shall confer with the Democratic leadership of the United States Congress and the Democratic Governors Association and shall report to the Democratic National Committee, which is authorized to fill the vacancy or vacancies.”

Once the nomination is decided at the convention, though, only the nominee can choose to bail. The party can’t do it. The party may have second thoughts about their nominee, but if Biden refuses to drop out, there’s little to be done other than perhaps applying extraordinary pressures like cutting off the DNC’s bankroll and other resources to urge him to change his mind. Once the gavel falls, Democrats are stuck with Biden if he still has a pulse.

Biden wins a second term—but decides to step down or becomes otherwise incapacitated before Inauguration Day

If such a scenario unfolds before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2025, the Vice President-elect would become President, according to the 20th Amendment. (This assumes those in the electoral college acted faithfully—that is, the electors voted for the winner of the election in their states, which have varying levels of stringency in enforcing this behavior.)

If that happens after Biden is inaugurated for a second term on Jan. 20, Kamala Harris would become President, and would be eligible to run for the top job in 2028 for a full four-year term.

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