Yes, Democrats Can Still Replace Biden. Here’s How

President Joe Biden’s stumbling, confused, and disjointed performance on the CNN debate stage Thursday threw back the curtain on an issue his campaign, the White House, and allies have long attempted to convince the public isn’t true: that he’s too old. The party must weigh whether to stick with Biden or take the nuclear option of convincing him to step aside and finding another nominee to take on Donald Trump.

So what happens now?

Both publicly and privately, prominent Democrats, commentators, and surrogates have admitted that it’s time to have some hard conversations about the viability of Biden’s candidacy based on his performance on Thursday. As former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill told MSNBC , “Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight, and he didn’t do it.”

McCaskill went on to point out that a lot of Americans are likely now wondering why younger, more politically agile Democrats like Vice President Kamala Harris and California Governor Gavin Newsom weren’t on the stage. “How come the Democratic Party does not have them at the top of the ticket, instead of using them to shore up some pretty glaring weaknesses in our president,” McCaskill asked.

There are less than 130 days left before Americans head to the ballot box. Is there even enough time to find a replacement? How would that work? Who is even up to the task?

Here’s everything you need to know about the potential upheavals being discussed in the aftermath of the debate, and what they might mean for Biden.

Biden withdraws of his own volition

The easiest way to replace Biden, by far, is if he elects to drop out of the race. Whatever the stated justification — his health, deference to a younger generation, concern for the fate of the republic, the age-old desire to “spend more time with family” — Biden could choose to serve out the remainder of his term, while allowing someone else to take his place at the top of the ticket in November.

If he does, who could replace him?

If he decides to do that, there are very few scenarios in which Kamala Harris does not replace him as the nominee. Yes, there are a number of up-and-coming Democrats whose names have been floated as substitutes — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, California Gov. Gavin Newsom — but there is also a line of succession and, four years ago, Biden chose Harris as next in line.

Major Democratic groups like EMILY’s List have committed millions to boosting her profile, and in polls gauging Democrats’ appetite for someone other than Biden, Harris is voters’ second choice. According to a recent Morning Consult survey, the highest share of voters — 21 percent — wanted Harris if Biden is not the candidate, compared to 10 percent each for Buttigieg and Newsom, 4 percent each for Whitmer and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, and 3 percent for Shapiro.

But all this is a pure hypothetical until Biden elects to withdraw from the race, and so far, he doesn’t seem inclined to do that. On Thursday, CNN reported that Biden not only refuses to drop out, but remains committed to seeing through a second debate with Trump scheduled for September. Campaign surrogates have also been quick to dismiss the idea that he might step aside, and during a rally in North Carolina on Friday Biden made clear he intends to win the election.

What about a “brokered” convention?

A little less than two months from now, Democrats are set to convene in Chicago for the party’s national convention. Technically, Joe Biden is not the party’s candidate until he is officially nominated there. And, technically, there’s a (high-key chaotic) process by which members of the party could select a replacement. But, again, Biden would almost certainly first have to agree to step aside — he’s already won the number of delegates needed to mathematically clinch the nomination — and he does not presently seem inclined to do so.

Hypothetically, if Biden were to step aside, the selection of a replacement would fall not to American voters at large, but to the delegates and superdelegates who cast their ballots at the convention. Over the course of the campaign and Democratic primaries, Biden has been amassing what are known as “pledged delegates,” or representatives from districts and states who have pledged to support him in the convention. Should Biden no longer be a candidate for the nomination, the 3,894 delegates currently bound to him would become free to support whomever they want.

The president only needs 1,976 delegates to secure the nomination, only a teensy bit more than half of the total amount of pledged delegates he’s already collected. There is also a cadre of 739 “superdelegates,” a mix of party officials, state and federal lawmakers, lobbyists, and donors who are not required to pledge their support to a specific candidate and are not beholden to the results of primary elections in their state. Superdelegates can only vote if the first ballot fails to decisively elect a nominee, but if Biden were out of the running, the two groups would hold successive rounds of votes until a nominee gained the needed majority.

What if Biden refuses to walk away? He could, potentially, be ousted by vote, but first someone would have to convince the almost 2,000 delegates not to cast their ballots in his favor. It’s hard math to overcome, discard the option now.

If Biden were, for any reason, unable to see the campaign to completion after the Democratic convention, the task of selecting a replacement to fill the vacancy on the ticket would fall to the 739 party insiders who comprise the roster of superdelegates.

It’s worth noting: talk of a brokered convention bubbles up every four years. Republicans floated the idea with designs on “stopping Trump” in 2016 and Democrats mused about the possibility in 2020 when Bernie Sanders was leading the delegate count . The last time an open convention actually took place was more than 70 years ago, in 1952. The Democratic Party’s eventual nominee that year, Adlai Stevenson, lost in a landslide.

The Cabinet could also invoke the 25th Amendment

The Constitution outlines a process by which the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can remove the president if they agree he has become mentally unfit. The comedian Jon Stewart spoke the possibility out aloud after the debate,  describing Biden as having  “resting 25th Amendment face.”

As much as some voters would like this scenario to be plausible, it’s just not.

This doesn’t mean that Biden’s opponents in Congress won’t at least make a performative show of demanding the 25th Amendment be invoked.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) told reporters on Friday that “there’s a lot of people asking about the 25th Amendment, invoking the 25th Amendment right now because this is an alarming situation.”

“I would ask the Cabinet members to search their hearts,” he added. “And we hope that they will do their duty, as we all seek to do our duty to do best by the American people. These are fateful moments.”

Shortly before the House Speaker gave his thoughts on the matter, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) wrote on X that he intends to “put forth a resolution calling upon the [Vice President] to immediately use her powers under section 4 of the 25th Amendment to convene & mobilize the principal officers of the Cabinet to declare the [President] is unable to successfully discharge the duties and powers of his office.”

But more than likely, Democrats white-knuckle it to November

The most likely scenario also is the most terrifying given Biden’s performance on Thursday: inertia. Democrats do nothing, Biden stays the course, and voters stay home in November. The end.

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