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How Democrats Could Replace Joe Biden as Their Nominee, Explained
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How Democrats Could Replace Joe Biden as Their Nominee, Explained

Rules provide for pledged delegates to act as free agents in certain situations.

The stage is prepared at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 19, 2020. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

In early 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson faced declining job approval ratings as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular. By March, he had drawn two primary challengers, Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. At the end of that month, Johnson took the surprising step of announcing that he would not seek reelection—after the primaries had already started.

It’s not hard to see parallels to 2024. After President Joe Biden’s rocky debate performance reignited questions about his age and mental acuity, Democrats have only a few options to replace him as their nominee. And the Democratic National Convention is only 46 days away. 

Through the party’s primaries, which ended in June, the president claimed more than 3,800 of his party’s delegates—all but seven who pledged to other candidates. At this point, the Democrats plan to hold a virtual convention to nominate Biden sometime in late July, prior to the actual convention in Chicago beginning August 19, to sidestep what was Ohio’s candidate filing deadline before the state relaxed the deadline in June

If Biden bowed out:

The Democratic National Committee sets the rules for the nomination process and the convention. Party and elected officials continue to stress that Biden is the nominee, but if he were to follow Johnson’s example and decline the nomination, his delegates would be functionally “released” from their pledge to support him and free to select any candidate they see fit. 

A candidate would need “not less than 300 or more than 600 delegate votes” to be nominated, and if they were nominated, he or she would then attempt to secure the votes of the more than 4,000 delegates. 

Biden could endorse an alternative candidate, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, and if that candidate received a majority of delegates, the process would end there. But if the candidate didn’t receive more than 50 percent of the delegates on the first ballot, this would trigger a brokered convention, something that has not happened since 1952, when Democrats needed three rounds of voting to nominate Adlai Stevenson. 

In a brokered convention, “delegates act as free agents and negotiate with the party leadership to come up with a nominee,” according to a Reuters interview with Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a DNC member. This includes more than 700 superdelegates — party and elected officials who are allowed to vote for any candidate. Before the 2020 election, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee changed its rules to limit superdelegates from voting in the first ballot. In a brokered convention, because no candidate would have received a majority in the first ballot, superdelegates could cast a vote.

“So you will have what you had in the old days. Delegations will meet in their hotels, and the candidates will go from hotel to hotel, or their surrogates, talking to the delegations and trying to get support. You would have the wives or the husbands being surrogates. You’d have other surrogates going to the smaller state delegations,” Kamarck said on the podcast The Ezra Klein Show. “It would be an old-fashioned convention.” 

If Biden were to step down as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, anointing Harris would be the most straightforward choice. As the vice presidential nominee, she would gain control of all of the Biden for President campaign committee funds ($91.5 million cash on hand as of May 31, according to Federal Election Commission records), while a different candidate would have to navigate a maze of campaign finance rules and procedures to access the funds. Biden could convert his campaign committee to a political action committee, but he would be allowed to directly contribute only $3,300 to a new candidate. While the Biden PAC would be able to support another candidate through an independent expenditure campaign, it would not be able to work with that candidate directly. Harris, on the other hand, could bypass all of this.

If Harris were not selected, the campaign could still legally donate the funds to the DNC, indirectly funding the new candidate. The DNC would be allowed to donate only $5,000 directly to the new nominee’s campaign, and it could spend up to $32.39 million in direct coordination with the campaign. The DNC could also make unlimited independent expenditures, running web or television ads, for example. But, similarly to a super PAC, these purchases could not be made in coordination with the campaign. As of May, the DNC had $65 million cash on hand—significantly less than Biden’s campaign committee.

If Biden stays in the race:

If Biden doesn’t drop out of the race, other candidates could still challenge him before Biden is officially named the nominee at a roll call. The Democratic National Committee’s rules state that, “All delegates to the National Convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” That means delegates are not legally bound to a specific candidate, so Biden’s delegates could choose to vote for someone else instead, even though they are technically “pledged” to Biden. 

However, a successful challenge to the presumptive nominee is unlikely. “It has been tried, and it usually fails,” Kamarck told the Associated Press. Biden also could counter any move to replace him by swapping individual delegates who were not planning on voting for him with delegates that would. 

A post-convention withdrawal:

Biden could also step down as the party’s nominee after the convention. In this scenario, the 435 members of the Democratic National Committee would select a new candidate, according to Kamarck’s Reuters interview. 

This has happened only once in American history. In 1972, vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton, running on a ticket with George McGovern, withdrew from the race after the convention when it became public that he had been hospitalized for depression. Eagleton’s replacement, Sargent Shriver, needed to be approved by the DNC before he could be on the ticket.

If Biden were to step down from the ticket post-convention, ballot access deadlines would be the main hurdle for Democrats. Many states’ deadlines would have passed, and any exceptions would have to be made state by state, opening the door for legal battles.

In a statement to NBC News on Wednesday, DNC Chair Jaime Harrison made it clear the party hoped its nominating process would follow the script written months before. “The primary is over, and in every state the will of Democratic voters was clear: Joe Biden will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President. Delegates are pledged to reflect voters’ sentiment, and over 99% of delegates are already pledged to Joe Biden headed into our convention,” he said.

Cole Murphy is an intern at The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. He is a student at Georgia Tech, and prior to joining the company for the 2024 summer, he worked in business strategy at The Home Depot. When Cole is not writing about elections, he is probably watching movies and listening to the Beatles.