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Indulging Some What-Ifs
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Indulging Some What-Ifs

A primer on filing deadlines, primary season, and what happens if a nominee is incapacitated.

(Photos by Angela Weiss and Mandel Ngan/ AFP/Getty Images)

I relish the role of calling humbug on the political press. I’m the guy who loves to tell overheated pressies that no, there won’t be a contested convention or that, no, the polls aren’t all wrong, or, no, the Cabinet won’t be invoking the 25th Amendment.

Bored reporters who tire of political stasis are quick to see the seams through which massive disruptions could emerge. That’s fine. It’s good to know where to look. But when the game of “what if” goes from an occasional pastime to a mainstay of coverage, it keeps our audiences from getting the correct proportions when it comes to thinking about the contests as they really are.

I have, therefore, risen again and again to the challenge of explaining why the frontrunners in both major parties—particularly the sitting president—are likely to be renominated, that the sitting vice president is unlikely to be discarded, or that a third-party candidate is unlikely to ascend to the presidency.

And yet … 

Picture the split screen: Over here, you’ve got the Republican frontrunner ranting and raving in a courthouse hallway during a break from the first of five trials in which he is going to be sitting at the defendant’s table. Over there, you have the incumbent president’s son exiting a federal courthouse after pleading not guilty to weapons charges. Hither is the House Republican Conference melting down into a puddle of rage and hair gel after, for the first time in history, evicting a speaker. Thither is Joe Biden, dazed and confused, trying to mutter his way through a brief encounter with the press corps.

As much as I like to pooh-pooh notions of radical departures from expected outcomes in politics, even I’ve got to say that we are in a moment of, Heaven help me, unprecedented events. 

With that in mind, and relying on the good research of my American Enterprise Institute colleague, Nate Moore, I point you to some spots in the calendar when we could see the kinds of West Wing-style plot twists that would fulfill the wildest dreams of the conspiracy theorists and drama lovers in the political press.

 Now Through New Year’s Day

About two dozen states have filing deadlines prior to the New Year, including notable early primary states New Hampshire (October 27) and Michigan (November 11). Should something happen to either President Biden or former President Trump during or shortly after this filing period, state election officials can generally adjust filing deadlines to give more candidates time to file. However, depending on ballot-printing procedures and the cooperation of election officials, some early primary states might not be able to adjust their deadline. 

A serious Biden primary challenger would likely need to get into the race in the next few weeks. A challenge grows much more difficult as filing deadlines begin to pass. The same applies for a late Glenn Youngkin or Brian Kemp campaign. 

January to June (Primary Season)

The final primaries will be held June 4, with elections in the District of Columbia, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

Should a candidate die or become incapacitated during primary season, states can postpone primaries and extend filing deadlines. We saw postponements and extensions during the 2020 primaries because of COVID. Some states pushed back their primaries, while others expanded vote by mail. 

Voters/campaigns have a few options:

  • Uncommitted line: Some states include an “uncommitted” line on their ballots. Voters could select uncommitted if they are unhappy with the remaining options. This is essentially a protest vote. 
  • Write-in campaign: New candidates could wage a write-in campaign—an option floated by the Biden campaign if he declines to file in New Hampshire over the Granite State’s spat with the DNC, which voted to make South Carolina the first state on its primary calendar. 
  • Cutting a deal: A candidate who missed filing deadlines could cut a deal with a long-shot candidate who announced early—e.g. a vote for Marianne Williamson is actually a vote for Gretchen Whitmer, a vote for Asa Hutchinson is actually a vote for Glenn Youngkin. But this strategy requires intense campaign coordination and can confuse voters.

End of Primaries to Conventions

If a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the end of the primaries and the day of the roll call at the convention, the process would play out similar to how it did prior to the 1969 McGovern-Fraser Reforms, which laid the groundwork for our current primary system. 

The Republican National Convention will be held July 15-18 in Milwaukee. The Democratic National Convention will be held August 19-22 in *ahem* Chicago.

All delegates won by the now-absent candidate would be uncommitted. Candidates would then work the room to secure state delegations—à la  John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson battling it out behind closed doors at the 1960 DNC. 

Both parties’ rules are vague about releasing delegates from their pledge in case of death or incapacitation:

  • DNC 2024 Delegate Selection Rules: “Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” (The “good conscience” clause presumably allows delegates to vote for someone other than a deceased candidate.) 
  • There is no clear direction in the latest iteration of RNC delegate selection rules. The party would likely have to pass a new rule to allow delegates to break their pledge.

Conventions to Election Day

What about a vacancy that happens after the parties have nominated candidates for president? Here’s where things get very interesting. The short answer is that it would fall to the members of the standing Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, not the delegates to the now concluded conventions to make the choice. Rather than thousands of delegates, it would be hundreds of party leaders. The insiders of the insiders. And they could pick anyone they like.

The RNC fills nominee vacancies according to Rule 9 of party rules, which states:

  • “The Republican National Committee members representing any state shall be entitled to cast the same number of votes as said state was entitled to cast at the national convention.” Each state has three RNC members so it is necessary to clarify that states will be apportioned the same voting power as at the convention.
  • If a state’s RNC members do not agree on a candidate, “the votes of such state shall be divided equally.”
  • A majority of votes is required for a candidate to win the nomination. 

The DNC fills nominee vacancies according to the party charter. 

  • “A special meeting to fill a vacancy on the National ticket shall be held on the call of the Chairperson.” Unlike the RNC, DNC members are already apportioned by population. 
  • A majority of members is required to nominate a new presidential or vice-presidential candidate. This last happened in 1972. Vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton resigned from the ticket and Sargent Shriver replaced him. Though McGovern “picked” Shriver, the full DNC actually nominated him.

How do states respond to a late nominee replacement? 

  • State deadlines for placing party presidential nominees on the ballot begin in the back half of August. In West Virginia, for example, the deadline is 70 days before the general election (August 27, 2024). In Colorado and Alaska, it’s 64 days before (September 2, 2024). Other states, including Michigan, require parties to submit nominees in the days following the convention
  • If a candidate dies or becomes ineligible after the party submits his or her name to the states, things grow more complicated. There are provisions in state laws about replacing deceased candidates, but these vary state by state. The parties could turn to the courts for emergency relief. In 2002, for example, Robert Torricelli ended his Senate campaign on September 30. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled the Democratic Party could replace Torricelli with Frank Lautenberg—even though the statutory deadline had passed. 
  • Election law experts suggest that if a replacement candidate were selected prior to October 1, the replacement likely would still appear on the ballot. 
  • If the nominee dies within a month of Election Day, it is possible that the replacement candidate would appear on some states’ ballots, but the deceased candidate would appear on others. 
  • If the deceased candidate appeared on the ballot, voters would vote for the deceased candidate knowing the party had selected a replacement (almost certainly the VP nominee). Example: Mel Carnahan died on October 16, 2000, but still won the  Missouri Senate election a couple weeks later after the governor announced his wife would be appointed to the seat. 

Election Day to Inauguration Day

On December 17, 2024, electors meet in their respective states and vote for the president and vice president. 

A majority of states bind their electors to vote for the statewide winner. If the winning candidate has passed away, legislatures would likely amend state law to allow electors to vote for the party’s replacement nominee (again, almost certainly the vice presidential candidate). 

  • However, partisan politics can make things hairy here. Say President Biden dies after narrowly winning reelection. Nearly all Biden electors move to Vice President Kamala Harris, but a Republican legislature in a Biden-won state refuses to amend state law to allow their electors to change their vote. In this case, it might actually make sense for electors to vote for the dead candidate – ensuring they break the requisite 270. 
  • All these hypotheticals would undoubtedly be challenged in the courts. 

If the president-elect dies between December 17 and January 6, things can also get difficult —depending on who controls Congress. If Biden dies and Republicans control the House and Senate, they could refuse to count Biden’s Electoral College ballots. No candidate having a majority, then, the election could in theory move to the House—one vote for each state. If Democrats controlled Congress, they would likely confirm Biden’s victory and Harris would take over on Inauguration Day. Regardless of party control, expect more legal challenges. 

If the president-elect dies between January 6 and January 20, Section III of the 20th Amendment instructs that the vice president-elect shall become president.

Whew …

We probably won’t need to worry about any of that, but thanks to Nate, I can at least say that I didn’t let my humbugging proclivities leave you ill-equipped if things get truly weird.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.0%
Average disapproval: 54.0%
Net score: -13.0 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.2 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 0.8 points

[Average includes: Marquette: 39% approve-61% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Maris: 43% approve-51% disapprove; Monmouth: 39% approve-55% disapprove; NewsNation: 43% approve-57% disapprove; Emerson: 41% approve-47% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


Wall Street Journal: “Golfers use their handicaps to equalize competition. … The trouble results from the fact that golf scores are self-reported, making handicaps subject to manipulation. Complaints about ‘sandbaggers’—players suspected of keeping their handicaps artificially high—are nearly as old as the sport. … George Thurner became tired of the complaints. … He wanted to create a system to objectively identify members whose handicaps needed adjustment. Thurner spent 15 months building a model. The resulting algorithm includes 43 variables. It looks at how a player’s handicap has moved over time, trying to identify suspicious patterns. … The system recommends which players’ handicaps need tweaks, and then the club’s handicap committee can decide on adjustments. ‘I did this for the love of the game, expecting to use it for my club only,’ Thurner says. But other clubs began calling. … Beyond servicing the clubs who are clients, Thurner’s data on 600,000 golfers give him unique insights into how golfers play in relation to their handicaps.” 


Politico: “McCarthy’s defenestration in Washington leaves beleaguered House Republicans in his home state, whose seats he helped defend, preparing to spend the next 13 months without one of their biggest assets. … ‘He was a phenomenal fundraiser and phenomenal recruiter,’ Matt Shupe, a California Republican strategist said… Republican Reps. Michelle Steel, Young Kim, Mike Garcia, David Valadao, and John Duarte were already in vulnerable territory before Tuesday’s dramatic unseating of McCarthy. … With the former speaker now stripped of his power, the fight to maintain a hold on their districts — and by extension, GOP control in Congress — got much more daunting. … Democratic consultants were jubilant that McCarthy’s ouster could boost their candidates in a half-dozen or so swing districts across California.”

And could prompt a rash of retirements: Cook Political Report: “For most House Republicans, especially the 23 from districts where Trump took less than half of the vote in 2020, the idea that eight “chaos agents” can overthrow the will of 96% of the conference is profoundly demoralizing. … The latest upheaval and uncertainty raises the possibility that more will look for an alternative career path rather than persist in an atmosphere of hostage-taking and infighting. … The Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday breaks are prime time for career reflection, and if McCarthy allies such as Rep. David Valadao (CA-22) or Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) were to have second thoughts about sticking around, that would further complicate Republicans’ path to winning a more functional majority in 2024.” 


Politico: “Nikki Haley’s momentum looks like it’s for real. A new poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire shows it’s the former South Carolina governor — not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — running second in the first primary state. Haley beat DeSantis 19 percent to 10 percent in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA TODAY survey released on Wednesday morning. … But they both remain far behind the frontrunner, Donald Trump. The former president leads his Republican rivals with 49 percent support in the poll of 500 likely GOP primary voters. … DeSantis’ freefall in New Hampshire — he once led Trump in the state, back in a January poll — has opened up a real race for second place in the first-in-the-nation primary state that could energize Republicans critical of Trump.”


NPR: “Laphonza Butler, a former labor leader and Democratic strategist, was sworn-in as California’s new U.S. Senator on Tuesday. … Butler takes office amid mounting speculation over whether she will run for a full term next year. … The window to jump into the Senate race is narrowing. Candidates have to file for the seat by December 8 and voting begins in early February. Butler would have to quickly stand up a campaign to compete with a primary field that includes Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. … Butler’s candidacy could especially complicate the path forward for Lee, who has trailed Schiff and Porter in early polling and fundraising. … Criticism of Butler focused in part on her residency in Maryland. She moved to the East Coast to lead EMILYs List but still owns a house in California.”

Poll: Kim laps Menendez in Garden State primary: New Jersey Globe: “Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) starts out with a big advantage in the 2024 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate according to a new poll released [Thursday] morning. … The poll … finds that in a head-to-head between Kim and incumbent Senator Bob Menendez, Kim has a dominant 63%-10% lead. … Kim may not get the anti-Menendez lane to himself, however; other notable Democrats are also considering the race, most prominently First Lady Tammy Murphy. … The poll contains nothing but bad news, though, for Menendez.” 

Lake jumps into Arizona Senate race: Politico: “The conservative firebrand and ardent Donald Trump supporter had teased a run for weeks with expectations of a campaign launch for early October. … Lake will enter the race as the heavy favorite to emerge from the GOP primary. But the general election is far less certain. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) has hinted that she plans to run for reelection as an independent, while Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) has been campaigning for the seat for months.”

Former Detroit police chief launches long-shot Senate bid: New York Times: “James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, announced on Tuesday that he was running for the Senate seat in Michigan being vacated by Debbie Stabenow. … Mr. Craig ran for governor of Michigan last year and was leading early Republican primary polls until he was disqualified because of forged signatures on his nominating petition. But he enters the Senate race as an underdog. In the Republican primary, national party leaders are already backing former Representative Mike Rogers. In the general election, Michigan is viewed by both parties as, at best, a secondary battleground.”

Dolan, Moreno neck and neck in Ohio money race: The Messenger: “Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan announced raising $4.1 million for his Senate bid Wednesday morning. … While Dolan has loaned his effort $7 million, he has also seen an uptick in individual contributions. … His fundraising haul is similar to his opponent Bernie Moreno, the former car dealership owner who announced raising $4 million in the same time period. This quarter, Moreno loaned his campaign $3 million. Last quarter, he raised $2.2 million from individual contributors. … The GOP primary to take on Brown is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the country. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is also in the running. … Ohio’s junior senator, J.D. Vance, has endorsed Moreno. And Trump has praised Moreno’s candidacy, a sign that he could potentially receive the most powerful endorsement in GOP politics.”


Cornel West ditches Green Party, will run as independent—Wall Street Journal

Andy McCarthy cautions GOP on overconfidence—National Review 

After floating Biden primary challenge, Rep. Dean Phillips steps down from Dem leadership—The Hill

Dems will net a seat after court picks new Alabama map—Politico


“They were able to recover the car, my phone within a couple hours. I want to thank them. But what really got me upset was they took my sushi.”—Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) focuses on the important stuff after being carjacked at gunpoint near his Capitol Hill home late on Monday night. 


“A couple weeks ago (I think on Ink Stained Wretches?) you made a comment about the issue of the warrior class and the small percentage of families who functionally support the armed forces. I’m just writing to ask if that is something you could expand on a bit in your column? I am a military spouse and have a lot of concerns about how uncommon military service is becoming. As a community we feel very distant from the average American but I don’t have the historical knowledge to explain that phenomenon.”—Cecilia Firebaugh, Raphine, Virginia

Well, first and most heartily: Thank you! Americans owe a great debt to families like yours. But, as you observe, the distribution of service has become narrow within our population. I grew up in West Virginia, which then boasted one of the highest shares of veterans in its population of any state. My dad was in the Army, and so was his father, but, importantly, both had been drafted. Neither my brother nor I, who both came of age in peacetime, served. While it’s logical that the size of our military would fluctuate depending on the needs in the field, what worries me is how socio-economics, family tradition, and geography intersect with an all-volunteer force. We don’t want a civilian elite that lacks the perspective of military service, nor do we want a military that sees itself as set apart from normal civilian life. America needs citizen soldiers and soldiers (and Marines and sailors and airmen) who return to civilian life to add their perspectives. A healthy republic should not have a distinct military caste. I promise I will do some research and report back with what I find!

“I have a question for you about election reform. … I am as disgusted with our current state of politics as the next moderate, so I dream of election reform ideas. My current late-night sexy fantasies are jungle primaries and ranked-choice voting, as a way to empower moderates and push the radical nutjobs to the fringes where they belong.  Looking at ballotpedia, I see that Nevada is doing its second round of voting for reform and that Oregon has a possible initiative in the works.  But that’s the extent of things—Arizona even has a proposed amendment that looks to me to be trying to forbid these ideas (Require Partisan Primaries Amendment).  What do your latest set of sacrificial entrails tell you? Am I just being pessimistic and impatient, and that these ideas really are possible large-scale given voters’ experience with them and some time?  Or would you argue that they’re probably never going to go mainstream—there’s little hope they’ll be our shining unicorn-esque solution to our current problems?”—Brandon Hartley, Bettendorf, Iowa

I know I’m dealing with a true Iowan, Mr. Hartley, since your “late-night sexy fantasies” relate to the nominating practices of political parties! But I get it. You have a front-row seat for the cuckoo-bananas way that our parties choose their nominees. While I truly admire the seriousness and patriotism Iowans bring to your state’s role as first-to-choose, the caucuses also point to weaknesses in a system that has evolved over the past five decades. But the way out is the same way we came in: a little bit at a time and by trial and error. Electoral reforms are underway in many states. Maine and Alaska are already using ranked-choice voting, as are many cities. Other states, notably California and Washington, have moved to “top two” primaries in which the top finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Nebraska does so for its nonpartisan, unicameral state legislature. In addition to ranked-choice voting, Alaska has a “final four” primary system for state and congressional elections in which four candidates advance to November, regardless of party affiliation. There are advantages and disadvantages to any system of nomination, but what’s essential now is the experimentation so that states can explore those strengths and weaknesses. It took a long time to get into the bog of primary elections as we have known them since the 1970s. It will take some time to get back out, but the good news is that Americans increasingly seem to understand the need for change.

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


Former President Donald Trump briefly dances after speaking at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump briefly dances after speaking at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A picture that is itself funny can be a tough task for our cutliners. Like a New Yorker cartoon, the Cutline Contest runs mostly on applying a funny concept to an ordinary scene. And this week’s photo needs no help at all in being very comical: funny face, funny posture, funny tie length, fireworks. Blammo, indeed. It was made even harder by the fact that the subject isn’t saying anything himself at the moment the photo was taken, so our best entrants were the ones, like our winner, who used the narrative tone of a traditional cutline:

“Sparks flew as he indulged their cries for air cello …”—David Porter, Tampa, Florida

Winner, The Revengers Division:

“Zap! And Captain Murrica vaporized his mortal enemy, the evil Jack Smith.”—Paul Williams, Shaker Heights, Ohio

Winner, The Last Hairbender Division:

“My firebending skills are magnificent—unparalleled, really.”—Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri

Winner, Some People Say It’s the Funkiest Town of All Time Division:

“I ALWAYS got into 54.  I’ve been to Funkytown many times —that I can tell you.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Puddy in His Hands Division:

“And then at the office party, Elaine danced like this.”—Michael Smith, Georgetown, Kentucky

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


Orange County [Calif.] Register: “Once a month for the past 28 years, filmmaker Gerry Fialka has convened a book group to read James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake,’ a book that is famously difficult to understand. This Tuesday, Oct. 3, Fialka’s Venice-Wake group, which he launched at the Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1995 and has continued on Zoom since the pandemic, will reach the book’s final page. … The group’s deliberate pace meant they weren’t going to zip through it. ‘We do one page and then discuss it for two hours,’ he says, and laughs. ‘That’s why it’s taken us 28 years.’ … ‘It’s like, “Well, we’re never going to read another book. It’s just one book, you know?”’ he says of the project. … This Tuesday involves reading the final page of the book, so does that mean they’re finished? ‘No, we’re never done. The same thing will happen next month,’ he says. ‘We’ll read page three again next. … There’s nothing different really.’” 

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.