Who could replace Joe Biden? Debate performance has Democrats in crisis talks

Who could replace Joe Biden? Debate performance has Democrats in crisis talks

“Sleepy” Joe Biden gave the Democratic Party a wake-up call on June 27. And the concerns about the incumbent president’s age and mental fitness are not going away.

Last month’s debate in Altanta, Georgia, was the president’s shot to bat away concerns about whether he can effectively serve a second term, one that would end well into his 80s.

Instead, apparently battling a cold, Biden appeared raspy and hoarse onstage, forgetting words at times and at other points seemingly losing track of his point altogether.

Democratic sources who spoke to The Independent and a wide range of other media outlets immediately after the debate were in panic mode, with some openly fretting about whether it was possible for their party to do the unthinkable: replace a sitting, incumbent president on the ticket after he breezed through primary season virtually uncontested.

Five days later, the first sitting Democratic lawmaker came out with a public call for Biden to drop out fo the race. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Biden told an ally that he was weighing his future in the race depending on how well his public appearances go in the coming days.

So is it possible for Joe Biden to drop out? And who would replace him at the top of the Democratic ballot?

The short answer is yes, it is possible. But it would be messy.

Joe Biden is not technically the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Not yet.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is set to hold its nominating convention from August 19 to 22 — thousands of delegates, elected officials, union leaders, activists, party bigwigs, lobbyists and others will descend on Chicago for a four-day convention wherein Biden (or somebody else) will officially be nominated on the floor.

The president (or his replacement) will then accept the nomination and deliver a keynote speech on the final night of the convention.

People in Los Angeles watching the first 2024 presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty)
People in Los Angeles watching the first 2024 presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty)

Here’s the catch: the outcome of that nominating process is already Biden’s, unless he refuses it. Biden has repeatedly said he’s committed to staying in the race and taking part in the second debate with Trump in September.

The president won all 50 states and all US territories in the Democratic Party primary contest season this spring, netting him all but a few of the delegates whose votes are needed to secure the nomination.

They’re bound to vote for him on the first ballot in the nominating process — the same round in which unbound “superdelegates”, who can cast their votes as they please, are prohibited from participating.

So, unless Biden himself drops out, the incumbent president will very much be his party’s nominee come August.

If he does exit the race, however, that would lead to the prospect of an open convention — all those delegates bound to vote for Biden would spend the weeks leading up to the convention being courted by whichever Democrats jumped into the race to replace the president.

Voters, who actually participated in the primary process this year, would have no say at all — the outcome would be decided in a series of ballots at the August convention, with each candidate working to consolidate the required total.

If that happens, there are a few prominent members of the president’s party who could throw their hats in the ring:

Kamala Harris

The single most likely replacement for Biden is clearly his vice president, Kamala Harris, whose constitutional duties include stepping in if the president is unable to continue serving in office.

Vice president Kamala Harris would be the obvious person to step in to fill Biden’s shoes given her constitutional duties – but her own run for the nomination in 2020 was notably unsuccessful (AP)
Vice president Kamala Harris would be the obvious person to step in to fill Biden’s shoes given her constitutional duties – but her own run for the nomination in 2020 was notably unsuccessful (AP)

She’s only one out of two of the likely suspects who has actually run a presidential campaign (albeit an unsuccessful one) and has the most national name recognition of any Democrat who could convincingly join the presidential race.

However, the former California attorney general and US senator does not enjoy widespread public support and is something of a hate-figure for the right, who have long alleged that Biden is only a “Trojan horse” candidate being used to win back the White House before stepping down to allow her to take over.

That conspiracy theory was directly referred to in one of Trump’s most recent attack videos, in which she was referred to as “Cackling Kamala.”

Pete Buttigieg

Biden’s secretary of transportation, Buttigieg is another former 2020 contender (along with Harris) who could make a bid for the White House if Biden were to bow out.

Pete Buttigieg ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020 and has served as transportation secretary since Biden took office (AP)
Pete Buttigieg ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020 and has served as transportation secretary since Biden took office (AP)

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is naturally charismatic and has military service on his resume, which would put him apart from his fellows, not least Donald Trump, recipient of no fewer than five draft deferrals to excuse him from participating in the Vietnam War during his youth.

But, as transport secretary, Buttigieg has often been the administration’s fall guy, left holding the bag when air-traffic control disasters, major train derailments or bridge collapses take place, undoing a lot of the good work he does in taking the fight to conservative media, appearing semi-regularly on Fox News to offer vigorous counter-arguments.

Gretchen Whitmer

The Michigan governor is widely popular in her state and is seen as one of the leaders of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party in the post-Biden era.

Gretchen Whitmer is seen as one of the leaders of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party (AP)
Gretchen Whitmer is seen as one of the leaders of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party (AP)

She won re-election in 2022 by a wide margin buoyed by support for reproductive rights and her management of the Covid pandemic, turning a purple state blue with relative ease.

Not everyone relished her tough leadership in lockdown though and she remains best known nationally for a Michigan militia group’s plot to kidnap her, which was fortunately foiled by undercover FBI agents.

Gavin Newsom

One of the most obvious choices to succeed Biden as nominee is the governor of California, whose personal wealth and prolific fundraising abilities would make him a fearsome adversary on the money front.

Gavin Newsom has pledged to finish his second term as governor of California (AP)
Gavin Newsom has pledged to finish his second term as governor of California (AP)

Newsom is in the middle of a second term as governor of his state — therein lies a problem, however, as he pledged during his 2022 re-election campaign that he would serve a full four years in office if sent back to the office.

Like Buttigieg, he has won plaudits for arguing the Democratic point-of-view on Fox and memorably went head-to-head with his Florida counterpart Ron DeSantis – who he has trolled with a series of adverts – in a televised debate last year. Newsom has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Biden, including in the wake of Thursday night’s debate.

Wes Moore

The first-term governor of Maryland would be a long shot for the nomination against others with more national recognition, but he makes up for his relative political obscurity with an unmistakeable talent for being in front of the cameras and a positive track record in his short time in office.

Wes Moore gained some national profile during his response to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge in his home state of Maryland (AP)
Wes Moore gained some national profile during his response to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge in his home state of Maryland (AP)

Already, he has secured the future of the Baltimore Orioles in the state and he has also been the public face of Maryland’s rebuilding efforts following a disaster that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, an iconic Baltimore landmark and essential part of the city’s port infrastructure.

Moore graduated from Johns Hopkins University, and, like Buttigieg, is both a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a military veteran.

He is also the author of five books, one of which is a young adult novel.

J.B. Pritzker

The Illinois governor has been in office since 2019. A member of the wealthy Pritzker family, which owns the hotel chain Hyatt, the attorney and businessman has long been a financial benefactor of the Democrats.

He won a packed primary in 2018 to become the Democratic nominee and he was reelected in 2022.

JB Pritzker won a crowded 2018 primary to become the Democratic nominee for governor in Illinois (Getty Images for The Democratic Party of Wisconsin)
JB Pritzker won a crowded 2018 primary to become the Democratic nominee for governor in Illinois (Getty Images for The Democratic Party of Wisconsin)

His early political career included stints on congressional legislative staffs in the 1980s, and founding an organization focused on attracting younger voters to the party.

Chairing the Illinois Human Rights Commission from 2003 to 2006, he went on to serve as a national co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and was a delegate to the 2008 and 2016 Democratic conventions.

In a 1998 Democratic primary for the 9th congressional district in Illinois, he finished third in a field of five candidates.