Will President Biden Step Aside for Kamala Harris?

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In the fallout from Biden’s performance in the first presidential debate, a leading name has emerged as the president’s natural replacement: Vice President Kamala Harris.

White House and politics reporters Akayla Gardner and Gregory Korte join Big Take host Sarah Holder to unpack why the calls for a Harris candidacy are surfacing now, her access to Biden’s war chest and who else could be a contender.

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Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Sarah Holder: Democrats looking for a backup plan after Biden’s disastrous debate performance last week are starting to rally behind a candidate some might find surprising: Vice President Kamala Harris.

Despite her struggles as second-in-command, consistently tepid approval ratings among voters and doubts from pundits – Democrats that had once written her off are starting to realize Harris could have some key advantages in the fight against Trump.

For one thing – access to Biden’s over $200 million campaign war chest. Another: A CNN poll released after Biden’s debate performance showed that she’d do slightly better than the president in a hypothetical matchup with Trump – though notably, both Democrats are trailing the former president.

But even as Democrats float Biden alternatives like Harris ahead of the upcoming Democratic convention – Biden and his allies have deflected concerns about the president’s age and defended his record. At a press conference Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden is “absolutely not” considering dropping out.

Meanwhile, Harris has been positioning herself as loyal to the president. When asked in a CBS interview this week if she was prepared to lead the country, she said – quote – I'm proud to be Joe Biden's running mate.

Today on the show: Bloomberg White House correspondents Akayla Gardner and Gregory Korte on the calls for a Harris candidacy that are surfacing now, who else could be a contender, and what the chances of Harris leading the ticket really are.

Hi, Akayla and Gregory. Thank you so much for being here.

Akayla, you reported out a story – today’s Big Take –, and I'm just going to read the title: "Kamala Harris Is Having a Surprise Resurgence as Biden’s Campaign Unravels." Why is it a surprise -- and what's behind this resurgence?

Akayla Gardner: This really has a lot to do with what's played out over the last couple of days. I think we saw pretty early on people sort of floating names of very ambitious governors, people who are rumored to potentially run in 2028. But quickly, people began to realize that if Biden were to step aside, those millions of dollars that the campaign has, which is right now over $200 million on hand, would only be able to go to Kamala Harris because her name is on that line that donors have signed. And that would basically mean that anyone else would have to start from scratch, which would be very hard to do at this point with a little bit over a hundred days to the election.

Holder: Can you help us understand — the only candidate that would be able to have access to those funds would be Vice President Kamala Harris?

Gardner: I think there's a few scenarios. I think right now the understanding is that, yes, legally that she would only have that right.

Gregory Korte: If it's not Harris, then the money would likely go back to the democratic national committee, which would help a democratic presidential candidate, but the party money doesn't go as far as candidate money. There's different kinds of money. We talk about hard money. We talk about soft money. This is a little softer than the candidate money. So it would not completely go to waste if it's somebody other than Harris, but as Akayla says, when those donors signed those checks, they sent it to the Biden Harris committee. And so that money is half hers to begin with.

Holder: And Akayla, what does the latest polling indicate about how Vice President Harris might do if she were to become the Democratic nominee?

Gardner: There was a CNN poll out earlier this week that drew a lot of attention that basically showed Harris performing two points ahead of Biden against Trump. And that was really the first time that we had seen something like that. Harris has mostly polled behind Biden or about even with Biden against Trump. So this was really the first sign that we saw that she could be more competitive and really potentially signs that his debate performance is really having an impact on voters.

He just had many mishaps during that debate performance, and I think voters are starting to really question whether he can continue in this job, especially because he would be 86 at the end of the second term. He's 81 right now, and I think there's no political strategy that can really get around the fact that the president is old and people are concerned about it.

Holder: Gregory, how well is Vice President Harris doing compared to other potential nominees that have been floated like California Governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, or Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg?

Korte: Yeah we've tested all of these names in our Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll. Now this was back in May. So a lot has happened since then, but back when we did that, she was sort of what we would call the best of the rest, right? She has the highest name recognition of any of those names that you just mentioned.

Holder: What other advantages might Harris have, given that she's already the vice president?

Korte: Yeah, well, she obviously has access to Air Force Two. She can command a bully pulpit already by virtue of her office. She would, as we've talked about, be able to inherit the Biden Harris campaign's sizable war chest, the, the, the cash on hand that they have to, to run ads and, and mount a campaign.

But she also, look, compared to a lot of the other names that we mentioned, she seems ready and prepared and has the ambition to, to fill those shoes. She, by definition, as vice president, she has already said that she is ready to step in on a moment’s notice.

So I think it would be difficult for the Democratic Party to skip over her. She is the heir apparent. She seems to have Biden's support, if it came to that. On the other hand, the problem the Democrats have is they are the Democratic Party. And so, if not Biden, there would be many voices in the party arguing for an open convention, that it should not be preordained, that we should at least hear from the delegates, uh, about who their preference is.

That preference may well end up with Kamala Harris if it came to that, but I think others might, uh, also want a chance to convince the convention that they too, would be a, a good candidate.

Gardner: I would also add to that: Harris can also run on Biden's record. She is his vice president, so the same things that he is talking about and bragging about when he talks to voters, she can talk about that as well. And she's also run for president before, so she has faced national scrutiny. She has faced plenty of attacks from Republicans over the years.

Anyone new would have their record freshly scrutinized. They would be freshly attacked by the Trump campaign, by the RNC. These are things she already has built in to her favorability, to her polling numbers now. So she is already somebody who could pretty much slide into that spot without going through the same sort of reintroduction to the American public.

Holder: If Biden steps down and endorses Harris, Could other Democrats still throw their names in the ring, um, and lead to an open contest at the DNC in August?

Korte: That's possible, but kind of unlikely. And the reason is because remember that Joe Biden has 99 percent of the pledged delegates already committed to him. Now, these are delegates that are not pledged in the same sense that Republican delegates are. When we talk about Republican delegates, they're bound, they are legally required to vote for whoever, uh, they, they, uh, are, are pledged to.

The democratic rule says that the delegates shall, in all good conscience, vote for the preference of their state. Um, and so, these are Biden delegates. It would take 600 delegates, uh, to put their names on a petition for somebody else other than Biden or Harris to have their name placed in a, into nomination out of more than 4,000 delegates.

So not impossible, certainly mathematically within the realm of possibility, but would be a pretty difficult, uh, task. And as one Democrat explained it to me, it would take a Nancy Pelosi level whip counting operation, even to just figure out which of those 600 delegates could come over to your side to place your name in the nomination.

Holder: But Akayla, what would the reaction be within the Democratic Party and its voter base if Harris, for example, were passed over in favor of another rising party star, in the case that Biden might step down?

Gardner: I think there's a lot of frustration, anger from some of Harris's closest allies, um, including Reverend Al Sharpton. Um, we talked to Melanie Campbell, who's also a leader of another civil rights organization, and they felt like that would be wrong. They feel like the vice president has, you know, almost a right or is, would be the natural heir apparent in this situation.

And the optics wouldn't look good. She's the first woman of color to serve in her role. Voters of color are particularly important this election, black voters in particular. And so they might not take too kindly to her being passed over. Um, and those are constituents that Biden really needs. He's already on shaking ground with a lot of those constituents. So they may not be so happy if she were to be passed over.

Holder: Let’s game out, really quickly, what a Harris campaign might look like. Gregory, if you're a Democratic operative, what are Harris’s biggest strengths that you might look to leverage?

Korte: Well, I think one strength is the issue that she's really been running on for the Biden Harris ticket, for months now. And that is the issue of abortion. She's a woman. She can speak to that a little bit more personally than maybe Joe Biden can himself. She has gone to Florida. She's gone to states where they have passed restrictive abortion laws, some states where there's literally abortion on the ballot, where a number of states are trying to, to pass referenda or constitutional amendments to enshrine abortion rights on the ballot.

As Akayla said, she speaks to Black voters in a way that no other candidate in this race is right now. Look, these are important Democratic constituencies, uh, that Biden has historically done well with, but has struggled with, uh, over the past few months for, for a variety of reasons. Maybe it's the, the Israel Gaza war, maybe it's, uh, the state of the economy, uh, but she has done that sort of care and feeding of these constituencies while the president is busy being president.

Gardner: I would also say Harris does have a lot of connections to Wall Street. We did a story about her, um, meeting with CEOs. She'd say, sort of forged a lot of public private partnerships, um, in the administration, trying to support some of the efforts that the administration cares about, whether that's supporting minority owned businesses, uh, small businesses, dealing with the root causes of immigration. So she potentially has a pretty big pocket of donors herself to tap.

Holder: Akayla, what are seen as Vice President Harris biggest weaknesses?

Gardner: Well, I think pretty early on in the administration, she was sort of saddled with some not so popular issues. She was given the task of dealing with the root cause of immigration, which as you can imagine, um, have been created over many generations and are still are very difficult to deal with and immigration in general has been a weakness for Biden.

He has put out these executive orders in the last couple of weeks. Many people felt in preparation for the debate, knowing that Trump would likely use that against him. Um, but that is certainly something that Republicans have hit her on is because, um, the immigration. Crisis, if you will, has, um, been so acute in this country.

Um, also Republicans have sort of pounced on these video clips of her having quote unquote, word salad answers. Um, people have felt that some of her speaking engagements have felt scripted. Um, but again, these are attacks that she has faced for a many number of years. And another contender would just be freshly put into the race and have to deal with similar attacks.

Holder: Gregory, has anything like this ever happened before? An incumbent dropping out and his VP taking on the candidacy, candidacy, as we're discussing right now.

Korte: Boy I'd have to think back to pre modern times. The one, uh, precedent that we were talking about, uh, most recently is probably Lyndon Johnson who, uh, dropped out of running for reelection in 1968. But that was, that was in March and now we're in July. And so it's, uh, it's a little bit different times that the way that you campaign for president has changed a lot over the past 50 or 60 years, but also we're much, much later in the game. And so now there's, there's no real modern precedent for this.

Holder: Obviously, a lot of this is hypothetical. Biden has not indicated he's stepping down. His team has defended his debate performance and his record. What will you be watching for in the coming days to understand? This moment.

Korte: Well, the president himself has been telling members of his party that he understands they get a poor debate performance, and it's on him to try to turn around that perception. And he's also acknowledged that that kind of has to happen pretty soon. And so he's scheduled a number of interviews over the next few days.

He's going to be making some campaign visits to swing states, he’s gonna get back out on the trail. And we're going to see him in unscripted situations, right? Without a teleprompter. He's going to be doing some, uh, interviews on black radio stations in a number of, uh, key swing states over the next few days. He's going to sit down with George Stephanopoulos from ABC news, and the people are going to be watching, uh, just how he conducts himself, uh, in these interviews.

Look, he's Joe Biden. He's always stuttered. He's always been gaffe prone, but now he's under this relentless spotlight of every single misstatement is under a microscope. Uh, people are, are going to comment on it.

It's going to compound his problems. And so he really needs to be able to, to have a top notch performance over the next few days.

Holder: Thank you both so much for sharing your reporting with us. We're excited to follow where it takes you next.

Korte: Thank you for having us.

Gardner: Thank you.

Holder: That was Gregory Korte and Akayla Gardner, both White House and politics reporters at Bloomberg.

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