The smoke-filled room that could oust Joe Biden

Here's a possible way Joe Biden isn't the Democratic nominee

Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

Never was former Vice President Joe Biden the 2020 dream. He promised electability and familiarity, which turned out to be good enough for a plurality of Democratic voters in the early primaries.

But now that every other Democratic contender has dropped out and dutifully lined up behind the presumptive nominee, that choice might be sitting less comfortably. Biden is campaigning from his basement, giving interviews in which he occasionally moves past gaffes into total incoherence, raising questions about his mental fitness. Worst of all, evidence for a sexual assault allegation against him begins to mount.

Add that to pandemic-induced uncertainty about when and how the Democratic National Convention will be held and it's fair to ask: Is Biden definitely the nominee? Right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson as well as former Bernie Sanders Press Secretary Briahna Joy Gray have speculated Biden will be replaced on the ticket, but how could that happen? Is there a path to nominating someone else?

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Before the convention, which is currently rescheduled for August, the answer is probably no. Suspended primary elections have already raised concerns about abrogation of transparent, democratic processes — as have elections that weren't suspended. While Democratic delegates will understand the need to modify normal convention procedure to avoid spreading COVID-19, their understanding won't be unlimited. Sweeping changes to the nominating process would be suspect, and if the process continues as anticipated, Biden will very likely be selected as the nominee on the first ballot.

So far, Biden has 1,406 of 1,991 delegates needed to win that initial vote, and those are delegates pledged (by strong custom, though not law) to Biden by primary and caucus results. Between now and August, there will be 22 more primaries whose outcomes will pledge another 1,368 delegates. Biden has no remaining challengers campaigning against him and needs fewer than half those delegates to win the first ballot. Unless the Democratic Party, wildly improbably, tosses its entire rule book out the window, Biden will take the nomination at the convention in a single vote.

Ah, but what then? In the waning days of the Sanders campaign, I argued endorsements from superdelegates — prominent Democratic leaders and elected officials — showed party bosses had decided Biden was their guy. I don't expect to see those endorsements disappear, not publicly. But is the party leadership's commitment to Biden as solid as it once was?

Suppose, plausibly, it is not. Suppose they don't want to run a historically elderly candidate amid a pandemic that is deadliest for the elderly? Suppose Tara Reade's assault accusation and Biden's tendency to misspeak even from the low-pressure, high-preparation environment of his own basement further fuel the "two senile sex offenders" narrative of this election? Suppose enthusiasm continues to grow for running New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whom one poll found 56 percent of Democrats would prefer to Biden as their nominee? (Cuomo says he won't do it, but that could be an obligatory performance of deference to a party elder.)

"The presidential debates are in effect already occurring daily between" Cuomo and Trump, Craig Snyder, a former Republican Senate chief of staff, argued in The Philadelphia Inquirer. We don't have to suppose Democratic Party leaders have noticed; they undoubtedly have.

So if they wanted to replace Biden (whether with Cuomo, the veep nominee, or some arrangement of both) Democratic leadership could wait until after the nomination to do so. Then, as they did with Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton in 1972, they could ask Biden to step aside, citing his health.

Biden's agreement is a long shot. Eagleton continued his Senate career after leaving the 1972 ticket over pressure about his mental health, but he was a much younger man. At Biden's age, stepping aside would end his political career for good. Relinquishing the nomination would therefore suggest he expects an embarrassing loss and ruined legacy if he stays.

With Biden out, the Democratic National Committee, a group of around 350 which is "composed of the chairs and vice-chairs of each state Democratic Party Committee and over 200 members elected by Democrats in all 57 states and the territories," would vote to select a new nominee.

Such a switch could be made any time between the convention nomination and Election Day. Because we technically vote for Electoral College members rather than presidential candidates, it may be, as Vox proposes, that Electors could simply transfer their vote from the old Democratic nominee to the new one regardless of what was printed on the ballot. But the legal situation is uncertain and varies from state to state. "For instance," notes FiveThirtyEight, "Michigan's law requires an Elector to vote for the ticket named on the ballot whereas Florida's rules say that an Elector is to 'vote for the candidates of the party that he or she was nominated to represent.'" That means a sooner swap, allowing more states to print the new name on the ballot, would be better. Yet court battles would be inevitable with the ever-litigious Trump involved.

The likeliest outcome remains the most straightforward: That Biden will be the Democratic nominee and will face Trump in November. But if Democratic leaders did want to change horses midstream, late August or September could well be when they make their move.

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