"Risky proposition": Experts say replacing Biden would cause "major rifts" within Democratic Party

"This would lead to a free-for-all" among Democrats and give ammo to the Trump campaign, experts say

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published June 28, 2024 3:33PM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden looks on as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden looks on as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrats are reeling in the aftermath of President Joe Biden's debate against former President Donald Trump Thursday, igniting panic among his allies — and sparking conversations about whether he should ultimately remain in the race.

His appearance at the first 2024 presidential debate Thursday night, which was moderated by CNN's Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, was billed by his campaign as an opportunity to show American voters that, contrary to concerns about his mental acuity and old age, he's capable of leading the nation in a second term.

His performance, however, left viewers and political pundits alike with much to be desired — if not an overwhelming sense of dread — as he debated the presumptive GOP nominee with a hoarse voice, slow cadence and seeming inability to counter many of his counterpart's misrepresentations. Despite some improvement as the debate dragged on, Biden delivered answers that ran the gamut from over-rehearsed to, at times, unintelligible. 

"The optics were not good," J. Wesley Leckrone, a professor of political science and department chair at Widener University, told Salon. "Biden has made a career of portraying himself as a fighter. There wasn’t much fight last night.

"I think even a casual observer could see that his demeanor was substantially different than it was when he debated Trump in 2020," he continued.

Over the course of the night, a stand-out line from Trump, whose haphazard answers often dodged the question or included a litany of lies and exaggerations, appeared to become representative of the president's showing among viewers: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence, and I don’t think he did, either.”

Just minutes into Thursday's debate, Democrats vaulted into private discussions about Biden's expected performance and peppered in concerns about whether he could even continue his campaign, Axios reports. White House officials also quickly sought to place blame over how Biden's inner circle had aided the president in his debate prep.

"He was over-prepared and relying on minutiae when all that mattered was vigor and energy," one member of Biden's circle told the outlet. "They prepared him for the wrong debate. He was over-prepared when what he needed was rest. It's confounding."

Notably, the debate — the biggest night to date for Biden's campaign — was the president's idea, with his team proposing its timing, handling the logistics and setting the ground rules. For his part, the Biden campaign also said midway through the debate that the president was battling a cold.

But even with the disclaimer, the 90-minute event would go on to spotlight the party's greatest fears about the potential for Biden's age to stymie his candidacy.

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His allies and campaign have since been scrambling to do damage control and restore confidence in the presumptive nominee for their party ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August, but among Democratic consultants another option has entered the fray as a more appealing solution: replacing Biden on the ticket altogether. 

Michael Thorning, the director of structural democracy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that while doing so is "possible," it would be "quite unusual for the party to change candidates in the middle of the election season."

"Each party has some mechanisms in place for if a candidate cannot get a majority of votes to receive the nomination or if a candidate drops out of the contest for whatever reason," he told Salon.

"The mechanisms, of course, exist as contingencies. They're not meant to be availed in most circumstances," Thorning added. "The parties are really in a position now where they do want these primary contest conventions and caucuses as much as possible to reflect the will of the voters when the convention comes."

Leckrone said that, should Biden end up out of the running in some form or fashion, the best case scenario would be, instead, for him to withdraw from the race voluntarily, release his pledged delegates and place his support behind another candidate.

Calls for Biden to withdraw have already started to roll in, and more Democrats — especially elected officials — may go public with their concerns in the wake of the debate, Axios noted. Some congressional Democrats expressed concern to the outlet late Thursday that Biden remaining on the ticket could tank their own bids in November.

Such an outcome actually taking shape, however, seems about as unlikely as it is recommended, Leckrone said. In order to deny Biden the nomination, "roughly half" of his pledged delegates would have to switch their support to another candidate on the first ballot — a move that Leckrone posited is a "real long-shot at this point in time." 

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If Democrats try to push Biden out, they risk creating "at least two major rifts that could prove very difficult to smooth over before the November election," he explained. The first would threaten to further divide the president's supporters from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who are already less committed to him. A second rift lies in the lack of a clear frontrunner who could take Biden's place, Leckrone said, noting that while the incumbent vice president would be the "natural person" to fill that role, "there is no consensus building around" nominating Vice President Kamala Harris.

"This would lead to a free-for-all to get the nomination, most likely creating rifts between the various factions of the party," he said, adding that a Biden ouster would also mean "a new nominee would have to quickly define themselves and their priorities," which would offer the opposition "the ability to define and negatively attack an unvetted candidate."

"That is a very risky proposition given the short time between the nomination and the general election," Leckrone said.

The Democrats should instead "stick with Biden" unless he chooses to withdraw from the presidential race on his own, getting the president out into the public in an "attempt to show that he has the stamina to remain president," he argued, emphasizing that "giving speeches to supportive crowds is much easier than debating. Damage control seems to be the best option."

As of Friday afternoon, that seems to be the option the Biden campaign took. During a rally in North Carolina, Biden appeared to be in better shape and spirits, coughing just a few times as he clarified his second term agenda and defended himself against the criticism that followed the debate.

"I know I’m not a young man. I don’t walk as easy as I used to," he told the crowd, according to NBC News. "I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to, but I know what I do know — I know how to tell the truth!"

Thorning said that, while Biden is receiving "an unusual outpouring of concern," even in the context of all the criticism of other candidates and presidents typically receive for their debate performances, it hardly means he's completely lost the support of his party.

"I think for the people who pay such close attention to politics and the kinds of people who are watching debates, there is a tendency to assume that there is a direct connection between what happens in the debate and people's voting decisions and ultimately the outcome in November. I don't think it's that clear that there is that strong connection," he said.

"Trump has the momentum right now. However, we’ve seen the course of campaigns change from the middle of the summer to election day in the past," Leckrone noted, adding: "I think the Democrats need to retrench, show support for Biden as the party’s standard bearer, and make the election about Trump."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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