Experts: If it isn't Joe, it has to be Kamala — here's why

Changing nominees now will be a huge mess, experts warn — but Kamala Harris is the only realistic option

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published July 6, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris enter for a campaign event at Girard College in Philadelphia, Pa on Wednesday May 29, 2024. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris enter for a campaign event at Girard College in Philadelphia, Pa on Wednesday May 29, 2024. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the wake of President Joe Biden's widely-panned debate showing last week, Vice President Kamala Harris has of course been mentioned on the list of preferred potential replacements as calls for Biden to drop out of the race mount. But commentators have cast the net widely, suggesting such other Democrats as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and various others.

But in the still-unlikely event that the president decides to end his re-election bid, Harris would be the most likely Democrat to take his place, seven senior sources at the Biden campaign, the White House and the Democratic National Committee told Reuters — even if she's not the top choice among pundits.

Biden's lackluster debate performance — characterized by a raspy voice and occasional incoherence that his team explained away as effects of a cold — has ignited panic among Democratic insiders and regular voters alike over whether he's fit enough to handle a second term. Over the last week, Biden's team has scrambled to do damage control as he hits the campaign trail and makes media appearances in hopes of inspiring confidence and altering the clearly unfavorable momentum of his race against Donald Trump.

The conversation around Biden's age and ability to lead the country for four more years is one that "the Biden team was able to delay because there wasn't a really serious primary" in this year's race, argues Kevin McMahon, a professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut.

Biden's "debate performance was truly disastrous," McMahon told Salon, adding that he believes the president should step aside. "Now it becomes a question not just of Democrats holding on to the White House," he added, but preventing a Trump presidency. Democrats have "campaigned heavily" on the premise that "another Trump presidency will be destructive to American democracy. So if that's true, you want the best person who can defeat Trump." 

Influential Democrats have thrown out numerous options besides Harris, including the governors mentioned above as well as Michelle Obama, who has never expressed interest in running for office. But in reality, going around Harris to nominate another Democrat might well prove next to impossible, both logistically and financially.

Campaign finance laws allow for a presidential candidate and running mate to use one campaign fund when they run on the same ticket, but tightly limit the transfer of those funds to other candidates in the event of a presidential candidate's withdrawal, experts at the Campaign Legal Center told the American Prospect.   

Democrats have "campaigned heavily" on the premise that "another Trump presidency will be destructive to American democracy. So if that's true, you want the best person who can defeat Trump." 

If Biden wanted to transfer money from his account to another presidential candidate, he would be limited to $2,000 per election. Should he withdraw from the race, he could transform his campaign committee into a political action committee, or PAC, that would allow him to donate another $3,300 to another candidate — but those meager sums pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions the president's re-election campaign has raised.

Such a newly-formed Biden PAC could theoretically launch an independent expenditure campaign to support a different candidate or the president could refund all the remaining money to donors, notes the Prospect — but the cleanest solution would be to name Harris as the new nominee. She could easily claim all existing campaign funds because she and Biden are already on the same ticket.

Furthermore, Biden passing the reins to Harris would provide a smoother transition for the party in what would already be a chaotic and unprecedented change at this point in the election cycle, according to James Vike, a professor of political science at Widener University. 

Biden has various options should he choose to drop out, Vike told Salon: "One would be to kind of endorse" Harris, and another would be "to just step aside."

Vike added that he "couldn't imagine" Biden "stepping away from the campaign and espousing support for a different candidate. That would be quite unusual. The very role, the very purpose of the vice president," he said, is to be present "in the event that the president cannot perform the duties" of the office. Given that, if a president becomes incapacitated for any reason, or voluntarily withdraws, "you would anticipate" that the vice president or vice-presidential nominee would step in. 

Rallying behind Harris would also offer Biden the opportunity to "step out a little more gracefully," McMahon added. "His choice for vice president will be the new nominee. She could say, 'I will consult with him a lot,' or something like that. That makes it a little easier for Biden to accept this transition, if he ultimately does so."

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Still, according to the Reuters report quoted earlier, some influential Democrats view Harris as a back-burner choice because they don't feel she can beat Trump.

The push for non-Harris alternatives hinges on the "notion of trying to find someone else that has less pre-established negative bias," Vike explained. 

Democrats' goal might be to identify "a positive message candidate," Vike said, "somebody that can actually mobilize people who aren't purely driven by the by their oppositional standing," he said. "Looking at the potential alternative Democratic candidates, people are starting to say, not only can we bring together the anti-Trump coalition, maybe we can inspire some previously disaffected or previously disengaged individuals and get them excited about the prospect of something new."

Harris' polling has been relatively poor throughout her term in office, and hasn't improved significantly despite her involvement in advocating for abortion rights, a decisive issue for many Democrats. She has also been subjected to a barrage of sexist and racist attacks from Republicans and conservative media, not to mention the criticism she felt from progressives over her record as California attorney general.

Some of the lesser-known governors Democrats have floated as possible Biden replacements seem attractive as "people that don't have pre-existing negative associations" and "have shown some electoral success in the past," Vike said. "I think that's where some people are looking," in hopes of infusing the anti-Trump coalition with "a positive aspirational vision."

Top Democratic consultants reportedly weighed in on the Biden dilemma during a private call with an audience of Democratic donors Tuesday, according to Semafor. While former Bill Clinton aide James Carville offered advice on how best to oust Biden and former White House strategist Paul Begala professed neutrality, consultant Dmitri Mehlhorn argued that swing voters may be concerned with Biden's ability to lead, but like Harris even less.

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“Kamala Harris is more threatening to those swing voters than a dead Joe Biden or a comatose Joe Biden,” he reportedly said. “So if Joe has to go, it’s gonna be Kamala and if it’s Kamala, it’s gonna be harder.”

After floating Whitmer and Newsom names as possible replacements last weekend, three Democratic donors who have been applying pressure on Biden to drop out said this week they believe it will be "impossible" to sidestep the vice president. 

"There is a real conversation in the Democratic party about leadership right now, but fair to say, and I'm not thrilled about this ... it will be impossible to ignore Kamala," one donor told Reuters.

"She's nobody's choice," another added, agreeing that going around Harris would be "nearly impossible." 

Harris' approval ratings are below 40 percent, Reuters added, and recent polling flagged by the Biden campaign indicates that she and the president have similar odds of beating Trump.  

"Do the Democrats really want to choose somebody like Newsom, another white male, and kick out a Black woman who's a historic vice president?" It would be "very difficult to do that unless you know Harris is on board."

Harris trailed Trump by just one point (43 to 42 percent) in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday, which is within the poll's margin of error and statistically just as strong as Biden's standing versus Trump. For all her perceived negatives, the vice president has already been vetted for national office and weathered intense Republican scrutiny, sources told Reuters.

Selecting a Democratic nominee other than Harris would also raise a concern about optics, McMahon argued. 

"Do the Democrats really want to choose somebody like Newsom, another white male, and kick out a Black woman who's a historic vice president?" he said, adding that it would be "very difficult to do that unless you know Harris is on board."

To this point, there are no signs the president is likely to back out of the race. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed Biden's debate performance as a "bad night," insisting the president would continue to pursue re-election. The White House also denied reporting that he had seriously considered dropping out of the race. 

Harris' aides have also dismissed the possibility of a Democratic ticket without both current candidates. "Vice President Harris looks forward to serving a second term with President Joe Biden," her office told Reuters in a statement.

Democratic delegates are expected to formally nominate the president in a virtual meeting later this month, well ahead of the Democratic National Convention in mid-August. Still, Vike argues that "a clean transition would be beneficial" for the party and the presidential campaign, predicting that if Biden withdraws, delegates and supporters would "go dramatically" to Harris.

"Given the state of the campaign, it's going to require a vigorous and active effort to turn things around," Vike said. Harris would be capable of that, he believes, and is better positioned "to focus on clarity, focus on President Trump's failings and weaknesses, and also try to communicate a positive message for the future."

McMahon agreed, saying that a Harris nomination could offer "youth and energy" in the face of recent polling that indicates voters support Biden's policies but are uncertain about him as an individual. Switching from Biden to Harris would also "take the news away from Donald Trump, who is very good about attracting attention," McMahon argued. If Harris becomes the nominee, he said, the focus would shift to "a Democratic Party that is moving to a new generation of leadership with a plan in place, with experience as vice president and looking to connect to communities that were displeased with the Biden administration."

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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2024 Election Democratic National Convention Furthering Joe Biden Kamala Harris Politics