Thursday, February 22, 2024

Yes, Democrats, it’s Biden or bust

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That President Joe Biden is an old man is nothing new. It’s also not groundbreaking to say that he’s unpopular with broad swathes of Americans.

But after last week’s special counsel report on Biden’s handling of classified documents highlighted lapses in Biden’s memory during questioning, a familiar question has taken hold: Is Biden really the best option Democrats have in 2024?

This malaise isn’t limited to Biden; this presidential cycle there’s widespread dissatisfaction that two old men are all but guaranteed to be the major parties’ presidential nominees.

On the Republican side, that’s come across through a contested primary that despite still delivering Donald Trump resounding victory after resounding victory, has shown a small but fierce opposition to Trump among a subset of GOP voters.

Meanwhile, in the press and on the Democratic side, there’s an unwillingness by a subset of people (progressives, young people, and some politicians) to accept that Biden’s nomination is really happening. Now the past week has left normies and politicos alike wondering: What would it take for someone to replace Biden at this point? Is there a feasible process? Is it too late?

It would be a historic effort to even try — no sitting president has lost his party’s nomination to a primary challenger in the modern political era.

Replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee at this point would be a herculean, if not impossible, task. It would take overcoming two kinds of obstacles: real-world, practical challenges, and the more hypothetical but still important political challenges that exist for any potential Biden replacement.

The practical problems are daunting

Let’s start with the real-world challenges.

The Democratic presidential nominee is chosen in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where a candidate needs to win the support of 1,969 of the 3,936 Democratic delegates. Those delegates are assigned proportionally based on the vote totals in a state’s primary (for any candidate who wins more than 15 percent of votes), and are then “pledged” or “bound” to that candidate in the first round of voting at the Democratic convention. Under this system, another candidate would need to win more delegates than Biden.

Those 2024 primaries are well underway, and Biden has won every contest and every delegate so far. His support has been nearly uniform: In South Carolina, he won about 96 percent of the vote and in Nevada, he won about 90 percent of the vote. Those states collectively only have 91 delegates — or 2 percent of the total available — but his primary challengers have either dropped out or face nearly impossible odds of beating him in any of the upcoming March contests, when more than 2,000 delegates will be up for grabs.

And in those upcoming contests, before even rallying a base of support or raising money, a Democratic challenger would need to have registered with states to appear on the primary ballot. As the former political pollster Adam Carlson has pointed out, those filing deadlines have passed in 44 states. So it’s literally too late for a primary challenger who isn’t already out there (ahem, Dean Phillips) to make it onto ballots.

Even if someone could magically mount a successful challenge and notch some delegates, any that Biden has won will be bound to support him at the first DNC floor vote, according to party rules. Only Biden can make the decision to direct his delegates to vote for someone else, but they are pledged to vote for him unless he drops out beforehand.

And this is where the practical and political challenges merge: Biden is the only one who can decide if he wants to drop out before the floor vote. And there are plenty of reasons that wouldn’t happen.

The political challenges are very risky

Politically, it’s incredibly risky for anyone else to jump into the contest. The vast majority of the Democratic establishment has already united around Biden — endorsing him, stumping for him, and leading the party’s operations because of Biden.

This is also where it’s important to dispel the notion that anyone could force Biden to drop out.

The DNC is not some omnipotent, shadowy operation that has the power, influence, or ability to crown a different party leader. Who do you think chose the DNC chair and vice-chairs? There just isn’t a council of decision-makers who can tell Biden to drop out or choose to ditch him.

And that speaks to a bigger issue with how our political parties are thought of. The power of party elites is often overstated — and the primaries so far show the influence of voters. As unpopular as Biden might seem to some folks, he still won handily in the 2020 primary, and when given options to protest-vote in New Hampshire or select “none of these candidates” in Nevada this year, Democrats have still sided with Biden.

So only Biden could make the decision to drop out. He doesn’t want to (not least because he sees himself as key to stopping Trump’s reelection.) And even if he did choose to, the only option that would not risk massive dissension among the Democratic base would be to choose his vice president, Kamala Harris. The vice president has her own political drawbacks: She polls worse than Biden against Trump, hasn’t run a successful national campaign before, and, unfortunately, faces different voter prejudices because she is a woman of color.

Other Democratic stars, like Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, and Secretary Pete Buttigieg, are also loyal Biden Democrats, poll worse than Biden, or are biding their time. And to bypass Harris for one of them also opens up potential ire from Black voters, without whom Democrats can’t win.

Should a different, other Democrat emerge, with the vocal support of, I don’t know, Barack Obama and a core of Biden-critical strategists and politicians, and should first lady Jill Biden and other Biden confidantes approach Biden and convince him to drop out, we’d likely head toward a brokered convention with multiple rounds of voting. That also opens up the chance for even more chaos and disunity among Democrats. Does that seem worth it to anyone in Democratic politics right now?

The simple answer is no. It’s too late.

If you’re a Democrat, or want to beat Donald Trump, it looks like it’s Biden or bust.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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