Democrats can replace Biden. But it won’t be like anything we’ve seen before.

by dorothystgeorge

How easy would it be for Democrats to replace President Joe Biden as their nominee? The answer lies at the intersection of party rules, party practices and voter expectations — and the conflicting goals of a party process.

Most accounts of the modern presidential nomination process start in the late 1960s. The Democrats’ 1968 convention was a disaster, with protests inside and outside the gathering driven by party divisions over the Vietnam War and other policy issues, and growing discontent with the lack of grassroots input into nominations. After the tumult, the Democratic National Committee convened a commission to construct a new nominating process for the party.

This exact scenario has never played out.

The result was largely the system we have now: States select delegates to the convention through primaries, caucuses or conventions, but these have to be open to all party members, with publicized dates and times. Though these reforms were intended to make the process more open and democratic, it’s a misconception that the goal was to write the party out. Instead, the delegates still choose the nominee at the convention.

So who is a delegate and what do they do? There are two groups: “pledged” delegates (those selected in primaries and caucuses) and unpledged “superdelegates” (elected officials and party leaders who can vote as they please). You may recall superdelegates playing crucial roles in the delegate math during the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries, but after the latter contest, the party changed the rules to weaken their influence slightly. Now, only “pledged” delegates can vote on the first ballot for president; superdelegates join on subsequent ballots.

The party rules state that delegates are bound by “conscience” to vote as they are pledged — and most are pledged for Biden. But from a formal rules perspective, it isn’t a big deal for delegates to vote differently on the first ballot at the convention. They aren’t legally bound, nor do the rules outline any consequences for delegates who vote differently. Where things get complicated is the informal party practices that have developed over time, and the voter expectations that come with them.

It’s generally expected that delegates will vote as they are pledged — based on the primary votes of the states they represent. One reason for this is that primary contests help party leaders know what primary voters are thinking, and which candidates they prefer. It’s also expected that the nomination is sewn up well before the convention.

Experts disagree somewhat about exactly how this happens. Some emphasize the early primaries as ways for candidates to show strength, while others stress the role of the “invisible primary,” in which different groups — say, environmentalists, labor or pro-choice activists for Democrats; religious conservatives and business interests for Republicans — weigh in and steer the process toward nominees who would be broadly acceptable to all groups.

A convention that relies simply on the party’s delegates could be quite chaotic.

This is probably a much larger sticking point than the formal rules. In order to select a new Democratic presidential nominee, delegates would need some method to coordinate. Otherwise, the Wisconsin delegation could go in one direction, and the Florida one in another. Or progressives and establishment Democrats could set themselves up for a rough floor fight with the world watching. Or each faction could find itself divided among alternative candidates.

As with the process under normal circumstances, party leaders would need to coordinate either among themselves or in consultation with voters. But what do the party’s voters want?

At this point in the nomination process, the voters’ formal role has usually ended, with each state and territory having held its primary or caucus. The official rules of the party allow the delegates to make the selection on their own (or, if a post-convention nomination process is necessary, the party leaders can choose). But parties want to win elections, which requires paying attention to what voters want. And that’s tricky at this stage.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., floated the hypothetical idea of a “mini-primary” before the delegates take their roll call votes, but it’s not clear what that would look like. Delegates in a potential replacement situation would have public opinion data to build on, but it’s likely we would see some kind of institutional innovation in order to weigh the preferences of voters.

This exact scenario has never played out. Parties have generally re-nominated sitting presidents, often without serious competition, since the late 19th century. But thinking through how it might happen requires pulling together these three strains: what the formal rules say, what the informal practices are and what the voters want.

One possibility is that, should President Biden decide to withdraw from the nomination and not run for re-election, the Democratic Party would do a shortened version of its usual process, coordinating among leaders, crucial interest groups and the party’s voters, in order to select a new nominee. It’s likely that this process would heavily feature promotion of Vice President Kamala Harris, promoting her as the continuation of the administration while also gauging support for her.

Absent the informal aspects of the process, a convention that relies simply on the party’s delegates could be quite chaotic. Even when conventions regularly chose presidential nominees — the first presidential primaries date only back to 1912 — there was often informal coordination and persuasion going on. This is what people refer to when they talk about a “brokered” convention — and the modern era leaves a lot of questions open about who the brokers would be and how they would operate. When these efforts failed, the conventions would need multiple ballots to figure out a presidential nominee, with new and sometimes unexpected names floated before the delegates.

There’s nothing in the formal rules to prevent this sort of convention from happening now. If President Biden steps aside and the Democrats select a new nominee, the process can build on existing formal and informal rules. But it also will require innovation and indeed improvisation, because it will be unlike anything we’ve seen in American politics for decades.

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