Should Biden Resign? Democrats Weigh Potential Rewards and Big Risks

With President Biden under pressure to drop his candidacy for a second term, his party finds itself in uncharted territory. The party is grappling with a long list of risks and rewards as it faces the prospect of replacing Biden with less than two months to go before the party’s convention.

No presumptive nominee has withdrawn this late in the process. But neither party has faced the challenge that Democrats face today: a nominee plagued by doubts about his mental acuity; his ability to defeat his rival, former President Donald J. Trump; and his fitness to serve another four years as president.

All of this has left Democrats grappling with critical questions: Is it easier to defeat Mr. Trump with or without Mr. Biden at the top of the ticket? Is it riskier to choose a new candidate or to stick with a president headed for defeat?

On Wednesday, a New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump’s lead over Biden among likely voters had grown to six percentage points, after the president’s struggling debate last week.

The White House said the president would not back down and would meet with Democratic governors on Wednesday. But he confided to an ally that he realized the coming days were crucial to saving his candidacy. As a result, Biden began preparing for his first sit-down interview since the debate, with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, on Friday morning.

Several Democrats said a new nominee, regardless of the risks, could bring a host of benefits to the party, especially if Biden were to name a successor to ensure a smooth transition and minimize intraparty infighting.

A new-generation candidate could give the ticket an energy boost. It would give so-called double haters, voters dissatisfied with the rematch between an 81-year-old president and a 78-year-old former president, a potential new place to run in November. A new candidate would almost certainly benefit from an increase in campaign contributions, at least initially.

“If you’re driving your car straight off a cliff, there are certainly risks associated with veering right or left,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic consultant, who said he doubted Biden could recover from the debate and beat Trump.

But other Democrats, including some who have advised Mr. Biden, said changing horses now could fuel divisions and destructive feuds within the party, leaving the party with an untested candidate and a logistical nightmare that would only increase the prospects of a Trump victory this fall.

“A lot of things have to fall into place, and it takes a force majeure to make it go well,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic consultant who also advises the Biden campaign but does not speak on its behalf.

A late-stage Biden replacement would be less well-known and less experienced on the national stage than either Biden or Trump, obstacles a newly elected candidate would have to navigate quickly.

Without a traditional primary, candidates would be deprived of the on-the-ground lessons of presidential running: They would be drilled with questions from voters, learn the details of unfamiliar regional issues, and forge alliances with key players in each state. And they would not be subjected to the rigorous vetting and scrutiny — by voters, their opponents, and the media — of their records and political strengths and weaknesses.

Political leaders have learned the dangers of choosing a vice presidential nominee at the last minute, choosing unknown candidates: Sarah Palin of Alaska, who was John McCain’s running mate in 2008, and Dan Quayle of Indiana, who was George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1988, both struggled during the election campaign.

“Choosing someone new is not without significant risk — which is why so many Democrats are so reluctant to replace Joe Biden on the ticket,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist who worked on the 2004 presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Republicans wouldn’t make it easy. Normally, a campaign has months to do opposition research on its own candidate to make sure it’s prepared for any attack.

But the Trump campaign has had ample time to compile opposition research files with potentially damaging information about Biden’s potential successors, information it could use to define them before they can do so themselves.

(“Is invasion czar Kamala Harris the best they’ve got?” the Trump campaign asked in an email sent Wednesday morning, a litany of attacks including on her role in Biden’s immigration policy.)

That said, the sheer excitement of a new face — in a year when so many voters have complained about a repeat of 2020 — could be a real boost to the fall campaign. And while a new candidate could be the subject of damaging findings from Trump’s opposition research, there’s less time for that information to disseminate and sink in.

There is no real playbook for replacing a candidate who drops out weeks before the convention. For some Democrats, the potential chaos and division are reason enough for Mr. Biden to stay in the race.

Some Democrats say Biden could minimize disruption by supporting Vice President Kamala Harris in his departure.

“The advantage that Kamala Harris has in this hypothesis is that she’s already been thoroughly vetted,” said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We probably know everything there is to know about her. That can’t be said for anyone else. And she’s been in the White House for four years. She has a lot of name recognition.”

If Mr. Biden does not name his preferred successor, the process, should he leave the race, would become a battle for delegate loyalty, one that would likely expose ideological and generational conflicts that have been brewing for years. Battles over the Gaza war, immigration or policing that were already expected to play out at the convention could now take on far greater significance in helping to determine the next nominee.

One thing Democrats should never take for granted is that “Democrats can agree on something,” Ms. Cutter said.

But that is far from a unanimous position. Ms. Kamarck said the hostility Democrats feel toward Mr. Trump would bring them closer together.

“The antipathy toward Donald Trump’s second term four years ago has not changed,” she said.

And some Democrats said there were ways to minimize lasting damage. Jeff Weaver, a strategist for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, said the party should settle for an expedited selection process, including party-sanctioned debates.

“If it happened, it would take up all the political oxygen in the room until the Democratic convention,” he said. “And by the time of the convention, people would have a very good idea of ​​who these candidates are.”

A new nominee could face other complicating factors. An Ohio election law requires parties to select their nominees by Aug. 7, nearly two weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The party had planned to formalize Biden’s nomination before then, via a virtual online roll call vote. Barring a change in the law, which could still happen, the party will have a hard time picking a new ticket — or giving up its position on the Ohio ballot — by that August deadline.

In other states, Republicans are already considering filing lawsuits to prevent Democrats from changing the nominee’s name on the ballots.

Richard Winger, an expert on ballot rules and publisher of Ballot Access News, said he did not believe such lawsuits could legitimately affect votes in the states.

Party strategists say a new Democratic nominee is likely to inherit the Biden campaign infrastructure, the party infrastructure and the organizations already set up in swing states.

But that won’t get that person far without enough cash flow. A new candidate would need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to mount a serious campaign and introduce himself to America in a shortened campaign.

“Do they have $1 billion to do this, and do they have the time to spend $1 billion to tell this story?” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who argues that switching candidates would be a bad idea for the party.

The answer to this question depends partly on whether that candidate is Ms. Harris.

Saurav Ghosh, director of campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said that as vice president, Ms. Harris could take over Mr. Biden’s campaign accounts if she became the nominee, while others would not.

If the new nominee is not Ms. Harris, the money from Biden’s war chest could flow back to the Democratic National Committee, which would only have to spend $32 million of it in coordination with the campaign.

Several top Democratic Party strategists said they weren’t worried about that challenge. The new candidate’s coffers would likely be flooded with online donations from grassroots supporters. Better yet, donors who had maxed out Mr. Biden — and therefore couldn’t give to Ms. Harris — would have a clean slate to max out again to another nominee, a potentially huge windfall.

The Democrats’ arsenal of well-funded super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts but may not legally cooperate with campaigns if they do, would also almost certainly quickly switch to supporting a new nominee.

Still, Biden supporters who oppose the idea of ​​change said it wouldn’t be as easy to get a new campaign going as those who do think it would.

“You can’t snap your fingers and expect it to happen,” said Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who insisted that Mr. Biden would be the nominee in the fall.

Michael S. Schmidt contributed to the reporting.

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