The first presidential debate in the United States, between current President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, has raised concerns about whether Biden, in particular, is fit to contest the elections in November.

Before the Friday debate too, there were doubts about the capabilities of Biden (81) and Trump (78), as they are the oldest candidates to stand for the post in US history. There have been several instances in recent months where Biden has made blunders in public — seemingly forgetting names and parts of speeches, and fumbling his words.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s former White House communications director, said on CNN, “It was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden. I don’t think there’s any other way to slice it. His biggest issue was to prove to the American people that he had the energy, the stamina — and he didn’t do that.”

While Trump seemed more in control, media outlets later fact-checked him for multiple false claims he made during the debate. He is also likely to be sentenced next month in the Stormy Daniels hush money case, which is just one of the several legal cases he is facing.

Festive offer

Given these scenarios, here is a look at how replacements of candidates may happen and whether such instances have happened in American elections in the past.

How a potential withdrawal can impact the nomination process

Currently, both Trump and Biden are their parties’ presumptive nominees. Both of them are to be officially confirmed at the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, respectively, in the next few months.

Parties organize these events so that delegates, who represent the party in constituencies from across the countries, can ‘pledge’ their support for one candidate. It is supposed to reflect consensus within the party and accord internal legitimacy to the candidate.

When a candidate for president suddenly decides to step down, it dramatically alters the political scene with serious repercussions. In the rare event that a presidential candidate withdraws from the race, the Democratic or Republican National Committee would swiftly convene an emergency meeting to address the vacancy.

This critical gathering, typically headed by the party chairperson — currently Jaime Harrison for the Democrats and Ronna McDaniel for the Republicans — would bring together delegates representing all states and territories. The chairperson calls the emergency meeting, setting the stage for high-stakes deliberations. This meeting is often convened in Washington, DC but can be held virtually if time constraints or logistical issues arise.

Delegates would then engage in discussions and votes to pledge their support to the new candidate, who will then become the presumptive nominee. The selection process might involve considering runners-up from the primaries, those who performed well and have an existing support base, or other prominent party figures who could quickly unify the party and galvanize support from the voters.

The urgency of updating ballots with the new candidate’s name is a pressing concern, especially if the withdrawal occurs close to Election Day. This could lead to legal disputes over the validity of updated ballots and the logistics of implementing changes across multiple states. Additionally, sudden changes might cause confusion among voters, who could be unsure of who the new candidate is and how their votes will be counted.

Is there a historical precedent for this?

There have been instances where candidates have dropped out or passed away during campaigns. The most notable case was in 1972 when the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Thomas Eagleton, had to withdraw after it was discovered he had mental health issues. Robert Sargent Shriver was then chosen as the replacement, after efforts from the party committee. However, the Democrat candidates lost the elections that year.

Similarly, in 1912, Vice President James Sherman, running for re-election with President William Howard Taft, died just days before the election. This created a unique challenge for the Republican Party.

Sherman’s name remained on the ballot, as there was no time to replace him officially. The party assured voters that a new vice presidential candidate would be chosen if Taft won. Taft ultimately lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, but the incident underscored the need for clear procedures to handle unexpected vacancies, influencing future contingency planning within political parties.

Future scenarios and succession prospects

The possibility of a withdrawal presents unprecedented challenges and opportunities, as the race is currently “too close to a level playing field with confidence”, according to The Washington Post opinion columnist Jason Willick. Any significant change would dramatically alter the result.

For Democrats, Vice President Kamala Harris emerges as a frontrunner due to her prominent role in the administration and appeal to progressive voters. Her experience as a senator and historic election as the first female, Black, and South Asian Vice President position her as a natural successor.

Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation, and Gavin Newsom of California are also considered strong options, with Buttigieg’s appeal to younger demographics potentially bringing new energy to the campaign, and Newsom’s importance within the party and progressive stance on issues making him a strong candidate.

On the Republican side, Ron DeSantis of Florida is a leading figure, recognized for his unwavering support for Trump’s policies. Nikki Haley, former UN Ambassador, stands out for her appeal to a broader audience with her diplomatic background and moderate views. Mike Pence, former Vice President during the Trump administration, still holds sway among conservatives who value stability and continuity.

The writer is an intern with The Indian Express.