Can Democrats replace Biden at the top of the presidential ticket?

A once politically far-fetched question — can President Biden be replaced at the top of the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket — has taken on new urgency after Biden’s faltering debate performance against former President Donald J. Trump.

The short answer is yes — assuming Mr. Biden himself decides to step aside. But if Mr. Biden decides not to step aside, the short answer is probably no.

Either way, the process would be complicated and open the door to political unrest between now and when Democratic delegates meet to vote for a nominee at their party convention in August.

Biden has the power to drop out of the race and release all of the pledged delegates he has collected — 3,894 of the 3,937 pledged so far, according to a tally by The Associated Press — during his march toward the nomination. If he were to do so, those delegates would be free to vote for whomever they wish. That would create an open convention, a rarity in modern American politics.

This prospect raises many questions.

No. He could certainly support a successor, and that would mean something. But once the delegates are free, they are free. Loyalty to Mr. Biden, which runs deep, does not automatically extend beyond him. And there could be a floor fight over who would emerge as the nominee, highlighting already festering ideological divisions within the party and potentially weakening a future Democratic nominee heading into the fall campaign.

Ms. Harris would likely be one of a likely half dozen candidates vying for the presidential nomination, but her standing in the party is in doubt after what many have seen as a troubled tenure and weak poll numbers. She also wouldn’t be assured of the No. 2 spot on the ticket, even if she wanted it, if Mr. Biden were to be replaced.

If there is one upside for Democrats in Mr. Biden’s disastrous debate performance, it is that it happened in June, not in the weeks before the election, when debates were traditionally held.

There is time to take action, but that would not have been the case if this had happened during a debate in September.

The nominating convention in Chicago starts on August 19. But the party has approved rules to hold a virtual roll call before August 7, to circumvent an Ohio law that required all presidential candidates to be legally certified by that date to appear on the November ballot. So we’re basically talking about a five-week period.

A total of 3,934 pledged delegates will vote in the first ballot. If a candidate receives a simple majority of 1,968, that person is the nominee.

Well, never say never. There seems to be some wiggle room in the party’s official rules. “All delegates to the National Convention who have made a pledge to a presidential candidate shall in good conscience reflect the feelings of those who elected them,” they read.

So in theory—note the words “in good conscience”—it seems like the Democratic Convention could vote for someone else.

But this is not the Democratic Party of 1968, when the rules allowed party bosses to impose their will. In fact, the rules were subsequently rewritten specifically to make the party a much freer-flowing organization.

“This is not like it used to be,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank and an expert on convention rules and procedures. “There are no party leaders. There are no people with the power to withdraw this nomination.”

“The only way that could happen without Biden’s consent is if a majority of about 4,000 delegates decided that he should not be the nominee, that they had someone better,” she said.

In addition to Ms. Harris, the panel includes Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan; Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania; Governor Gavin Newsom of California; Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois; and Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky. Also of note are Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation; Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The Democratic National Committee official procedures for the conventionpassed in 2022, gives the committee the power to choose a new candidate if one of the list’s members – the presidential or vice-presidential candidate – withdraws or dies.

The party’s national chairman, Jaime Harrison, would consult with Democratic leaders in Congress and the Democratic Governors Association and prepare a report to the DNC, but the nearly 4,000 committee members themselves would have the final say.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting.

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