© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Democrats Begin Asking the Question: Should We Replace Biden?

Biden’s performance was so rocky Thursday night that many Democrats are now wondering if their only hope is Biden withdrawing from the top of the ticket.

Images of U.S. President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, former President Donald Trump, are reflected in an open car door as people watch the first general election debate of the 2024 season on a giant outdoor screen.
President Joe Biden waves before speakiing with reporters as he boards Air Force One. Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Within minutes of Thursday night’s debate, one question was rising to the minds of many Democrats: Will Joe Biden really be the presidential nominee?

Biden’s opening remarks were so muddled — his voice so hoarse — that much of the conversation on social media almost immediately turned to questions about whether Biden could be replaced on the Democratic ticket. At various points, the president stumbled over his words and seemed to lose his train of thought. He misspoke several times. And he came off as unprepared for, not just the debate, but also for another four years.

Biden went from gloating on social media that he was “jacked up” for the showdown to sources familiar with the situation telling NBC News that, actually, “President Biden has a cold.”

By simply signing on to the debate, the Biden campaign seemed to play right into Trump’s hand. Republicans have relentlessly hit the president for being feeble and frail. And although the Biden campaign has relentlessly pushed back on the idea that the president is too old to serve another term, his performance Thursday night renewed those questions.

As one Democratic aide told NOTUS, “Thank God for Kamala Harris.”

“I have not heard one positive dem reaction all night,” this source said.

Perhaps Trump’s most effective line of the night was him simply pointing out that he couldn’t understand what Biden was trying to say.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump said. “I don’t think he knows either.”

The comment rang true for more than just Trump — and Biden’s performance immediately prompted questions about his status as the Democratic nominee.

“There are gonna be discussions on if he should continue,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser for the Obama White House, said on a CNN post-debate panel.

CNN’s chief national correspondent, John King, also said conversations started “minutes into the debate” about whether Biden should be replaced.

“It involves party strategists, it involves elected officials, it involves fundraisers. And they’re having conversations about the president’s performance, which they think was dismal,” King said.

“Some of those conversations include, ‘Should we go to the White House and ask the president to step aside?’” King said.

Hours after the debate, reporters asked Biden himself the question. He had a simple answer: “No.” And when asked if he was sick, he said he had a “sore throat.”

Before the debate, the idea that Democrats would find a substitute for Biden on the ticket was most popular as a MAGA conspiracy. After the debate, it seemed like a magic wish for many Democrats.

Left-wing New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof openly called on Biden to drop his campaign entirely.

“I wish Biden would reflect on this debate performance and then announce his decision to withdraw from the race, throwing the choice of Democratic nominee to the convention,” Kristof posted on X, suggesting that perhaps Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown should replace Biden.

Lori Lahrmann left, and Tonya Morris, second from left, both from Cincinnati, watch the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at Tillie's Lounge.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

“It’s a shame this debate didn’t happen during a Democratic primary. Then we could’ve avoided nominating Biden at all,” a senior aide to a vulnerable Democrat told NOTUS.

With the party’s convention seven weeks away, the Biden campaign was already in a predicament. Polling shows Biden behind Trump in critical swing states, running behind vulnerable incumbent senators.

To some in the party, a last-minute substitution at the top of the Democratic ticket seems like it would be a tidy solution to what’s become a glaring problem. But removing a sitting president would be no easy feat.

Seeming to sense the potential for a Biden calamity, The Heritage Foundation told reporters earlier this week that they would legally challenge any attempt from Biden to withdraw from the ticket. They even have a name for the initiative: “The Oversight Project.”

The mechanisms to replace Biden vary by state, per a memo released by the conservative think tank, but there is potential for preelection litigation aimed at making Biden’s withdrawal “difficult and perhaps unsuccessful.”

Even if Biden were to decide to stand down, and the legal challenges against the move fell flat, the result would be an open party convention in Chicago in August. That could be its own disaster, with little time for the party to rally behind a candidate and huge intraparty issues over everything from Israel to economic plans blowing up in public.

After the debate, Republicans were salivating over the prospect that Biden would give up on a second term.

“Mark my words…” posted former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, “Biden will not be the Democrat nominee. Republicans, get your guard up!”

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter also predicted Biden wouldn’t be the nominee. “I’ve changed my mind,” Coulter posted on X. “Democrats are going to have to replace Biden.”

Privately, the conversation among Republicans was just as severe.

“Last hope for Dems is a Chicago-style contested convention,” one House Republican texted NOTUS. “And America knows how that worked out for Democracy. Otherwise, this is an express lane win for DJT.”

A senior GOP aide also put it in stark terms. “Democrats have a choice: intraparty civil war or Joe Biden,” this aide told NOTUS.

Few Democrats argued that the debate helped Biden’s reelection prospects, but that didn’t stop some from trying. One Democratic strategist emphasized that the winner on Nov. 5 will pick the next cabinet.

“I have serious age questions about both of them,” the strategist said. “I’d take John Podesta over Stephen Miller.”

Other Democratic spin focused on Trump’s repeated lies about his policy record and his platform.

“Trump lied in every single sentence. That is not an exaggeration,” one senior Democratic aide told NOTUS. “That is the first, last and only story.”

But even this source acknowledged that Biden’s performance, at least partially, missed the mark.

“Biden’s answers at their core were substantively strong,” the aide said. “Voice wasn’t ideal, the earlier lapses were not ideal.”

Other Democrats were satisfied to let the post-debate spin play out without their commentary, even if they knew it was a bad night for Biden.

As one former House Democrat texted NOTUS in response to the debate: “No comment!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Riley Rogerson is a reporter at NOTUS.

Reese Gorman, who is a reporter at NOTUS, and Ben T.N. Mause, who is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed to this report.