Analysis | 10 options if Democrats actually try to replace Biden (2024)

The Democratic Party has spent much of the 2024 campaign burying its head in the sand over Americans’ concerns about President Biden’s age and mental sharpness. Rather than reckon with the problem, its most influential voices have cast it as an overblown media construct.

But the party abruptly jerked its head out of that sand Thursday night, after a meandering, occasionally incoherent and almost universally panned first-debate performance from Biden. At its most pronounced, this has led to calls for Biden to step aside, including from those loyal to him.

That instantaneous reaction is hugely significant, in and of itself. It’s the kind of conversation you avoid — and the party has strained to avoid — until you view it as absolutely necessary. Going there and then having Biden stay would only damage him further, because a bunch of allies would have said either implicitly or explicitly that he is not up to the task.

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It’s truly a desperate plan and one that features many hurdles. It would almost surely require Biden’s assent to step aside — he holds almost all of the pledged delegates to August’s Democratic National Convention — and even then the process for replacing him is fraught. It’s not even clear that an alternative would render the party better off.

But it’s a prospect that the party has given some consideration, dating back to when Biden had yet to announce his reelection campaign last year. Names were floated as alternatives or even primary challengers.

So, should the party go this route, who would even make sense? Let’s recap some of the names that have been floated — along with their attributes and drawbacks.

1. Vice President Harris

It’s difficult to see how Harris wouldn’t be the alternative unless she, too, voluntarily steps aside. She is, after all, the vice president. And skipping over the first female and first Black vice president would be dicey for a party struggling to maintain its normally huge margins with Black voters — a major part of its base.

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The problem is that Harris is about as unpopular as Biden is. Recent surveys from Monmouth University and Suffolk University have shown disapproval of her outpacing approval by 18 and 16 points, respectively. Harris’s own 2020 presidential campaign went poorly, and the party would have little faith that she would be a marked improvement over Biden.

Republicans have made little secret that they relish elevating Harris, with the Trump campaign even running an ad during Thursday’s debate pointing to the possibility that Harris would have to replace Biden as president at some point.

2. Gretchen Whitmer

This is a name you’re likely to see plenty in the days ahead. The Michigan governor combines being an actually plausible alternative with looking almost ideal on paper.

She’s a female governor who hails from a crucial state (Democrats need to hold Midwestern swing states, given their problems in other swing states). She has won both of her races there by around 10 points. Polling this year has shown her approval rating in Michigan between 54 percent and 61 percent. And she’s more experienced and has more of a national profile than a lot of other rising-star Democratic governors, such as Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore.

After Harris, she would quickly rise to the top.

3. Pete Buttigieg

It’s perhaps an undersold fact that the transportation secretary nearly won both the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential nominating contests back in 2020 when he was just a mayor of a midsize Midwestern city (South Bend, Ind.). And if the party is looking for the antithesis of Biden’s inability to drive a message against Trump, it’s Buttigieg. His jousting with Fox News hosts and Republicans at congressional hearings is often shared widely in Democratic circles. He’s a gifted messenger.

If there’s a big drawback with Buttigieg, it’s that he appears to be the wrong candidate to try to arrest the Democratic ticket’s apparent problem with diverse — and especially Black — voters. He got very little support from such groups in 2020.

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4. Josh Shapiro

The Pennsylvania governor is one of the more intriguing rising stars in the national Democratic Party, earning plaudits for his big 2022 win and bipartisan credentials. He’s also, like Whitmer, quite popular in a crucial state for the Democratic ticket. Even more than 3 in 10 Trump supporters there like him, according to a poll this year. It’s hard to see how that doesn’t catch Democrats’ eye.

But Shapiro has largely been regarded as an option for 2028, having been governor for just a year and a half. He’s been in statewide office for a while, having previously served as state attorney general, but it would be a rapid rise.

5. Jared Polis

The Colorado governor and former congressman has some of the same bipartisan bona fides as Shapiro. The nation’s first openly gay man to be elected governor has crafted a compelling record and has largely avoided getting bogged down in potentially problematic liberal policies. He has also won big — by double digits in 2018 and nearly 20 points in 2022.

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And he has clearly expressed interest in going national one day.

6. Gavin Newsom

Perhaps nobody has surfaced more as an alternative should Biden step aside than the California governor, owing in large part to his efforts to expand his national profile by mixing it up with national Republicans and GOP governors. On that front, Newsom would seem to have some of the same attributes as Buttigieg.

But it’s difficult to see the Democratic Party deciding that the recipe right now is a California governor and former mayor of San Francisco, a city Republicans would be only so happy to run against by pointing to its crime problem. It would be basically inviting Republicans to caricature the Democratic ticket.

7. Raphael G. Warnock

The Georgia senator has won a key swing state twice now in a short time. And his stock would seem to be higher than that of other Black candidates who have graced lists like this in the past, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

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Warnock’s 2022 campaign, in particular, was seen as a road map for how Democrats could run in 2024. And with Democrats struggling to keep swing states outside the Midwest in play, picking someone who hails from one of them makes a lot of sense.

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8. Michelle Obama

This is the fantasy option for Democrats — and we mean that in more than one way. She would seem to be the ideal alternative for many, but she also seems unlikely to run.

Obama is the most popular former first lady in America, dating back to Lady Bird Johnson, according to a late-2023 YouGov poll. She has also consistently been liked by a clear majority of Americans, which we can’t say for many political figures.

But she has professed basically no interest in running in her own right; going from that to waging a presidential campaign with just a few months to go is a huge stretch. We also learned this week about reported tensions between her and the Biden campaign.

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It’s truly a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. And the glass appears to be shatterproof.

9. Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator would make the most sense if Democrats sought a candidate with many of the same attributes Biden has, minus the age problem. She is pragmatic and seemingly broadly agreeable. She has a strong electoral track record in her state.

But she still cuts a very limited national profile, and her 2020 presidential campaign didn’t gain much traction. If the name of the game is picking someone to take the fight to Trump, Minnesota Nice might not be the recipe.

10. Andy Beshear

Perhaps nobody’s stock has risen more in recent months. That owes to the fact that the Kentucky governor was up for reelection in 2023 and won in a very red state.

He has intriguing bipartisan appeal, and he has succeeded in his state without straying too much to the right. (We often see that Democratic governors in red states and GOP governors in blue states have to take positions that don’t comport with their national party.) He even played up his support for abortion rights during the 2023 campaign — something previously unthinkable.

He also reportedly is taking the kind of steps you would expect from someone with national ambitions. But it’s not clear how he would play with liberal base voters whom Democrats need to inject with enthusiasm.

Analysis | 10 options if Democrats actually try to replace Biden (2024)

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