Is it undemocratic to replace Biden on the ticket?

MADISON, WISCONSIN – JULY 05: President Joe Biden speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School on July 05, 2024 in Madison, Wisconsin. Following the rally Biden was expected to sit down for a network interview which is expected to air during prime time as the campaign scrambles to do damage control after Biden’s poor performance at last week’s debate. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden avowed that he was “firmly committed” to staying in the 2024 presidential race, in a letter to House Democrats released Monday morning.

And in addition to maintaining that he believed he was the best person to beat former President Donald Trump, Biden’s letter relied heavily on one particular argument: that he was the choice of Democratic primary voters, and it would be wrong to overturn their decision.

“The voters of the Democratic Party have voted. They have chosen me to be the nominee of the party. Do we now just say this process didn’t matter? That the voters don’t have a say?” Biden wrote. 

“I feel a deep obligation to the faith and the trust the voters of the Democratic Party have placed in me to run this year,” he continued. “It was their decision to make. Not the press, not the pundits, not the big donors, not any selected group of individuals, no matter how well intentioned. The voters — and the voters alone — decide the nominee of the Democratic Party.”

In one more flourish, Biden said he viewed remaining on the ticket as crucial to his larger stand in defense of American democracy: “How can we stand for democracy in our nation if we ignore it in our own party? I cannot do that. I will not do that.”

Viewed through a certain lens, that argument is ridiculous. Biden ran against no serious opposition in a low-turnout, low-interest primary season. Democrats worked to deter any credible alternative from running, and if any had run, they would have faced intense criticism for disloyalty to the president and harming his chances against Trump. And since Biden avoided debates, primary voters arguably lacked crucial information about how he’d fare in one. 

And yet Biden’s characterization is not entirely off-base. Just as he says, the effort to push him off the ticket is very much an elite-driven initiative, with support strongest in the (unelected) media, while rank-and-file Democratic voters have mixed feelings about it. Any process to pick a new nominee at this late date would not truly have widespread popular participation. And if anyone credible had run against Biden in the primaries, they very likely would have lost.

But should the votes of the 15 million people who voted in Democratic primaries earlier this year be the be-all end-all for what represents “democracy”? Perhaps the party deliberating over and choosing a different option is its own form of democracy in action. And what about the 150 million or so people who may vote in the fall — most of whom, polling suggests, have concerns about Biden’s age and would prefer a different Democratic nominee? Should their views matter?

Biden won the 2024 primary before voting even began 

Due to his low approval ratings and age, there was occasional speculation that Biden might not run for reelection in 2024. Some polls in 2022 and 2023 showed a majority of Democratic voters saying he shouldn’t run again. But he never seems to have seriously considered bowing out. After taking office, he consistently said he intended to run again, and in April 2023 he made that official. (It’s likely that Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the midterm elections prevented what would have been some pressure on Biden not to run again.)

Once Biden was in, Democratic officials fell solidly behind him. That is quite normal for an incumbent president — the last president to face a serious primary challenge was Jimmy Carter in 1980, and credible primaries against incumbents at any level are relatively rare. Parties frequently try to deter such challenges, viewing primaries as messy, expensive, divisive, and potentially harmful to the party’s general election chances (Carter lost).

In the end, none of the party’s ambitious governor or senator rising stars wanted to roll the dice of challenging Biden — believing they likely would have lost, and then been blamed if Trump won in the general. A little-known Congress member, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), was the only elected official who jumped in the race. Author Marianne Williamson wasn’t a serious contender, and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pulled out of the primary to run as an independent in the general election instead.

Some polling suggested that Democratic voters weren’t exactly thrilled with their lack of plausible options. In September, a CNN poll of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents found that only 33 percent said they wanted Biden as the nominee, and 67 percent wanted someone else. The problem is: Who else? An imaginary idealized alternative polls better than a real person, and no polling showed any specific potential candidate anywhere near Biden.

Could this have been different if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), or someone else had jumped in the race? We’ll never know for sure, but I’m skeptical. One could spin an optimistic scenario where such a candidate suddenly catches fire, or a messier one in which something akin to Biden’s bad debate performance drags him down. But challenging an incumbent president in the primary is a very difficult thing to pull off.

The reality is that Biden won the 2024 primary well before voting even began, by winning the “inside game.” In doing so, he prevented disgruntled Democrats from having a realistic alternative to him on the ballot. So it’s a bit rich that he’s now arguing that the process presented a sacrosanct verdict of the people. Still, it seems very likely to me that he would have won even if a more formidable challenger jumped in.

Should primary voters matter more than the party or the general public?

One question going forward is whether the primary results are still valid in describing the “will of Democratic voters” in the wake of the debate; polls have found wildly different results.

  • Reuters/Ipsos found that 66 percent of Democratic voters said they wanted Biden to stay in the race.
  • The Wall Street Journal poll found the exact opposite result — that 66 percent of Democratic voters said they wanted to replace Biden as the nominee.
  • The New York Times/Siena College poll landed in the middle, with 48 percent of Democrats wanting Biden to stay in and 47 percent wanting a different nominee.

Polls are just polls, and because we can’t rerun a six-month primary process on short notice, there’s no plausible way to actually have a nationwide vote on the matter. 

Another question, though, is whether the “will of Democratic primary voters” really should outweigh all other concerns in determining whether Biden remains the nominee.

The modern presidential primary process was created in the 1970s as an attempt to give voters, not party insiders (who were often criticized as corrupt backroom dealers), more of a say in choosing the nominees. But in recent decades, that system has come under criticism from two fronts.

One group of critics is, essentially, pro-party. They believe party deliberations are a form of democracy, even if it’s not mass participatory democracy as expressed in elections. They don’t shudder at the prospect of giving “party insiders” more of a say in picking nominees — that’s how parties in many other democracies function, and it’s how American political parties functioned until the past half-century. They think parties should be able to respond to circumstances, deliberate on the best path forward, and present their preferred candidates to voters. So they’d argue that Democrats would be well within their rights to replace Biden.

Another group of critics is anti-polarization. They believe that, in practice, party primaries are low-turnout affairs that too often prize extremists and ideologues — like Trump — and fail to produce candidates who appeal to the broader electorate. Some argue that the partisan primary and the two-party system are breaking America, and seek voting reforms to shake up the system. But basically, they think our political system is too responsive to primary voters and not responsive enough to the general electorate.

They might point out that large majorities of voters have, for years, said Biden was too old to serve another term — but that the primary process failed to present voters with a viable alternative option, and now the country is stuck choosing between Biden or Trump. Why should a country where over 150 million people may vote be held hostage to the preferences of 15 million Democrats who barely even got a choice?

There’s no sugarcoating it: Any process to replace Biden at this late date would inevitably be driven and dominated by party elites, and could not really be reflective of mass public participation on the level of the primaries.

But the 2024 primaries were not exactly a sterling testimony to the wonders of democracy either. It’s entirely possible — though far from assured — that a process to replace Biden could produce a more popular nominee aligned with the preferences of more voters overall.

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