Which Democrat will be on the ballot on November 5?

Democrats face tough choices after Biden's debate stumble

Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? You’d be following the story of some plucky kid who’s looking for treasure, say, and at certain points you’d be offered the choice: “Do you want Dave to go into the dark cave? Turn to page 23! If not, turn to page 62.”

After the excruciating presidential debate in the US last week, many Democrats are now deep in a game of Choose Your Own Adventure. Joe Biden had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night at the debate. It should be noted that almost everything Donald Trump said was false. But the fact remains that almost everything Biden said was incomprehensible, and that’s just for starters.

Many people think Democracy is on the line. Do you stick with Biden?

If so, turn to November 5, 2024, and take your chances with a now-compromised candidate who must make it over the finish line without any more devastatingly public demonstrations that he might not be up to the office.

If not, that means you want him to drop out of the race, which leads us to a new adventure: A step off the cliff into the unknown. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of unknown unknowns when it comes to replacing a putative nominee like Biden. (“Truly a desperate plan,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake.)

The US’s political party nomination process is a private, or you might say corporate, affair. During the low-profile Democratic Party primary balloting earlier this year, Biden got the lion’s share of the delegates. Now, Democrats are not bound by rules to vote for his nomination at the party’s convention, which starts on August 19 in Chicago. But they are his loyalists, and it’s doubtful they will turn on him, barring a physical crisis, unless he asks them to.

But: Let’s say he does drop out of the race, or is incapacitated before the convention. That opens up a very big can of worms for your new adventure!

In a more normal time, the party would turn to the vice president in place. But there are issues. Not because Kamala Harris is black or a woman, but rather that her favourables are low. Dealt something of a bad hand, she’s had a very low profile during her four years in office. Political pros note that she ran a poor campaign for president back in 2020, and that her first year on the job was marked by reported turmoil in her office.

Let’s say the party takes the risk of offending black women, perhaps its most loyal base, and doesn’t select Harris. A new adventure! Ahead: An open convention, where new candidates will duke it out.

Who might win? Gavin Newsom, who since 2019 has successfully run California, the world’s fifth largest economy, is a marquee name and a pugnacious campaigner; others worry the right will mock the state for its liberal leanings. Then there’s Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, or Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania. Both have big, popular support bases in their respective states – and it’s lost on no-one that Michigan and Pennsylvania are among the states that will determine the election.

What about a candidate who will shore up black support for the party, like Senator Raphael Warnock, who’s been elected twice now in Georgia, another swing state?

By the way: If Joe Biden drops out after the convention, the party’s ruling committee still has time to meet and come up with a new candidate. After the electoral college votes, however, the incapacitation of the president would lead to the election of the vice-presidential candidate.

Whoever the Biden-Harris alternatives might be, neither will have gone through the primary season, a crucial forge that any candidates ideally should be subject to. That’s how the American political system works: If you can make it through the insane primary process, you might be capable of being president!

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Biden’s weak debate night has put a country already on tenterhooks on red alert. Let’s hope we don’t land on the orange troll lurking at the end of the chapter.

Bill Wyman is a former assistant managing editor of National Public Radio in Washington. He lives in Sydney. 

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