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Joe Biden speaks to the host at the TV debate where he clashed with Donald Trump.
Joe Biden with his wife Jill at the first Biden-Trump TV debate of the 2024 campaign. AP/Alamy

Joe Biden could still stand down before the election – here’s how and what would happen next

This article is an updated version of an article originally published before the June 27 presidential debate.

After the Biden-Trump TV debate last night the question many people are asking is: “Is it too late for Biden to bow out in 2024?” Technically, no. Biden could, for any reason, declare that he’s no longer seeking a second term.

Any potential successor would have to be determined in a high-stakes fracas at the Democratic party’s convention scheduled for August 19-22 in Chicago. Unless the Democrat party changed the rules, delegates pledged to Biden would enter the convention “uncommitted,” and so would lobby, and ultimately vote, on a replacement.

Until now, the odds of Biden changing course have looked small, but the president’s dismal performance at the TV debate looks likely to have changed that.

Many Democrats are now more worried than ever and are calling for the president to step aside. “Biden needs to do the patriotic thing and step aside. We need an open convention, which would excite the American people unlike anything we have ever seen,” one Democratic insider told the Financial Times.

Former president Barack Obama’s ex-campaign manager David Plouffe described it as a “DEFCON 1 moment”, in the same newspaper.

Until now, Biden has said explicitly said that “[Trump] is running so I have to run”. Although he felt he had a significant upper hand, that is no longer clear.

Biden’s blue-collar roots, resonance with moderate voters, and ability to sell himself as the most “electable” Democrat gave him the edge in the previous Trump-Biden contest.

In that general election, Democrats’ faith in him paid off. Biden tipped key swing states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Pennsylvania – all of which had gone for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

However, 2024 is shaping up to be a different race. Apart from being a referendum on Trump, the president’s age and clearly hesitant performance on camera has never been more of a factor.

No heir apparent

However, the Democrats don’t have a deep bench of obvious successors. Biden sees himself as sparing the party from what would otherwise be a brutal nomination fight.

A large crowd mass in front of a blue carpeted area where Chelsea Clinton stands.
Chelsea Clinton addresses the Democratic party convention in 2016. Don Menning/Alamy

Four years ago, many envisioned the current vice president, Kamala Harris, as Biden’s natural heir. Few say that now. If Biden’s poll numbers have disappointed, Harris’s have been a catastrophe. Her approvals, at 39%, are the lowest of any first-term VP since Dan Quayle in the early 1990s.

Other familiar names who ran in 2020 — like US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg or Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar — could step in for Biden. But it’s not happenstance they lost to Biden in 2020. No one was able to unite Democrat moderates and progressives, much less win over Republicans and swing voters.

Some think California governor Gavin Newsom is already running a “shadow campaign” for the White House, while Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer is also “happy to be interrogated” about a presidential bid. Yet many see Newsom as “too Hollywood,” while Whitmer hasn’t been vetted on a national stage.

New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, too, has been rumoured as a potential fill-in for Biden. But a hard, populist leftist, without the cross-over appeal of left-wing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, would almost certainly guarantee a Trump victory.

Experts have also speculated about the possibility of a “saviour” parachuting into the Democrat convention, such as former first lady Michelle Obama or even legendary TV personality Oprah Winfrey. This seems more like the stuff of liberal fantasies.

What happens next

Biden had plenty of opportunities to gracefully ride into the sunset. He could have said that he’d accomplished everything he set out to accomplish. He could have cited his desire for a rising generation to be represented in politics.

Now, it seems, some senior figures in the party think there is still time to change direction, and will be urging him to rethink.

A Trump sequel promises, at best, volatility and serious tests to US democratic norms and institutions. At worst, it promises a “revenge term” — the full-blown manifestation of the ugly underbelly that manifested itself on January 6 in the attack on the US Capitol.

But given his poor performance at the first TV debate, some in the party may finally revolt against Biden. It’s understandable why many Democrats want to seize their last opportunity to choose another, younger, candidate. But even then, there are no guarantees of success in the upcoming election.

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