A Joe Biden–Donald Trump rematch is so contrary to most independent voters’ wishes that it has long seemed possible that something unexpected might occur between now and November 5. Well, consider last night’s debate the beginning of the unexpected part of the campaign.

The 90 seconds allotted for answers consistently seemed about 20 seconds too long for Biden, who repeatedly trailed off into incoherence. While Trump and Biden are only three years apart in age, the gap to most viewers likely looked more like 20 years.

Democrats reportedly are in turmoil. The New York Times’s Peter Baker wrote that Biden’s “halting and disjointed performance . . . prompted a wave of panic among Democrats and reopened discussion of whether he should be the nominee at all,” as his performance made his age the campaign’s “central issue.”

The path ahead is far from clear. Here are some things we know, and some questions about what we don’t.

Biden will likely decide whether he is the nominee. A party whose leading lights were unwilling to challenge an 81-year-old incumbent with underwater approval ratings likely won’t throw open its convention seven weeks from now against that incumbent’s will. If Biden wants to be the nominee, he presumably will be the nominee.

The New York Times reports that some Democrats are discussing a possible intervention by the likes of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and James Clyburn to try to persuade Biden to bow out. As the Times notes, however, “No incumbent has dropped out of the race so late in the campaign cycle.” The paper’s Democratic sources guessed that the only person able to persuade Biden to exit the race may be his wife, Jill, who probably likes living in the White House as much as her husband does.

While Biden could be challenged at the Democratic National Convention even if he stays in the race, almost all the party’s delegates are pledged to him. The party could change the rules beforehand to make replacing Biden easier, but this seems unlikely, unless the president bows out or shows yet more serious signs of decline in the interim.

The next step is the virtual roll call. Ohio law requires presidential nominees to be decided 90 days before the general election. Since the Democratic convention falls some 15 days after Ohio’s deadline, Democrats have planned to nominate Biden via a “virtual roll call.” If they abandon this approach, that could be an initial sign that they are planning an open convention. (While Ohio was the quintessential swing state prior to the Trump era, Democrats have little chance of winning the state this time around, so they don’t stand to lose much by not competing there.)

An open convention, though still a long shot, would surely be fascinating. If Biden quit the race—or if Democrats abandon the virtual roll call, despite his continued presence in the race—it could make for the most intriguing political convention in more than a half-century. Biden could face challenges from Vice President Kamala Harris, California governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, and others, including, perhaps, Michelle Obama, who might like the thought of becoming the nominee without having to interact with actual primary voters.

Yet each of these potential alternative candidates would face long odds of securing the nomination. Harris’s unpopularity has been a key to Biden’s status as the presumptive nominee (i.e., Democrats might have shown more interest in replacing Biden before now had they felt more confident about her competence and electability). Newsom doesn’t offer the demographic attributes that many Democrats crave, and his record in California would be hard to defend. Whitmer’s Covid mandates were draconian, though not necessarily any worse than Newsom’s. The prospect of Michelle Obama entering the race has always seemed improbable.

Biden may have to be replaced after the convention. There is also a scenario in which Biden wins the nomination but later must leave the race because of a further decline in his health. Such a decline might result in Harris becoming president, and then almost certainly her party’s nominee. If Biden bows out post-August but remains president, Democrats will presumably call a special convention to choose their nominee—or, worse, decide the matter “virtually,” without a convention. That would probably look more like a coronation by party elders than democracy in action, which could turn off voters.

Will all this help Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? Kennedy was excluded from last night’s debate and currently enjoys just 10.7 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polling in a three-way race. That’s still high for a third-party candidate, however, and Biden’s stumble could provide an opening for JFK’s nephew. If Democratic-leaning voters stray from the president, some might switch to Kennedy, boosting his poll numbers and making it more feasible for him to get on the debate stage for the next round (if there is one). Having one of the two major candidates stumble so dramatically almost certainly helps Kennedy’s chances.

In many ways, this presidential campaign has already been like no other, and it may continue in that vein. Both nationally and locally, Democrats have reembraced many of the failed policies of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, for the first time since Lyndon Johnson bowed out in 1968, they face the prospect of having an incumbent exit the race before the November election.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images


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