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If Biden or Trump has to pull out of the election due to incapacity, what’s plan B?

If something were to force one of the presumptive candidates to step aside before the election, replacing them on their respective party tickets would be a legal and logistical nightmare

In what has been a humourless and often slangy US election campaign, Nikki Haley’s latest wheeze for pairing Joe Biden and Donald Trump at least has a light touch. Her Grumpy Old Men advertisements, which began circulating on Wednesday, has superimposed the two dominant male faces in American politics on to the poster of beloved – if somewhat dated – comedy starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Haley’s jabs at the seniority of the current and former president are compromised a little by the fact that the potential problems – Trump turns 78 in June; Biden 82 in November – seems to have occurred to her in the eleventh hour. Only in the latter stages of her campaign in New Hampshire did she begin to make explicit references to their age, and mocked Trump’s confusing her with Nancy Pelosi.

More pointed is her implicit warning that a second term for Joe Biden means “a Kamala Harris presidency”, as though she has foreordained knowledge of some occurrence through which Biden will not complete a second term. It slipped through unnoticed, but it was arguably the meanest line throughout a lopsided Republican primary contest in which insults have been flung around as if the prospective candidates were starring in an open-mic night at a particularly raucous comedy club.

Haley’s pursuit of the Republican nomination looks hopeless right now. But she has drawn plaudits for at least refusing to quit what the networks are still gamely describing as a “race”. And her explicit presentation of the age of both men as a weakness – as a cause for alarm – vocalises the background question that invariably follows Biden and Trump on their collision course to next November’s election: what if?


Trump has responded to Haley’s attacks by boasting about his physical and mental acuity and must combine his election campaign with dealing with the 91 felonies he has been charged with

Politicians are human. Advanced age brings with it increased chances of illness or incapacitation or worse for both men as the election campaign enters the critical few months when replacing either on their respective party tickets becomes a legal and logistical nightmare for party custodians and the millions of voters.

Trump has responded to Haley’s attacks by boasting about his physical and mental acuity and must combine his election campaign with dealing with the 91 felonies he has been charged with. Biden, under scrutiny since a few highly publicised stumbles, has ignored the issue. Both Biden and Trump will be banking on their inherent health helping them through a series of key hurdles.

The first of those will carry them from now until the summer, when the Republican National Convention takes place in Milwaukee, in mid-July, and the Democratic National Convention takes place a month later in Chicago. The Republican nominee needs at least 1,215 of the 2,429 party delegates and the Democratic candidate requires 1,969 of 3,696. Should either Trump or Biden drop out before the conventions, for whatever reason, some states may move to extend the date of candidate filing deadlines – and primaries – in order to permit other candidates to enter the race. But – depending on when this happened – it might be too late to change the names on physical ballots, with the result that voters might be confronted with the name of the recently dropped out, stricken – or even deceased – candidate on the ballot. And that process would be further complicated and compromised by the early voting process, which takes place in some states: voters might have already cast their vote for a candidate no longer in the race.

Trump has been having fun by holding open auditions for a prospective Republican nominee. Vice-president Kamala Harris would be the obvious replacement should president Biden be forced to withdraw as Democratic candidate. But there is every possibility that a figure not currently in the race – California governor Gavin Newsom or Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer – might step or be ushered forward ahead of the convention as a more electable alternative. Even if Harris did vault to the presidential role, finding a suitable running mate would become the next challenge.

Should Biden and Trump emerge from the conventions as expected, they will campaign through the summer towards November 5th. If either man withdrew over that period, it would fall to party leaders to make the decision to put an alternative forward as a nominee. Again, the role does not, by law, fall to the running-mate. And again, it may be too late to replace the name of the exiting candidate on the ballot.

The final hurdle occurs is the vacuum after the election date and before the electoral college meeting, set for December 17th. Even then, the vice-president elect would not automatically get his or her day in the sun as the presidential line of succession law would not yet apply. If the electoral college failed to agree upon a new president-elect, the task would fall, under the 12th Amendment, to the House of Representatives to elect a president and the Senate a vice-president. Further complications would ensue if the president were suddenly to die between the meeting of electors and the January 6th counting and certification of electoral votes in Congress. If the president were to suffer the historic misfortune of becoming incapacitated or dying after the certification but before the inauguration, then the 20th Amendment allows for the vice-president to assume the presidency.

Somewhere in the ether exists an old Billy Connolly gag from the Ronald Reagan years: ‘Our grandad is younger than him and we won’t let him touch the remote control’

Precedents are few but significant. The June 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy threw that summer’s Democratic convention into chaos. Horace Greeley died between the election and electoral college window of 1872, setting an electoral precedent that votes cast for deceased candidates cannot count. James Sherman, vice-president to Howard Taft, died a few days before the 1912 election, which was won easily by the Democratic ticket led by Woodrow Wilson. But the Republican Party was sufficiently organised then to instruct its electors to vote for an alternative, Columbia University president Nicholas Butler.

But in 2024, such scenarios present a fraught and potentially chaotic situation at every turn, further complicated by the slender power balance and bitter acrimony that define relations between Republican and Democratic representatives.

Nikki Haley has had to be careful to avoid accusations of ageism in her attacks. “We all know seniors who can run rings around us,” is her stock response, before elaborating on why neither Biden nor Trump belong in that category. But age is an undeniable reality of this campaign. Somewhere in the ether exists an old Billy Connolly gag from the Ronald Reagan years: “Our grandad is younger than him and we won’t let him touch the remote control.” And Reagan was 77 years old when he finished his second term. The question of the mental acuity of either Biden or Trump to match the relentless demands of the role is something that will play out over the next four years.

Meanwhile, the days tick inevitably towards the choice which, the polls suggest, few Americans are thrilled about. But it’s not Biden or Trump who are suffering from a bout of old-man grumps. They are exactly where they wish to be. It’s the rest of America.