If Biden steps aside, whom Democrats would want to replace him — and how

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
Paul TeasU.S. News elections intern
July 08, 2024, 11:43 PM GMT+0

After a relatively calm Democratic primary season, Joe Biden's poorly received performance in the first 2024 presidential debate has caused some Democrats to question whether the president can and should continue his re-election campaign. Our latest polling, conducted about a week after the debate among 1,122 U.S. adult citizens including 538 Democrats and Independents who lean towards the Democratic Party, finds that nearly half of this critical group for Biden would prefer for him to step aside and allow another Democrat to run. Most who want him to do so cite his health and age as the main reason why.

Majorities of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents approve of several methods to select a replacement nominee, if one is needed. These methods include allowing delegates to vote in an open convention, or using debates, polls, or an expedited primary process to measure voter preferences.

Two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents would approve of Vice President Kamala Harris becoming the presidential nominee, if Biden steps down. Roughly half would approve of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as a replacement and a similar proportion would approve of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

But most Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents aren't convinced that potential replacements to Biden would be as equipped as Biden to beat Donald Trump in the general election. And while Harris is characterized as more competent and a better communicator than Biden — she also is perceived by fewer as likable, qualified, or authentic compared to the shares who see Biden in those ways.

Should Biden step aside?

Nearly half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents — 47% — say that Biden should definitely or probably step aside as the Democratic nominee; 39% say he definitely or probably should not.

Just 25% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents who are 65 and older say Biden should stop running, compared to 52% of younger adults. Those who say the country is off on the wrong track are more likely to support Biden stepping aside, compared to those who say the country is generally headed in the right direction.

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents who think Biden should step aside, most say the biggest reason — among three offered in the poll — is concerns about his age, health, or cognitive function (62%). 27% are most concerned about his chances of beating Trump, and 7% say they want him to step aside because of disagreements on policy.

A separate poll conducted earlier the same week asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents who wanted Biden to withdraw to tell us in their own words why. Here too, his age and mental state were most frequently mentioned. Many alluded to his debate performance, such as one respondent who wrote, "The debate was an embarrassing show of arrogance to not understand the reality of his condition." Some expressed frustration — including one who cited not only Biden's age, but also Trump's: "It is unrealistic for these old men to run for the most demanding job in the country." Others emphasized positive feelings for Biden, despite wanting him to step aside. One Democrat wrote of Biden, "He is clearly tired. I love him and believe he has been a good president, but our democracy is at stake and he really should step down!"

Fewer are in favor of the party attempting to replace Biden if he chooses to remain in the race. Most of the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents who support Biden stepping down (57%) say the party should continue supporting him if he decides to continue his run; only 25% say the party should try to replace him.

While many Democrats support Biden stepping aside, just 16% think it's very or somewhat likely that he will do so; 72% say it's not very or not at all likely.

A large share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents believe that Biden's family (56%) is very influential in his decision-making. 41% say his advisors are, 32% say his donors are, and 31% say the Democratic Party or senior Democrats are. Fewer (13%) believe the media has a large influence on his decisions.

If Biden steps aside, how should a new nominee be chosen?

One of the complications in choosing a new nominee would be logistical: At this point in the race, is there a procedure that could produce an outcome that most Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents would be satisfied with?

According to our polling, most would be amenable to several different approaches to the selection of a new nominee, if one is needed. Majorities strongly or somewhat approve of holding an open convention where delegates vote on a new nominee, the party hosting debates to gauge voter preferences, and using polling to identify the most popular candidates nationally. 62% approve of Vice President Kamala becoming the nominee. Support is lowest for Joe Biden choosing a new nominee and instructing delegates to vote for that person — though 53% approve of this plan.

Which other nominees would Democrats approve of?

If a new nominee were to replace Biden, who would Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents want it to be? If Biden were to step aside, the largest share strongly or somewhat approves of Harris as a new presidential nominee (66%). Harris is tied with former First Lady Michelle Obama (66%) — who is unlikely to be a candidate and has said she will not run. Buttigieg comes in third (56%), followed closely by Newsom (54%). Half approve of each of Senators Elizabeth Warren (51%) and Bernie Sanders (50%), but significantly more disapprove of each one than of the possible nominees with more support.

At least one in three say they're "not sure" about each of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, but among those with an opinion, more approve of Whitmer than of Klobuchar. The least well-known of the 15 candidates asked about — which at least half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents are unsure about — are governors: Wes Moore of Maryland, JB Pritzker of Illinois, Andy Beshear of Kentucky, and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania.

Michelle Obama and several other potential candidates were included in the poll because they were mentioned often by Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, in response to an open-ended question on a prior poll asking about potential alternative nominees.

One question on many Democrats' minds is whether replacing Biden would increase or decrease the party's chances of winning the presidency. Fewer than half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents think each of the nominees asked about would be more likely than Biden to beat Trump — and only Michelle Obama is believed to be more likely to win against Trump than Biden by more than Biden would be more likely (47% vs. 19%).

56% do think that Harris would be at least as likely as Biden to win against Trump — including 22% who say she would be more likely — while 30% think she would be less likely, and 14% aren't sure. Half of Democrats say that New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would perform worse against Trump than Biden would, more than say so about any other else polled about; just 9% think she would do better than Biden would.

How Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stack up

Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, on average, have a more favorable opinion of Biden than of Harris. Aggregating Economist/YouGov polls over the course of the Biden administration, 82% say they have a favorable opinion of Biden whereas 75% have a favorable view of Harris. The 6-percentage-point difference is comparable to the average difference in favorability between Barack Obama (84%) and Biden (78%) during the Obama administration, as well as the favorability gap between Trump (85%) and Mike Pence (80%) among Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents while Trump was president.

What do Democrats view as the specific strengths and weaknesses of Biden and Harris? Many see them as comparable in most regards, though some differences do emerge. Compared to Harris, Biden is more likely to be seen by Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents as more likable, qualified, authentic, a strong leader, compassionate, willing to compromise, and honest. Biden and Harris are about as likely to be seen as more charismatic or intelligent than the other. By a large margin, Harris is more likely to be seen as more mentally fit than Biden, than the other way around (56% vs. 9%). She also is more likely to be viewed as more competent and a better communicator, as well as more progressive.


— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on July 3 - 6, 2024 among 1,122 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty