History shows swapping candidates is a losing game for Democrats

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Ever since the June 27 presidential debate, there has been a deafening drumbeat for Democrats to replace President Biden on their party ticket. However, past Democratic efforts offer a cautionary tale. That past overlaid onto today’s present should trigger a loud warning to those imagining there’s an easy short-term fix.

In 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson was convinced not to seek reelection. Until Biden is formally nominated, this is essentially the Democrats’ current position. 

Four decades ago, Johnson was persuaded that he faced a difficult path forward which, if he chose to take it, would split his party. Even if Johnson had been successful — winning the nomination and then the presidency — he risked a severe diminution of power. 

He was virtually guaranteed to have fewer Democrats in Congress: In 1966, they had lost 47 House seats and four Senate seats. If losing outright majorities seemed unlikely, losing working majorities was not. Disenchanted Democrats (Southern conservatives and liberals) could bolt on specific issues. 

Either scenario would have been abhorrent to Johnson, who was used to wielding power like a mace. Plus, he had accomplished much already. Simply residing in the White House for four years would have been unthinkable to him.

So, bowing to reality, Johnson tapped Vice President Hubert Humphrey to take his place. Humphrey gamely campaigned but continued backing Johnson on Vietnam. Democrats still split. George Wallace stripped away support in the South, and Humphrey lost in an Electoral College landslide (191 to 301). 

The Democratic fissures that opened in 1968 widened in 1972. Instead of leaving, the left took over this time, driving out moderates and conservatives. The Democratic diaspora went to Richard Nixon by the millions. 

That year, Democrats did not simply talk someone off the ticket — they took him off, and after he had been officially nominated. Granted, it was not at the ticket’s top, but it was Sen. George McGovern’s running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) — a last-gasp pick after a Democratic who’s who had turned down the job. 

Only after the fact did Eagleton’s medical history become known: He had undergone shock treatments for depression. After saying he would back his choice, McGovern reversed himself days later. Again, the vice president selection sideshow played out like a perverse game of musical chairs in which no one wanted to sit. In the end, only the comparatively unknown Sargent Shriver would accept. 

The result was that McGovern looked weak. He was trounced in November, winning only Massachusetts and D.C. 

Both 1968 and 1972 are illustrative for today’s Democrats. 

Biden is still in better shape than Johnson was. The party isn’t split — or at least, it wasn’t split before the debate itself. Yes, Biden has diminished support, but it still appears overwhelming internally. 

Unlike Johnson, Biden clings tenaciously to the White House. Johnson had been big in Washington before the Kennedy administration — far bigger than Kennedy, in fact. Then he got bigger, wielding more power as president and more effectively than Kennedy had. Being less would have been antithetical to his legacy.

Biden has none of those problems. A Senate backbencher for six terms, he failed dismally in two presidential runs (1988 and 2008), was passed over in 2016 and nearly lost early in 2020. During his single term, he has accomplished little, as his dismal approval ratings show. 

Biden shows little inclination to step away from the nomination. Further, Democrats have put in place a virtual process to accelerate his receiving the nomination he’s already won. 

To force Biden off the ticket after the nomination would be even less likely — at least barring a medical reason (something that his latest medical check-up did not reveal). Even that reasoning didn’t work in 1972. At that time, Democrats seemed to be in disarray and unprofessional. Would things look any different today?

And even should the 1968 or 1972 scenario prevail today, who would Democrats pick? In 1968, they went with their vice president. Today, Vice President Kamala Harris is viewed less favorably than Biden. And in Democrats’ world of identity-group politics, how do they pass her over, at the risk of losing ground with black voters who they already fear are drifting toward Donald Trump at the margins? 

Such a midstream switch would have to occur in public and with less than four months (at most) to go before the election. More importantly, the move risks splitting a party not currently split.

Finally, even with a switch, how would their new nominee walk away from Biden’s policies? And it is these policies on which Biden’s performance is frequently more poorly rated than his overall performance. 

Democrats’ lesson from 1968 and 1972 are that, despite changes to their ticket, they lost both times. Badly. 

Their goal is to win. Biden remains the only Democrat who has won against Trump. As Democrats contemplate replacing Biden, they must also weigh the risk of fracturing their party and creating what they faced in 1968 and 1972.  

A short-term “fix” could lead to a long-term fracture, while still not guaranteeing victory this November.

J.T. Young was a professional staffer in the House and Senate and served in the Department of Treasury and Office of Management and Budget. He was director of government relations for a Fortune 20 company for 20 years.

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