11 min read

Mailbag edition

Why Nikki Haley can’t run with a third party, how to replace Kamala Harris, and why Ross Douthat is wrong.
Mailbag edition
(Illustration by DALL-E)

Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s Wednesday, February 14, 2024. Election Day is 265 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

One of my favorite parts about writing Wake Up To Politics is hearing from so many of you each day. WUTP readers never fail to send in thoughtful questions — and, every once and a while, I like to take a moment to answer some of them right here in the newsletter.

So, with that, let’s dive into the mailbag:

Mike K. from Bainbridge Island, WA writes:

I’m disappointed that today’s mail didn’t address Ross Douthat’s column from this weekend... I get your point that the process is very different than 1968, but what WOULD happen if Biden withdraws after he has all the delegates needed for the nomination? What would happen if there’s a major health crisis in October? 

A few readers actually brought up Douthat’s New York Times column in response to my Monday newsletter on the near-inevitability of Democrats renominating President Biden this year, despite concerns about his age and mental acuity.

In case you didn’t read the NYT piece, Douthat basically imagines that Biden understands he should not be the Democratic nominee in 2024 — but wants to avoid the “months of bloodletting” that would come with a competitive primary and fears that Kamala Harris would emerge from it as the nominee.

To this dilemma, Douthat has a solution: Biden should continue accumulating delegates throughout the primary, but always with the idea in mind that he will drop out in August and allow for them to pick the party’s true nominee in a contested convention. This scenario, Douthat says, would “condense” all the drama and bitterness of a primary into a much shorter timespan and — due to the convention’s proximity to the general election — “create stronger incentives” for any losing candidates to immediately rally behind the nominee.

I think this sounds nice in theory — and plenty fun for a political junkie like myself — but I see a few issues in reality. First off, I’m open to the normative idea that parties should exert more control over their nomination processes. But, for the past 50 years now, voters have come to expect considerable sway over presidential primaries. That kind of power can’t just be taken away in the dead of night without expecting some backlash.

Changing the primary system through a years-long deliberative process would be one thing. It’s quite another to pull a bait-and-switch in a single cycle where voters think they are picking a nominee, only to have their standard-bearer selected for them by a couple thousand party insiders.

Speaking of party insiders, I think Douthat’s other problem is he doesn’t really reckon with the composition of the delegates who would actually be picking the Democratic nominee under his scenario. This would not be a fair fight among a broad cross-section of the party. Because nearly all of the Democratic delegates will arrive at the convention pledged to Biden, they will mainly be Biden Democrats handpicked by his campaign team. That means a very ideologically skewed segment of Democrats would suddenly be picking a nominee for the entire party.

Then, under current party rules, if no candidate wins on the first ballot, the superdelegates come to play. Remember the outcry in 2016 at the very thought that superdelegates were taking the Democratic nomination from Bernie Sanders? Now, imagine if these superdelegates (DNC members, Democratic lawmakers, and other party elders) actually did have a hand in the nomination process. Maybe Democrats — many of whom do have qualms about Biden — would be so relieved about this succession plan that those kinds of populist concerns would be swept away. Maybe. But, if not, Democrats would be inviting a world of hell that Douthat doesn’t really reckon with.

So, in the end, I think this plan would be a risk — just like nominating Biden is. Although Biden certainly has glaring vulnerabilities, one of his great strengths as a nominee is that he papers over the vast divisions within the Democratic Party, able to lead a coalition that spans from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin. There is no guarantee that whoever the DNC delegates pick would have that same ability, especially after a contested convention that would freshly reopens all the party’s wounds (and that Sanders Democrats would have virtually no say in). Follow this plan, and Jill Stein, Cornel West, and Robert Kennedy Jr. will be waiting for these voters with open arms.

(N.B. Mike also asked about what would happen if Biden drops out in October. Here’s where you do get the smoke-filled room that I said didn’t exist on Monday. Per DNC rules, in the event that a nominee dies, drops out, or becomes incapacitated after the convention, the DNC chair is to confer with Democratic leaders and then report to the 450-member DNC, who would have the final say.)

David S. from Pittsburgh, PA writes:

Whatever happened to the “favorite son/daughter” phenomenon of yesteryear, whereby a candidate not doing particularly well could always count on winning their home state? Why is Nikki Haley so far behind in her home state of South Carolina?

I think there are three factors going on here: one that’s Haley-specific, one that’s Trump-specific, and one that’s bigger than both of them.

The Haley-specific factor is that she is a tough political brawler who was never particularly well-liked among the establishment in South Carolina. That doesn’t necessarily explain why Republican voters in the state are rejecting her, but it does help explain why so few Republican politicians there have endorsed her — the kind of endorsers who might have helped her shore up support in her home state.

In a 2021 profile of Haley — a great read for understanding the former governor — Tim Alberta wrote that Haley had left “the road behind her littered with enemies as well as allies,” due to her “unplanned outbursts and bridge-burning decisions.” A New York Times piece earlier this year described Haley as a “politician who climbed the ladder with speed and skill but failed to ensure that the people who helped her would have her back if she needed them.”

Or, as Donald Trump put it to one of these endorsers, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, in January: “You must really hate her.”

But Scott’s response is also instructive: “I just love you.” So, partially, this is bigger than Haley — Republican voters just love Trump, and not even a twice-elected home-state governor is going to get in the way of them renominating him.

And then, there’s the factor that’s bigger than both of them: presidential primaries are slowly growing more nationalized, which means state-specific factors (like the “favorite son” phenomenon) are becoming less relevant. You see this is in the issues candidates are talking about on the campaign trail, which are more national than local. You see this in their behavior (Trump winning the Iowa caucuses without going through any of the state’s political rituals). And you see it in voters ignoring Haley’s home-state credentials in South Carolina.

A recent CBS poll in South Carolina had two great questions that really showcase this phenomenon:

Republican voters are much more concerned about national issues — and they don’t much care that one of the candidates happens to be from their home state.

David R. from St. Louis, MO writes:

What do you think about Haley running as a 3rd party option if she doesn't get the Republican nod? I think a lot of people in the center — most Americans — would find her an acceptable alternative.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite, under-the-radar features of presidential politics: sore-loser laws!

Many states have laws on the books to prevent this exact scenario: a political candidate running for and losing their party’s nomination, and then going on to run as a third-party candidate for the same office.

A Harvard journal article from last year concluded that 28 states apply their sore-loser laws to presidential candidates — and 20 of them are states that Trump won in either 2016 or 2020. That effectively means that no failed Republican primary candidate could win the presidency as a third-party candidate (at least without significant legal challenges).

“Any third-party presidential campaign mounted by Trump or any other defeated Republican could only function as a spoiler campaign — splitting the vote that would otherwise coalesce behind the Republican nominee — thereby causing that nominee to lose the general election,” the authors of the journal article wrote.

So, Haley could run, but she would be a guaranteed spoiler — which would lead to serious pressure on her to get out. Sore-loser laws have always been the best argument against Trump’s threats to run as a third-party candidate, too, although it’s harder to see him caring much about acting as a spoiler.

Christine M. from New Hampshire writes:

What does the Democratic Party have to do to get me to actually vote for Biden? It has to select a person for Vice President who can actually take over for Biden if Biden cannot finish his second term of office, something that seems to be a distinct possibility. Kamala Harris has done nothing to convince me that she is capable of doing the job well. Can you explain the process by which the VP is selected and let voters know whether anyone in the Party is considering replacing Harris?

Now, back to the Democrats. A lot of you wrote in asking about whether Democrats are considering replacing Kamala Harris as the VP nominee.

The short answer is “no.” As for the process to do this, vice presidential nominees are selected the same way presidential nominees are: by a majority vote of the 3,795 delegates at the Democratic convention. Traditionally, though, the presidential nominee is allowed to select their own VP candidate and then the delegates just rubber-stamp the pick by acclamation. (Sometimes, the process is even simpler. In 2020, the Democratic delegates opted to allow Biden to name his running mate without even holding a vote on them.)

The last time a VP candidate was chosen through an open process at a party convention was 1956. The last time a sitting president ran for re-election with a swapped-out running mate was 1976.

This time around, there are no signs that Biden is thinking about pulling a Gerald Ford — partially, I’m sure, out of fear of the backlash that would ensue if he tried to replace the first Black female vice president.

In case you were looking for evidence that Biden is sticking with his choice, consider this tweet from just last week:

It’s going to be Biden-Harris, folks.

Thanks to all the readers who sent in questions for this mailbag edition! If you ever have a burning question about American politics, you know where to find me: gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

More news to know.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. (World Travel & Tourism Council)

The House voted Tuesday to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on charges of refusing to enforce border security laws and breaching the public trust. The vote — which initially failed last week — was 214-213, with three Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.

Mayorkas is the first sitting Cabinet member in U.S. history to be impeached. (Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached in 1876 hours after resigning office.) In a statement, President Biden called the impeachment a “blatant act of unconstitutional partisanship,” accusing House Republicans of attempting to oust Mayorkas over run-of-the-mill policy differences.

Mayorkas will only be removed from office if he is convicted by two-thirds of the Senate. The chamber is expected to hold a trial after returning from recess later this month; House conservatives including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are set to serve as the prosecutors.

Speaking of close House votes, expect more of them after former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) won a special election last night to succeed the expelled Rep. George Santos (R-NY). With 93% of the vote reporting, Suozzi bested county legislator Mazi Pilip by almost eight percentage points, 53.9% to 46.1%.

The special election outcome will make a difference in razor-thin roll calls like the Mayorkas impeachment vote: the House GOP majority now stands at 219-213, which means the party can only sustain two Republican defections on votes with full attendance.

But... I’d be careful about going too far in projecting this result (in a Biden +8 district) onto the presidential race. As The New York Times wrote earlier this month, “special electorates bear no resemblance to the general electorate or the broader pool of registered voters.” In recent years, Democrats — now imbued with the more highly-engaged voter base — have tended to perform better in low-turnout elections. Larger-turnout presidential elections are a whole different ballgame.

A few more headlines for you:

The day ahead.

The leaders of the Quad in 2022. (Japanese government)

White House: President Biden will have lunch with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and receive his daily intelligence briefing with Vice President Harris. Later, Harris will depart for Germany, where she is due at the Munich Security Conference later this week.

Congress: The House is set to vote on a resolution condemning the acts of rape and sexual violence committed by Hamas against Israel on October 7th.

The chamber is also expected to vote on the Strengthening the Quad Act, which would require the State Department to issue a comprehensive strategy on bolstering cooperation with the Quad (the diplomatic partnership between the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan).

The Senate is off for the week.

Campaign trail: Former President Donald Trump will hold a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina tonight.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe