What happens if a presidential candidate dies or steps down?

Delegates celebrating at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Every presidential election year is filled with unanswered questions, many of which will only be resolved after votes are cast and a winner is named. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, there are some things we do know, including what happens if one of the candidates in the 2024 race dies or has to withdraw. 

In an explainer from the National Task Force on Election Crisis, a team of election experts outlines exactly what happens when a candidate dies before the election. Here’s what they say: 

Political parties have all the power if a candidate dies while campaigning

If a candidate dies before Election Day, political parties have primary control over the process of replacing that candidate. There aren’t any laws or parts of the constitution that cover this scenario, and on the few occasions where it has occurred, parties have been the principal actors. The exact process depends in large part on when the death occurs. 

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If it happens before the nominating conventions, the assembled delegates at the conventions will select the new nominee from among other candidates or potential new entries into the race. If, for example, Barack Obama had died in advance of the 2008 convention, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and the rest of the Democratic primary field would have worked to curry favor from various delegates prior to the official nomination. Delegates would have then voted, and a new nominee would have been announced. The same process would have occurred had Obama simply dropped out of the race.

If the death comes after the candidate has been officially nominated, though, the two major parties have different rules for selecting a new candidate: 

In the Democratic Party “the members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) choose the new nominee during a special session called by the chair. Per the Task Force’s explainer, “The DNC chair is required to consult with Democratic congressional leadership and the Democratic Governors Association, and then reports to DNC members who choose.”

The Democrats actually engaged in this process in 1972, when vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton withdrew from the race, and was replaced by Sargent Shriver after a vote from the DNC. 

The Republican Party, meanwhile, vests the power to choose a new nominee with the Republican National Committee (RNC). As the explainer lays out, “members would vote as part of their state delegation under the same vote distribution used for the convention itself, and delegation members could divide their votes if they did not agree. Alternatively, the Republicans could reconvene the national convention.”

How does replacing a candidate after their official nomination change the ballots themselves?

The question of nominating a new candidate only addresses one of the issues that would arise if a candidate died. While ballots for the general election are generally not printed until the fall, and it’s possible to make changes before those ballots are printed, if the ballots have already been printed, things become much more difficult. The Task Force explainer again: 

Several administrative processes in the lead-up to elections make last-minute changes difficult. For example, election administrators must conduct pre-election programming and testing before ballots are printed. In addition, at least some ballots must be printed well in advance of Election Day to accommodate military and overseas voting as well as absentee or mail-in voting as permitted in the jurisdiction. A combination of federal and state law governs such processes and as such is not uniform across jurisdictions. This lack of uniformity could contribute to confusion.

In our presidential election system, however, voters cast their ballots not for a specific candidate but for a slate of electors pledged to that candidate through the electoral college. As a result, votes for a replaced presidential or vice presidential candidate really go to a slate of electors, and those electors (who usually have a strong party loyalty because of how they are appointed) could transfer their votes to the new nominee. 

Parties are a crucial part of our democracy

For all of the flack that they receive, parties serve an essential role in our election process. In an unfortunate scenario like death or incapacitation, parties are responsible for ensuring that the process of replacing a presidential candidate does not devolve into chaos. They provide an organizing mechanism that should instill confidence in voters that unlikely contingencies have been evaluated and planned for. If this sort of tragedy were ever to strike during an election season, it is the parties who would guide us toward a definitive resolution. 

About the Author

Joe Allen

Digital Strategist

Joe Allen works on Protect Democracy’s digital presence, focusing on the development and creation of compelling content for use across the organization’s digital platforms.

Joe Allen

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