It’s an outrageous question. And usually a purely hypothetical one: What happens if the Democratic or Republican US presidential candidate drops out at the last minute? Because he becomes seriously ill, dies suddenly, because serious family problems arise – or even because the candidate for the White House has to go to prison. Nothing is normal in this election year in the USA, and such seemingly wild questions are suddenly no longer so hypothetical.

The race for the White House is between the two oldest presidential candidates of all time: Joe Biden is 81 years old, Donald Trump is 77 and will be 78 before the election. According to surveys, large parts of the population have concerns about the old age of the opponents – recurring ones Slips of the tongue, misfires or faux pas from both fuel this. The Democratic incumbent Biden is struggling with poor approval ratings, which worries his party colleagues. His Republican challenger Trump, in turn, is the first ex-president in US history to face four criminal proceedings, which in the worst case scenario could put him behind bars. So the outrageous question arises for both: What would be Plan B – and who could step in as a last-minute candidate?

Biden and Trump have already won their parties’ internal primaries and secured the necessary delegate votes for the respective nomination party conferences in the summer. Both are to be officially announced as presidential candidates there. Around 2,400 Republican delegates will meet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in mid-July, and around 4,000 Democratic delegates will meet in Chicago, Illinois, in mid-August. If Biden or Trump were to drop out before then, the respective party conference, which is usually more of a choreographed coronation mass, would become the venue for a real voting drama.

The delegates would then no longer be bound to the outcome of the internal primary in their state, but would be free to make their own decision. The position would be open to all possible high-profile candidates from the respective party and various alternative candidates would certainly publicly announce their ambitions. The delegates would then choose the new presidential candidate at the party conference – probably in various rounds of voting and accompanied by vigorous candidate lobbying and some spectacle. Political scientist David Barker of the American University in Washington says: “It would be about the most exciting thing that anyone who follows US politics has experienced in their lives.”

If Biden or Trump only left after the nomination party conventions, then it would be the respective party leadership’s turn. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has almost 170 members, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has several hundred – with representatives from every state. So although it wouldn’t be a very small board of directors that would make the decision, experts say it could still cause problems if the decision were made in just one such group.

“That would be unprecedented, and it would certainly spark a populist uprising,” Barker says. Critics of the Republicans in particular could denounce that the “establishment elite” is denying the grassroots a say, he argues. In this respect, it would also be possible for a party conference to be called again out of the ordinary, if this were still feasible in terms of time and logistics. This is explicitly mentioned as an option in the Republican party statutes.

Incidentally, Trump has just pushed through a realignment of the leadership of the Republican Party and installed two close confidants as co-chairs: the election denier Michael Whatley, who supported Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election victory was stolen, and his own daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.

The presidential election is on November 5th. If the election winner is unable to take office afterwards, the position would automatically go to his deputy. This is regulated in the constitution. Biden has selected his previous deputy Kamala Harris as his running mate – she would then move up. Trump has not yet announced who he wants to run as his running mate in the election.

Kamala Harris, 59: The vice president would actually be the natural successor to Biden. However, given poor poll numbers and an overall weak performance in her years in office, she is in a bad position and would probably have difficulty asserting herself if the personnel issue were to be clarified before election day.

Gavin Newsom, 56: The governor of the powerful state of California has made a name for himself nationally and has worked intensively on his political profile, most recently with highly publicized trips abroad. Some saw this as a kind of shadow campaign for the highest office in the state.

Gretchen Whitmer, 52: The governor of Michigan has long been seen as a rising force in the party. Before the 2020 election, Biden had considered her as his running mate.

Jay Robert Pritzker, 59: The governor of Illinois belongs to the progressive wing of the party. He comes from a wealthy family of entrepreneurs and is worth billions. He has great influence in the party, but he is not well known in the country.


Nikki Haley, 52: The former US ambassador to the United Nations fought a week-long duel with Trump in the internal primaries, but had no chance and ultimately gave up. Through the duel she sharpened her national profile. But she is hated by die-hard Trump supporters.

Ron DeSantis, 45: Florida’s governor was once considered Trump’s most promising internal competitor. He performed poorly in the primaries, but could still be put into play again.

Donald Trump Junior, 46: Trump’s eldest son is very involved in his father’s election campaign. The agitator is popular with Trump’s base and has long been in talks to one day take over his father’s political legacy.