The news is now full of reports that Hillary Clinton had some sort of “episode” as she was getting into her assisted living van. It’s possible she was still drunk from the night before or maybe just so hungover she could barely walk. The campaign says she has pneumonia, which could mean anything or nothing. She has disappeared from sight so we’re left to speculate, but she is clearly a woman with serious health problems. The question people are beginning to ask is can she continue to campaign? If not, will she be forced to drop out? What would happen if she did?
The funny thing about all of this is most Americans don’t know how we actually select Presidents. The voting that is done in November will not, as a legal matter, select the next President. Voting merely selects the electors who will then meet on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. They actually meet in their respective state capitals where they cast their votes for President and Vice President. All but Maine and Nebraska have a winner take all system for selecting electors so your vote sort of matters, unless you live in a one-party state.
Similarly, each state has rules for getting on the November ballot. For example, Evan McMuffin, the Never Trump candidate, missed the deadline to be on many state ballots. This applies to the party candidates, as well, so a last minute change would create complications for the Democrats. If Hillary Clinton was suddenly incapacitated or simply quit the race, the Democrats would have a problem. They would have to go to court in some states to have their new candidate listed on the ballot. It’s not impossible, but it would be a complication.
So, what are the possible scenarios?
At this late date, finding a replacement would be complicated. The Democrat Party has rules for this scenario so they could move quickly. The rules strongly encourage the party to pick the runner up, but they can pick anyone to fill the slot. Bernie Sanders would be the obvious option, but that would mean certain defeat to Donald Trump, the nightmare scenario for both parties. The Bernie Bros are committed, but their numbers are limited. Most Americans would assume his nomination is a surrender.
They could go with a famous person with some traction in the party, but the choices are limited. Joe Biden is famous, but old and prone to saying wildly offensive things to black people and women. Elizabeth Warren is popular with the crazies, but she scares normal people. She’s also a very poor campaigner. She passed on a chance to run and passed on the VP spot. This makes forcing Clinton aside a troublesome scenario simply because the other options are only slightly better than having a corpse at the top of the ticket,
That brings up another option. Imagine that on Halloween it is reported that Clinton fell off her broom again and hit her head, rendering her incapacitated. The Democrats could reach out to Congressional Republicans and ask for a delay in the election. Congress does not have the power to dictate when people vote. They do have the power to decide when the Electors must be selected by the states. Congress could work with the states to postpone the election to December 3 in order to sort things out.
This brings us back to the first scenario, but the difference here is the crisis feel would open another dimension. The Democrats would feel free to pick anyone they like and would probably consult with the Republicans to come up with a “senior statesman” they could offer up as safe choice in a crisis. In other words, this delay would allow both parties to reset the game board so that the election was no longer about the insurgent Trump versus the corrupt system. Instead, it would be about the steady hand in a time of crisis versus the irrational hothead.
Another scenario, the high risk scenario, is for Congress to cancel the election entirely. Article II gives Congress the power to set the date electors are chosen so they can delay this indefinitely. Speaker Ryan would become acting President until Congress could come up with a new election date. Since Republicans control something like 35 state legislatures, they could stall the process so that they can stack the Electoral College with party members, who would pick a party insider. A governor like Kasich or even Jeb Bush could be installed as president.
Those are the Machiavellian scenarios. Given the nature of the political class, it seems unlikely that any of those would happen, even if Clinton drops dead tomorrow. Even so, it offers a little glimpse into the future. Over the last century, we have invested enormous power into the office of President. If you’re wondering how we can flip from republic to empire, a crisis such as the above would offer the opportunity. One candidate that is unacceptable and one that is dead, opens the door for the political class to bypass the voters and install their own man.