What If a Presidential Candidate Dies?

I was explaining the whole primary/nomination process to my girlfriend, who doesn’t know much about politics, and she posed an interesting question. What would hsppen if a presidential candidate who had already received their party’s nomination died before the general election? The big day’s in November, so let’s say our guy (or gal) died in early October. Would the election be postponed? Would the party have to hold another convention? Would the honor automatically go to the second runner up?

I think the party would nominate someone else, but I highly doubt the election would be postponed. I don’t know the specific laws, but I am almost certain the election won’t be called off.

Landslide victory for the other candidate.

Probably depends on state laws as to how or if a replacement makes the ballot, but no, the election won’t be postponed.

Several politicians, including Mel Carnahan, have won election to Congress after they were dead. (He was killed in a plane crash in mid-October; Missouri law would not allow his name to be replaced on the ballot, but his campaign continued with his widow, and the governor of Missouri promised to appoint Mrs. Carnahan to fill the Senate seat if he won, which he did.) On the other had, when Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was killed eleven days before the election in 2002, that state’s laws demanded the party replace him on the ballot (and the replacement lost a close election).

The National Committee of the relevant party would meet to select a new candidate. One presumes they would go with the VP-nominee, but they wouldn’t have to.

It would take an act of congress to delay the election. But it seems unlikey the death of a candidate would require it.

The novel The People’s Choice by Jeff Greenfield is a lovely fictional telling of such an event. It’s a jolly good read, and answers some of the questions regarding such an event. It also raises more questions than it answers.

In practice, this is one of the things the Electoral College is designed for. If the candidate dies, the Electors are our representatives, and must choose as wisely as they can.

I think she won partly on the sympathy vote.

Believe it or not it is hard to beat a dead person.

So if the party in power’s candidate dies right before the election, they could postpone it?

Well, it would take both houses plus the Presidents signature. It’s unlikely in the extreme.

It’s just barely conceivable that they might postpone the election if, say, some major disaster killed both the Republican & Democratic candidates, plus their veep candidates, and it was like a week before the election. Even then, they probably wouldn’t, and it would just be understood that the people were voting for a generic Republican or Democrat, TBD by the electors at a later date.

My guess is, voter turnout would be historically low.

In 1972 the Democratic National Committee replaced Tom Eagleton (who resigned from his nomination over past medical problems) with Sargent Shriver on August 1. I imagine if a presidential candidate died in early October, the same process would occur.

There’s a flavor of opinion polling which compares real live candidates to a generic member of the opposition party.

The generic opposition straw-man usually fares better in such polls than the live ones do. Folks might be real enthused to vote for the generic they actually prefer over the specific candidates whose specific warts they already know.
Here’s hoping we never get to run this experiment.

It’s set by federal law, so Congress could change the law, and if the sitting Prez signed it, the date would be changed.

But that’s just from a legal standpoint. Obviously the closer the date gets, the more practical problems there would be to a last minute change. Early voting would mean some votes would’ve already been cast, polling stations and staff would have to be rescheduled, ballots reprinted, etc. Plus depending on how the law’s are written for state elections that are on the same day, you might end up having to split the election into two days.

So realistically they wouldn’t change the day. If the candidate died well before election day, there isn’t really any reason to change. If he dies right before, changing is impractical.

And while McGovern wasn’t going to win anyway, that little episode probably cost him several states, which would have made the outcome at least respectable, rather than McGovern carrying only MA and the District of Columbia. Of course, the medical problem for Eagleton was prior treatment for depression, which could recur, and made him unfit in the eyes of many voters (fairly or not). It also made them question McGovern’s judgement in choosing him in the first place.

Of course, the landslide was for incumbent Nixon, and Watergate then had to play out.

Horace Greeley, the joint candidate of the Liberal Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the 1872 election, was defeated in the popular vote but died before the electoral college voted.

The electors for the states he had won (66 electoral votes) cast their votes for four other men.

Much more interesting if the winner died after the election but before the electoral college voted. Or after the electoral college voted but before HR actually counted the ballots.

A frightening scenario is this: suppose the Dems in the election but a tea party dominated HR refused to certify the winner?


McCain’s choosing Palin was also cause for many people to question the presidential candidate’s judgment.

Apparently choosing the right VP doesn’t much matter. But choosing the wrong one sure might!

I remember after the 1972 election, there were letters to the New York Times saying it wasn’t a landslide, that all you had to do was change the votes of 1 out of 10 people. Let’s see, Nixon won by 18,000,000 so all you had to do was get 9,000,000 to change their minds.

There’s an infinitude of horror scenarios where folks simply refuse to play by the rules and take their ball and either sit on it or go home. The game does take everybody agreeing to play, and play by a close approximation to the rules.

The Rs have certainly played around the edges with this more than the Ds of late. But nothing remotely like what you imagine here.

Something that big might well be a nation-ending exercise. Probably best not to even talk about. Because it’s very far-fetched even starting from the least charitable opinion on the current Rs.

What if in September the USAF comes out as demanding Cruz for CinC. Or else. And simultaneously the USN says it’s Rubio or we nuke the west coast? Or go rogue & attack China? IMO not a scenario worth wasting bytes on.