What happens if Donald Trump calls it quits and exits the 2016 presidential race?
That’s a burning question on the minds of many, according to Google Trends.
As Trump’s numbers continue to sag and turmoil plagues his campaign, the internet search giant recorded a spike in interest in the search term earlier this month.
The right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board tossed more fuel on the fire this week when it published a scathing op-ed calling on Trump to mature his campaign style or hand the nomination to his running mate, Mike Pence.
So what would happen in the extremely unlikely scenario of Trump quitting the race? We took a look.
Can Trump give Pence the nomination?
If Trump did choose to exit, a messy transition would ensue.
“I don’t think he’s going to step aside,” Alex Keyssar, a political historian at Harvard University, told Business Insider.
But the fact that people are even suggesting that Trump should, Keyssar said, has never happened before at the presidential level.
“This is the first time any such discussion has really occurred,” he said.
If Trump did decide to drop out, Pence would not automatically receive the Republican nomination, Ballotpedia’s Charles Aull, an expert on the presidential race and its many rules, told Business Insider.
The GOP would have to go through a formal process.
How could the GOP replace Trump?
The Republican National Committee’s rules say it can fill any candidate vacancies that occur because of “death, declination, or otherwise” by either reconvening all 2,472 delegates to vote at another convention, or by letting its 168-member body decide via majority vote.
In the latter scenario, each member would get a certain number of votes based on how populous the state they represent is.
Aull said this is much more likely, because reconvening another convention would be a logistical nightmare.
Who would replace him?
If this happened, Aull said, choosing Pence would be the least controversial option (as opposed to former presidential nominees Governor John Kasich or Senator Ted Cruz), because he was already approved by Trump and chosen at the convention.
This choice could give some Republicans a sense of relief, Keyssar said, encouraging some voters who don’t want to vote for the candidates from either party a reason to cast their ballots on election day instead of staying home.
Is it too late to ged rid of Trump?
This formal re-selection process would take at least a couple weeks, though, and time is ticking down to election day.
Most states have their own ballot deadlines for presidential elections so people casting absentee ballots can vote for the correct candidates.
That means that if the RNC replaces Trump, his name could still appear on the ballot in some states — and not the new nominee selected by the party. This could be incredibly confusing for voters who would want to vote for Pence, but would have to select Trump on the ballot, political scientist Josh Putnam told the Washington Post.
Several ballot deadlines have already passed, and more are coming up this week.
“The deadline for things not being messy is like now,” Aull said. “By the end of the month at the latest, that’s the non-messy deadline, whereas post-August or end of September is when things start to get really, really complicated. They don’t want that.”
Another state-specific hurdle would come up after the election.
When voters select a candidate, they are really telling members of the electoral college in their state to vote for that candidate. In some states, the electors can choose whoever they want for president. Others require they vote for a party based on popular vote. And in a third set, electors are legally bound to vote for the name on the ballot.
It’s this third category where the Republican party would have to go to court to transfer the votes for Trump to the replacement. That would be even more time consuming and “messy.”
What if the party replaces Trump too late?
If Republicans win states where the filing deadlines have passed, the RNC would likely have to appeal to the courts in order to give the new nominee the votes cast for Trump, Aull said.
That scenario would obviously be a hurdle for the Republicans, so if the party does decide to replace Trump, it would be better off doing it as soon as possible.
What if Trump steps aside the the day after the election?
We have a constitution for that one.
The 20th Amendment says: “If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified.”
In that case, Trump could effectively “choose” Pence to take over if the voters vote him into office and he then decides to step aside.
Could the RNC say ‘You’re Fired’?
Of course, all of the scenarios so far assume Trump politely steps aside. Most presidential nominees simply don’t do that, Keyssar said.
“I think it’s usually the case that you can assume that people who run for an office actually want to hold the office,” he said. “They would not step aside, especially with the presidency. It’s fulfilling their lifetime ambition.”
But a small subset of people are calling for the RNC to use an extreme interpretation of the phrase “or otherwise” in the rules for replacing a candidate as a way to forcibly remove Trump from the nomination. That’s unlikely, Aull said, but worth noting.
The RNC could also rewrite its rules to force him out, which would take even more time. That’s also pretty unlikely.
If Trump didn’t go willingly, he would probably sue the RNC if they use this “otherwise” clause and take the nomination away from him. Then it would be up to the courts to decide who the nominee could be.
Since we’re getting into serious hypotheticals here: If Trump (or any candidate) committed a major crime, he could still legally run for president. There’s nothing in the constitution banning alleged felons from running for office. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs even received 1 million votes from behind bars in 1920.
If Trump were then convicted, the vice president might have to take over (if the new Republican nominee won the White House, that is). Or maybe he could pardon himself — we really don’t have precedent for that ludicrous scenario.
Could Pence win?
The most interesting note about this complex process is that if Trump dropped out, Pence could still have a chance of becoming president.
For some voters, Keyssar said, replacing Trump could be a bad idea. Most of his supporters are loyal to him and could feel betrayed by the RNC if it attempted to replace him with someone else.
But for others, Pence may be seen as their saviour.
“If there was a replacement nominee, it’s still possible that that replacement nominee could win the election,” Aull said. “Because so many of the issues that the GOP has been having have sort of centered on Trump himself … it would probably generate some excitement. People are bound to be excited if somebody like Pence stepped in.”
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