With just a little over four months until Election Day, President Joe Biden is facing increasing demands from prominent Democratic politicians, voters and media outlets to drop out of the race following his disappointing performance in the first debate of the 2024 election against former President Donald Trump.

The New York Times editorial board described Biden’s decision to remain in the high-stakes race as a “reckless gamble.” Dan Butler, professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Lous, said the relevant gamble has a name — “gamble for resurrection” — and it can explain the strategic calculus Biden and his supporters are weighing as they consider their path forward.  

Dan Butler

“The concept of ‘gambling for resurrection’ comes out of studies of international relations,” Butler said. “It argues that politicians who are very likely to be kicked out of office, often choose to pursue risky actions that might help them stay in office.

“If a political leader is going to lose, or almost certainly lose, it may make sense for them to risk it all. If the gamble goes poorly, they are no worse off — they were going to lose anyway. But if it goes well, the politician has resurrected a career that appeared to be over.”

While the concept of gambling for resurrection is typically applied to an individual leader — like Biden choosing an action that would resurrect his career — Butler argues it could be applied to the Democratic party right now.

Choosing a new candidate at this point in the process is a gamble, indeed. After all, Biden beat Trump in 2020 and the party did better than expected in the 2022 elections. And many party members consider his first term to be a success. But does he have what it takes to beat Trump again? And could another candidate do better with only a few months to campaign?

“Given the current state of the race, I understand why the media and Democratic politicians are debating this issue,” Butler said. “Many of the conditions in the race seem like they should favor President Biden. His Republican opponent, former President Trump, recently became a convicted felon. Further, the underlying economy is generally doing quite well. The stock market is up, unemployment is low, and inflation levels are much lower than they were for most of 2021 and 2022, although prices are still higher than they were a few years ago.

“Despite these favorable conditions, Biden is trailing Trump in most national polls. It’s hard to envision what changes at this point could turn things around for Biden.”

It’s not too late for Biden to change the direction of the campaign by campaigning effectively, but Thursday’s debate performance is causing many people to doubt his ability to do that, Butler said.

As for calls to replace Biden on the ticket, Butler said the decision will ultimately rest on Biden. Democrats would not force Biden out because it would cause too much damage to the party to be an option worth pursuing, he said.

“If Biden steps aside, the Democratic party will see a flurry of campaigning and media attention. It will be a rushed process, but the party can do it,” Butler said.

“There is always a lot of uncertainty when choosing a new candidate, but given the current state of the campaign, it seems like the Democratic party has more to gain by choosing a new candidate than it has to lose.”