President Donald Trump is now hospitalized at Walter Reed medical center as he is treated for COVID-19. We all hope that the president, the first lady, and everyone else has has tested positive recovers quickly and without complication. 

But it is hard not to think about the political implications of this illness. What happens if a presidential candidate cannot serve after the election campaign has begun? How will it affect the campaign? I answered some of these on Twitter this morning, and the editors here at AMA asked me to come answer your questions on Reddit tonight.  I am a professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, specializing in political parties and particularly presidential nominations. My perspective on this question draws heavily on the research I’ve done with Marty Cohen, David Karol and John Zaller on the nomination process, including our book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform and related works  I’m just wrapping up a textbook on Political Parties, coauthored with Seth Masket, which will be out from W.W. Norton in the spring. 

So … what do you want to know?


EDIT: So, this was fun. I'm afraid I didn't get to everyone. But it's been almost two and a half hours, and I need to write some peer review reports. Thanks all.

Comments: 147 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

EdgePunk31135 karma

Hi Professor Noel -- former student of yours from your time at UCLA.

Two questions in the front of my mind:

  1. God forbid, President Trump somehow gets knocked off the ticket because of this. What happens to his votes that have already been cast in the election? Do they automatically go to the GOP candidate?

  2. If Trump signed a document saying he's incapacitated for the time he's at Walter Reed and can't discharge his duties a al Bush and his colonoscopy.... could Pence do a pre-emptive pardon of Trump at that time for all past potential criminal conduct?

Thank you Professor. Always enjoyed your classes.

ProfHansNoel71 karma

Ah yes. I remember EdgePunk311 well. Good to hear from you. :)

  1. Every state has different rules, and so there may be some detail I'm not aware of in some state. But remember this is the Electoral College. So voters are not technically electing the candidate. They are electing Electors pledged to vote for their party's nominee. (Some states' rules do specify the name of the candidate, but in the recent Chiafalo v. Washington case, the Court pointed out that they did not want to tie Electors hands in the case where the candidate was incapacitated.) So when the Electors meet, they would vote for the party's candidate.

  2. There's actually some dispute about the boundaries of the pardon power. But politically, I think that would be a nightmare for Pence and for Trump. It implies that Trump is guilty of something. And it means Pence is doing more with his temporary power than just keeping the lights on, which is what we expect of someone in that role.

reality_czech26 karma

Looking back at prior events how did a president getting sick (FDR), hurt (Reagan assassination attempt), assaulted (bush shoe throwing) etc generally impact their favorability/support ?

Basically is Trump getting sick likely going to hurt or help his support?

I'm guessing rallying his base, but making independents go away

ProfHansNoel61 karma

I think the evidence is mixed. The assassination attempt on Reagan definitely energized support for him. But that's different from becoming sick. The shoe throwing was I think not that serious and had no detectible effects.

I think in this case, one thing it does is it makes people think about COVID more. Polls suggest most voters don’t think the president has handled the pandemic well. If they are thinking about that when they vote, they are less likely to support him. As long as he is sick, the news is talking about COVID and about Trump’s COVID policies, and that's not good for his favorability.

dictate_this20 karma

If the RNC needs to elect a new candidate for the Republican party, are there any chances it would not be Pence since he's already on the ticket?

ProfHansNoel42 karma

They are not obligated to pick Pence.

But Pence is the natural choice. If the RNC has to scramble to pick someone at the last minute, they'll need to act fast. Pence is the focal point. It would take a lot of work to convince everyone to go to someone else. That's not impossible, but Pence would presumably be not only the most obvious choice, but the acting or newly selected president via the 25th Amendment. So that's where I'd start if I were on the RNC and trying to make a choice.

BreakingNews996 karma

Is there something in the constitution that says after they pick their guy and shit hits the fan they can just pick someone else? Or does it have to deal with primaries? There were no primaries for the republicans. They can’t just pick someone after the convention?

ProfHansNoel23 karma

The constitution has little to do with how parties chose their nominees. Parties are not mentioned in the constitution at all.

The Republican Party gets to choose who the party puts forward. They chose Trump, but if something happens to that candidate, they are more or less obligated to come up with an alternative.

geetar_man-1 karma

That, and people have already voted for Pence given early voting have they not? Wouldn’t choosing someone else split votes?

ProfHansNoel21 karma

They've voted for Pence for VP. Those votes don't automatically go to him for president.

geetar_man3 karma

So then are all early votes just sorta “lost”? Meaning, because the early votes voted for a now dead president, and they can’t take their votes back (barring some exceptions in certain states), those votes just don’t count for anything (except their down ballot votes)?

ProfHansNoel7 karma

Not lost. No. Early votes for a Republican would presumably count for the other Republican candidate, should one be chosen.

The ballot line is for the party.

Octavian-17 karma

Its election night and Trump is ahead in the vote count but hundreds of thousands of mail in ballots are still coming in. Do you think Trump will:

A. Declare victory and try to stop the counting of mail in ballots

B. Wait for mail in ballots to be counted

Same scenario, but Trump in incapacitated from corona virus and Pence is acting in his stead. What do you think Pence would do?

ProfHansNoel16 karma

Trump has suggested that he doesn't trust the mail in ballots. I don't think it would be as simple as stopping all mail-in ballots. But there may be some apparent irregularity in the mail-in ballots, or something else, in one or more swing states that Republicans would try to make a legal case on.

I think Trump has been more keen to exploit such an irregularity, so it is more likely that it would happen under his direction. But this has been a high tension election already, and lawyers are already poised to try to do something.

A lot depends on how other Republicans react in either scenario, and how the media frames how close the election is. So many people have been repeating the call to count all the ballots, so it won't be so simple as declaring all mail-in ballots invalid.

knowwhyImhere3 karma

To piggy back to this, constitutionally, what can they do to stop the mail in ballots? Whats the best way for people to ensure their vote counts

ProfHansNoel17 karma

There isn't a constitutional way to stop mail-in ballots directly. But election administration is complicated. (Want to know how complicated. I recommend this book by Kathleen Hale and Mitchell Brown, which goes deep into the weeds:

Every state has its own rules. And then those rules are actually implemented by local elections officials. Those officials do a heroic job, usually with insufficient funding and a team of volunteers. (If you want to help with the election, volunteer to be a poll worker!)

But this means that the laws that govern the process can be confusing and mistakes happen. When that happens, how they are resolved could have big consequences. If you saw the story about the "naked ballots" in Pennsylvania, that's the kind of thing that could happen on a large scale, or even a modest scale in a close election. In 2016, the election was decided by about 80,000 votes in three states. So a dispute like this could matter.

On naked ballots:

MLBurnham17 karma

Hi Professor,

Took your methods class a few years back when I was SFS and am currently working on my Ph.D. at Penn State.

Not directly related to the president's diagnosis but I know you study ideology. To what degree do you think public ideologies follow political elites vs. elites responding to their constituents? Any great research on this topic I should look at?

ProfHansNoel20 karma

Hope you are enjoying Penn State. A lot of great people there.

I feel like this question is a plant.

Well, I think there's a lot of evidence that things flow both ways. John Zaller (1992) would argue that political elites (politicians, office holders, candidates, etc.) disseminate messages, and the more informed voters respond to them. So voters follow elites.. But Anthony Downs (1954) would argue that politicians adopt positions to attract the voters. So elites follow voters.

I tried to cut through this by arguing that at least some of the time, political ideas actually matter, and political thinkers shape what ideology means, influencing activists and other highly engaged people, who in turn shape the other actors. That was my book. But there's good evidence that important changes happen primarily among voters, too.

dictate_this15 karma

Since Trump appointed Amy Barrett, if he passes, could that stop the a Senate from confirming her and her being sworn as a Justice of SCOTUS? This might be a dumb question so.... asking for a friend.

ProfHansNoel38 karma

Trump's already nominated her, so no. And at any rate, presumably a President Pence would support her continued nomination.

What might conceivably matter, however, is that there seem to be a few senators who have been exposed to COVID recently. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah tested postive. Others have been near Lee or near the president or others. So that could slow things down. Mitch McConnell says he is not going to slow the process, while Senate Democrats are calling for a delay for safety concerns. But they have a partisan motivation for a delay as well, and Republicans have a partisan motivation not to delay.

IceNein3 karma

I don't think it's a dumb question. It seems like a nomination would be tied to a President who is exercising the duties of President. If she wasn't approved and Biden was elected, they wouldn't be bound to vote for an ex-president's nomination.

They never voted on Merrick Garland. I assume Pence would take over and keep his nomination the same.

ProfHansNoel16 karma

If she's not confirmed by the time a new president becomes president, that president can definitely change the nominee, yes.

quesrah12 karma

If Pence were Acting President while POTUS is incapacitated, would he still be able to break ties in the Senate?

ProfHansNoel20 karma

I ... don't know.

I would think so. That is, I don't see any clear indication that he couldn't, and I don't think there's a precedent. I could be wrong about that, but we haven't had a lot of Acting Presidents.

And in that case, I'd say that if the Republicans felt they needed Pence to break a tie, they'd have him break a tie.

kittymmeow10 karma

Trump is obviously an incredibly polarizing candidate and from what I've seen of recent polls and political commentary on the fact that they haven't moved much despite everything that has happened this year, it seems that most people have already made up their minds on how they would vote if this does still boil down to Trump vs Biden.

In the event that Trump dies before the election (or his condition is questionable enough that people have reason to suspect he may not be able to serve), do you think it would make a meaningful impact on the likely outcome of this election? Would people who are voting for Trump specifically because of who he is be more likely to abstain if it is no longer him on the ballot? Would people who are voting for Biden specifically because he is not Trump do the same?

ProfHansNoel25 karma

I don't think it would have a huge impact.

Trump is polarizing, but also our politics are in general polarized right now. So whomever else is on the ticket would probably also be polarizing. Polling suggests, for example, that if anything, Biden would do even better against Pence than he does against Trump.

Some Never Trump Republicans might switch, but we don't think there are really that many of them. And some of them are frustrated with the rest of the party as well.

dictate_this10 karma

If the Cabinet has to enact the 25th Amendment, would it have to be a unanimous decision or is it more of a majority rules scenario?

ProfHansNoel19 karma

The Constitution says "majority."

The provisions for back-and-forth on the 25th Amendment (if the president disagrees), suggest that it would probably be best if it were a large majority.

RentalGore6 karma

Piggybacking on this question as many members of the cabinet are “acting” and in some cases found to be in an unofficial capacity. Do they still get to vote on a 25th article 4 type situation?

ProfHansNoel10 karma

The 25th Amendment hasn't been tested in this way, so there could be some creative interpretation. But the plain language says "a majority of ... the principal officers of the executive departments," which doesn't sound to me like they need to be Senate confirmed.

ice-cream209 karma

In the wake of Trump’s diagnosis, Biden has pulled negative ads. What do you think the impact of that will be?

ProfHansNoel17 karma

Probably not very much, to be honest. Pulling negative ads does mean that there are fewer messages telling people not to vote for Trump. But the current state of the race is that Trump is losing. Pulling the ads probably just keeps things where they are now.

YetAnotherStruggler5 karma

Personally what do you feel the likelihood is that this may be an intentionally false positive diagnosis to gain sympathy votes and to downplay the threat of the virus?

ProfHansNoel22 karma

Very low.

knighttimeblues4 karma

If Trump were to die between now and the election, would the Republican Party be allowed to nominate another candidate? Or would a vote for Trump be treated as a vote for Pence? Who decides?

ProfHansNoel8 karma

The RNC would be able to choose someone else.

They could in theory reconvene a convention. More likely, the current members of the RNC, which represent the states, would vote on behalf of those states. The RNC rules say that the three RNC members from each state cast the votes representing the delegates from that state. If they disagree, they’d divide up those votes proportionally. 

They do not need to choose the vice presidential nominee to replace the president. 

But it is already getting close to the election. Many people have already voted. So it’s probably too late to replace a candidate’s name on the ballot. Every state has different rules, but as a practical matter, it’s pretty much too late to print new ballots in most states. However, the Electoral College adds a wrinkle. The election on or before Nov. 3 is really 51 elections for the state electors. When those electors convene on Dec. 14, they cast the vote that matters. And they would presumably vote for the party’s new candidate.

If the candidate were to become incapacitated after they are declared the president-elect, then the vice-president elect would become president-elect.

knighttimeblues4 karma

Was there a recent court ruling on faithless electors? How could that ruling (or the applicable rules, if unchanged) affect the vote on December 14 in the event of a death of either candidate before that date?

ProfHansNoel6 karma

Yes. You're thinking of Chiafalo v. Washington. That case found that state laws meant to punish faithless electors are constitutional.

The Court anticipated this exact situation, and said that their ruling was not meant to apply to a case where the candidate had died. Justice Kagen addressed it in this footnote:

8 The Electors contend that elector discretion is needed to deal with the

possibility that a future presidential candidate will die between Election Day and the Electoral College vote. See Reply Brief 20–22. We do not dismiss how much turmoil such an event could cause. In recognition of that fact, some States have drafted their pledge laws to give electors vot- ing discretion when their candidate has died. See, e.g., Cal. Elec. Code Ann. §6906; Ind. Code §3–10–4–1.7. And we suspect that in such a case, States without a specific provision would also release electors from their pledge. Still, we note that because the situation is not before us, nothing in this opinion should be taken to permit the States to bind electors to a deceased candidate.

OsakaWilson3 karma

What percent still think it's a hoax?

ProfHansNoel10 karma

I haven't seen any polling, but I don't think it's a hoax. A lot of people would have to be in on it, and I'm not sure it's good for him anyway.

tossitallyouguys3 karma

If Trump pulls on through this but decides he can’t concede any negative results, what’s the timeline progression look like for him contesting up to/through January

ProfHansNoel7 karma

You mean contesting the election? I suppose it depends on what specifically has to contest.

The deadline for resolving election disputes in the states is Dec. 8, 2020. At that point, the states have to have decided which electors have been chosen. That's the same basic timeline as in 2000, when Bush v. Gore was decided right on the deadline (Dec. 12, 2000).

After that, legal avenues are out, but the Electoral College could do surprising things, and disputes are usually settled by Congress. In 1876, there was a dispute that was settled by a special commission. This sort of thing is unusual enough that precedent may not govern. What really matters is whether there is a sizable number of Republican politicians who are supporting an effort to continue to contest the results. If it's just Trump, then it's not going to much matter.

Billy_Wan3 karma

Will he be able to step down as president due to health then have pence pardon him for all the shit he and his family are in? And how will that effect the election? Would he wait till after or drop out before?

ProfHansNoel10 karma

Stepping down and having Pence pardon him would be technically possible. It would be very similar to what happened with Nixon, who resigned and then was pardoned by Ford.

I tend to think most things would not have a huge effect on the election, since the electorate is very polarized, and many people are already voting. But this would probably hurt Republicans. Trump accepting a pardon, even if he said it was just to protect him from a witch hunt, would look bad to swing voters. And Pence giving him one would not be good for Pence with Never Trump voters who might like Pence better than Trump. And the whole thing would seem messy. Pardoning Nixon was not good for Ford.

Waiting until after would mean that it has no effect on the election, but then it would really be embarrassing, I think, if he's a lame duck. If he wins, I don't know if he'll want to give up the role.

[deleted]2 karma


ProfHansNoel4 karma

The parties are not mentioned in the constitution at all. So there is no constitutional basis for what they do, exactly. (This, in my opinion, is unfortunate, and a source of a lot of the problems we have in our democracy, by the way.)

The parties are what we call "endogenous" institutions. That means they evolved in response to the institutions and environment that was in place. People wanted to win elections and get their people into office. So they created parties to do that. The rules that parties have were created, by the parties, to make it easy for them to do that.

The parties also helped to shape some election laws, and some of those laws recognize the party's longevity and their expectation that they will field a candidate every cycle. They have a slot on the ballot in all 50 states without needing to petition every time. (You or I could do the same, but we we'd need to start from scratch.) But that means they need an internal mechanism to choose a candidate, and an internal mechanism to choose a replacement when needed.

C41n1 karma

If Trump dies, what happens to the votes already cast for him?

ProfHansNoel7 karma

This is a slightly different scenario, but in 2000, Democrat Mel Carnahan was running for Senate and he died in a plane crash right before the election. He was "elected" posthumously, and the governor appointed Carnahan's wife to his seat.

We have the electoral college, which means that the electors will be able to adapt on the fly and vote for a different Republican.

cherm271 karma

Some people with the virus have been hospitalized for very long times, months even. Is there a chance of Trump being elected for a second term while hospitalized? Is there any point where before a complete resolution (i.e., full recovery or death) the RNC can force or will want to bump Trump from the ticket due to sheer uncertainty?

ProfHansNoel5 karma

It's certainly possible Trump could be elected while hospitalized.

The RNC gives itself a fair amount of authority to make a change. Their rules say they can fill a vacancies that occurs "by reason of death, declination, or otherwise." The problem would be political. Would Republicans want to abandon Trump in such a situation?

If they would likely nominate Pence anyway, then they don't have to, unless they think that the change increases their chances in the election.

swede_child_of_mine1 karma

I'm operating on the assumption that Trump was planning on refusing to accept losing election results. I see three possible scenarios based on that assumption given his COVID diagnosis and losing results. How do you see his / the (R) gameplan changing based on these scenarios?

  1. Trump is relatively undiminished in his faculties after a 2 week hiatus (least curious about this).
  2. Trump is severely weakened but still holds office - unable to execute the his plan to refute election results with much zeal.
  3. Trump is removed from office for health reasons at any point before an anticipated transfer of power - unable to contest results, leaving it to his party instead.

Thanks in advance!

ProfHansNoel6 karma

One thing to consider for all your scenarios is that Trump can't simply refuse to accept the results on his own and have that matter much. If he simply refuses to leave, but Congress and the courts and leading Republicans all agree that he lost, then there's no real challenge to the results. So he would need to be able to marshall support from a lot of allies.

The more likely "refusing to accept" scenario is that he and others sows so much mistrust and doubt about the result that even if state election officials declare things one way, a lot of people don't believe it. And then a legal challenge to some aspect of the results leads to some intervention like in 2000, when the count was stopped in Florida. Some of that distrust is already happening. In that case, scenario 2 may not matter much, because the ball is already rolling. Even under scenario 3, some of the damage to trust in the system is already been done. But if the party is not pushing hard to exploit it, there might not be the legal challenge.

TheD1v1s1on51 karma

Is there a scientific degree for politics?

ProfHansNoel13 karma

Yes. It sure sounds stupid, but it's real.

It's not a degree for someone to practice politics, of course. Political science (called something like politology in other languages) is the systematic study of politics, just as sociology is the systematic study of social things, biology is the systematic study of living things, etc.

My friend and comedian/political scientist Andrea Jones-Rooy has a nice riff on this on her show Ask a Political Scientist:

catcher62501 karma

Do you know of Kyle Kulinsky, and if so, do agree with his views on the current political atmosphere - such as the democratic party moving further right, and the republican party becoming even farther right?

ProfHansNoel7 karma

I am not familiar with him.

rhinokitty0 karma


ProfHansNoel25 karma

So, to be honest, when I put my political scientist hat on, I try really hard not to engage this question. It's a fair question, and it's not really a secret. But I think it's better when I try not to say, because it means I'm forced to try to be fair in the conversation. I had a mentor in graduate school who would ask students at the end of the semester what they thought his partisan leanings were, and when they would get it wrong, he considered that a victory.

Since I study political parties, I try hard to get my head inside the minds of party leaders of both major parties (and minor ones, and parties in other countries).

I will say that I think parties are a very important part of our democracy. And since in our system, the Republicans and the Democrats are the only parties that have any real chance of winning office, they are the ones one should embrace. If you don't like either of the parties, odds are that one of them is closer to you, and the best move is to try to influence that party to be better. Usually, that means supporting your preferred candidates in that party's primaries and then backing it's eventual nominee in the general election. But sometimes it can mean refusing to support your party's nominee if they are too extreme or violate important fundamental principles.

justscottaustin-19 karma

Why do your CV links on your site go absolutely nowhere at all?

I mean? I understand that It's Hard to actually check every one of the 7 links on your page, but if you're going to link CV in your text, don't you think it ought to at least link to the dicey "Bio/CV" information in your header?

ProfHansNoel3 karma

Hmm. I just checked, and they look OK to me: