Biden DNC delegates pledged to support him. Some have doubts.

The thousands of delegates descending on Chicago next month for the Democratic National Convention have the power to choose their party’s nominee for president — at least in theory.

In practice, however, party delegates have not exercised independent authority in more than half a century. And even after President Biden’s stumbling performance in last week’s debate, more than three dozen delegates interviewed by The Washington Post this week said they planned to do what they were selected to do and make Biden, the runaway winner of primaries and caucuses across the country, the Democratic nominee for president.

But amid mounting calls from lawmakers, party officials and insiders for Biden to step aside amid concerns about his age and questions about his cognitive ability, doubts have emerged. While most expressed unwavering support, several delegates said they were nervous about his chances amid floundering polls and divisions within the party. Some were outspoken about their preference for another option, perhaps Vice President Harris. All said they would vote for Biden — unless he withdraws.

“In my heart of hearts, I wish that President Biden had at some point decided, ‘You know what, I’m getting older, there’s so much going on right now, I’d like to spend some time with my family,’” said Joanne Chesley, a pledged Biden delegate from North Carolina. “I wish Biden could have made that decision.”

Biden insists he has no plans to withdraw. But the growing reservations among some of the roughly 3,900 delegates selected based on their loyalty to the president are another sign of how precarious his position has become.

The uncertainty threatens to cast a pall over the convention, which is structured to serve as a giant prime-time gathering that typically helps kick off the fall campaign with a rousing frenzy for the nominee. Now delegates are watching and waiting — and worrying that the whirlwind debate over Biden’s fitness for office will only weaken Democrats’ chances of defeating former President Donald Trump in November, regardless of who the nominee is.

Chosen by party activists after pledging to support the winning candidate in their state primaries or caucuses, the delegates’ main job this summer is to nominate the Democratic presidential nominee. Under party rules, delegates who pledge Biden are bound only by their “good conscience” to vote for him. But nearly all of them are party stalwarts who will do whatever the national committee — or Biden — tells them to do.

But as Democratic unity behind Biden began to crumble in the week following the debate, the party had to mobilize to keep delegates in line.

The Georgia Democratic Party sent an email to party activists, including delegates, urging them to be cautious when speaking to reporters and giving them talking points for their support for Biden. “Not every press opportunity is good or helpful,” the email sent after the debate read. In one key state, Pennsylvania, party officials refused to provide reporters with their full list of delegates. Neither the DNC nor the Biden campaign has released a national list.

An Arizona representative, 60-year-old public relations executive Karl Gentles, said Biden campaign officials had reached out to him and others to assure them that the president was “in this for the long haul and in it to win.”

Several delegates who spoke to The Post did so on condition of anonymity, fearing that speaking out would jeopardize their standing as delegates. A practical consideration also made some delegates reluctant to speak to reporters: They rely on party donors to cover their convention lodging and travel expenses, and they don’t want their support withdrawn.

One quirk of this year’s convention is that delegates must formally choose their nominee via a virtual roll call before they even get to Chicago. The call is scheduled for Aug. 5, two weeks before the convention, and was originally planned to accommodate Ohio’s unusually early deadline for nominee certification. But Ohio law changed last month, making the virtual vote unnecessary.

The fact that officials are choosing to use the virtual list of names suggests there is some nervousness about Biden’s fate and a desire to secure the nomination as quickly as possible.

Biden’s overall standing among delegates appears to remain strong — at least for now. Delegates span a wide range of job categories and backgrounds. While some are prominent politicians, the vast majority are local party officials and activists for whom politics is a passion, not a profession. Most of the delegates who have agreed to speak with The Post in recent days have made clear that they remain supportive of the president and hope he stays in the race.

“I’m all in, I’m running with Biden,” said Joshua Ferguson, a trans woman and state representative who works as a renewable energy consultant in Kent County, Michigan. “He’s done so much for my community that I support him 1,000 percent. I have no concerns. I’m not voting for who’s best on TV. I’m voting for who can pass the best legislation, who’s best in Washington, and Biden is absolutely that.”

Kaylee Werner, a 20-year-old college student from Pittsburgh: “I was elected by my community and I’m obviously going to vote with them in mind. They put me in this position to vote for President Biden and I’m excited to show up and do that.”

Nancy Nichols, 68, a small business owner from Tyler, Texas: “If you’re a Biden representative, you’re a Biden representative, period.”

Michael Tijerina, a home health care worker from Plano, Texas: “We’re all pulling together and holding on.”

Barbara Faison, 69, a retired health care worker from Sampson, NC: “We are all excited to vote for President Biden.”

Others said they remain loyal to Biden but acknowledged that his performance during the debate hurt him.

“Joe Biden has had the backs of ordinary Americans for over 50 years,” said Gary Fisher, a congressional delegate from Las Vegas. “And I’m not going to walk away from him after one bad performance.”

Some representatives said it is up to the president to show that the debate was a bad night and not that there is a larger problem.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who defeated Rep. Jamaal Bowman in a Democratic primary last month and is also a delegate to the New York convention, said he felt a “moral obligation” to vote for Biden. But he added that he will spend the next six weeks watching to see how the president performs.

“If it’s just one night, that’s it,” said Latimer, 70. “If it turns out to be a consistent situation, then it’s over again.”

A Biden withdrawal could unleash chaos. Democrats would face what’s known as an “open convention” — a long-simmering political tradition in which the presidential nominee is chosen on the spot, historically with behind-the-scenes negotiations and negotiations. It’s been decades since such a convention was held, with the advent of the modern primary system in the early 1970s.

But given the party’s tight control over the convention process, several activists said it was likely that party leaders, possibly including Biden himself, would quickly urge delegates to unite behind one candidate: Harris.

Cecilia Tavera-Webman, a 67-year-old real estate agent and congresswoman from Miami, said she is so afraid of Trump winning that she would still “vote for Biden even if he was silent during the debate.” She is fully committed to supporting him, but also said she would be fine with voting for Harris if it came to that. “I really like Kamala Harris. I would have no problem with it,” she said. “I would support the nominee.”

Katybeth Davis, a 40-year-old representative from Michigan, said she will support Biden “if Biden is our nominee.”

“But do I think we can do better? Yes,” said Davis, who described himself as a progressive activist. “I would support the succession going forward and Kamala Harris taking over and seeing what that’s like.”

Several delegates expressed concern that all the talk of replacing Biden is hurting the party’s chances of defeating Trump.

“We’re not focused enough on President Biden’s record and the very real dangers and threats that Donald Trump poses, and that feels to me like a distraction. That’s not helpful,” said Elaine Petrossian, 55, a first-term delegate from Philadelphia.

Tom O’Brien, a 69-year-old delegate and chairman of the Lancaster County Democrats in Pennsylvania, said he had a phone call with the state party on Wednesday night, during which he spent several minutes focusing on reassuring Democrats that despite Biden’s poor debate performance, he was their nominee.

O’Brien said he is not convinced there is an alternative that would do a better job.

“If he thinks he’s a liability, if he thinks he’s not the right guy for this, I don’t think he would have run in the first place,” he said. “And I think he would leave. And I don’t think he’s going to.”

Aaron Schaffer and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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