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Government & Politics
WKSU is looking for the answers to the questions you have about Ohio in a project we call "OH Really?" It's an initiative that makes you part of the news gathering process.

President Trump's Illness Sparks Listener Question, OH Really? Explores Answer

drawing of Donald Trump
President Donald Trump

President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospital stay got a lot of people wondering what happens when a president gets sick. It also led to an even more consequential question from a WKSU listener.

Michael Cobb lives in Streetsboro with his wife and 2-year-old son. He says as Election Day approaches, the country seems to be at a tipping point.

"Both sides are seeing the potential for disaster if it doesn't go the way they think it should go, and it's just very stressful, very tense is how I would describe it," he said.

With voting underway, the president’s illness led him to question, “If the presidential candidate passes away before the election day or before the inauguration, what happens?”

Political scientist and presidential historian Dave Cohen, interim director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron, says there's no clear-cut answer.

“What I’m about to say is what people think would happen, but it’s never really been tested," he said.

Cohen says names on the ballot right now will remain no matter what. A death before the election would cause the party’s national committee to choose a replacement. For the RNC, the likely choice would be vice president Mike Pence. But that's not a certainty.

“The RNC would not be locked in to choosing Pence as the nominee and also that brings into question whether or not the [538] electors would then go ahead and listen to the RNC or if they would vote as free agents and vote for whomever they wanted," Cohen said.

Which would happen when the Electoral College meets in December. Things would likely play out similarly on the Democratic side, but Cohen notes, "These are all things that we think would happen, but y’know there is really nothing in federal law or the Constitution that prescribes exactly what would happen in these scenarios.”

And little in the way of history. Cohen points to just two circumstances. In 1872, Democratic nominee Horace Greeley died after losing the election, and in 1912 the sitting vice president, James Sherman, died right before the election that President William Howard Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson.