Brokered Democratic Convention a Real Possibility
Could the fevered dream really come true?
Pretty much every election cycle, pundits lay out scenarios of a brokered convention. Giving the dull coronation ceremonies these quadrennial affairs have become, one understands the wishful thinking. But, typically, they have been fever dreams, not plausible predictions.
I’m still doubtful we’ll see it this cycle. Before Iowa, I argued that the front-loaded schedule could sap the drama out of the race by the end of March, if not Super Tuesday. And that could still happen if the six viable candidates left in the Democratic field self-winnow to three after South Carolina.
But, as several commenters in the first post pointed out, the front-loaded schedule could very well produce the opposite effect. Because so few delegates are awarded before Super Tuesday and so many are awarded on that day, there’s every incentive to remain in the race at least until then. And the proportional way delegates are awarded makes getting to a majority really hard.
WaPo’s Harry Olson makes an extended version of that argument:
In a Republican primary race, the third-place finish by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in New Hampshire with about 20 percent of the vote would doom her to oblivion, as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) experienced during the 1996 GOP primary. But the Democratic rules encourage her to stay in to pile up delegates, giving her bargaining power at a brokered national convention.
This is compounded by the party’s decision to front-load the delegate selection contest. About 40 percent of the delegates will have been awarded after Super Tuesday states vote on March 3, and more than 60 percent will have been set in stone after the March 17 primaries. If someone is well short of a majority of the delegates awarded as of that date, it is nearly impossible for that person to win enough delegates in the succeeding contests to have a pre-convention majority. Thus, even if the race narrows to Sanders and one competitor after St. Patrick’s Day, Sanders could repeatedly defeat that person by 60-40 landslides and still not be assured the nomination.
This is where the bosses come back in. About 16 percent of the delegates are not even selected by voters. These superdelegates, which consist mainly of elected Democratic officials but also some longtime unelected party activists, cannot vote on the first ballot but can vote in every ballot thereafter. Moreover, they are not pledged to any candidate, making them free to back whomever they want. That gives them the power that bosses had in prior years if they can get behind one of the other contenders en masse.
This is why former vice president Joe Biden or Klobuchar have a real chance to win. Imagine this very plausible scenario: Sanders has a third of the voter-allocated delegates with two-thirds split among Klobuchar, Biden, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Then suppose the superdelegates caucus, and the vast majority of them decide to back Klobuchar or Biden because they believe one of them is the most electable person who could unify the party. It doesn’t matter if Klobuchar or Biden ran fourth or fifth among the voter-selected delegates; the bosses’ votes would instantly make that person the front-runner.
Earlier this afternoon, OTB regular Michael Reynolds pointed to the fact that FiveThirtyEight’s estimate on who will win a majority of the Democratic delegates currently has “No one” leading the pack with a 38% chance, followed by Bernie Sanders at 34%, Joe Biden at 14%, and everyone else in single digits and speculated, perhaps with tongue in cheek, on a myriad of possibilities for how a brokered convention might go.
My fear, citing the disaster that befell Alabama Democrats when the party intervened in the gubernatorial nominating process in 1986, was a crisis of legitimacy:
I think the party would melt down if someone other than the first- or second-place delegate winner was anointed the nominee. And, frankly, if Bernie is the plurality delegate winner and he’s not nominated, there may well be 1968-style rioting.
Olson, perhaps anticipating such a reaction, offered another possible path:
The likelihood that this could happen increases Sanders’s incentive to make his own deal with a contender. In such a scenario, he could, for example, offer Buttigieg the vice presidency in exchange for his delegates’ support. Buttigieg could take that deal if he thinks he wouldn’t get a similar offer from a boss-approved nominee. This could anger supporters who backed him because they vehemently opposed Sanders, but that’s what a brokered convention does: empower insiders at the expense of voters.
A brokered convention thrills pundits and political junkies who live for this sort of thing, but it probably repels most Americans. Watch the sparks fly in the summer and fall if the Democratic nominee is undemocratically selected.
Frankly, I think the country and the parties were better off when party elites chose their nominees in smoke-filled rooms. The primary process is tedious, inane, and often either discourages the best candidates from entering the race or runs them off in favor of those who appeal to the rabid base but repel more normal voters in November.
But having party elites select a candidate who did poorly in the primaries would come across like, to coin a phrase, a rigged game.
If—to pull numbers out of, er, thin air—Sanders got 38% of delegates, Bloomberg 20%, Biden 17%, Buttigieg 13%, Warren 8%, and Klobuchar 4%, I can’t imagine a scenario where a Warren-Klobuchar ticket was deemed a fair outcome. One could argue that a Bloomberg-Biden ticket was legitimate, in that “moderates” got a 54% majority. But I doubt Sanders or his supporters would go quietly. Nor could I see a Bloomberg-Sanders ticket emerge as a serious compromise.