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.

FILED UNDER: Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Guarneri:
    You have mistaken this post for an open forum.

    2
  2. Kathy says:

    It may be far too late to change to a system whereby voters pick, say, 60-75% of delegates, and the rest are reserved to the party. A kind of compromise, and safeguard to prevent truly awful candidates (see El Cheeto across the aisle).

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    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.

    Yep. To endure the process you have to be way too desperate for power to be reliable. Months in Rodeway Inns, talking to nitwits in diners, begging self-important car dealer twats for money, giving the same speech over and over and over and… What kind of a psycho puts himself through that? For a job that pays less than a law firm partner in any random city in Ohio? A total and permanent loss of individual freedom?

    Months, years of groveling and begging and grinning and pretending to give a shit what some goober in Iowa has to say? And a population that never even asks about foreign policy, the main job of POTUS?

    I lose my mind after three weeks of book tour where I maybe do three events in a day. And as a rule I get better hotels than you’re going to find in Cowfart, New Hampshire.

    6
  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    As long as no candidate is winning primaries with more than 30% of the vote and none of the remaining serious 6 drop out, a brokered convention is a possibility. A way for the party not to rig the outcome, is to allow the candidates and the delegates decide where the votes go. After the first ballot, it is my understanding that all delegates are free to vote their for whoever they choose. Let the decision be made on the floor. The key is that the media needs to understand that.

  5. Gustopher says:

    FILED UNDER: DONALD TRUMP, MILITARY AFFAIRS

    Well, that’s not ominous at all…

    Anyway, as much as everyone wants a brokered convention just so they can watch the world burn, I expect/hope that a few people will collapse before it happens. Hopefully not literally collapse, but our field is quite old.

    It’s also worth noting that VP isn’t the only available bargaining chip. Cabinet seats, subject to Senate approval, can also be doled out. Sanders as Secretary of Labor could help smooth over some divisions in the party.

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    After the first ballot, it is my understanding that all delegates are free to vote their for whoever they choose.

    Correct. Additionally, after the first round the dnc RELEASES THE SUPERDELEGATES!

  7. An Interested Party says:

    Anyway, as much as everyone wants a brokered convention just so they can watch the world burn…

    Who wants that so that they can watch the world burn? I would think many people would like that so that it could produce a viable candidate who could beat Trump…

    2
  8. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I wouldn’t say “so they can watch the world burn,” but the media overall would love to see a brokered convention even if it meant the world would burn.

    2
  9. Ken_L says:

    In such a scenario, he could, for example, offer Buttigieg the vice presidency in exchange for his delegates’ support. Buttigieg could take that deal

    This suggests that Buttigieg’s delegates would be bound to follow his instructions about who to support after he’d been defeated. My understanding is that the states have different rules about what happens in that situation, but in many instances delegates are ‘unbound’ and can vote for whomever they like.

    BTW remember this?

    After the first ballot, Seward, as expected, led with 173 votes. Lincoln was next with 102. Cameron received 50; Chase got 49; Bates 48; and the rest received a handful each.

    Seward went on to become Lincoln’s most faithful supporter in his cabinet.

    1
  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Darn it! I missed Guarneri’s inane drive by. So sad [crying emoji here], it must have been really amazing to get blocked in the three hours since I hung up the Chromebook I was using at school. WA!
    @Michael Reynolds: I believe the pertinent saying goes

    A Senator is someone who never got past losing the election for Senior Class President.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:..Darn it! I missed Guarneri’s inane drive by.

    He finally confessed to being Trump’s lickspittle…
    Too bad you missed it!

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    FILED UNDER: DONALD TRUMP, MILITARY AFFAIRS

    Well, that’s not ominous at all…

    Ha. I started to blog about the Secretary of the Army’s statement that, contrary to Trump’s tweet, the Army would not be investigating LTC Vindman. But it turned out that the story was two days old, so I turned t0 the next item on my agenda without remembering to change the categories.

    1
  14. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I missed Guarneri’s inane drive by. So sad [crying emoji here], it must have been really amazing to get blocked in the three hours since I hung up the Chromebook

    It was some weird Avenati thing that had nothing to do with the topic and I didn’t want to derail this thread with that since there is in fact an Open Forum. He’s been engaged in serious discussion in recent days, so I’m hoping that will continue to be the norm vice the trolling.

    3
  15. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    He’s been engaged in serious discussion in recent days, so I’m hoping that will continue to be the norm vice the trolling.

    I’ll have to take your word for it. For the most part I skip his comments or ones labeled as replies, although it’s impossible to avoid him completely

    3
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: Thanks for the update! 🙂

  17. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    But do they want it to bleed, or do they just don’t care that it bleeds so long as it leads?

  18. charon says:

    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.

    As Al Giordano points out, there is not yet sufficient information for meaningful projection. Such projections will not really be worth much until after March 3. However, Al’s current guess at contested convention is 90%.

    Contested or Brokered Convention (90%)
    Candidate Wins Majority of Delegates (10%)
    Pete Buttigieg 23% (+3 on 2/13)
    Michael Bloomberg 22% (+7 on 2/13)
    Amy Klobuchar 12% (+8 on 2/13)
    Bernie Sanders 12% (+1 on 2/13)
    Someone Else 11%
    Elizabeth Warren 10% (-10 on 2/13)
    Joe Biden 10% (-9 on 2/13)

    https://organizeandwin.com/

    There is, of course, reasoning behind that posted at the site.

    BTW, FiveThirtyEight numbers are based on mechanistic algorithms that do not account for extraordinary circumstances.

    1
  19. charon says:

    One more thing, FiveThirtyEight relies primarily on massaging polling data, which at this stage is very sketchy and volatile.

  20. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: A brokered convention has a high chance of being a complete shit show — whether a 1968 violence in the street shit show or a more genteel shit show where a divided party goes down in flames.

    The quadrennial hopes for a brokered convention are a hope for a shit show.

    Also, I want Trump to stroke out and be unable to be the candidate before their convention (drooling, incontinent, but aware of everyone abandoning him, living for another thirty years, mostly neglected), so the Republican convention becomes a shit show because I want to see their world burn.

    2
  21. James Joyner says:

    @charon:

    As Al Giordano points out, there is not yet sufficient information for meaningful projection. Such projections will not really be worth much until after March 3. However, Al’s current guess at contested convention is 90%.

    Silver and the 538 gang acknowledge that they’re relying on thin polling at this juncture. But they have a track record and are crack statistical analysts.

    I’m curious as to the sudden fascination with Al Giordano?

    1
  22. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I’m in favor of state conventions, where candidates (or their surrogates) have to show up and make an appeal for support. There are lots of flaws (not very democratic, etc.), but it might dampen the impact of some of the loud voices who show up in the primaries.

    1
  23. charon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m curious as to the sudden fascination with Al Giordano?

    A) I find the things he has to say pretty reasonable/interesting.

    B) His forecasts for IA and NH were pretty good.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: I think they understand the predilections of their audience–who want to want media that are not sensationalist “bleeds it leads” but are not particularly interested in consuming (paying for) media that isn’t such. As to what they want, they don’t care as long as it sells advertising and subscriptions. With such being the case, “if it bleeds, it leads” represents a business model that is thought (known?) to trigger interesting in the media consuming public.

  25. charon says:

    Early voting already happening:

    https://twitter.com/2020Delegates/status/1228727640204304384

    286,440 Democratic absentee ballots have been returned in California so far.

    Yet, the media spends all their time in “early states” as if the CA primary isn’t until Super Tuesday. The CA primary for its diverse urban, suburban, rural electorates is already here. 415 delegates!

    TX and NC start early voting this week and the media will miss it too

  26. charon says:

    https://twitter.com/2020Delegates

    Apparently already early voting in NV, turnout very high, long waits.

    https://twitter.com/RalstonReports

  27. Mister Bluster says:

    The Illinois Primary Election is March 17, 2020.
    The period for early voting begins the 40th day preceding an election and extends through the end of the day before Election Day.
    By my count that would have been Feb. 6.

  28. James Joyner says:

    @charon: @Mister Bluster: Yes, the horse race coverage tends to pretend that early voting doesn’t happen. Mostly, I think, because there’s really nothing to report on. People are voting but we won’t know how they voted for weeks and we can’t exit poll them.

  29. charon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I have seen CA people online post that they are waiting for SC results before mailing the ballots.

    (Most of CA voting is by mail, a majority of AZ and all of CO and WA also).

    I plan to wait until March 9 to mail, my ballot is due March 17.

    When I lived in TX I voted early more often than not (at a polling place) for scheduling convenience.

  30. Mister Bluster says:

    I can’t find information about when Illinois established early voting. I’ve done it at least twice. One time at the Jackson County (IL) Courthouse and one time at the Sleepytown City Hall.
    Since I have been retired and not traveling all over the country to work I vote at my local polling place most elections.
    The polling place on election day is my first choice. They can give me an official Certificate of Voter Participation (a receipt). Apparently not many voters ask for them since when I requested one at the General Election November 6, 2018 the poll worker who had just handed me a ballot did not know what I was talking about. She tried to give me an “I Voted” sticker which I refused.
    When I was working on the road for the better part of 35 years absentee ballots were available. I know I used them but I forget how they worked. I may have had to make a written request or just maybe just called the Courthouse. The ballot was mailed to me and then I mailed it back before Election Day.