That all went out the window after the Democratic convention of 1968 nominated a person who had not entered a single primary, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Since then, both parties have adopted rules that award delegates according to the popular vote in either primaries or caucuses. This in turn meant that one candidate emerged with a majority of the delegates committed prior to the convention, making those events the political equivalent of an infomercial. The voters ruled even if the bosses seethed, as was the case when Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party in 2016.
The Democratic Party’s delegate allocation rules, however, raise the serious possibility this year of a return of the party bosses. That’s because Democrats, unlike Republicans, do not give a statewide primary winner all or the lion’s share of that state’s delegates. Instead, Democrats award delegates proportionally to a candidate’s share of the vote, so long as that person gets at least 15 percent. If a winner gets 26 percent of the vote, as Sanders did in New Hampshire, he or she gets about 26 percent of the delegates.
This creates a strong incentive to stay in the race even if a candidate finishes third or fourth. 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.
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.