Let me explain. Despite contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the field is still crowded. Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are riding high. Elizabeth Warren says she’s raised $6 million since flopping in Iowa. Joe Biden, who went from bad to worse in the first two rounds, still leads in some state polls. Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg pack 100-ton wallets. Democrats aren’t sure what they want.
The ousted insiders used to have a cure for this problem: winner-take-all primaries. Awarding all of a state’s delegates to the winner in a crowded field, no matter how small the margin of victory, ensured that someone would cross the finish line with enough delegates to be nominated. Winner-take-all contests may have prevented a civil war in the Republican Party in 2016.
But that finger has been taken off the scales. In today’s new and supposedly improved world, Democratic delegates are awarded in rough proportion to the primary and caucus results. Opening a big lead is much harder. Suppose New Hampshire had been winner-take-all. Sanders would have walked away with 24 delegates. Instead, he tallied nine for his narrow victory; Buttigieg also got nine, and Klobuchar left with six.
Handwriting, meet wall. With so many candidates and this set of rules, can anyone win a majority? We have eight highly ambitious, well-funded people hunched feverishly at the craps table, some rolling hot dice, others sure their luck’s about to change. No one’s ready to walk away.
The field may eventually thin, but not before a lot more votes are cast. And the closer we get to the finish line without a clear winner, the less incentive exists for candidates to drop out. They’ll cling to their pledged delegates as potential bargaining chips.
If the new rules fail to produce a majority, an unholy spectacle of threats, cajolery and attempted deals will surely fill the weeks before the convention. Sanders is already laying the predicate, saying that a failure to anoint him as the nominee if he arrives with a plurality “would be a very divisive moment for the Democratic Party.”
No doubt he’s right, but arguably he’s the one doing the dividing. He spent his whole life outside the Democratic Party, but now he wants to own it. Besides: I’m not sure anyone in the party has enough sway to force a deal.
Suppose no one wins a first-ballot majority in Milwaukee. Chaos. The rules say that every delegate becomes a free agent, free to choose virtually any U.S. citizen over 35. What’s more, some 770 superdelegates (yes, them again) are added to the mix. Do they draft Oprah? Michelle Obama? Does anyone have Al Gore’s phone number? Did Hillary just enter the arena? Is that Bloomberg in a helicopter overhead, dropping cash to the delegates below?
Perhaps this could be avoided. Warren could throw her muscle behind Sanders and try to boost him past 50 percent. She doesn’t seem so inclined. The moderates could draw straws — again, not likely.
Maybe Sanders has a plan. Maybe his reshaping of the rules was intentional and strategic, and not the poorly thought-out tantrum it now appears to have been. But unless he can quickly accelerate from the roughly 25 percent share of voters he won in Iowa and New Hampshire to win decisive majorities from coast to coast, he has set the party on a course to unmapped territory.
The irony is that Sanders is the least-suited candidate for the melee of horse-trading and vote-swapping that may lie ahead. He has few friends in politics, having flaunted his purity through the muddy streets of government for decades, disdaining all who compromise. He makes no deals, so he has no chits to call in. He has offended key unions in the party’s labor base by insisting on an end to private health insurance. Grumpy, sanctimonious and unreflective, Sanders would be ill-equipped to strike the bargains necessary to win the nomination on a second or third — or fourth — ballot. A very divisive moment, indeed.
It’s easy to see how all of this might happen. Far harder to guess how it might end.
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