The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Showdowns at political conventions are rare. Democrats may get one.

Why the usual coronation might instead be a real nomination fight

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gives a speech after winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary on Tuesday night. The nomination fight may not be over until the party’s convention, though. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Speculation about a brokered, deadlocked or contested political convention surfaces every four years with the regularity of Brigadoon rising from the mist. Back in 1980, self-styled Democratic brokers called themselves the “wait in the weeds gang,” ready to identify a compromise candidate between President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Ted Kennedy. Such predictions show up in virtually every cycle when there’s even a hint of the possibility — usually early on, when a platoon of still-viable candidates suggests that a divided primary contest will fail to produce a winner. Just as frequent are the skeptical dismissals (I wrote one myself a dozen years ago) that note, with metronomic regularity, that there aren’t any more brokers: no more Jake Arveys, Ed Flynns, Mark Hannas or Harry Daughertys to trade delegates like so many poker chips.

But this could be the year it really does happen. The Democrats may arrive in Milwaukee in July with no candidate having locked down enough delegates to win the nomination on the first vote. Three factors are present, even dominant, in the Democratic fight that are often absent: a genuine ideological split; four candidates (and possibly more) with enough money to wage long campaigns; and the long-standing Democratic method of allocating delegates proportionally, which can drag out primaries even if the outcome is clear months before the convention — which it certainly isn’t today.

Conventions were not always the slick infomercials they’ve become in recent years, and the shift to primaries instead of smoke-filled rooms after the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention didn’t immediately end the prospect of floor fights. In 1972, George McGovern beat back an attempt to deny him a first-ballot victory by contesting his right to all the delegates from California’s winner-take-all primary. (He’d won 43.5 percent of the vote there, compared with Hubert Humphrey’s 38.5 percent.) In 1976, President Gerald Ford barely survived a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan; the key fight was over a Reagan-proposed rule that would have required candidates to name their running mates before the delegates voted on the nominee for the top of the ticket. In 1980, Carter’s forces at the convention stifled Kennedy’s surge by adopting a rule permitting state delegation chairmen to replace any defecting delegates.

In more recent years, though, even the hint of disorder has been effectively banished. Political parties concluded that, however entertaining contentious conventions might be, they tend to lead to electoral defeat; the last genuinely disputatious convention that preceded a victory in November was the GOP’s Robert Taft-Dwight Eisenhower battle in 1952.

Yet this year, a legitimate ideological split could overwhelm the desire for TV-friendly consensus. In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran a very close race with Barack Obama — close enough that, in theory, she might have been able to stage a fight over delegate allocations. But as Elaine Kamarck, a longtime member of the Democratic Party’s rules committee and author of the definitive “Primary Politics,” notes, “There really wasn’t an ideological basis for a fight with Obama.” Other than details of their health-care plans, the two candidates were pretty much in sync, so it was relatively easy to unite Democrats behind Obama, who had more delegates.

The split between Bernie Sanders and the more centrist wing of the party is far deeper, as are the strategic implications. Sanders says he will trigger a “political revolution” that will transform the terrain and force Congress to pass his programs. His rivals say that nominating a declared socialist would ruin any chance of capturing the battleground states and that cultivating the middle is the way to win. These differences are a lot less reconcilable than health-care details. 

Ralph Nader: Why Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democrat in 2016

Next, there’s money. In the past several election cycles, the mob of candidates has been reduced very quickly after the early contests. Also-rans have found that contributors’ phones no longer work; even enthusiastic backers become uninterested in throwing good money after bad. This year, as many as four candidates have the resources to stay in the fight. Sanders has built an astonishing machine with more than 1 million contributors. Pete Buttigieg raised almost $25 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, and his showings in Iowa and New Hampshire all but ensure that his fundraising will remain robust. Amy Klobuchar raised $2.5 million in four hours after her strong finish in New Hampshire. And then there’s Mike Bloomberg, who doesn’t need to raise money and is spending his own fortune so prolifically that he’s starting to run out of advertising platforms. That suggests a multicandidate field where money troubles won’t force anyone out anytime soon. 

Bring back the superdelegates

And that’s where the Democrats’ delegate-allocation rules come into play. If there is one aspect of presidential campaigns that the media consistently misleads voters about, it is what “winning” a primary means in the Democratic Party. Ever since the battle over McGovern’s California delegates in 1972, Democrats have banned “winner take all” primaries. Candidates win delegates roughly proportionately to how they did statewide and in individual congressional districts. So, for instance, when Clinton “won” the 2008 Ohio primary, beating Obama by nine points, she earned 74 delegates to his 67 — netting only seven delegates. She beat Obama by eight points in California, where there were 441 delegates at stake, but her net gain was just 38. If Democrats had had winner-take-all rules in key states in 2008, Clinton, not Obama, would have been the nominee. This year, if four decently financed contenders (or indecently financed, in Bloomberg’s case) are competing, there is simply no way to know if any of them will emerge with a delegate lead big enough to make the convention a ratifying, rather than a nominating, event.

“The ingredients are all there,” says Joe Trippi, who has worked on the campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Howard Dean, John Edwards and a regiment of other Democrats. “If the discarded fantasy [of a contested convention] doesn’t play out in that cauldron of a party divided along ideological and generational lines, then when, if ever, will it happen?”

If it comes down to a contested convention, it will be hard for an insurgent to beat the establishment. It’s true that there are no longer powerful figures who can deliver a state’s worth of delegates with the flick of a cigar’s ash (nor, for that matter, will smoking be allowed at the Milwaukee convention hall). But, as Kamarck notes, “state delegations, even at the floor of a convention, are consumed by local politics; Tip O’Neill was right about all politics being local. So, for instance, [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo won’t pick the delegates, but a lot of delegates will still care what he says.”

All this raises a mare’s nest of issues. What’s a big enough plurality to make a nomination inevitable? Forty-eight percent? Thirty percent? It’s not hard to speculate about what Sanders supporters would think if he came to the convention with a lead in delegates, but far short of a majority, and the convention chose someone else. And what about those 765 “superdelegates” — the members of the House and Senate, governors, and other Democratic National Committee members — who are barred from voting on the first ballot but free to vote thereafter? A rules challenge to their power would be just about a certainty. Sanders has already said that whoever has a plurality should be the nominee. When you remember that a significant number of Sanders backers argued that he was robbed last time (even though Clinton outpolled him by some 3.7 million votes), the idea of post-convention unity after such a result seems a fantasy.

So yes, the possibility of a contested, disputatious convention in 2020 is something more than a fantasy of those who watch C-SPAN 3 for kicks. Set against that possibility, though, is the primal belief that such a convention all but guarantees defeat in the fall. However this campaign develops, there will come a point sometime in late spring or early summer when Democrats will be faced with this question: Do they really want to hold a convention whose very likely result will be a second term for President Trump?

Twitter: @greenfield64

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