The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democratic race is now Sanders against the field, and a contested convention possibly awaits the party

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), center, makes a point as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former vice president Joe Biden raise their hands during the Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The final question at Wednesday's candidate debate in Nevada provided a telling summary of the state of the Democratic nomination contest. It's now Bernie Sanders against the field.

The question for the six candidates onstage was straightforward. Should the person who wins the most pledged delegates during the primaries, even if he or she does not have a majority, be nominated at the national convention in Milwaukee to become the party’s challenger to President Trump?

Sanders, alone, said yes. The five other candidates said that, in that scenario, the decision of who becomes the nominee should be left to all the delegates at the convention, including the roughly 770 superdelegates — the party committee members, lawmakers and other high-ranking Democrats who can only vote if the contest goes to a second ballot.

But if there is agreement that Sanders will lead the delegate race, there is similar agreement that he is not likely to be able to win a majority. If that turns out to be the case, Democrats could he headed for a chaotic national convention, one that could split the party and weaken Democrats in the general election, regardless of who ends up as the nominee.

“What’s clear out of [Wednesday] night is, it’s hard to see what forces will stop Bernie from becoming the front-runner and just as hard to see how there will be any consolidation into a single candidate to oppose him,” Robby Mook, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in 2016, said Thursday morning.

[Harry Reid says Sanders needs more than plurality to win Democratic nomination]

The dawning realization for many in the party is that what Democrats had envisioned as a jubilant national convention in Milwaukee, ground zero in a critical general-election battleground, has the potential to turn into a pitched battle among multiple candidates and their supporters, each representing dueling ideological wings of the party and convinced that the other side would lose to Trump.

Top campaigns have not only staffed up with delegate experts to guide them through the intricacies of the primaries, but they also have built legal teams preparing to challenge any results that don’t go their way, according to interviews with 16 top party officials and strategists.

And in preparation for a contested convention, some campaigns have started to reach out to superdelegates, in an attempt to secure support for a second ballot when they would come into play.

“This is going to go to the convention,” said Melvin Poindexter, a Democratic National Committee member from Massachusetts. “It’s going to be a brokered convention. I just don’t see any of the candidates coming in and winning the first ballot. Particularly looking at the number of candidates who are running.”

Harry M. Reid, the former Senate majority leader, said in an interview Thursday that no candidate should be given the nomination without winning an outright majority of delegates.

“I don’t think that anybody — Bernie Sanders or anyone else — should simply get the nomination because they have 30 percent of the delegates and no one else has that many,” he said. “We have to let the system work its way out. I do not believe anyone should get the nomination unless they have 50-plus-one.”

Asked if that meant a messy fight at the convention, he responded, “Well — but that’s how I feel about it.” He said it’s unlikely that Barack Obama would get involved to help broker a deal, but that moderates could align themselves together in an attempt to combine their delegates and overtake Sanders.

If anything, Wednesday’s debate provided incentive for all the candidates trying to become the alternative to Sanders to stay in the race as long as possible. Party strategists agreed that the poor performance by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg probably eliminated any hopes that he could easily consolidate the moderate-to-center-left wing of the party in opposition to Sanders.

At the same time, the fiery performance by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who not only hammered Bloomberg but also took on many of the others onstage, could give her the encouragement to see the race through to the end, despite third- and fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

Her ability to continue on ultimately will depend on how well she does over the next two weeks and whether she raises enough money to sustain her candidacy. But Wednesday’s debate provided a needed jolt. Her presence could affect Sanders’s ability to enlarge his coalition.

Warren also took steps to make herself more competitive — providing tacit approval for the super PAC that has been formed to back her candidacy, effectively contradicting her past comments criticizing groups that take unlimited contributions. And Warren’s campaign announced Thursday that it has raised $7 million since last week’s New Hampshire primary, setting a new goal to raise another $3 million by Saturday.

Still, Sanders left open the question of just how broad his support is or can become. Some strategists saw the debate as potentially pushing Sanders into a narrower ideological corner of the Democratic electorate that could, in time, play to his disadvantage.

Fact-checking the ninth Democratic debate

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said Sanders’s support has come mostly from those who identify themselves as “very liberal,” a group that constitutes far less than half of the Democratic electorate.

“Sanders is robustly and self-confidently the most progressive candidate,” Greenberg said. “The question is, does he have voters beyond the very liberal part of the Democratic electorate?”

All the candidates must get through Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, in which Sanders is favored, and the South Carolina primary a week later, an event that is critical to the candidacy of former vice president Joe Biden.

But the real focus now is on what follows three days after South Carolina, which is Super Tuesday and the beginning of a nationalized campaign for delegates. Sanders is seen as best positioned to do well because he has the money, organization and experience to navigate through a nationalized campaign.

The arcane process that Democrats use to pick nominees puts a premium on candidates who have broad support to win statewide contests, which award a portion of the delegates, and also win individual congressional districts, which account for the rest of the delegates. The process also benefits campaigns that can pinpoint the areas where they can either win a few extra delegates — or potentially deny an opponent from doing so.

Where the Democratic candidates stand on the issues

Because there are no winner-take-all contests, delegates are awarded proportionally to any candidate who hits a threshold of 15 percent of the vote. In a field in which there are several candidates competing and reaching that threshold, it becomes difficult for anyone to reach a majority by the end of the primaries. But those same rules give a big advantage to the candidate who gains even a modest lead. For those running behind, making up that ground becomes more and more difficult.

The Las Vegas debate was more evidence that this nominating contest is not like others, in which candidates quickly fall away after poor finishes in early states. At almost every stage so far, events have conspired to keep the field large and fluid. That helps Sanders for now but means the other candidates probably will seek ways to win delegates and stay in the race until the convention.

“I don’t see how this is not going to be a brokered convention,” said Nathan Smith, a DNC member from Kentucky. “Let’s be honest: It’s a made-for-TV event now.”

Pledged delegates are supposed to vote on the first ballot for the candidate who won in their state or district. But they are freed up on the second ballot to do as they wish, and at that point, the superdelegates are also able to vote for whichever candidate they choose.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a chair-throwing fiasco,” said Grace Carrington, a committee member from Florida. “But we know there’s going to be a second, maybe a third vote.”

Party leaders worry they could be heading toward a convention collision.

“I fear divisions within the party might be our biggest problem,” said Cynthia Busch, a committee member from Florida, who was a Sanders delegate in 2016 and is currently uncommitted.

Wendy Davis, a committee member from Georgia, said she would urge everyone to remain positive and not fall into needless conflict.

“I’m very troubled that we’re setting up for a circular firing squad,” she said. “I’m very concerned that it’s going to keep escalating.”

Sheikh Rahman, a committee member from Georgia, said he has heard from the Buttigieg, Biden and Sanders campaigns recently but is making no commitments. If it comes to a contested convention, he plans to survey scores of state committee members to help him determine which candidate to support at the convention.

“I’m trying to stay on the sideline at the moment and see what happens,” he said. “I’m just taking the safe route.”

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, also a former DNC chair, predicted that any candidate who enters the convention with a large plurality would win the nomination. “If it’s close,” he added, “that’s a different reality.”

Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, warned that the convention could descend into chaos unless steps are taken soon to assure that those in charge in Milwaukee are experts on the rules and with personalities and stature strong enough to wield a gavel effectively.

“The chair of the convention is not for the fainthearted,” he said. “[DNC Chair Tom] Perez had better organize it, because you’re going to need it. There’s going to be a fight. The chairman of the party better have a war room for the convention.”

Sean Sullivan and Paul Kane contributed to this report.