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This July, the Best Fireworks Could be at the Democratic Convention



Last week, we discussed that a Democratic presidential candidate needs 1,991 (50 percent plus one) of the party’s 3,979 pledged delegates to win the party’s nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). If a single candidate fails to meet this threshold, there will be a second vote.


A very chaotic second vote.


On a subsequent ballot, under DNC rules, no matter whom a delegate was pledged to on the first ballot, they become “unbound,” meaning each one can reassemble into whichever candidate’s camp they want. Adding to the drama, superdelegates – unpledged delegates who may also support whichever candidate they choose, regardless of the results of their state’s primary or caucus – also have a say on the second ballot (they do not vote on the first). These party elders, which include dozens of state and federal elected officials, likely will choose whomever they think will have the best chance to defeat incumbent Republican President Donald Trump in November.


This outcome is what of often referred to as a brokered convention—one in which party luminaries and not voters in each state decide who will be that party’s nominee on a second or subsequent ballot. According to Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Elaine Kamarck, brokered conventions “happened often in the days before” the two political parties began using primaries to award delegates to presidential candidates. Prior to the primary and caucus system, “if no one won a majority on the first ballot the convention would begin a complex series of negotiations, led by power brokers from the states. These brokers could be governors, senators or big city mayors—anyone who had the power to control or persuade other delegates.”


We have not seen a brokered convention in more than half a century. The last instance in which a major party didn’t decide on a nominee during the first ballot at their convention was 1952, and both the Democrats and Republicans saw brokered conventions that year.

Even though it has been almost 70 years, in this election year a brokered Democratic convention is becoming a less unlikely scenario.


Before delving into the odds that the Democrats won’t pick their nominee until a second (or third or fourth) ballot, let’s look at the delegate count after this past Saturday’s Nevada caucus. At last week’s count, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has 22 pledged delegates, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) had 21, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) had 8, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) had 7. What a difference a week makes. Sen. Sanders is now in the lead with 40 pledged delegates. Mayor Buttigieg has 26; former Vice President Joe Biden has 13; Sen. Warren has 12; Sen. Klobuchar still has 7; and the rest of the field, including former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (who has not been on a ballot yet) and billionaire Tom Steyer, have none.


On paper, Sen. Sanders’ lead does not seem that daunting, but in headlines after the Nevada contest was called the media started to ask whether the Independent from Vermont is “unstoppable.”


Because of what could happen on a second convention ballot, the answer to that question has to be no—he is stoppable. Or, as Yahoo News explained, it is “possible that Sanders could carry a strong lead, but not a majority of delegates, into the Democratic convention in July. In that scenario, the delegates at the convention — perhaps unified by concerns that a democratic socialist can’t beat Donald Trump — could throw their support behind someone else and deny Sanders the nomination.” The Inside the Beltway publication Axios was not as kind to Sen. Sanders and his prospects. This morning, it reported, “Establishment Democrats have been sounding the alarm about how a ticket led by Sanders, a democratic socialist, will affect down-ballot races in the moderate districts that helped Democrats take the House in 2018.”


We should read “establishment Democrats” as code for superdelegates. If the Democratic National Convention gets to a second ballot, these party luminaries could try to sway the unbound (formerly pledged) delegates away from Sen. Sanders. According to Ballotpedia.org, there will be an estimated 764 Democratic superdelegates this year. (We do not know all of their names yet. The Democratic National Committee will confirm the names of these individual no later than March 6—next week.) That’s a lot of voices – and votes – on the convention floor trying to sway unbound delegates.


And, to be sure, things have not been going well for Sen. Sanders with the party establishment over the last few days, and this fact only reinforces the idea that the convention could turn into chaos.


For example, after footage came to light in which Sen. Sanders seemed to defend Cuba’s dictatorship, several Florida lawmakers and party officials criticized him. According to The New York Times, Hector Caraballo, a former political prisoner in Cuba who founded the Miami-Dade Cuban American Democratic Club, said the senator’s comments “just confirmed what I think of him as a leader.” Baraballo advised his fellow Democrats that they “have very little time left to avoid a political disaster.” Florida, of course, is a key state in the general election this November.


Sen. Sanders’ recent comments about Israel and its leadership also have riled some party officials at a time when moderate Democrats already have been running ads criticizing the senator’s stance on Israel.


What, though, are the exact odds that any candidate will have a majority of delegates on the first ballot? The election website FiveThirtyEight currently gives Sen. Sanders only a 44 percent chance of getting the necessary 1,991 votes to avoid a brokered convention—virtually the same odds it gives that no candidate will achieve that threshold. The site gives former Vice President Biden an 11 percent chance of winning on the first ballot and Mayor Bloomberg a three percent chance. The rest of the candidates have a less than one in one hundred shot. By FiveThirtyEight’s count, Sen. Sanders will likely come about 200 votes short on the first ballot.


So, chaos is inevitable, right?


Perhaps not—if other candidates drop out of the race before the convention in July.

As Brookings’ Kamarck explains, a “contested” convention is a far more likely scenario in the modern era. A contested convention also is one where no candidate has enough delegates to win on the first ballot going into the convention, but this scenario plays out only between two candidates—and the jockeying occurs before the first ballot.


As Kamarck explains, in a contested convention, the second-place candidate attempts “to convince enough other delegates to abandon the frontrunner and come to him or her before the first ballot takes place.” (Emphasis added.) Examples of modern contested conventions are the 1976 Republican convention contest between then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Gerald Ford (Ford had a slight delegate lead going into the convention) and the 1980 Democratic convention contest between Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and incumbent President Jimmy Carter (who had the delegate lead). The frontrunners in both of those contents went on to become their party’s nominee following intense behind-the-scenes jockeying.


According to reporting by Politico, the Bloomberg campaign actually is preparing (hoping?) for a brokered or contested convention. The news outlet said Bloomberg’s state-level advisers are working to poach supporters from other moderate candidates and actually are meeting with officials from the Biden and Buttigieg camps.


Bloomberg isn’t the only candidate preparing for this outcome, however. Politico also reported several Democratic candidates “have quietly been in contact for months with superdelegates — the DNC members, members of Congress and other party officials who cannot vote on the first ballot at a contested national convention” to try to convince them not to vote for Sen. Sanders.


Eager for fireworks this summer? Watch the Democratic convention in July.

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