Democratic primary race: What is a brokered convention, and will there be one this year?

Almost every election, one party or the other gets worried about a fight over who’s won their nomination. This time, it could really happen

Andrew Naughtie
Tuesday 03 March 2020 16:26
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Warren says will of voters should not matter because of Sanders's decision-making

Joe Biden’s resurrection as a viable candidate has added new tension to the Democratic primary, and has thinned down the field of candidates, with both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropping out of the race to endorse him. With Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg yet to catch up in the polls, Biden is now the main challenger to putative frontrunner Bernie Sanders.

But while Biden and Sanders are currently seen as the only two likely nominees, the odds that neither will win the nomination outright are apparently going up — raising the prospect that the nomination will have to be decided at the Democratic National Convention in July.

A “brokered” or “contested” convention is not something the Democrats want. It could deeply divide the party, with supporters of whichever candidate was denied the nomination potentially coming out convinced they were robbed of it by the party elite.

Equally, it’s possible the unedifying spectacle of candidates trading horses and shouting each other down at the last stage of the process could leave whoever is nominated badly tarnished heading into the election.

Nonetheless, with things as they are, it seems the Democrats are unlikely to go to the convention with the nominee already ordained by primary voters.

Why might a brokered convention be on the cards?

To formally become the Democratic nominee, a candidate must win a majority of delegates to the convention. There are 3,979 “pledged” delegates available this year, meaning a candidate needs to pick up 1,990 to win on the first ballot. These delegates are allocated based on candidates’ performance in the primaries and caucuses held across the states.

While some are allocated on the basis of statewide victories, many are allocated proportionally based on results at lower levels, meaning that even candidates who win relatively few states (or even none) can pick up enough delegates to keep others from winning the nomination outright.

The delegates vote for the nominee in what’s called a roll call vote, where the states’ delegations take turns to announce their votes. If no candidate reaches 1,991 delegates on the first ballot, a second ballot is held.

According to Democratic Party rules, the second ballot includes votes from the party’s 771 “superdelegates” — and that’s where the controversy really begins.

What say do the establishment get?

The superdelegates are a collection of party officials, officeholders and grandees with voting rights at the convention. Under current party rules, they are allowed to vote for whichever candidate they like, but only when the process goes to a second ballot.

They previously had more power, but it was diminished by a rules change after the 2016 primary, in which many Sanders supporters accused the party establishment of stitching up the nomination for Hillary Clinton by declaring their support for her early on.

However, as Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, when Sanders began to trail Clinton in pledged delegates, he himself suggested that superdelegates could hand him the nomination even though he had fallen behind, citing “momentum” in some of the late-voting states.

Sanders has this year changed tack again. He now suggesting the superdelegates should automatically support whoever wins a plurality of pledged delegates, saying that to do otherwise would be to rig the primary against the voters’ choice. Biden has dismissed the idea as hypocrisy: “I wonder where that view was when he was challenging Hillary after she went in with a commanding lead”, he said.

That said, Sanders may have genuine cause for concern. The New York Times has reported that the party establishment is so convinced Sanders would lose to Trump in November that some superdelegates are already hatching plans to prevent him from being nominated.

How likely is this to happen?

A lot depends on how long the remaining candidates stay in the race, and how many delegates they win — as well as whether they release those delegates and/or instruct them to vote for another candidate.

If Warren and Bloomberg fail to win enough delegates to make much of a difference and either Biden or Sanders somehow pulls far ahead, that could defuse some of the tension.

But what’s also worth remembering is that even though talk of a brokered convention for one party or the other surfaces at some point in almost every presidential cycle, the closest any recent convention has come to genuinely “contested” is “fractious”.

In 2008, the Democrats headed into their convention exhausted from a months-long battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by the end of which Obama had eked out a narrow pledged delegate lead. While Clinton endorsed Obama just days after the last primaries, some of her more vocal fans were determined to try and peel the nomination away from him.

But in the end, their efforts came to nothing. Clinton nominated Obama in the roll call vote on the convention floor, dispelling any lingering worries of a full-on floor fight.

In 2016, meanwhile, both sides went into their conventions with different problems. The Republicans were set to nominate Donald Trump, whose unstoppable rise had left much of the party establishment aghast; the Democrats, meanwhile, had seen Clinton defeat Bernie Sanders by millions of votes, but not before he roused an anti-establishment movement whose support bordered on devotion.

Both conventions were acrimonious, with some anti-Trump delegates making a last-ditch attempt to block him and Sanders supporters variously booing, walking out and objecting to procedure. As far as their conventions were concerned, neither party was ever in any serious doubt about who their nominee would be.

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