Every Democratic candidate except Bernie Sanders indicates support for a contested convention

Should the individual with the most delegates at the end of the primary season be the party's nominee?

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 20, 2020 11:49AM (EST)

Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the only candidate at Wednesday's Democratic presidential debate who argued that the individual with the most delegates should be nominated at the Democratic National Convention.

"Well, the 'process' includes 500 superdelegates on the second ballot," Sanders said. "So I think that the will of the people should prevail. Yes, the person who has the most votes should become the nominee."

Washington Post analysis concluded that Sanders could soon be an "uncatchable leader" who "can't clinch the nomination" because of a delegate split. While it's expected that Sanders will win a large number of delegates on Super Tuesday, a crowded field of candidates remains. There's currently a 40% chance that no candidate will win at least half of the 3,979 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, according to election forecaster Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight model

If no candidate has enough pledged delegates to earn the nomination on the first ballot, the vote would then move on to a second ballot. Hundreds of superdelegates excluded from the first ballot under new Democratic rules would be allowed to vote. Pledged delegates would be unbound, allowing them to back any candidate they choose.

"There's a very good chance none of you are going to have enough delegates," NBC News host Chuck Todd told the candidates at the close of the Nevada debate. "Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee even if they are short of a majority?"

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the party should follow the "process" laid out in its rules.

"So you want the convention to work its will?" Todd pressed.

"Yes," Bloomberg responded.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., agreed the party should let the process play out. Sanders, the rising frontrunner who is projected to have that insurmountable lead which falls short of the delegate threshold, was the lone dissenter.

All five of Sanders' debate opponents effectively acknowledged that their best chance at defeating the frontrunner would be on a second ballot, where superdelegates can anoint a candidate.

Even if a candidate like Bloomberg or Warren can pull off a massive surge and win 30% of the 1,344 delegates available on Super Tuesday, he or she would still need to win more than 60% of all remaining delegates in order to defeat Sanders. Sanders is projected to have about 40% of all available pledged delegates after Super Tuesday, according to FiveThirtyEight.

The most plausible path for Sanders' foes is the contested convention scenario, which was implicitly endorsed Wednesday. But brokered conventions have repeatedly spelled doom for both parties.

There has not been a second ballot since 1952, and there has not been a legitimately contested convention since the 1972 Democratic National Convention, when former Sen. George McGovern walked away the winner but subsequently lost in 49 states to former President Richard Nixon. Former Sen. Ted Kennedy pushed to change convention rules to release the pledged delegates on the first ballot in 1980 as he sought to takedown incumbent President Jimmy Carter. The bid failed, and Carter went on to lose 47 states to former President Ronald Reagan.

Contested conventions were much more prevalent before the modern political era, but the vast majority of candidates produced by such intraparty fights went on to lose in the general election, according to Pew Research.

There is plenty of hypocrisy here. Sanders briefly argued during the 2016 election that superdelegates, who were able to vote in larger numbers and on the first ballot in previous conventions, should swing the nomination to him instead of delegate leader Hillary Clinton. Candidates like Buttigieg and Warren also espoused the virtues of honoring the popular vote when they argued against the Electoral College on the campaign trail.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has sought to avoid such a scenario by urging the other moderates in the race, all of whom have won delegates unlike the former mayor, to drop out before Sanders opens up a "delegate lead that seems nearly impossible to overcome."

Of course, that warning came before Bloomberg was trounced at his first debate by Warren and the rest of the candidates, who torched him over the allegations of sexual harassment against him, his longtime support for New York City's racist stop and frisk policy and his support for former President George W. Bush and criticisms of former President Barack Obama.

The path toward a contested convention has set off alarm bells for Democrats. One Democrat who worked on both Obama campaigns told The Hill that such a convention would be "the biggest nightmare Democrats can imagine" and would inevitably devolve into a "complete sh*t show."

Sanders supporters were apoplectic when every other candidate left open the door to a bitter convention fight, which could ultimately bolster President Donald Trump's re-election odds.

"The Democratic Party should be on notice," former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson tweeted. "If you even think about using superdelegates to take the nomination from someone who has the plurality of delegates going into Milwaukee, we the people will not take it lying down."

"I can't believe every candidate on that stage just said that the candidate with the most votes should not necessarily be the nominee," filmmaker Michael Moore added. "Wow. DNC - RIP?"

"If Bernie Sanders is leading in pledged delegates and votes by the convention and superdelegates swing the nomination to someone else, it will be the end of the Democratic Party as an American political institution," journalist Walker Bragman predicted.

The Sanders campaign warned that any attempt to undo the popular vote with superdelegates could backfire on the Democrats in the general election against Trump.

"There are going to be a lot of people," top Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver told The Atlantic, "who are going to be very upset if they feel like the election was stolen from them by a cabal of corporate types."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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