Let’s Talk About Contested Conventions

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

I suppose I need to talk about contested conventions. After all, Nate Silver’s model projects a better than one-in-three chance that no candidate will accumulate a simple majority of the delegates at the end of the primaries and caucuses, and a lot of pundits are proclaiming that such an outcome is almost inevitable at this point. So, contested conventions.

First of all: Call them contested, open, or deadlocked conventions. Not brokered. There are no brokers.

Second? No, it’s not inevitable at all, and I suspect Silver’s forecast overstates the chances. Most candidates without a realistic chance of winning almost always drop out, and it’s very hard to get a situation deep into the primaries and caucuses with more than two or three candidates having a realistic chance. Yes, Democrats have a proportional system so a losing candidate such as Bernie Sanders in 2016 can keep racking up delegates — but only if he or she reaches 15% of the vote.

That’s important because there’s no problem if only two candidates win delegates (since one of them will get more than half). It takes a third (or fourth or fifth) candidate taking delegates to prevent the winner from getting to 50 percent plus one. But 15% isn’t that easy to do for the candidate who comes in third.

The easiest way to get a contested convention is for a protest candidate with a decent-sized share of the vote to run and keep running after he or she can’t win. Bernie Sanders could have been that candidate this time — but instead Sanders is very likely to win or finish second in the overall vote, which means someone else would have to be the protest candidate. And that’s not likely to happen.

Now, careful readers will notice that I cheated a little. Yes, a candidate who can’t win 15% overall could reach that level in some states or congressional districts and still win delegates. So if Amy Klobuchar is still running in the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries she might fall way short of 15% overall but still win in Minnesota. But it’s usually very unlikely — not impossible, but unlikely — to have those sorts of things add up to a substantial number. So far only five candidates have won delegates, and it’s likely that at least a couple of them will be gone before March 3. Normally, I’d be fairly confident that almost all the delegates would be split between two candidates from March 3 on.

The one major caveat in this cycle is the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) Because he’s not contesting the early events he won’t be knocked out by them, and it’s certainly possible that he’ll wind up doing well on March 3. Still, to really disrupt things he’d have to do well enough to reach 15% in lots of places … but not so well that he and Sanders (assuming that Sanders is still doing well, which looks very likely) become the only two candidates to collect delegates, thereby knocking out everyone else.

What if three candidates do win plenty of delegates each on March 3? It’s still not a lock that no one will reach a majority before the convention. For one thing, there are no winner-take-all contests, but if a certain nominee emerges and everyone else drops out then the final contests will be de facto winner-take-all events. That could help someone reach a majority quickly. And then if a candidate comes very close to a majority, it’s certainly possible that he or she could win the remaining delegates well before the convention meets. Suppose for example Pete Buttigieg ends the caucuses and primaries 200 delegates ahead of Sanders but still five delegates shy of a majority; it’s likely that he’d find those five from the delegates of the dropped-out candidates.

Then there are the superdelegates — the automatic delegates who are mostly either elected officials or members of the Democratic National Committee. They are not allowed to vote in the first round at the convention if the winner is uncertain. But if one of these candidates was a clear winner of the primaries and caucuses but wound up a few delegates short, they’ll probably make it clear that they would support that candidate in any second-ballot vote, which would likely have the effect of helping push the needed handful of regular delegates to the almost-winner after all.

None of these scenarios gets to a truly contested (or open or deadlocked) convention. But one is certainly possible. If it does happen, it could be extremely chaotic. The delegates — about 4,000 of them — are slated by the candidate who “won” them, which means they should be fiercely loyal to their candidates. But other than that, there’s no particular rhyme or reason in who winds up a delegate, or how they would act if it were ever up to them to choose a candidate. They might form their own groups, or not; they might listen to the candidates who slated them, or not. If they couldn’t reach a decision quickly, all sorts of basic logistical problems might get out of hand very quickly. Not to mention tempers boiling over and serious rifts opening up.

In the old (pre-1972) days, there were many fewer delegates, and they really could be brokered, with party or interest group leaders able to make deals and deliver entire state delegations. That simply would not be the case now. It’s not clear whether the Democrats can figure out how to do it, but it’s very much in the party’s collective interest to find some way to prevent a contested convention. And that, in turn, is going to increase the pressure for losing candidates in Nevada and South Carolina to drop out. Which might be just enough to avoid the problem in the first place.

1. Sean Trende on New Hampshire.

2. David Byler looks ahead to Super Tuesday.

3. Nate Cohn on the delegate math going forward.

4. Nate Silver on New Hampshire.

5. Kristen Soltis Anderson on why there’s nothing wrong with candidates hiring pollsters. Absolutely correct.

6. Loren DeJonge Schulman and Paul Scharre on the U.S. troop injuries from the Iranian missile strike.

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox on Trump’s tariffs and steel.

8. And Jen Kirby on C-SPAN.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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