Now I hope I’m wrong. I hope that there is a brokered convention just like in that episode of the West Wing. I hope we see a multi-day political spectacle that scorches a place in the history books. A convention full of dramatic twists and turns right up to the last minute with an amazing, unexpected conclusion when after a dozen or more ballots, a candidate finally emerges as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
Not only is Trump almost certain to be the Republican nominee, but there’s not even a viable opponent. It’s quite different for the Democrats, however. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all have a serious chance of winning the nomination. Nipping at their heels are Buttigieg, Stanyer, Bloomberg, Yang and Klobuchar. Did I miss anyone?
But there’s not going to be a brokered convention for the Democrats. Probably not, anyway.
What is a brokered convention?
Sometimes called a contested convention, a brokered convention is the perennial hope of all political fanatics, geeks and wonks. And everyone who likes good TV.
A brokered convention happens when no nominee is selected on the first ballot. This would take no single candidate having a majority of the delegates at a convention (even that may not be enough). The term brokered comes from the days when party elders would then step in and broker the outcome after an inconclusive first ballot of delegates.
The Republican and Democratic conventions exist, of course, to each select their respective candidates for the presidential election. While we think of the state primaries being the deciding events, it’s actually not so. Technically it is the convention that selects each party’s nominee for the presidency. Primaries and caucuses decide who the delegates at the convention are and who they should vote for on the first ballot (if there are multiple ballots, delegates can vote for anyone from the second, third or fourth ballot (rules vary from state to state)).
Conventions are normally routine affairs, with the nominee known many months before the start of the convention. They are an anachronistic throwback to a bygone political era when they had a pivotal, decisive role in the process. In the past, each state would choose their delegates with not a primary to be seen. It would be the state party machinery that would choose and send their delegation to the convention.
But if there’s not a majority of delegates behind a candidate, conventions turn from a publicity event and nominee showcase into a spectacle of pure, undiluted politics. Deals will have to be made, multiple votes may be taken, and every delegate’s vote will count — all live on national TV.
The 1924 Democratic convention took an eye-watering 103 ballots to choose that year’s Democratic nominee; John W. Davis. So be careful what you wish for politics fans. Davis went on to lose the general election to Coolidge in a landslide, with a measly 28.8% of the national vote, a record that’s not been matched by any candidate from one of the two main parties since then.
Brokered conventions were commonplace, but not any more
There’s not been a contested convention since 1952 when both the Democrats and Republicans had one. Before 1952, 1932 was the last time Democrats saw a brokered convention. The Democrats required a nominee to get a two-thirds majority of delegates until 1936! Until then contested conventions used to be a permanent feature of the American political system.
Why? The change from needing two-thirds majority to a simple majority was a factor but not a massive one. The much-wanted rule change only got passed because FDR was overwhelmingly popular as he ran for re-election in 1936. He successfully reran in 1940 and 1944, while Truman took over the presidency after FDR’s death and was relatively unopposed in seeking the 1948 nomination. As soon as there was an open spot (ie a sitting Democratic president wasn’t re-running) in 1952, there was a contested convention again.
It would be the democratisation of the process with the introduction of the primary system that changed everything. The first presidential primary took place in 1905 in Wisconsin. After that, the number of primaries went up and down but it was really from the 1950s that the vast majority of states decided to have primaries but right up until the 1970s many state parties resisted.
The Primary Era
Previously, as we discussed, it was common for the vast majority of delegates to be chosen by the individual states’ political leadership but now they would be chosen by the public. Candidates (or rather their campaigns) compile lists of people that will serve as delegates. Candidates get votes and those votes turn into delegates.
The public in all their wisdom often come to support a nominee and form a consensus. The public seemed to be able to agree far more often and earlier than conventions were able to.
The bandwagon effect
When a candidate wins a bunch of early states, that is pretty much that. If someone becomes the frontrunner after Iowa, the public often takes a look and then gets on board. Candidates can come from almost nowhere and become the front runner. John Kerry for example in 2004 came from the back of the pack to become the nominee after Iowa. This tendency can’t be underestimated in its importance. If a candidate wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s almost unprecedented for them to not win the nomination.
People confuse not knowing who is going to be the likely winner, with perhaps there not being an outright winner at all.
As soon as there’s a clear front runner, the public, the press and the politicians, either tune out or put pressure on any remaining candidates to drop out and support the presumptive nominee. After all, they are only selecting the nominee. They still face the bigger contest, taking on the Republicans in the fall general election.
Non-viable candidates often drop out for the sake of party unity and often for the sake of their dignity and perhaps the chance to run next time. They also run out of two things; publicity and money. We’ll come to money later. But with publicity, the media and voters simply stop covering the contest and anoint the winner. If you think people aren’t interested in politics, try getting them to pay attention to a contest that is essentially over.
There are some mathematical fundamentals for why one candidate almost always gets a majority of delegates.
To get a split vote you would really need at least 3 candidates, and they would have to be something approaching evenly split, anyone in a distant third is likely to drop out. It sounds like a small thing but it makes all the difference. And remember it’s not third in terms of vote share, it’s the delegates that matter. Many primaries have a minimum threshold for getting delegates. Theoretically, you could get 10% in each state and not get a single delegate. That would be unlikely, but it illustrates the point. Which brings us to…
So delegates are not elected in terms of vote share, ie. 40% of the vote resulting in 40% of the delegates. If only it was that simple.
Over the years, there has been an almost unlimited multitude of different rules in how delegates get apportioned out. Some states have been winner takes all, some would award delegates by congressional district, others require at least 15% of the vote before you get any delegates, and so on. The rules have also differed between the two parties. And let’s not forget about caucuses. Now that is a complicated system! But in 2020 only 2 states (and 2 territories) will have caucuses. Though crucially Iowa is one of them and the first contest of all.
2016 Republican Convention
Many people thought the 2016 Republican convention would be a brokered convention. This didn’t happen for two crucial reasons. Under Republican Party rules, many states had winner-takes-all contests, meaning Trump with a plurality of votes in many states, gained a huge number of delegates that firmly put him on the path to the nomination. Secondly, and more speculatively, people just couldn’t accept Trump was going to win, so there was no clear anti-Trump candidate (many Republican leaders were loathed to rally behind Cruz until it was too late). It may not have made a difference anyway.
But people thought there would be a brokered convention as there were so many candidates and no clear front runner. It is worth thinking about, that if the 2016 Republican contest had the same rules as the 2020 Democratic process, a Republican brokered convention would have been considerably more likely.
2020 Democratic National Convention
Under new rules, almost every primary will require that you will need 15% of the vote, to get a share of the delegates. At least three candidates and possibly more are in with a real chance of 15% in multiple states. But as I said, there won’t be a brokered convention because it’s likely a clear winner will emerge. Thanks to…
Iowa, New Hampshire, the early stages and Super Tuesday
Whoever wins Iowa has a great chance at winning New Hampshire and then Nevada and then South Carolina. Whatever the state polls say, the voters in a state tends to take a fresh look at someone who has won every contest before that particular state votes. If someone has won all four early states the odds of them winning the nomination are through the roof.
But, it is more than possible that one candidate won’t gain a clean sweep. This is where it gets tricky. All of these four states are a bit different. Iowa and New Hampshire are both pretty white but they are different in other ways and one is a caucus and one a primary (you need to be more dedicated to take part in the convoluted caucus process). The Nevada and South Carolina contests have either a majority or significant numbers of minority voters. They are also quite different states to each other (and again, one is a caucus and one a primary).
Now if Iowa and New Hampshire opt for different candidates, it can delay the winner from emerging, but for how long? This happened in 2008 with Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, setting up a battle that would last almost to the convention. Both were strong candidates, both won an early state. There were only two contenders, of course, so someone was going to get a majority of the elected delegates. Superdelegates confuse things a little, but we’ll come to that.
So even if someone wins Iowa and New Hampshire, then Nevada or South Carolina could stop it from being a slam dunk. Either way, it may come down to…
Every nomination battle has a Super Tuesday. When the early states are done a huge number of delegates are up for grabs in perhaps a dozen or more states.
2020’s Super Tuesday takes place on Tuesday 3rd March and sees 14 states (and American Samoa and Democrats Abroad) with a whopping 35% of all the delegates available being decided on this one day. This includes not only California and Texas, the two most populous states, but also Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.
If someone runs the board, it’s all over. And usually, this is what happens.
So why the ‘probably’? There are some factors that could push this contest into being a brokered convention and they are, perhaps stronger than they have been in previous nomination fights. But, every 4 years people at some point think there will be a brokered convention and it never happens! So be sceptical.
It takes three
Both 2016 and especially 2008 were unusually protracted nomination battles but as there were only two candidates… it didn’t really matter. Someone was going to get a majority. They were in part protracted for two reasons; ideology and money.
Presidential campaigns used to be over for one simple reason. There was no more money. This has changed. The internet means you can now raise small donations that add up to very large sums. Campaigns can go for longer. Thanks to the Supreme Court and Congress, campaign finance laws have been loosened so there is more money sloshing around. There are also millionaires, sorry I mean, billionaires who don’t need anyone else’s cash, thank you very much. In 2020 there’s Tom Stayer as well as Mike Bloomberg — who won’t even be on the ballot until Super Tuesday.
We saw it a little in 2008 and we saw it a lot more in 2016, but more than ever there are two distinct wings of the Democratic party with very different political, social, and economic outlooks. It’s an increasing ideological chasm. In previous contests, there was arguably little difference in policy between the candidates. Not so these days. There’s also more pressure for each side to stick it out and win the big prize.
Now candidates will drop out as they start to perform poorly. But if you’re in third, fourth or even fifth place, and it looks like a brokered convention may happen, why wouldn’t you stay in until the very end? You may well get a chunk of delegates and a big say over who gets the nomination. A bigger motivator may be stopping a particular candidate from claiming the nomination. For example, it would seem likely that Bloomberg would help stop Sanders if he got the chance.
Plus there’s something else at stake. With a chunk of delegates, maybe you get behind another candidate. What would your price be? A cabinet post, becoming ambassador to Tahiti, or the opportunity to be Vice President of the United States? Not a bad second prize.
Superdelegates — not quite as super
Not all delegates are elected. Superdelegates make up a significant proportion of the total number of delegates. In 2020 there will be around 775 unpledged delegates (about 16% of the total) compared to 3979 elected delegates. Superdelegates are representatives, senators, DNC members, governors, former presidents and so on. They are free to support any candidate they wish (or none).
In this article and elsewhere, does ‘a majority of delegates’ refer to elected ones or both elected and superdelegates? Frankly, it hasn’t really mattered before. But in 2008 and 2016, it became apparent that superdelegates could potentially side with the losing candidate and put them over the top. This caused significant controversy.
Their role was reviewed with the result being that in 2020, they will still have a vote but only from the second round onwards. Even this may be enough to prevent a brokered convention. Say a candidate was 25 elected delegates short of a majority and the second-place candidate was a long way behind, surely the superdelegates would push them over the top in the second ballot? Many will say, ‘Why have a contested first ballot if the second ballot is already decided? It’s time to come together’.
Trump and pre-convention deal-making
There will be a pressure to rally around a candidate so they can take the fight to Trump. Democrats want to win in any year, but they really want to beat Trump. The slight problem with this is that many Democrats think that Trump is pretty beatable. So the nomination is worth fighting for more than ever.
Nevertheless, even as the primaries are going on, the Democratic establishment and party leaders will try and see if they can ensure that a winner emerges as soon as possible. But arguably, it’s far more likely that they would help Biden or Warren rather than Sanders. Remember the superdelegates are the very definition of the political establishment and that establishment is far more comfortable with candidates not called Bernie Sanders.
So if the first few states and then the Super Tuesday states more or less come out for one candidate, it’s all over, even if 60% of delegates are still up for grabs.
But if not, and the states are split between 3 or more candidates, grab the popcorn, because the rest of the primaries are going to be fascinating as is the Democratic National Convention on July 13 in Milwaukee. We’ll see you there.