What’s Wrong With a Decision-Making Convention?

The last contested Democratic convention nominated Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

The results of the early Democratic primaries and caucuses have been mixed: Bernie Sanders has replaced Joe Biden as the front-runner, but the vote remains split among many candidates, nearly all of whom are continuing to campaign at least through Super Tuesday on March 3. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, Democratic primaries all award delegates proportionately, and there are no winner-take-all contests. So it’s a growing possibility that come July no candidate will arrive at the Milwaukee Convention with a majority of delegates.

If that happens, then it will be up to the Convention to make the decision, i.e., to settle on a candidate without clear instructions from the primary voters.

A number of commentators (Chris Hayes, for one) have painted this possibility as a disaster, particularly if the candidate who comes to Milwaukee with the plurality of delegates isn’t nominated. Bernie’s supporters in particular — who picture their candidate as the one most likely to come in with a lead — are already talking about how the nomination will be “stolen” from him if anyone else gets it.

I’m not seeing it. Whether or not the convention’s choice seems legitimate depends on the scenario, and in a number of the scenarios I would regard as legitimate, the candidate who comes in with a lead doesn’t leave as the nominee.

The delegates. Before getting into that, let’s make sure we understand the process. According to the Green Papers, the primaries and caucuses will choose 3979 delegates, and only those delegates get to vote on the first ballot. If that first ballot doesn’t result in a majority choice, 771 “superdelegates” are added to the mix. Superdelegates are party officials, Democrats who hold prominent offices (like governors and members of Congress), various other distinguished Democrats (Barack Obama, for one), and representatives of key Democratic constituencies (like labor leaders).

So a first-ballot majority is 1990 delegates. Any candidate who gets that many delegates out of the primaries and caucuses is the winner. On the second and all subsequent ballots, a majority is 2376.

Scenario I. A clear leader with a near miss. One possibility is that some candidate is the clear leader and falls just slightly short of that first-ballot victory. Rather than 1990 delegates, Bernie or Bloomberg or somebody else [1] winds up with, say, 1950 delegates, and the rest are scattered among half a dozen candidates, none of whom have more than a thousand. Similarly, national polls show the front-runner to be the clear leader, perhaps with majority support among Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters. The front-runner also polls as well or better than any other candidate in head-to-head match-ups with Trump.

In that case, I agree with Chris Hayes: Something untoward would have to happen to deny that candidate the nomination, and his or her supporters would be right to feel cheated. In particular, any scenario in which a majority of elected delegates forms after the first ballot (as might happen when other candidates drop out) but gets reversed by the superdelegates, would be an anti-democratic travesty.

Unlike the Bernie supporters who imagine a stop-at-nothing conspiracy against them, though, I regard that scenario as extremely unlikely. The superdelegates are there to rescue the party from a hopeless deadlock, not to overrule the voters. (It’s worth remembering that in 2016, when superdelegates could vote on the first ballot, Bernie’s campaign was arguing that they should overrule the voters. Hillary was well ahead in primary votes and elected delegates, but the Sanders campaign argued that if they finished strong, the superdelegates should respect their momentum and swing the nomination to Bernie.)

But there are other scenarios.

Scenario II. A clear delegate leader suffering voters’ remorse. A lot can happen between now and July, some of which might cause voters to change their minds after they cast their primary ballots. So imagine a delegate split like Scenario I, but also that the polls have drastically changed due to some unanticipated event that has damaged the front-runner: Bernie has another heart attack, or Biden stumbles over his words in a way that implies dementia, or some lurid sex scandal reminds Buttigieg voters of all the bad gay stereotypes.

In this scenario, the front-runner in delegates is no longer the front-runner in the polls, and running him or her against Trump is like carrying out a suicide pact.

At that point, I think we all say “Thank God for superdelegates” and prepare to unite behind somebody else.

Even then, though, it matters who Somebody Else is. The primary voters may have changed their minds about the front-runner, but there’s no reason to think they’ve changed their entire political philosophies. So the nominee should be someone who represents the voters who supported the front-runner. So replacing Sanders with, say, Warren would be legitimate in a way that replacing him with Bloomberg would not be. Ditto for replacing Biden with Klobuchar rather than Sanders.

In other words, the nomination shouldn’t automatically fall to the second-place candidate if the front-runner implodes. In this scenario it might even be legitimate to nominate a candidate who wasn’t previously running at all, but who represented a compromise between the progressive and moderate factions: Sherrod Brown, for example.

Scenario III. Several significant candidates. What if the candidate in second place is closer to the leader than the leader is to a majority? Say, for example, that three candidates are splitting the delegates 40-35-25.

In that case, I don’t think the Convention has any obligation to nominate the 40% candidate, particularly if the second and third-place candidates are similar to each other and different from the front-runner. In that case, nominating the front-runner might be going against the primary voters.

For example, imagine Sanders is leading Biden and Bloomberg, or Buttigieg is leading Warren and Sanders. In either of those scenarios, one faction of the party (moderate or progressive) represents the majority, but the front-runner comes from the other faction. Imagine that on the second ballot, the third-place candidate drops out, and his or her delegates mostly vote for the second-place candidate, who becomes the nominee. Those delegates are arguably representing the voters who sent them to the convention, so I don’t think there’s anything to complain about.

Why is this happening? Not since 1952 has a convention failed to produce a first-ballot nominee. (The 1976 Republican Convention, though, was so closely split between sitting President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan that there was some suspense.) So why does it seem likely to happen now?

For reasons that are, by and large, good. In the past, late primaries have often been unrepresentative winner-take-all affairs, which generally allowed the leading candidate’s delegate count to go over the top. Also, campaigns were funded more by big donors who wanted a return on their investment, and so were unwilling to keep supporting a candidate with little chance to win. Now campaigns are funded more by small donors who remain loyal even if early results are disappointing (or by billionaires like Bloomberg and Steyer, who remain loyal to themselves). As a result, we have more candidates surviving deeper into the primary calendar.

If you imagine those two factors continuing into the future, we may have to get used to multi-ballot conventions again. They didn’t used to be controversial. (When I was first getting interested in politics as a teen-ager in the 1960s, contested conventions were recent enough that they were a regular feature of political novels like Fletcher Knebel’s Convention, or of movies like The Best Man.)

Abraham Lincoln, for example, was well behind William Seward (173.5 votes to 102) on the first ballot of the 1860 Republican Convention, but won on the fourth ballot. The 1932 Democratic Convention required a 2/3 supermajority, and it took four ballots for FDR to get there. In 1924 Democrats needed 103 ballots to nominate John Davis, who lost to Calvin Coolidge in the general election.

Not necessarily “brokered”. In the old days, conventions were dominated by well-established power brokers like the leaders of New York’s Tammany Hall and other big-city machines. Corruption was rampant and deals were cut without much concern for what the voters wanted. The early primaries were viewed as field tests of a candidate’s popularity, and weren’t central to the nominating process. It wasn’t until JFK’s 1960 campaign that primaries rose to prominence. (Lyndon Johnson went to the 1960 Convention as Kennedy’s main challenger, but had not campaigned in any primaries.) Nominations were decided in “smoke-filled rooms” where the power brokers cut deals.

As a result, we still refer to a convention without a first-ballot winner as a “brokered convention”, a pejorative term implying that some dirty deal is happening. But that needn’t be the case. A convention without a clear primary winner could instead function like a ranked-choice caucus, where delegates vote for their second or third choice when their first-choice candidate drops out.

There’s nothing unseemly about such a process, even if the candidate who enters the convention with a lead doesn’t leave with the nomination.

[1] In judging whether a scenario is fair, I think it’s important to imagine it happening to several candidates — not just to the one you particularly like or dislike. If it would be fair to deny Bloomberg the nomination in certain circumstances, then it would be fair to deny Bernie in similar circumstances. And vice versa.

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  • Daughter Number Three  On February 24, 2020 at 10:40 am

    This is why I love The Weekly Sift. As a person who lives in a city with ranked choice voting – YES!

  • Guest  On February 24, 2020 at 10:51 am

    You can staple as many paper wings as you want on that pig, Doug, but it still ain’t gonna pick up and fly. Super delegates, almost tautologically so, are dominated by well-established power brokers who will have personal incentive to make decisions that support the well-established, without much concern for the will of voters. The decisions will be brokered in the same smoke-filled room where it was decided that, yes, even though we can’t break the rules we can write new ones post hoc to allow a Wall Street oligarch to enter the race. This is the cynical nightmare scenario that’s been bugging me since before Iowa.

    However, even at such a time when stating that the person with the most votes should win the election is a radical, minority view (what a low point for the Democratic party) I remain hopeful. Early momentum, as Bernie fans found out the hard way in 2016, is a stubborn thing.

    Anything short of a major sea change in the polling data where someone other than Bernie becomes the unequivocal best shot against Trump, and a brokered convention will set our tent on fire and increase the odds of another four years of far-right administration. My prayer is that cooler heads will prevail.

    • weeklysift  On February 24, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      The superdelegates are not going to be that bold. If Bernie can assemble a majority of the elected delegates, he’ll be the nominee.

      • Guest  On February 25, 2020 at 10:46 am

        Under the rules *as currently written* I haven’t heard anyone saying that a majority situation would be an issue. It’s the plurality situations that have me waking up in a cold sweat. Even still, I have hope that anything over 40% and the DNC will be embarrassed into accepting the will of the voters. The similarities, as George pointed out, to the Republicans in 2016 are fascinating. The establishment was pulling their hair out trying to stop the plurality candidate but in the end they went with the one most popular with their voters and were awarded the White House for their grief.

        To answer the central question of the piece though, what’s wrong with brokered conventions is that they seem to heavily favor a decision making process dominated by a concentrated circle of powerful party elites rather than the will of the people, and, perhaps relatedly, the track record isn’t stellar. I haven’t studied 1952 closely, but, it seems there are ominous forewarnings. Estes Kefauver, a progressive-minded “staunch New Dealer”, won most states and a plurality of delegates only to have the nomination grabbed from him by a concentrated circle of powerful party bosses at the convention who preferred a more moderate/conservative candidate. The result for Dems was a crushing defeat in the general. Now sure 1952 was a different world politically, but its lessons are lining up with those from 2016, and the polling data agrees. Bernie is our best shot, and a brokered convention would likely lead to disaster in this case.

  • Marianne Webber  On February 24, 2020 at 1:48 pm

    Great exposition of the process. Thank you very much.

  • Susan Sabino  On February 24, 2020 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you for walking us through the “weeds” of the convention possibilities. Even though I’ve taught civics / government, I now have a much clearer understanding of what’s ahead for us Democrats. I pray we have the patience and clear vision that you show in this essay.

  • Nat Kuhn  On February 24, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    I think all voting, perhaps especially primaries, should be ranked-choice.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On February 24, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      It doesn’t make sense in a primary where the losers aren’t eliminated as they are in the general election. In a primary, the losers go on to compete in other states. Ranked choice primaries would only make sense if every state held its primary on the same day.

      • travc  On February 25, 2020 at 4:17 am

        Ranked choice primaries are the way to go. The key is to get rid of delegates (maybe just ceremonial) and retabulate based on the total vote after all the primaries. No spoiler effects, no wasted votes.

        The main problem is that there isn’t a common word (I know of) to describe the results each state would report: the count of each possible ranking of the candidates. Then, after the final primary, use those counts to determine the winner by the standard ranked-vote / IRV sort of methodology.

        Would the DNC please just dictate that this is what they will do next time. Just say that states must use ranked choice primaries, or else they don’t get a say in the nomination.

        PS: Should also require each state do a public by-hand count of a statistically significant random selection of ballots to validate the results. Not specific to this, that should just be required for every vote.

      • Anonymous  On February 27, 2020 at 8:41 pm

        As I understand it, “Early Caucusing” in Nevada was a Ranked Choice ballot. If a person’s first choice candidate didn’t reach a certain threshold of votes, that candidate got eliminated and the person’s second choice vote was counted. I think that makes lots of sense.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On February 28, 2020 at 8:29 am

        Ranked choice can at least allow the candidate who is everyone’s second choice to do better than under the current system. For example, the “progressive” lane is between Sanders and Warren. Sanders is the first choice of more progressives, so he’s far ahead of her. Meanwhile, the “moderates” are broken up among the other candidates, so Sanders ends up ahead. But with ranked choice, if Warren was the second choice of the moderate voters, she’d potentially be able to prevail over Sanders.

        It’s an interesting idea. I’d initially only favored ranked choice in the general election, but it could help in the primary as well.

      • Anonymous  On March 3, 2020 at 9:17 pm

        One more reason for ranked choice voting: Some Super Tuesday states had already had early voting before Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out. With Ranked Choice Voting, their vote would go to whoever was their next choice that was still in the race. As it is, some states are allowing them to vote again, and some aren’t.

  • ccyager  On March 1, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you for this post. It helps to understand how the convention process works.

  • Chris  On March 1, 2020 at 6:53 pm

    In Scenario II, you say we’ll “ALL” say “Thank God for delegates.”

    But instead of some obvious “sex scandal,” the more likely scenario would be some glorified headline as we’ve seen on a daily basis in the last few weeks “Sanders PRAISES Fidel Castro!!!!” or “Biden can’t remember Chris Wallace’s name demonstrating his dementia!!!!!”

    It’s in the propagandized heat of the moment that Super Delegates might make a choice that enrages and alienates the other half of Dem supporters. This is extra sensitive for Bernie supporters since they see the Dem establishment (Super Delegates) looking for a way to ignore the will of progressive voters already. If it then happens, it will confirm their suspicions and that energy in a brokered convention will KILL chances of winning in the General Election. On the other hand, if that situation comes out in favor of Bernie, it will be seen as the establishment overcoming their loyalties in favor of honoring the voters’ will.


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