In the complex dynamics of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest, the most fascinating and confusing contingency involves a scenario where no candidate has a majority of the pledged delegates elected during the primary season. Now, pledged delegates aren’t legally bound to vote for the candidate to which they are pledged (in the Democratic Party, at least), but most were selected by campaigns and are presumptively loyal. Unpledged “superdelegates” can’t vote until the second ballot under a compromise worked out with Sanders supporters after the 2016 contest. So the only way a plurality leader could win on the first ballot would be via the release of pledged delegates by a candidate who has withdrawn from the race, or by convincing just enough pledged delegates to defect on grounds that a contested convention would damage and divide the party. That seems to be what Bernie Sanders was suggesting at the recent Las Vegas candidate debate when he said the leader in pledged delegates should be granted the nomination even if she or he has no majority. The other candidates on the stage disagreed.
Sanders probably has reason to believe that he would not benefit from proceeding to a second ballot when 771 unpledged superdelegates (mostly elected officials and members of the Democratic National Committee) — 16 percent of second-ballot votes — come into play. It would be an unsettling experience for everyone: The last multi-ballot convention in either major party was the 1952 Democratic event in which Adlai Stevenson was nominated on the third ballot. If, however, a more Establishment-friendly candidate (say, Joe Biden) was in the same position, a second ballot might not look quite so bad.
How likely is the contested-convention scenario at this point? Well, FiveThirtyEight now projects that there’s a 50/50 chance that no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates. Again, it’s possible a front-runner could be so close to a majority that other candidates or the Powers That Be would decide to take steps to put the “putative nominee” over the top on a first ballot. But if multiple candidates — perhaps contemplating a multi-ballot convention that winds up seeking a “unity candidate” — stick around, the proportional delegate award rules Democratic follow could make a muddled situation possible.
Consider one more immediate projection made by FiveThirtyEight, based on a Biden win in South Carolina by a modest margin. By the time the dust settles from Super Tuesday (March 3), it’s estimated that Sanders could lead with 39 percent of the 1,492 pledged delegates (38 percent of the ultimate total) awarded as of March 3, with Biden at 29 percent and the remainder scattered among Bloomberg (13 percent), Warren (10 percent), Buttigieg (6 percent) and Klobuchar (3 percent). In this scenario, Biden would have won half the Super Tuesday states. There’s no question he’d stay in the race and keep racking up delegates so long as his money held up. And the odds are good that other candidates (e.g., Elizabeth Warren) might hang around, particularly if a contested convention becomes more likely and with it the possibility of a late-ballot lightning strike on behalf of some “unity candidate.” Another wild card is Michael Bloomberg, who certainly has the resources to keep competing in primaries and snag some delegates even if he’s no threat to win the nomination.
Yes, Sanders could keep extending his lead, and the 15 percent threshold for winning delegates could make weak candidates relatively harmless to him. But the delegate totals are going to pile up quickly, possibly before he can consolidate his position: By April 7 over 70 percent of the total pledged delegates will have been won or lost. And for all we know, Sanders and Biden — or less likely, Sanders and Bloomberg — could get into a true see-saw battle where the pledged-delegate lead remains up for grabs. As late as April 28, there will be a multi-primary day with 663 delegates awarded in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Sanders lost all of those states (with the exception of Rhode Island) in 2016.
So anything could happen, and there’s no real precedent for determining how close a pledged-delegate leader must get to a majority before the nomination is assured. If the outcome is unclear by the late primaries, you could definitely see all sorts of unusual tactical maneuvers come into play, including candidate coalitions, “unity” or “anybody but” efforts, endorsements by previously neutral party leaders, early veep announcements, and even dark-horse drafts. If Sanders does get close but not quite there before the convention, there will be a lot of psychological pressure brought to bear on his behalf thanks to the assumption that his supporters are more likely to represent a threat to party unity than any others if he’s denied the prize they’ve been pursuing for so long (are there seriously any “Biden or Bust” voters?).
All this uncertainty makes it hard to figure out how Democrats can avoid a contested convention so long as actual primary voters haven’t settled on a consensus candidate. Perhaps the prospect of the most exciting national political convention in living memory will become a rooting interest for Democratic activists as well as journalists ready to cover a wild scene in Milwaukee. More likely it will fill those ready to move on to the most consequential general election in many years with fear and loathing.