In the course of the often-fiery, regularly combative Democratic candidate debate in Las Vegas, the final question from Chuck Todd didn’t elicit much emotion from the respondents. But it was very significant:
The subtext here is that the candidate most likely to arrive in Milwaukee with a majority of pledged delegates (i.e., those elected in caucuses and primaries) is Bernie Sanders. It’s what the projections say, and what logic says, too. But as the strongest candidate, Sanders is also the candidate most likely to fit Todd’s hypothetical of someone with a plurality but not a majority of pledged delegates. If that happens, then the normal order of things (barring some deal) would be to proceed to a second ballot — to a “contested convention” — as all the candidates other than Sanders implicitly endorsed, some by saying “we should let the process play out.”
But as Sanders pointed out in his answer, a second ballot would allow 771 unelected and unpledged superdelegates (basically elected officials) to cast their own votes. They would represent an estimated 16 percent of total second-ballot delegates. The provision keeping superdelegates off the table on the first ballot (and also reducing their number) was part of a compromise deal struck by the DNC with Sanders supporters after the 2016 cycle. But now Sanders is arguing that only pledged delegates should count, which means, in practice, that the first ballot should be the last. Presumably that would be accomplished by other candidates folding their tents and uniting behind the pledged-delegate leader.
Now the refusal of his rivals to proactively grant Bernie (or in theory, one of the non-Bernie candidates) this boon is hardly unconditional. If, say, Sanders got to the convention just short of a majority, it’s likely there’d be a move to put him over the top. But unlikely as this is, imagine Bernie’s got 35 percent of the pledged delegates and someone else has 33 percent. Why should he be the putative nominee, without a second ballot to sort out, well, second choices? That is particularly true since, as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti points out, Sanders persistently refused to concede the 2016 nomination to Hillary Clinton until she could claim a majority of pledged delegates.
There’s not much doubt that Sanders is appealing to his own supporters’ suspicions with the hypothesis that after “winning” the primaries the Godless Corporate Powers That Be will deny him the nomination by mobilizing Establishment superdelegates against him. There is, of course, a way around that: winning a majority of pledged delegates, which any successful putative nominee ought to be able do with ease. It’s no accident that the last time a Democratic convention has gone to a second ballot was in 1952. Yes, proportional delegate awards and self-funding billionaires make nailing down a majority more difficult than it used to be. But the odds of more than a couple of candidates surviving to the bitter end remain low, unless there’s a party-wide revolt agains the front-runner. And if that happens, does Sanders have any right to ask others to give him delegates — and a nomination — he didn’t win in the primaries?
It’s a good and open question.