vision 2020

How Likely Is a Contested Convention, Really?

It may remain a crowded field for some time. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If people were looking for clarity to emerge from the Democratic results in Iowa, they’re sorely disappointed — and of course the bureaucratic chaos flowing from the state since Monday night hasn’t helped matters. Is this a blip on the way to a smoother nominating path or a harbinger of much more disarray to come? I spoke with Intelligencer writers Ed Kilgore and Eric Levitz on what may be in store.

Ben: Every four years, pundits and political obsessives drool about the possibility of a contested convention, which would have to follow a nominating season that did not produce an obvious candidate for a party’s nomination. The muddle in Iowa has some of those people drooling even more heavily than usual. With erstwhile front-runner Joe Biden performing dismally, an ascendant democratic socialist that party elites would love to stop, the center-left divided between Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, and one of the world’s richest people waiting to swoop in on Super Tuesday, the possibility for chaos seems inordinately high. Is this, as one election expert put it, a “perfect storm” for a contested convention?

Ed: I think it has increased the odds of two diametrically opposed developments: a contested convention or a Bernie Sanders sweep of the early states leading to a Götterdämmerung between Sanders and Bloomberg.

Eric: Well, as of this moment, I believe Nate Silver’s primary forecast model projects that the most likely outcome of the Dem primary at this moment is that Bernie Sanders will assemble a majority of pledged delegates — and the second-most-likely outcome is that no one will.

Ed: My gut agrees with his data.

Eric: Specifically, the model gives “no one” a one-in-four chance. So yeah, a contested convention appears an order of magnitude more plausible than at any point in my time as a political observer.

Ben: Which goes all the way back to 2016.

Ed: All four years?

Ben: Jinx.

Eric: I’ve been observing politics since I was 10 or so.  (In seventh grade, I assured classmates that while George W. Bush was an idiot, this would simply mean that his presidency would be uneventful and nothing would get done.)

Ed: I’ll help Eric out: It’s more likely than at any time in my years as a political observer, which as we all know, goes back to the Wilson administration.

Ben: Not since Honest Abe triumphed on the 67th ballot …

Ed: Anyway, both scenarios I’ve mentioned are a product of something unprecedented: a compressed primary calendar and a candidate (Bloomberg) already spending more than anyone has even imagined on primaries in the choke point of March, when well over half the delegates will be awarded. The mystery is whether Bloomberg will face a single early-state conqueror, or a mess of survivors. It’s the second possibility that could produce a contested convention.

Eric: As I wrote yesterday, I think Buttigieg’s strong showing in Iowa and subsequent poll bounce has left Democrats with three candidates competing for the role of “pragmatic alternative to the political revolution,” each with a unique strength: Bloomberg and Buttigieg have yet to assemble an iota of Biden’s goodwill among African-American voters, but Bloomberg’s campaign has more resources at its disposal than many nation-states, while Buttigieg isn’t saddled with the baggage that comes from having a decades-long career in public life or from being a septuagenarian. And this could potentially make it difficult for any of them to eliminate the other two in a timely fashion.

Although the only way we get a single early-state conqueror is if Biden loses SC, which would seem to set him up for a final collapse on Super Tuesday.

Ed: Yes. Actually, if Biden loses SC, he’s already done. And if he finishes fourth in NH before that, he’s going to start bleeding.

Eric: But if Biden disappears, it’s not remotely clear that Bloomberg or Pete can appeal to enough African-American voters to assemble a winning coalition without liberal support.

Ed: There are some signs of life for Bloomberg among African-Americans. Not so much Pete. Which is why I think it’s more likely that Bernie smokes everyone in the early states, but then a massive accumulated anti-Bernie full-scale panic among center-left Democrats gives Bloomberg the mass base he needs. Maybe, anyway. But I do know some people who think if Pete can win IA and NH, black voters will give him another look.

Eric: It’s possible. Bernie’s camp has a ton of money though, and Bloomberg has a ton of vulnerabilities that would ostensibly make for potent attack ads. Beyond stop and frisk, there are those alleged sexual-harassment NDAs.

Ed: It’s fair to say that Pete’s inability to attract black voters isn’t inherently more debilitating than Bernie’s inability to attract anyone over the age of 35.

Ben: How much does Bernie winning New Hampshire outright on Tuesday matter in terms of avoiding an absolute pileup of candidates?

Ed: We’ve already talked about the Biden Death Spiral scenario. I’m not sure how much longer Warren can carry on if she finishes behind both Bernie and Pete a second time.

Eric: If Bernie loses NH to Pete I’m … not sure exactly what that does.

Ben: I’m not either, which is why I asked you guys.

Eric: Haha.

Ed: Bernie’s not going anywhere, particularly if Warren isn’t doing as well as he is. A Pete win in NH would almost surely begin the Biden Death Spiral.

Eric: I mean, the big question there is “Can Pete get everyone onboard with the idea that the former mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city should be the Democratic nominee for president, to the point where party leaders with standing in black communities start validating him en masse?”

Ed: And that in turn depends on whether Bernie — or the ultimate centrist life raft of Bloomberg — is the only alternative. There are plenty of party leaders with standing in the black community who are terrified of Bernie.

Ben: People, especially conspiratorial-minded ones, like to imagine that someone is pulling the levers behind big institutions. But if Bernie Sanders is winning a plurality of delegates in the run-up to the convention — Bloomberg having failed to stop him — is there really much they can do at that point that wouldn’t spark an all-out party civil war, which would be a worse outcome to them (you’d think) than a Sanders nomination?

Ed: No, there’s nothing they can do. They’ll strap on the party harness, even though a really large number of centrist types will never be convinced that Bernie can beat Trump until they see Bernie inaugurated with their own eyes. They are convinced 100 percent that he will be a disaster.

Eric: If Sanders somehow has a minuscule plurality in three- or four-way race, I could see the party potentially ending up in a situation where there is no outcome that can sufficiently unite the party.

Ed: Let me add something to that scenario, Eric. There’s a long history of late-primary “buyer’s remorse” efforts to deny a winning candidate the nomination. Among Democrats we saw it in 1976, 1980, and 1984, with echoes in 1992 and 2004-2008. They’ve never worked, but they’ve never been harnessed to the kind of money Bloomberg has. Let’s say Bernie has that minuscule plurality but has lost three or four late primaries. What would the mood be then?

Ben: Counterrevolution, I imagine

Ed: But as I think Eric and I agree, even that fraught scenario won’t produce a contested convention unless there are other candidates — or at least one candidate — in the mix. The superdelegates won’t come into play unless there is a second ballot.

Eric: Yeah. I think I’d bet on Bernie being the nominee even if he has a small plurality, but who knows.

Ed: Well, this crap we heard recently about some convention coup to change the rules and let the superdelegates vote on the first ballot is precisely the sort of thing that would drive Bernie people right out of the party, maybe for good. And even Bernie haters understand Democrats need those votes.

Eric: This is my thinking.

Ben: Is it fair to say we’d need a quite wacky series of events to take place before the contested convention talk becomes REALLY serious?

Eric: No wackier that’s already transpired, certainly. Really, I think we only need the passage of time.

Ed: Yeah, holding the New Hampshire primary before the Iowa results are verified is pretty wacky.

Eric: With Bloomberg making his delayed entrance, it wouldn’t take anything especially unusual to keep the chances of no one assembling a delegate majority at 25 percent. And if it’s that high a month from now, you can bet speculative stories about a contested convention are going to be everywhere. We in the Fake News Media publish those stories even when there’s no serious chance of one happening. One can only imagine how ubiquitous they’ll be when publishing such things is actually responsible.

Ed: My distilled wisdom, such as it is, is that it’s all about how many viable candidates other than Bloomberg are around by Super Tuesday. If there are two, a contested convention is possible. If not, someone will win before the convention. And the betting favorite at this point is Bernie.

How Likely Is a Contested Convention, Really?