Will 2020 see the return of the brokered national political convention — that is, a convention where delegates are unable to agree on a nominee during the first round of voting, making it necessary to “broker” delegates between candidates in subsequent rounds to arrive at a nominee?
It’s hard to ignore the potential for a first-round deadlock at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) convention next July. While it’s true that every four years political pundits warn of the potential for brokered convention, and it hasn’t happened in over half a century, the combination of a historically large field of candidates, no clear front-runner, a heavily front-loaded primary schedule and a change in Democratic party rules means that 2020 could be the year the prediction finally comes true.
Let’s start with the candidates. Despite several recent drop-outs, 19 Democrats remain in the hunt for the nomination. History tells us that more will quit the race before the Iowa caucuses on February 3, but it’s easy to imagine eight or more of the current field, including Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard and, of course, the top tier of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden staying in the race at least through the New Hampshire primary on February 11.
One of the reasons they are likely to stay in the race is that former Vice President Joe Biden, long the front-runner, now looks weaker than he did. For months now, Biden’s national poll average has remained stuck at around 30%. Democratic primary math, by which only candidates receiving at least 15% of the vote are awarded delegates, means the percentage of delegates earned will exceed the percentage of primary votes for the top candidates. Still, it will be a stretch for Biden, or any other candidate, to go from just below 30% in the polls to the 51% of delegates required to secure the nomination.
Polling in the early caucus and primary states provides more evidence for this uncertainty. Recent numbers show a tie between Biden and Elizabeth Warren in the Iowa caucuses, Warren ahead of Biden in New Hampshire and a tie in Nevada — but it’s a tie between Biden and Sanders, not Biden and Warren.
CBS News and YouGov have teamed up to use polling to try to estimate delegate allocation through Super Tuesday on March 3. In September, they estimated that although Biden was ahead, he would fall nearly 150 delegates short of a majority. About a week ago, though, CBS and YouGov changed their forecast to show Warren in the lead, though still somewhat short of a majority.
This swing shows the volatility of the Democratic primary.
Now, as the political scientist Josh Putnam has rightly pointed out, the problem with trusting this approach to forecasting is that all of the primaries do not take place on one day and, as Putnam puts it, “sequence matters.” The results in one state can influence the result in subsequent states. Speculation about brokered conventions usually dies down once a candidate begins winning primaries and building up momentum. In 2020, though, there will be little time for the natural winnowing of the field that has occurred in the past.
In the one-month period between the Iowa caucuses and Super Tuesday, about 40% of the total number of delegates voting in the first round of the Democratic National Convention will have been selected. In comparison, in 2016 only about a quarter of the delegates were distributed during that same period. A few weeks later, by the end of March, nearly 70% of the delegates will have been chosen.
We are nearly four months from the first primary, and support may coalesce around one or two candidates prior to the start of voting, but if even three potentially viable candidates are left at the end of March, with none having a majority of the delegates already selected, it now becomes very difficult for any one candidate to get to a majority. There simply aren’t that many delegates left, and the Democratic party mandates proportional allocation of delegates. The state-level formula is often complex, but in most cases, any candidate receiving at least 15% of either the statewide vote and/or the congressional district vote will be awarded delegates.
Which brings us to the final element that makes a brokered convention more likely this year than in the past: the rules change that the Democratic party made to how voting will work at the 2020 convention
Since delegates are awarded on a proportional basis, it is often difficult for Democratic candidates to get to a majority. This is why both the 2008 and the 2016 Democratic primaries remained competitive late into the spring in both of those years. In fact, neither Barack Obama in 2008 nor Hillary Clinton in 2016 actually earned a majority of what are called pledged delegates during their respective primaries.
The 2008 and 2016 DNC conventions weren’t “brokered,” though, because Democrats since 1984 have allowed a large number of unpledged or uncommitted delegates to attend and vote at the national convention. These so-called “superdelegates” — and there were more than 700 of them in Philadelphia in 2016 — are not bound by voting outcomes in any of the states. In fact, this large number of uncommitted superdelegates has made it difficult for Democratic candidates to obtain a majority of committed convention delegates without them.
The influence of the superdelegates over the years has led to cries of unfairness from candidates who were not awarded the nomination. Both Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 could correctly argue that, had the superdelegates offered them support, they could have been the party’s nominee.
The presence of unelected superdelegates at a convention of the “Democratic” party has become something of an embarrassment: It just seems undemocratic. So, during the 2016 convention, the party decided to establish a “Unity Reform Commission,” which, among other things, devised ways to reduce the role of superdelegates.
The result was a change in the convention rules so that, in 2020, superdelegates will not participate in the first round of voting under this scenario. So it is up to Democratic primary and caucus participants to avoid a brokered convention.
If, for all of the reasons that I’ve just presented, they fail to unify behind a single candidate, then we will have our first brokered convention in more than 60 years.
While this would be exciting to watch, it could also be disastrous for the Democratic party. The superdelegates will enter in round two, and if, as is likely, they throw their weight behind one candidate, how will the other candidates’ supporters react? Remember, there is some evidence that “Bernie or Bust” voters cost Hillary Clinton the White House in 2016.
A brokered convention in 2020 would set the stage for a repeat of that scenario. Already, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is saying that she will fight all the way to the convention. If Biden or Warren were to be handed the nomination by the superdelegates, and Gabbard were to win some delegates, might cries of “Bernie or Bust” on the convention floor be joined by “Tulsi or Trump”?