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Towards a Contested Convention?

Almost every election cycle, pundits fret over the possibility of a contested convention as soon as primary races get heated. Now, however, more than ever before, this looks a real possibility – with an extensive field still in contention dividing up the delegates, a frontrunner who is perpetually in conflict with the party’s establishment, and the stakes higher than ever, the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, set to take place place from July 13ththrough July 16th, might just be the first contested one since 1952.

Here is your definitive guide to understanding how Democrats might nominate their general election candidate. 

What is a Contested Convention? 

The American presidential primary is an indirect election. When a candidate competes in state caucuses and primaries, they are not competing for votes directly, but for delegateswho will then vote for them at the convention. The method for allocating these delegates varies from state to state, but generally a candidate must reach a viability threshold of 15% statewide or in a specific congressional district to receive any delegates. From there, the number of delegates is determined by their performance, with different states and congressional districts awarding different numbers of delegates depending on size, population, and likelihood to vote for a Democrat in the general election.

By the end of the primary, 3 979 delegates will have been awarded in total, with a candidate needing a majority – 1 991 – to win the nomination.

In the first round of voting, delegates are bound to vote for the candidate that won them in the state contests. However, if no candidate reaches the magic majority of delegates, the convention moves to a second round of voting. This round is different for two reasons. First, various party elites and elected officials whose votes carry extra weight – known as superdelegates– are able to participate in the second ballot of voting.  Before a 2018 DNC rules change, superdelegates could vote in the first round of voting, but many on the left – including the Sanders campaign – saw this as an unfair influence of the establishment over people, so the rule was changed. Second – a candidate can choose to pledge their delegates to another candidate to give them an edge or a majority (often in exchange for a political, personnel, or policy guarantee). 

So, a “brokered convention” is a convention that reaches a second round of voting because a candidate fails to reach a majority in the first round, but is resolved easily in the second round, with the result a foregone conclusion. For example, Elizabeth Warren could pledge her delegates to Bernie Sanders and give him a majority. Or, Joe Biden could win a large majority of superdelegate and moderate candidate support in the second round and unite a majority of the party. 

A “contested convention”, by contrast, is a convention where no candidate reaches a majority in the first round, but the result of the second round of voting is truly in doubt. This could mean candidates fail to create majority coalitions around them in the second round, that they are unable to cut deals with other candidates, or that the party remains too divided to choose.

Will there be a Contested Convention?

FiveThirtyEight has a model that calculates the odds of no candidate reaching a majority at 65% – the most likely outcome according to their forecast by far. 

This likelihood skyrocketed after Biden’s large and broad win in South Carolina. While Bernie is expected to better on Super Tuesday than Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropping out of the race, and their pending endorsements, will undoubtedly tighten the race. 

Another factor that affects the probability of a contested convention is the size of the field – if Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg stay in much longer than Super Tuesday, they will likely wrack up a considerable number of delegates, but without a real path to the nomination. Both have suffered polling dips since the end of the early primaries, but will likely compete for delegates around the country. They could further divide and dilute the delegate race and make it harder for Bernie or Biden to garner a majority. 

Moreover, with the primary race become more expensive and geographically much larger, candidates’ ability to fund themselves and sustain their campaigns will remain crucial considerations in understanding the ch         ances of a contested convention. Financial reports from just a few days ago show that Biden has only 7M$ left in the bank, and more difficulty with his fund-raising apparatus. Bernie has 17M$ and a money-raising machine. If Biden is out-raised and out-spent by Bernie, it remains unclear whether Biden might be able to sustain a challenge to Bernie until June. If Biden continues to accept PAC support and keep up financially, he will be a threat and will increase the likelihood of a contested convention. And of course, Mike Bloomberg’s Super Tuesday showing will indicate much about his ability to compete from a delegate perspective – if he does well, that is another division factor of delegates. 

What will happen at a Contested Convention?

Above all else, the answer to this question depends on how large the leading candidate’s (likely Bernie) plurality is. There is much historical precedent to suggest that if Bernie has a large lead over whoever finishes second (likely Biden) but just fails to reach a majority, smaller candidates and super delegates will coalesce around him to give him a majority. Conversely, if two candidates (likely Bernie and Biden) are close and both relatively far from a majority the outcome is entirely more uncertain. 

The role party elites, or superdelegates, will play is crucial to this equation: whether they defy popular will and back a candidate who failed to win a plurality, or whether they coalesce around the plurality winner is unkown but fundamental to understanding what might happen. Of course, this is complicated by Bernie’s difficult relationship with the Democratic establishment, as shown by the New York Timesreport on how difficult it will be for Bernie to assemble a coalition of party elites. 

Candidates seem to be preparing for this potential situation. Other reports from Politicohave already shown that other candidates like Mike Bloomberg expect to exploit this weakness of Bernie’s at a potential contested convention. Elizabeth Warren has positioned herself as a unifier between progressive and establishment Democrats, and Joe Biden has been flexing his establishment support more and more. 

If Biden is very close to Sanders, his longstanding relationships in the Democratic Party might poise him to close his delegate gap on Sanders. Bernie’s ability to broker deals on politics, personnel, and policy might become essential here: will he join forces with Elizabeth Warren and nominate her for Vice-President? Will he be willing to drop some of his most unpopular policies for his platform in exchange for superdelegate support? Will he agree to take PAC money and endorse all Democratic Party candidates down the ballot? 

Nevertheless, all party elites and actors at the convention are operating under severe constraints. The specter of the “rigged primary” looms large over Milwaukee, especially from the Sanders camp if they win a plurality and doesn’t get the nomination.  Moreover, the democratic implications of superdelegates overturning the primary results would create a narrative that might be difficult to overcome – so it doesn’t seem especially likely that a contested convention results in a surprise. 

What does this mean for the Democratic Party?

Then Convention being in June, should there be a contested convention, Democrats would only give their nominee 6 months to compete in the general election, all while Trump has spent over 45M$ in digital advertising alone since 2018. This would mean that the candidate would have a very small amount of time to plug this gap, and would make the Democrats’ task undoubtedly more difficult.

This convention would also be a very public airing of dirty laundry. It would exacerbate the “anti-establishment” feelings on one side, and the “anti-progressive” feelings on the other. It could divide the Democrats in a way to depress base turnout in the election. This would also probably be exploited by President Trump, who has shown a keenness to get involved and exacerbate intra-party fights happening in the Democratic Party. The contest between Bernie and Biden is problem that cuts at the heart of the struggle for the Democratic Party’ soul. This battle would not be a pretty one to watch at a contested convention. 

Finally, should a contested convention nominate a candidate who goes on to lose the general election, there would be a serious distrust of the DNC and the establishment that might just tear the whole infrastructure of the Democratic Party down. This would be seriously damaging to the Party as an institution around the country, and would likely create reputational damage that would jeopardize not just the Party’s chances at the Presidency, but also thousands of Senate, House, Governor, and State Legislature seats. 

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