Why Bernie Sanders Should Fear a Contested Convention

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. [Photo by Gage Skidmore]

Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas provided fireworks in several ways.

First, there was the audience of almost 20 million people making it the second most-watched presidential debate for either party of all time. Second, was the evisceration (there’s really no other word to describe it) of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, especially at the hands of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Third, there was the open hostility between Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg – they were one step away from being invited to take part in an MMA contest.

There was also another revealing moment. Initially, it was overlooked by most US commentators and talking heads. Surprisingly, Canada’s national network the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) picked up on it right away. (There are reasons for this that I will mention below.)

Towards the end of the debate, the candidates were asked by host Chuck Todd for their views on how to handle a contested convention. Should the candidate with the highest delegate count be awarded the nomination even if they had not reached the 50% +1 mark or should there be a second ballot if no one has enough delegates to win on the first ballot?

Not surprisingly, only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (considered the current front runner) supported the notion of a candidate with the most delegates being given the nomination. Every other candidate on the debate stage voted for the second option – a contested convention.

Why did the CBC pick up on this moment when it was initially overlooked by US media? Contested conventions are a regular occurrence in Canadian politics. Most recently, Andrew Scheer, the current – but about to be former – leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, was not the favorite going into his party’s convention nor did he have the most delegates. He won the leadership after the first ballot.

Contested conventions, however, are like mastodons – once extremely common, now extinct. Maybe…

As scientists experiment with the idea of using mastodon DNA to resurrect this lost species, the Democratic Party seems to be experimenting with the idea of resurrecting the contested convention.

Pluses and Minuses

There are pluses and minuses for the Democrats in a contested convention.

It would attract a YUUGGEE TV audience. The four days of the convention in Milwaukee would blow all other programming off the air, even if Pres. Trump tried to counter-program it. There is something about a come-from-behind story that Americans love. The “Comeback Kid” and all that.
If it worked, the Democratic nominee would emerge from the convention with broad name recognition and a full head of steam.

On the other hand…

And this is where Bernie comes in. If Bernie Sanders wants to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 he needs to win enough delegates prior to the start of the Milwaukee convention to claim the nomination. If the battle for the nomination goes to a second or third ballot, he will lose.

A large group of dedicated people support Bernie. The reality of the Democratic Party is, however, that about 60% of the party is composed of center-left moderates and about 40% are progressives. So if you took all the delegate support for the Bloombergs, the Bidens, the Klobuchars etc. and put it against the delegates supporting Sanders and Warren, a moderate candidate stands a better chance.

Another important factor is the entrance of superdelegates on the second and subsequent ballots. After 2016, progressive candidates complained that superdelegates had too much power during the initial stages of caucuses and primaries in choosing the party’s representative. As a result, changes were made and superdelegates are no longer eligible to vote in the first ballot.

After the first ballot, however, the shackles are removed and superdelegates (a group of basically comprised of party officials not particularly friendly towards Bernie Sanders and his supporters) can vote. Superdelegates would comprise about 15% of voters on the second ballot, more than enough to throw the nomination to another candidate. Media reports indicate that some candidates have already begun courting superdelegates in case of a second ballot.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, this way danger lies.

Do not believe for a second that if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders goes into the convention with the most delegates and then is denied the nomination, that his supporters will go quietly into that good night. They will not. The Democratic Party will splinter like an old piece of wood.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, my wife and I canvassed for Hillary Clinton in our neighborhood. We were not overly fond of Clinton but she was the Democratic nominee, so we supported her. At one home we stopped and spoke to a man playing catch with his son. He called himself a Democrat but said he would not support Clinton. He was a Sanders man. In a bit of bizarre logic, he said rather than vote for Clinton he planned to vote for Trump.

It’s not hard to see this scenario repeated among other Bernie supporters in 2020. The only hope the Democrats have is that some other candidate – a Biden or a Warren perhaps – will have enough delegates support prior to the convention that it is a legitimate question about who should win the nomination.

If it’s Bernie, the Democrats should just give it to him and live with it. The truth is that most moderates will support Bernie because that’s the way they are and getting rid of Trump is their number one priority. Most Bernie supporters will not support the Democratic nominee if they feel that he has been robbed of the nomination. Like the man above, they may just vote for Trump.

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