Political News

Why a brokered Democratic convention could actually happen in 2020

Posted February 12, 2020 6:31 p.m. EST

— Every four years, political nerds -- like me! -- raise the possibility that one of the two major parties will head into the national convention without one candidate having secured a majority of delegates to be the presidential nominee, forcing an all-out floor fight for the right to represent the party on the presidential ballot.

But the truth is that it almost never happens -- for a lot of reasons but mostly because the parties live in fear of a chaotic nominating process hamstringing their eventual nominees and costing them the White House.

In fact, it's been almost four decades -- 1984 -- since either party went into its national convention without a single candidate having secured the required number of delegates to be the nominee. That year Walter Mondale was just a few dozen short of the number and, despite Gary Hart's best efforts, the Minnesota senator won the nomination on the first ballot.

To find the last truly contested convention -- one in which multiple ballots were required to pick the nominee -- you have to go all the way back to 1952, when Adlai Stevenson secured the Democratic nomination on the third ballot.

So when people talk brokered or contested convention, I am usually very skeptical. Except that in the 2020 Democratic race, absolutely every sign is beginning to point to just that outcome.

Here's why, in three basic facts:

1) There are currently at least five viable candidates in the field -- and they are all nearly certain to remain in the race through the South Carolina primary on February 29.

2) Democrats, unlike Republicans, proportionally allocate their delegates by state. Meaning that if you get 15% or more of the vote, you are guaranteed some delegates. Republicans have many states where the winner takes all the delegates.

3) Super Tuesday -- March 3 -- features 14 states voting, including delegate-rich monsters like California and Texas. As Vox's Andrew Prokop has noted, the number of available delegates in the Democratic race drops from 96% before Super Tuesday to just 62% after it.

Combine those three facts and you are left with this reality: Unless the field drastically winnows over the next few months or a single candidate runs the table on Super Tuesday and the states that follow it in March -- neither of which is likely -- then it will be extremely difficult for any candidate to pull away from the field in terms of delegate allocation.

And if there is no clear delegate front-runner, there is also every incentive for candidates who are still collecting some delegates on each primary day to remain in the race.

The Point: A contested convention for Democrats is more likely this year than it has been in decades. That doesn't mean it will happen, but all of the building blocks for it to happen are falling into place.

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