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Supporters of Joe Biden at a Super Tuesday campaign rally in Los Angeles on March 3, 2020.
Ronen Tivony/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A contested convention — and why it probably won’t happen — explained

The race would have to shift dramatically to put Democrats back on track for a contested convention.

The Super Tuesday delegate count is still in flux, but Joe Biden appears to have racked up more delegates than any other candidate — though not yet enough to be on track for a majority.

It takes more than 50 percent of pledged delegates to win the nomination, and right now it does not seem that Biden will emerge from Super Tuesday with 50 percent of pledged delegates allotted so far. A New York Times forecast from early Wednesday morning suggested he’d end up with around 45 percent, though that’s subject to change as more votes are counted.

So to turn this around and get back on track for a majority, Biden doesn’t need to just win states going forward — he needs to win a solid majority of all pledged delegates in the rest of the primaries and caucuses before the convention.

That is entirely achievable for Biden, particularly since most other candidates have dropped out and all future delegates will likely be split between him and Sanders. (If Biden wins Florida as hugely as a new poll shows, for instance, he could be back on track for a majority very quickly.) But in a race that’s been volatile so far, it’s also at least possible that Biden’s momentum will ebb, or that Sanders could surge back into contention.

So what happens if Biden (or Sanders, if he manages to get back into first place) falls short of a pledged delegate majority when voting concludes in June?

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attend his Super Tuesday night event in Essex Junction, Vermont, on March 3, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There are several possibilities, including the dreaded “contested convention” — where the nomination remains unsettled when Democratic delegates go to Milwaukee, leading to frantic behind-the-scenes bargaining and dealmaking, and a chaotic scene overall. (Democrats fear this outcome will spotlight division and hurt their chances to beat President Trump.)

But even in a “no majority” outcome, a bitterly contested convention wouldn’t be inevitable. The Democratic Party would have very strong incentives to settle things before the convention — and could theoretically do so, if a deal is reached among the candidates or delegates. They also have another failsafe: the superdelegates, who get to vote on the second round if no one got a majority initially.

The recipe for a contested convention is: No candidate can put together a majority, at least two candidates are still in the race, party dealmaking efforts fail, and the delegates dig in.

But that scenario is getting unlikelier. If Biden continues to win most states and delegates, we probably won’t end up there, especially now that Bloomberg has quit the race and Warren is reportedly exiting too. A very dramatic shift in the race would be necessary to put Democrats back on track for one.

Let’s say no one finishes with a majority of pledged delegates. What happens?

If Democrats’ pledged delegates remain split among three or more candidates, then it’s possible no one will end up with a majority — by hitting the magic number of 1,991 — of those 3,979 pledged delegates.

A Bernie Sanders supporter watches the election results come in at the Hoppy Monk bar in El Paso, Texas, on March 3, 2020.
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

What happens next? It depends.

That’s because the delegates, in addition to being a sort of scorekeeping metric during the primary, are actual people. And those actual people technically have the power to determine who gets the Democratic nomination.

For one, there’s the question of the pledged delegates for candidates who have dropped out. Already, it looks like former or soon-to-be-former candidates Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar will combine for at least 100 delegates, and potentially nearly 200. Some of these delegates could be crucial in getting Biden or Sanders above that majority threshold.

What happens to them? Again, it’s complicated. Josh Putnam has a rundown of the possibilities at his site Frontloading HQ. Whether a candidate formally quits or just “suspends” their campaign is important, as is whether the delegates at stake are district-level or state-level. But basically, some of these delegates slots will become uncommitted (fully free to support whomever they want), while others will be reallocated to candidates still in the race.

More broadly, there is plenty of time between the conclusion of primary voting in early June and the convention in mid-July for some sort of deal to be crafted — among the delegates or the candidates to whom they are pledged.

In every recent cycle, delegates merely rubber-stamped the results of the primaries and caucuses. But if those results are inconclusive or disputed, then the delegates will have to — somehow — work something out.

  • As the name suggests, the pledged delegates are pledged to support a certain candidate. They are selected in processes that unfold separately in each state or territory (often at state Democratic conventions).
  • The people who want to be pledged delegates for a candidate have to affirm that they truly support that candidate — but technically, those affirmations are nonbinding.
  • The candidates themselves can’t outright dictate who becomes a pledged delegate for them — but they do get to veto choices they deem unacceptable.
  • The DNC also a rule stating that “delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”

So it probably makes sense to assume that most of the delegates for a candidate will do what that candidate wants. But they don’t technically have to, because a candidate doesn’t outright control his or her delegates.

How likely is a pre-convention deal if no one gets a majority?

Whether a deal comes together or not probably depends on several factors:

  • How close is the leading candidate to a majority? The closer the delegate leader is to a majority, the easier it would be to put together a deal. You simply would need fewer delegates to get it done.
  • How close is the second-place candidate to the first-place candidate? Similarly, if no candidate has a majority but the first-place candidate finishes far ahead of the second-place candidate in the delegate count, it will just be far easier for the first-place candidate to get over the finish line.
  • Do the leading candidates have serious personal or ideological differences? The more bitter the primary contest ends up getting — and the bigger the gulf between the leading contenders — the tougher it will be to close a deal between them. Obviously, that could be an issue with Biden and Sanders, or they could put aside their differences.
  • Can the third- or fourth-place finisher’s delegates make the difference? For instance, what if Biden is close to a majority and Bloomberg delegates would put him over the top? Or what if Sanders is close and Warren delegates would save him? Whether this deal works depends on what these delegates (not just the candidates) will agree to, but it is a potential path to a majority. (Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, all of whom won delegate slots, have already endorsed Biden.)
  • Are there dueling claims about the “will of the voters”? For instance, what happens if Sanders wins “the popular vote” but Biden wins more delegates?
  • How serious are the party’s fears are that an ugly convention could hurt their general election chances? The prospect of a contested convention gives many Democrats great anxiety, and that could mean they face strong incentives to try to avoid one. But, again, this will come down to what the delegates are thinking.
  • Will influential elements in the party be trying to stop one of the candidates? Biden is obviously the candidate who is friendlier to the Democratic establishment than Sanders. So if Biden leads but is short of a majority, he might face far less resistance inside the party, compared to Sanders in the same situation.
  • Is there fear about the optics of a deal? Finally, it’s also possible that Democrats conclude that as nice as it might be to wrap things up before the convention, muddling the pledged delegate count with a deal beforehand would look bad or disreputable to voters.

If the pledged delegates can’t reach a deal, the superdelegates could settle things

It’s entirely possible that a deal among the candidates or pledged delegates proves too difficult to strike before the convention. However, there is still a failsafe that could mean the nomination is effectively settled beforehand: the superdelegates.

Under the new Democratic rules for 2020, the first vote on the nominee at the convention is determined only by the 3,979 pledged delegates. But if there is no majority winner, then the 771 superdelegates get to join the fray, starting with the second round of balloting. (And since more delegates are voting, the magic number needed for a majority rises to 2,376.)

Superdelegate slots are given to people based on their positions in the Democratic Party, mostly to DNC members and members of Congress. (Technically there are 775 people who are superdelegates, but eight of them get half a vote each, because Democrats can never make anything simple.)

In past cycles, many superdelegates have been very public about whom they’re backing. So it’s possible that the leading candidate could finish short of a pledged delegate majority, but have enough superdelegate endorsements publicly announced to ensure they can win on the second ballot.

So if this is the case, then the 2020 Democratic convention might be the first major party convention since 1952 to go to a second ballot on the presidential nominee — but it wouldn’t really be a contested convention, with the outcome truly up for grabs.

A majority of pledged delegates and superdelegates could also change the rules

Another wrinkle in the way the Democratic convention is run is that, though the superdelegates don’t get to vote on the first ballot for the presidential nominee, they do get to vote on matters related to the convention beforehand — including on what the rules of the convention should be.

The DNC has issued temporary convention rules, but the final rules package will have to be approved by the delegates themselves. That could theoretically include a last-minute change that would avert the need for a second ballot — say, by letting superdelegates vote initially, or by letting the plurality winner get the nomination.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez speaks to reporters at the first Democratic debate in Miami, Florida, on June 26, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But if the nomination remains in question, such a change would be extremely controversial — and supporters of the second-place candidate would surely cry foul.

Instead, a last-minute rules change effort (or challenges to delegates’ credentials) has often been tried by candidates who are losing, or elements of the party opposed to the frontrunner.

For Democrats in 1972, Sen. George McGovern had won a majority of delegates. But his candidacy faced stiff resistance among some elements of the party, so his rivals launched a challenge. Specifically, they argued that California’s winner-take-all delegate allocation (which gave McGovern all the Golden State’s delegates) violated party rules. But the challenge eventually failed, and McGovern won the nomination.

Similarly, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter had clearly won a majority of delegates. But his challenger, Sen. Ted Kennedy, argued that the convention should change its rules to free delegates from their pledges and fully let them vote their conscience. This challenge also failed, and Carter won the nomination.

If none of these deals come together, the classic contested convention would take shape

In the modern era, a major party’s national convention is usually a coronation. The winner of the nominating contest has already been settled by the results in primaries and caucuses across the country. So the convention is a carefully stage-managed PR event to formalize a long-known outcome. It’s about getting the nominee’s message out to voters, not about picking the nominee.

The difference at a contested convention is that the outcome isn’t yet settled: The question of who the nominee will be is still at least somewhat disputed. So rather than being a venue for happy-talk unity, the convention becomes a battleground — or, more rosily, a negotiating session among the delegates.

The 1952 Democratic National Convention was the last truly contested convention, which became a showdown between Sen. Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson for the nomination.
Joe Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Arguably, conventions featuring rules challenges like Democrats’ in 1972 and 1980 can be characterized as contested conventions — each featured a serious, organized effort to depose the nominee, though neither succeeded. Republicans’ 1976 convention, a contest in which President Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had to woo uncommitted delegates before the first ballot vote (Ford won enough), could also qualify.

But the classic contested convention scenario most think of is: No candidate gets a majority on the first ballot, and then the delegates have to vote again, and if necessary again, and again, and again, until a winner emerges with a majority.

This was common enough in conventions of yore. Before primaries and caucuses were given such importance, nominees truly were chosen by delegates at the convention, as factions of the party tried to come to a consensus. The term “smoke-filled room” is often used to describe Republicans’ 1920 convention. The 1924 convention went through an incredible 103 rounds of balloting. Sometimes a “dark horse” candidate who wasn’t in contention can emerge as a surprising pick.

But no presidential nominating vote has gone to a second ballot since 1952. And as modern conventions have become PR and messaging events, the parties have come to fear the messiness and disunity that would be given a national spotlight in a serious contest.

Naturally, many in the party will likely try their hardest to avoid a bitterly contested convention. In the end, though, it really does come down to what the candidates and delegates choose to do.

Yet the stronger Biden looks, the less likely this outcome is — and unless Sanders dramatically changes the dynamics of the race quite soon, a contested convention will be very unlikely.

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