All I Want for Christmas is an Open Convention (Redux)

Four years ago, I wrote a piece called “All I Want for Christmas….” It shared my sincerest wish for a brokered/contested/open convention before I give up writing. (The terms “brokered,” “open,” and “contested” conventions basically mean the same thing: no candidate in a primary has received the requisite number of delegates through primary voting, and the first ballot at the national convention will therefore not produce a nominee. All delegates are thereafter released to vote for whomever they’d like.) I truly can’t think of anything more exciting for a presidential politics blogger, except maybe if a general election weren’t decided for a month until the Supreme Court said to stop counting Florida ballots. Like that would ever happen.

I thought I’d re-run that piece today, but it’ll be heavily edited with scenarios from the 2020 Democratic Primary replacing the 2016 Republican Primary. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!


I know it’s a lot to ask, Santa. The North Pole’s fascist state, where the Jolly Supreme Leader rules over his elvish proletariat with a candied fist, has no need for chaotic second and third ballots. Indeed, the word “ballot” is probably as foreign to Norpolitans as “penguins” and “Hanukkah.” But here in America we have this messy thing called democracy. It’s disorderly and inefficient, but we love it. And nothing more encapsulates the strange American electoral system than a brokered convention. Though it’s payable in July, Herr Klaus, it’s the only thing on my Christmas list.

After a deadlocked first ballot, delegates at the convention are released to switch their votes to another candidate, and dramatic jockeying by the contenders attempts to secure those votes on the subsequent “second ballot.” If the second ballot doesn’t produce a majority vote, there will be a third, fourth, and so on until one of them does. (The 1924 Democratic Convention needed 103 ballots, which might have killed PPFA.) This is often called a “floor fight,” and though it’s a nightmare scenario for a party, it’s a dream scenario for a political pundit.

These floor fights are rare. In fact, they haven’t happened since the advent of the modern primary system only a half-century ago. While we’ve had a handful of close calls, a fully contested convention this July would be the first since 1952. So how might Santa’s gift get delivered?

To find out, let’s work backward. We’ll start at July’s Democratic National Convention. There, 3,979 pledged delegates will show up after having been chosen by the 56 states and territories based on the results of their presidential primaries and caucuses. A candidate needs to win a majority of these delegates, or 1,990 of the 3,979, to earn the party’s nomination. If no candidate earns a majority by the end of the primaries, then the “first ballot” will not produce a nominee, and we’d have a “brokered” or “open” convention.

By the summer, all the primaries and caucuses would have been held between February 3 (the Iowa Caucuses) and June 6 (the Virgin Islands caucuses). We’ll need close to a perfect balance between several candidates to make it through four months of 56 contests without a candidate achieving escape velocity.

First, we need no candidate to win a majority of February’s four primaries — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. If anyone wins three of those, I’d say they’ll be the runaway nominee, with the possible exception of either Sanders or Buttigieg winning the first three (and then Biden holding onto South Carolina), as there’s serious opposition to their candidacies in major elements of the party, and I can see Biden maintaining his lead in South Carolina and then getting a bump there right as the primary goes southern and national.

Therefore, we’ll need Biden to keep doing what he’s doing — specifically, he must continue struggling in Iowa and New Hampshire while maintaining his success in South Carolina, though we want his stature slightly weakened in South Carolina before southern-and-minority-heavy Super Tuesday. We’ll also want Elizabeth Warren to not win the first two states, as that could easily end up with her running away with the primary instead. Again, we could live with Buttigieg or Sanders winning the first two, but if Biden or Warren do they’d win the nomination overwhelmingly.

The best scenario would feature three or four viable candidates coming out of that first month. The Obama-Clinton 2008 Democratic Primary is as close as we’ve come to two even candidates since Ford and Reagan in ’76. What they lacked, however, was a third strong competitor. John Edwards ran second in Iowa and survived four primaries, but he suspended his campaign after a third consecutive third place showing and ultimately earned only 0.5 percent of total delegates. For that primary to have given us a brokered convention, we would have needed Obama and Clinton to each have earned between 49.75 and 50 percent of total remaining delegates, nigh impossible. (That analysis leaves aside the old undemocratic superdelegate system, which could have massaged the numbers to “earn” a clear majority for one of the candidates. Starting this year, superdelegates cannot vote on the first ballot.) Thus, we clearly need at least three competitive candidates to get a brokered convention, and four would be even better.

An optimist can see how that scenario might play out in 2020. Two candidates have the potential to be huge helps in our quest for a contested convention.

The first is Bernie Sanders — he of the high floor, low ceiling numbers. If he has a middling February, that won’t really dent his numbers with his adoring throngs of supporters. Hard-headed and rock-ribbed, Sanders will take his message as long as he’s viable and beyond, just as he did four years ago. The difference now is that he wouldn’t be the second of two viable candidates — he could be the third or fourth. If he weans 15 to 20 percent of delegates for long enough, that reduces the chances of one of two stronger candidates getting to a majority.

Our other asset for a contest convention is the primary’s newest candidate — Michael Bloomberg. I’ve outlined his strategy before: he’s not even bothering with the February states; he’s instead jumping straight to Super Tuesday and beyond. He’s betting on neither Biden nor anyone else emerging from the early states as the clear nominee, and Bloomberg will in the meantime pump up his numbers in delegate-rich places that had been ignored — California, Texas, and the northeast — then settle in for a battle of attrition while unfurling the field’s largest bankroll by miles. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible.

Therefore, I see two plausible open convention scenarios:

  1. The three-candidate scenario: Sanders is Mr. 15-20%; Bloomberg spends millions to get to 20+ in March states and beyond; Biden or Warren barely win February to set them up for a decent run of around 40 percent of the delegates; and other short-lived candidates combine February and early March performances with maybe some later home-state delegates to total 5% of the delegates or so.
  2. The four-candidate scenario: Sanders is Mr. 15-20%; Bloomberg spends millions to get to 20+ in March states and beyond; two of Warren, Buttigieg, Biden or Klobuchar (with an Iowa win) split February and move forward with a range of 20% to 30% of delegates each.

If one of those scenarios transpires, and no candidate has a majority of delegates on the first ballot, that’s when the real fun begins:

  • It’s on the second ballot that the demoted unpledged superdelegates — all 771 of them — can start voting. Will they have a plan to boost a candidate, or will they be similarly torn? (Importantly, the total number of delegates at that point would shoot up to 4,750, so the majority number would climb to 2,376.)
  • If Warren and Sanders are each in the top three or four, which is pretty realistic, could they and would they combine into a progressive ticket to reach a majority together?
  • To avoid such a scenario, would the establishment rally to Warren just to ensure Sanders isn’t on the ticket?
  • What will the moderates’ strongest delegate pair be? Biden and Bloomberg? Biden and Klobuchar? Bloomberg and Booker? Would they form a ticket and risk alienating progressives?
  • Would the moderate and progressive wings swallow their pride and agree to joining a Biden and Warren? Or would both sides insist on being on top of the ticket?
  • Or would a new big name emerge — Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, in all likelihood — and build momentum after the first couple ballots to win the nomination?
  • Or something we can’t predict at all??

Exciting stuff! So please, Santa — help a blogger out. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good floor fight!

7 thoughts on “All I Want for Christmas is an Open Convention (Redux)

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