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Mulling A Possible Contested Convention, Pt. II


I’m under no illusions — given their predilections and, shall we say, conflicted relationship with the Democratic Party, I’m genuinely worried that at least some Sanders supporters would take a “burn the party down” approach if he were to be denied the nomination despite having a plurality of pledged delegates, and that might well cost us the election. I’m still really reluctant to say that we should give in to hostage-taking.

If he’s relatively close to a majority but just short after the last primary, it should be possible for him to get over the majority hump on the first or second ballot with a modicum of persuasion. But in a different world in which he has only 25-30% of the delegates, and there are two or three other candidates holding the rest, why *should* the others feel compelled to endorse him?

First, and most obviously, while the characterizations of the specific candidates in this race are more complex than this, if hypothetically 35% of the delegates were pledged to a liberal candidate like Sanders, and while 50%, in the aggregate, pledged to more moderate candidates (say Biden and Buttigieig), why should we assume that the voters’ revealed preference was for the liberal, even if he was the individual leader? After all, if you rewind the clock, you could easily make the reverse set of assumptions — if things had broken differently, perhaps it’s Biden with 35% of the delegates and Warren, and Sanders with 25% each. Why should they have been prevented from arranging a deal to secure the nomination for a liberal ticket?

Second, candidates, voters, and the party could all have relied on those rules. I haven’t done the math, but my instinct is that if you want to have the plurality rule, you should just have winner-take-all contests to at least hasten the winnowing of the field and maximize the chance of a majority winner. Certainly, there should be much more pressure on candidates to withdraw early to avoid allowing a factional, minority candidate to walk away with the nomination with a low plurality.

Finally, I don’t think we can disassociate this from the nature of what it means to be a political party, much as the Sanders camp might not like it. We have a nominating process that is designed to measure public sentiment, as it should. And in many states, that includes open primary laws that allow non-registered Democrats to cast their votes — more debatable to me, but particularly where the party is using the apparatus of the state for its elections, I see the logic.

But at the end of the day, the party’s convention is actually a convention of delegates. They are elected representatives of the voters who sent them to the convention, but they are a polity of their own. And if the voters haven’t directly awarded a majority of the delegates to a single candidate, then I think it’s perfectly fair to let the convention work its will, just as any other deliberative, representative body can. And in that regard, count me as a fan of automatic/superdelegates. Because, if the voters haven’t resolved it conclusively, then I think it’s fair to give a role to the Democrats elected to the DNC, to the House, the Senate, etc., who are accountable to their constituents, can weigh in on the viability of compromise candidates, etc.

There are limits, of course — while I wouldn’t necessarily have democratic legitimacy concerns, I suspect it would be particularly electorally dangerous for the delegates to choose a non-fully-vetted candidate, whether someone who dropped out early (e.g. Sen. Harris or Booker) or someone who had stayed out altogether but might seem like a reasonable compromise (e.g. Sen. Brown). But ultimately, the party should be allowed to pick who it — through the duly-elected delegates to its national convention — thinks would be the best nominee to win the general election.

About The Author


John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.