After Super Tuesday, a brokered convention?

With no clear delegate winner, the Dems might duke it out in Milwaukee

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall at Clinton College in Rock Hill, S.C. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall at Clinton College in Rock Hill, S.C. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

What happens if no clear winner emerges from the primaries and the surviving Democratic presidential candidates go all the way to the convention with the race still up in the air?

A contested convention in Milwaukee is a real possibility.

Barry Burden, professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Elections Research Center
Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the UW-Madison (photo: UW-Madison)

“Right now it doesn’t look like anyone is on an obvious path to have the majority,” says Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and director of the UW’s Elections Research Center. 

One-third of all the delegates are chosen on Super Tuesday, and Joe Biden’s recent surge is changing the dynamics of the race. Still, “it doesn’t look like anyone is headed to north of 50%,” Burden observes. 

That means Democratic delegates may take the existential progressives-versus-the-establishment fight all the way to the floor of the Fiserv Forum in July.

Still, Burden doesn’t think the Milwaukee DNC will be as bitterly divisive as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was in 2016.  

“There was a tremendous amount of resistance in the Republican Party to Donald Trump — but there was also a lot of resistance to [his rival] Sen. Ted Cruz,” Burden points out.

A petty game

“And also both have a style that’s very personal and vengeful,” adds Burden. 

Recall how Trump paraded into the Cleveland convention hall during Cruz’s floor speech, attempting to steal the show.

“It became a petty game between them,” Burden says.

With Bernie Sanders and Biden, it’s different, he suggests: “There are people resisting Bernie Sanders. But he has very high favorability ratings among Democratic activists. It’s not like he’s strongly disliked.”

That’s true, he adds, not just among younger activists, but also among members of Congress and governors who will attend the convention as superdelegates. 

If no candidate wins a clear majority in the first round of voting by all 4,051 pledged delegates, the 714 federal officials and governors who are unpledged superdelegates (about 15% of the total number of delegates) get to vote in a second round. Many of them will throw their weight behind Biden (as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have recently done.)

Still, even among this group, says Burden, “It’s not hatred of Sanders that’s motivating them. It’s concerns about electability, or that his policies aren’t paid for. It’s not like they think he’s going to ruin the party, as many Republicans felt about Trump and Cruz.”

“It may be there are delegates who walk out, or protests. But I don’t think there would be a riot or revolt,” Burden says.

Elizabeth Warren, dark horse

If a candidate wins an outright majority in the first vote on the convention floor, that person becomes the Democratic nominee. But if no one wins a majority of delegate votes in the first round, a dark-horse candidate could emerge from the remaining second-tier finishers.

If Elizabeth Warren remains in the race, she is best positioned to be that figure, says Burden. Her supporters are split, he points out, among progressives who also like Bernie Sanders, and people who support her because they feel she is effective and electible — which is Biden’s pitch. Rather than helping one candidate or the other by dropping out, her withdrawal would be a wash — but as a unity candidate she could be very strong, Burden suggests.

“Bloomberg is not,” he adds. “It’s hard to see people rallying around him.”

Super Tuesday is the first time Bloomberg is on the ballot, and we will soon know how his massive ad campaign is affecting the race. His record as a former Republican (and Republican donor), his history of sexual harassment allegations and his aggressive “stop and frisk” racial profiling policy in New York are big liabilities with Democratic voters.

But Bloomberg has also dropped half a billion dollars in three months, flooding the Super Tuesday states with ads.

There’s a lot of work to be done if Bloomberg is going to overcome all those negatives and convince Democrats to nominate him, Burden says: “We’ll see how much his money can do in that regard.” 

Most likely scenarios

It’s also possible that all of this could be resolved after the primaries end in June, but before the convention begins in July.

“The Democrats might work it out,” says Burden. “The convention could be the end point of a long negotiation that takes a few weeks.”

On Tuesday afternoon, as voters were going to the polls in 15 primary contests across the United States, Burden laid out what he thought were the most likely scenarios (with the caveat that the race is still in flux):

“Today I think the most likely scenario is that no one has a majority going into the convention, but enough bargaining takes place in June and the party figures this out and finds a way to pick a nominee on the first ballot,” he said.

Next most likely: Biden gets the majority. “Some Sanders people will throw a fit, but mostly they will fall in line,” Burden says.

He points to the surge for Biden over the last two days, especially “the way the establishment has wrapped its arms around him,” with endorsements from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke, as the reason he thinks this is more likely than his third most-likely scenario: that Sanders wins the nomination outright by winning a majority of delegates.

Brokered vs. Contested

People use the terms “brokered” and “contested” interchangeably to describe a convention where the winner is not clear from the start. “Neither is a legal term,” Burden says. “I like the term contested, because it tells you there’s going to be a contest.”

The term “brokered convention” comes from a bygone era. When party leaders brought large numbers of unpledged delegates to the convention, and the leaders negotiated with each other over how they would vote.”

The system has changed. Delegates can make up their own minds, and superdelegates and candidates can try to persuade them to change their votes.

So what about the Sanders argument that the person with the most votes should win the nomination? 

“That principle resonates with a lot of people,” Burden says. “It’s not the rule, though. The rule is that you have to have a majority to win.”

“That’s the argument on gerrymandering, and it’s why people don’t like the Electoral College, where the candidate who wins the popular vote does not necessarily win,” he adds. “It seems inherently unfair.”

If Sanders arrives at the convention with the most delegates — but not a majority, he will have to make the argument in Milwaukee.

It may be persuasive to a splintered party to give the nomination to the person with the most votes, not just on principle, but because it could mean a faster and easier process.

But a lot of Democratic Party officials seems determined to resist a Sanders nomination with all four feet.

The convention is only scheduled for four days, Burden points out, and it’s very scripted — more of a coronation than a barroom fight.

“In the old days the convention would just go on for more days if they couldn’t work it out,” Burden says. “Now people have plane tickets, the venue is only rented for a set amount of time. … There could be a lot of long nights.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.