Field size and campaign structure make it hard for anyone to win outright
Once upon a time, American party conventions to nominate their presidential candidates were raucous, sometimes violent, often unpredictable and certainly lengthy. The Democrat convention of 1924 set the unhappy record of taking 103 ballots to select a candidate, in a convention that lasted more than a fortnight. The drudgery, sweat and fatigue would prove fruitless: John Davis would go on to lose every state outside the South and be outpolled almost 2:1 by Calvin Coolidge.
Primary elections had looked to have put an end to all that. The natural dynamic of the primary season is such as to almost always filter the contest down to a single viable candidate long before the convention, as it becomes clear who could win the nomination and who couldn’t – and as those who can’t become clear, they fall into a vicious cycle of declining funding, media coverage, support and votes.
Even on the rare occasions that two candidates reached enough of an equilibrium in the race to take the contest to the convention – notionally or in earnest – as with Hillary/Sanders in 2016, Hillary/Obama in 2008, Carter/Ted Kennedy in 1980, or Reagan/Ford in 1976, that binary nature alone ensured that it would be determined on the first ballot, if it even went that far.
2020 could well be different. For the first time in almost seven decades, rule changes to the primary season and the nature of the contest mean that there’s a genuine prospect that the Democrat convention might need more than one ballot to select their candidate.
There are no winner-take-all primaries / all are proportional(ish)
The primary season used to be split into three sections. The early rounds established the serious contenders, the middle phase whittled that down to one (or, at most, two), and the late states put the candidate over the line. The late states were able to do so because they were winner-take-all, providing the remaining candidate with a massive bonus for simply being last man standing.
This year, as in 2008 and 2016 – the last two contested Democrat nominations, both of which went to the convention – there are no winner-take-all states: all allocate their delegates proportionately. In other words, that landslide of late delegates can only be guaranteed if all the other rivals have actually withdrawn, rather than just trailing badly in the polls.
Note – there’s a general 15% threshold to be awarded delegates, so candidates struggling in single figures won’t get anything like a proportional allocation. However, that rule becomes much less relevant as the field thins to four or five candidates.
Most big states are very early in the schedule
Compounding the effect of proportional allocations, the (as-yet not-fully-confirmed) timetable for the primary season front-loads many of the big states, meaning that delegates are likely to be much more scattered than would be the case were California’s primary in June (as in 2016), rather than on Super Tuesday (as next year).
In fact, both of the two largest state delegations will be up for grabs on Super Tuesday and 11 of the 14 largest delegations come from primaries elected either on Super Tuesday or within two weeks of it. Between them, these eleven states alone make up 45% of the pledged delegates and the likelihood is that they (and those from the various smaller states also electing by mid-March) will be split across quite a lot of candidates.
2020 will see a huge field
And that’s another of the remarkable features of the race for next year’s Democrat nomination. In a complete contrast to 2016, when there were only two serious contenders, there are already a dozen candidates in the field with either senior political office under their belt or who have shown themselves capable of making a serious mark in the polls. Some of these may fade away by the time people actually start casting votes but the likelihood is that most will still be fighting come Super Tuesday, only a month after Iowa and three weeks after New Hampshire.
Super-delegates don’t count as much
One significant change for 2020 is that super-delegates – those attending the convention generally by virtue of party office, and not formally bound to any candidate – will not have a vote in the first round of balloting. This might just delay an inevitable outcome, if it’s known that they are overwhelmingly for one candidate, as was the case in 2016. Then, Clinton had a 13:1 advantage over Sanders among those who gave an endorsement, albeit that this ratio is skewed somewhat by endorsements that came after Hillary passed the winning line on elected delegates alone (even so, Bernie’s performance there is worth bearing in mind for those who’d punt on him). But whether or not two or more candidates, both acceptable to the Supers, make it to the convention, this is another means no longer available to prevent at least a second ballot.
The feedback effect
As well as the rule changes and the nature of the field, there’s one political dynamic worth flagging up here too. If candidates believe that there’s a realistic prospect of a meaningfully-contested convention, that greatly increases their incentive to remain in the race. The chances of an old-fashioned deadlock between leading candidates resulting in a compromise choice are still remote (though not to be written off in the minds of those candidates themselves, or their campaign managers). More relevantly, the leverage that the lesser candidates have in a contested convention is the stuff that deals are made of, and not something to be dismissed lightly.
Back in 2015, I wrote that actual US primary races don’t follow their fictional counterparts into a convention bunfight. That was broadly true then; it may not be so now. Both the structure of the 2020 contest and the size of the field competing in it (plus other factors such as the changing nature of fundraising and the declining power of the traditional media), mean that there’s a very real chance that, for once, the nomination won’t be sown up before July.