Why the usual rules don’t apply in 2020
Fictional America political dramas love a contested convention, where two or more candidates turn up still in hope of gaining the nomination, with all the trading, arguing and general politicking (and, in fictionland, often rather more than politicking) that implies. In reality, it doesn’t happen like that.
Presidential primaries have an inherent instability about them which in recent decades has generally ensured that both parties’ candidates are secure in their place months before being formally nominated. Once a candidate establishes a firm lead in both national polls and in state victories, he or she becomes hard to displace as other candidates struggle for funding, endorsements and media attention.
Granted, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes two candidates become so closely matched that both have sufficient strength to ride out defeats, which they then reverse in a later round. Clinton-Sanders and Clinton-Obama both were notionally in the balance – though the endorsements of superdelegates meant that in reality no surprises would be sprung. In earlier years, Reagan pushed Gerald Ford all the way in 1976 before losing out.
However, we have to go right back to the Democrat convention of 1952 for the last case of delegates having to vote more than once: Stevenson won on the third ballot (a mixed blessing: he would be steamrollered by Eisenhower in November). Notably, this was before the primary season as we now know it was established – fewer than a third of states held primaries then as opposed to nearly all now – and momentum built in even a strong run of victories wasn’t necessarily sufficient to propel a candidate to the nomination. Those days are gone.
So why do I think it could well be different this time? Three things: the candidates, the schedule and the rules.
The Democrats have a crowded field. True, well over a dozen candidates have already dropped out, including sometime serious contenders like Beto O’Rourke and Kamela Harris, but there’s still a double-digit field and while Joe Biden has held a healthy (at times commanding) national lead for most of the last year, matters are much closer in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to vote, where he, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren are in something close to a four-way tie. If the actual results look something like those polls then all four are all-but certain to head into Super Tuesday at the beginning of March not just in the race but in contention. On top of which, someone may come through from the pack.
This matters because the schedule’s had a bit of a shake-up compared with 2016. In particular, California’s 415 delegates are up for grabs on Super Tuesday at the beginning of March rather than in June. All told, over 60% of delegates will be awarded by 17 March – only six weeks after Iowa kicks everything off. This, combined with the closeness of the race, means that delegates are likely to be sprinkled round much more diversely than usual.
Even if the early contests do produce a clearer pecking order, history still suggests a race that’ll last well past the St Patrick’s Day primaries. The 2016 Republican race, where Trump held a clear lead throughout, five candidates contested Super Tuesday and two kept fighting for a month and half beyond; likewise, Gingrich and Santorum didn’t throw the towel in in 2012 until the beginning of May. Not only did the Democrat contest go the distance in 2008 but the Republicans took well past Super Tuesday to settle on John McCain.
Where the Republicans differ from the Democrats though is in the allocation of delegates. The final primaries in the GOP race are mostly winner-take-all. As there is usually just one serious candidate left at this stage, that provides a massive boost to whoever it is, sufficient to gain an absolute majority.
By contrast, all the Democrat primaries are approximately proportional (subject to a high 15% qualifying share, though this operates individually at both district and state level – so a candidate who wins 11% statewide won’t receive any of the at-large delegates but will still gain some in any districts where he or she tops 15%). So even in a much narrowed field, it’ll be difficult for anyone to poll heavily enough to scoop up the delegates needed to put them over the top, if there are two or three lingering in.
And the very fact that there might well be a contested convention is good reason to stay in, before we even think about the nature of people like Sanders and his supporters, who are not natural quitters. If the primary contest isn’t a matter of first past the post but a preliminary stage to a convention contest then why quit if you think you can attract crossover support – and all the candidates might feel able to do that.
All of which makes it far more likely than normal that the Democrats will get to Milwaukee without a confirmed candidate. Chances are, that still favours whoever has most delegates, who can not only claim a moral victory but who inevitably starts closer to the winning line. But it’s no certainty. If there’s a mood to stop someone for whatever reason, or if there’s a deal done between two of the candidates, or if some other dynamic takes off, having most delegates might not be decisive.
Of the candidates, I only really see Biden, Sanders and Warren going the distance. They’re the heavyweights and it’ll take a lot to break into that company. But three is enough to force a deadlock.