A Brokered Convention? Maybe. But It Could Also Be Over By Super Tuesday

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To hear the national media tell it, the Democratic nomination contest is so muddled and fractured that in all likelihood the Democrats are headed for a messy contested convention. The betting markets are saying the same thing, now putting the chances of a contested convention at around 50 percent.

While Sanders is the clear frontrunner, with a high floor of committed support, he seems to have a low ceiling, holding the backing of only about a quarter to a third of the party. The rest of the field is fragmented, each candidate holding on to a sliver of the pie. In such a scenario, it seems unlikely that any one of them could amass a majority of the delegates before the convention.

That’s the current media narrative, and it’s a plausible scenario. Yes, the race is fragmented. True, Sanders hasn’t proven that he win over a majority of the party to his banner. If the major contenders all stay in, winning outright, for him or any of the others, could be tough.

But there’s a equally plausible alternative scenario too, one that is 180 degrees different from what the national press is saying. There is good reason to think the race could be essentially decided less than two weeks from now, after the Super Tuesday voting, with Bernie Sanders emerging as the almost-certain nominee of the Democratic Party.

This prediction is rooted in the rules that govern how candidates accrue delegates. If the next two weeks shake out along the current trajectory, it is very possible Sanders will convert his minority support into a majority, or near majority, of pledged delegates on Super Tuesday. And if he gets a majority of Super Tuesday delegates, and the rest are divided up among the crowded field, he will emerge as the prohibitive favorite, if not the de facto nominee.

Here’s how it works: Democrats allocate delegates proportionally in each state primary or caucus (unlike the Republicans, who mostly use winner-take-all state system). That makes it a lot harder to amass a majority of delegates before the convention in a situation like this one, where there are multiple major candidates competing against each other — hence, the threat of a contested convention. But in order to get delegates, the rules also require that candidates have to cross a 15 percent viability threshold in each contest, or they get nothing. 

So, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia all vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, and together those states account for a third of the overall delegates. I just looked at the RCP polling average for California and Texas, which both vote on March 3 (Super Tuesday). Bernie is leading in both states, but here’s the important thing: his opposition, deeply divided, is mostly hovering right around or below the 15 percent viability threshold. 

Right now the RCP poll average has Bernie at 27 percent in California, Biden and Bloomberg are right at 15 percent, Buttigieg and Warren at 11 percent (and the rest are way behind that). In Texas, there’s only been one recent poll, which has Bernie at 23 percent, Biden 20, Bloomberg 18, and Warren 14, and everyone else farther behind. 

If those numbers shift even slightly further in Sanders’ favor, and if support for the other candidates drops even slightly, it could lead to Sanders’ earning an overwhelming delegate haul on March 3.

Let’s say that Bernie wins Nevada as expected, then goes on to win South Carolina (where he currently trails Biden narrowly), giving him major momentum going into the Super Tuesday voting. Let’s say he gets maybe 33 percent of the vote in California, where 416 delegates are at stake, and the same in Texas, where 228 are at stake. Now let’s say Biden and Bloomberg and Warren and Buttigieg and Klobuchar all end up around 14 percent or lower, below the viability threshold (which seems very possible in CA). 

In that scenario Bernie, with 33 percent of the vote, takes all of the delegates in the biggest and third-biggest states. Now, in reality, there’s not much actual chance of Sanders getting all the delegates in these states, because many of each state’s delegates are allocated by congressional district. So some of the other candidates are for sure going to cross the viability threshold in some of the congressional districts, even if their overall percentage is below the 15 percent line. So they’ll get some delegates. 

But it is likely that Sanders, if he wins these big states by double digits, will accrue a disproportionately large share of the delegates at stake, because many of the candidates won’t cross the viability line. In a situation where the frontrunning Bernie is the only consistently viable candidate in very fragmented field on Super Tuesday, 33 percent of the vote in California could conceivably translate to him winning as much as 70 percent of the total delegates. Or in Texas, 33 percent of the vote could turn into, say, 50 percent of the delegates. 

If that is what happens, the race is essentially over on March 3rd. Bernie will have an insurmountable delegate lead, and he won’t be that far off from having a majority. (The 538 delegate-allocation model is predicting right now that Sanders will win nearly half of California’s delegates, but that doesn’t take into account the momentum Sanders will generate if he wins Nevada and South Carolina.) Candidates who open a real delegate lead almost always win.

If Sanders comes out of Super Tuesday with a big delegate lead, but not a majority, the possibility of a contested convention does remain real. But that convention might not be much of a contest — if Bernie goes into that convention with anywhere close to a majority of the delegates, and a big delegate lead over the candidate in second place, it will be either impossible to deny him the nomination, or fatal for the party to do so.

Admittedly, there are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario. Maybe Bernie will face plant in Nevada (though the polling says otherwise). Maybe Biden or Warren or one of the others will start to surge. But if the race tilts only a bit further in Sanders’ favor, he could come out of Super Tuesday the delegate king and nominee in waiting.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A post-Nevada update: The scenario I outlined above appears to be falling into place. Bernie Sanders went into the Nevada caucuses yesterday with the support of 34 percent of the participants. Yet he’s exiting with (based on the current partial results) about 47 percent of the delegates.

    This is because he was viable (above 15 percent support) pretty much everywhere in the state, whereas most of his major rivals were not. If this pattern holds up through the Super Tuesday voting, he will be the de facto nominee once the Super Tuesday results are tallied on March 3rd.

  2. One footnote/question. How many states reallocate votes when a candidate falls below 15%? I gather in Nevada caucus participants indicated a second choice for when their first choice fell short. Won’t that boost some laggards above the 15%?

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