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Democrats may be headed for a contested convention

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In 1952, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Adlai Stevenson emerged as the party’s presidential nominee on the third ballot, defeating Estes Kefauver, Richard Russell, and others. Since then, the delegates have never taken more than one ballot to make their choice.

In 2020, the Convention may well begin with no candidate able to command a first-ballot majority of delegates. The proceedings almost certainly will not be as chaotic as they were in 1924, when it took 103 ballots in the stifling heat of Madison Square Garden for the Democrats to nominate John W. Davis. But a contentious 2020 Convention could fail to unite the party faithful or send a coherent and compelling message to the electorate.

A record number of Democrats have already or are about to declare their candidacies. They represent the progressive and moderate wings of the party. At the moment, no front runner has emerged. And the rules promulgated by the Democratic National Committee make it more difficult for a candidate to win a majority of delegates in time to consolidate support among Democrats and reach out to Independents and disaffected Republicans before Labor Day, the unofficial beginning of the campaign season.{mosads}

For the first two party-sponsored debates, scheduled for this June and July (each of which is likely to be staged over two consecutive nights to accommodate the crowded field), candidates who garner at least one percent in three national polls or receive campaign donations from at least 65,000 people, including at least 200 people in at least 20 states, will be invited. The threshold has been “updated,” according to DNC chair Tom Perez, “to give all candidates an opportunity to reach the debate stage.” Perez has also agreed not to play favorites by selecting a top tier and a second tier, based on polling, for the two nights, as the Republican National Committee did in 2016; instead NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Telemundo will randomly sort the candidates. 

Acknowledging in effect that this approach will not winnow down the field, DNC officials have hinted that criteria for inclusion will become more stringent when the campaign intensifies.

What’s more, DNC policies governing the selection of delegates make it much harder for anyone to get to 51 percent — and could tempt candidates to stay in the race and become power brokers at the Convention. 

In 2006, the DNC ended winner-take-all primaries and caucuses, mandating that “States shall allocate district-level delegates and alternates in proportion of the primary or caucus vote won in that district by each preference, except that preferences falling below a fifteen percent threshold shall not be awarded any delegates.” In a crowded field, with no clear favorite, it is possible that three or four candidates might reach fifteen percent. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, hosts of the first four campaign contests, are so different from one another, ideologically and demographically, that a different trio of candidates in each state might reach the threshold — and live to fight another day.

In August 2018, moreover, in response to the demand of Bernie Sanders that the selection process be more “open, democratic, and responsive to the input of ordinary Americans,” the DNC prohibited “superdelegates” — members of Congress, governors, former presidents and vice presidents, and party officials who have been awarded 15 percent of the seats at the Convention — from voting on the first ballot of a contested nomination. Although he did not invoke the image of a “smoke-filled room,” Perez hailed the reform as “historic.” Convinced that the DNC was fighting the last war, traditionalists declared the new rule would reduce opportunities for party professionals to coalesce around the candidate most likely to win a general election; if unelected superdelegates weigh in on a second or third ballot, they will be accused of highjacking the nomination.

Perhaps in 2020 Democrats will select one from the many well before their Convention is called to order. After all, Republicans and Democrats have done so in the past. For better and worse.

This time, however, the obstacles seem to be greater. And the stakes seem to be a lot higher.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 Debates Bernie Sanders Democratic National Committee Democratic National Conventions Democratic Party presidential primaries Superdelegate Tom Perez

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