What happens during a contested Democratic National Convention?

What happens during a contested Democratic National Convention?
© The Hill photo illustration

Iowa and New Hampshire have voted, but the Democratic field has not appreciably thinned. With no candidate even gaining 30 percent in the first two states, political forecasters have noted that the odds are greatly increasing that no one will have a majority heading into the Democratic convention in Milwaukee this summer. While discussion of a brokered convention comes up every four years, the parties have done little to plan for what one would actually look like. Thanks to changes in the process, a contested fight could be vastly more complicated than in the past.

Conventions, especially those without an incumbent, were rarely smooth operations. But there was an understanding of how the process worked. During the convention era, which effectively ran from 1832 to 1968, the choice of presidential candidates was usually made by a small group of bosses. The actual delegates were chosen by the state parties if there were no primaries or caucuses, and were usually divided in who they supported by state affiliation rather than interest in ideology or a specific candidate. Often times, these delegates were well known and actually owed their livelihood to the delegation leaders. But there were further rules that helped ensure that delegates stayed in line.

The state delegates were usually bound by the unit rule of internally voting on a candidate, then casting all their ballots as one for the winner. So winning over the state leader was often enough to capture the whole state at once. A “winner take all” system was usually in place for states that used a primary or caucus system. So even when there was a vote of the people, there was limited dissent among state delegates.

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Unless a leader of the state had a chance at the nomination, the delegates were used as bargaining chips, often voting for a “favorite son” candidate in early ballots until they could be traded. This horse trading and tough calculations forced leaders to come to a consensus. For Democrats, especially before 1932, when they removed a rule requiring the winner to get two-thirds of the vote, this system could be disastrous. Republicans controlled the presidency during the heart of the era, holding it for all but 16 years from 1860 to 1932. But the general principles of how a convention operated, and that horse trading was needed, were well accepted.

Starting in the 1960s, the Democrats gradually changed these rules. Every state now uses the primary and caucus system, and the “winner take all” rule for apportioning delegates is not allowed by the Democrats. Instead, the delegates of each state are divided proportionally, thereby limiting the ability to swing votes. The unit rule has been banned, so the delegates of each state will no longer be forced to vote as one.

The selection of delegates is now conducted by the individual campaigns themselves. They are chosen for their support of the candidate, though they are actually not bound to vote for any specific candidate, so in good measure they may not be beholden or even know party officials. Notably, there are now many more delegates at the convention.

The Democrats have 4,750 delegates able to vote on the floor, nearly 3,980 selected in primaries and caucuses, and about 770 superdelegates who are elected leaders in government or established party leaders. The superdelegates cannot vote on the first ballot if no single candidate has 50 percent. Compare this to 1952, the last convention that went beyond one ballot, where only 1,230 delegates had a vote, and a good number of those would now be superdelegates. If there is a contested race, the campaign may have to woo delegates one by one.

What these changes have done is cut out the middlemen, or those with the credibility to broker a deal. The delegates are likely to have intense loyalty only to the candidate themselves. It may be the case that the losing candidates are the only individuals with the credibility to sell their own delegates on a deal. These candidates are unlikely to throw in the towel and back a competitor if they think there is any chance that they can still sneak in for the nomination. If there are hard feelings from a loser in the horse trading, charges of a corrupt bargain are certain to be made, especially by President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE, who still uses complaints over the fairly straightforward 2016 nomination fight to attack Democrats.

While the likelihood of a contested convention this summer remains uncertain, Democrats have good reason for it. Beyond bad publicity, it could lead to a potential fatal rupture in the party that otherwise has shown strong cohesion around the idea of ousting the president. The party leaders should start planning for how to devise such a method to choose a candidate who would not be damaged by this battle.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who focuses on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform with Wagner College.