Biden’s back, but clearing the field still a challenge

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Primaries are a killing field. They’re supposed to kill off candidates and get their bodies off the field. The question now is, how many defeated candidates will actually leave the field? That happens when failed candidates realize they have no hope of winning and that staying in the race will require them to assume a huge burden of debt.

A lot of Democratic strategists and officeholders are eager to clear the field. They are terrified at the prospect of having a self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket. They know that if he wins the nomination, Sanders will not only lose to Donald Trump, he will bring down the entire Democratic ticket — not just the newly acquired Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, but Democratic governors and state legislators as well. State officeholders are very important this year because in most states, they will control the redistricting process following the 2020 census and — therefore — Democratic prospects for the next decade.

Happiness in politics is a divided opposition, and Sanders has benefited from that maxim. He carried Iowa and New Hampshire with only a quarter of the vote, and Nevada with less than half. If the supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) could unite behind one moderate, that candidate (most likely Biden after his resounding victory in South Carolina) might be able to stop Sanders.

But there’s also a risk in clearing the field. In a two-candidate race, the winner could be the moderate — or it could be Sanders.

No one in the party disputes the fact that if a candidate wins a majority of the delegates on the first ballot, the race is over.

But what If no candidate has a first ballot majority? Then the convention goes to a second ballot — something that hasn’t happened since 1952. Here’s where it gets interesting.

The superdelegates are predominantly Democratic National Committee (DNC) members and elected officials. They are not chosen “democratically,” that is, not by voters in this year’s primaries and caucuses. Sanders calls superdelegates the “Democratic establishment,” and he’s right. But what that means is that they have a vested interest in keeping the Democratic Party strong and competitive.

In 2016, 85 percent of the Democratic superdelegates voted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. As it happened, Clinton won a majority (54 percent) of the pledged delegates chosen in the primaries, so you can’t say the superdelegates gave her the nomination. But they did magnify her majority.

Under pressure from Sanders’ supporters, the party changed the rules in 2018. Superdelegates are no longer allowed to vote on the first ballot. But they can vote on the second ballot. There are over 770 superdelegates this year, and very few of them support Sanders.

That gives losing candidates an incentive to stay in the race — Sanders and Biden would have to bargain for their support on the second ballot. It’s the scenario political junkies have been dreaming of for nearly 70 years — “a brokered convention!”

If most of the defeated candidates do stay in the race, it would certainly make it difficult for Sanders — or anyone — to win a first-ballot majority. But a large field could make it easier for Sanders to win a plurality on the first ballot since the anti-Sanders votes would be scattered among multiple candidates.

Sanders claims that if he wins a plurality on the first ballot, the convention will have to nominate him. “The will of the people should prevail,” Sanders said in the Las Vegas debate. “The person with the most votes should become the nominee.” The other candidates all said some version of “Follow the rules,” meaning, you have to have an absolute majority to win.

That difference could provoke a huge fight at the convention. In 2016, Sanders complained that the Democratic establishment rigged the system against him. Denying him victory this time, if he leads in pledged delegates, would be proof. One of Sanders’ congressional supporters put it this way to the New York Times: “If Bernie gets a plurality and nobody else is even close and the superdelegates weigh in and say, ‘We know better than the voters,’ I think that will be a big problem.”

But Biden, too, has a strong claim. According to the exit polls, Biden led Sanders among black voters in South Carolina by nearly 4 to 1 (61 to 16 percent). Blacks demand and get a lot of respect in the Democratic Party. They’re the party’s base. They vote for the Democrat even when no one else does. And they did something remarkable in South Carolina: They saved Joe Biden’s ass.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Biden 2020 campaign Brokered convention Democratic National Convention Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg moderate Democrats Pete Buttigieg South Carolina South Carolina primary Super Tuesday Superdelegate

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