Democrats should be really, really afraid of a contested nominating convention

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Former Vice President Joe Biden’s astonishing reversal of fortune certainly was a relief to establishment Democrats, who had been sleep-deprived over the seemingly unstoppable march of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to the Democratic presidential nomination.   

Actually, establishment Democrats should be just as relieved that Biden’s comeback and the withdrawal of other candidates reduced the likelihood of a contested convention. That will happen if the first ballot does not produce a majority winner, which requires 1,991 delegate votes. There will have to be more rounds of voting with the possibility of all kinds of acrimony-generating backroom mischief.   

But even in a two-candidate race a contested Democratic convention cannot be ruled out, especially given the arcane host of factors that determine the allocation of delegates won by the candidates who withdrew.   

As Leah Daughtry, the CEO of the 2016 and 2008 Democratic National Conventions, said after Super Tuesday, “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. I still don’t know how anyone gets to 1,991, but the next couple of weeks will tell. Biden will have to do extraordinarily well and win a majority of those delegates to avoid a contested convention.”

Contested Democratic conventions in the past led to catastrophe. In 1860, the Democratic convention broke up over the issue of slavery and in the end two Democratic candidates, one from the south, the other from the north, ran for president.  Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency with a plurality of the popular vote, the Union fractured and the rest is blood-soaked history.   

Consider the debacle at the 1924 Democratic convention, which was held in a relatively stable era. Neither of the two leading candidates won the then-required 2/3 of the delegates on the first ballot, or on the 50th or even on the 100th. The thousands of angry spectators in the gallery began spitting on the delegates below, and 100 fed-up delegates went home. After 17 days, the convention nominated a black horse candidate on the 103rd ballot, an unknown congressman from West Virginia, who lost decisively to the incumbent Republican President Calvin Coolidge. 

Perhaps the 1968 Democratic convention has the most parallels to this year. Going into the convention, the anti-Vietnam War insurgents Sens. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and George McGovern (D-S.D.) held the delegates awarded in the primaries and caucuses but were well short of a majority. The convention nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t won a single delegate in a primary but had the backing of the party leaders who controlled the majority of convention delegates. 

That split the Democratic Party. (It didn’t help that the Chicago police brutally beat many of McCarthy’s followers in the streets in what an independent commission later called a “police riot”). Humphrey lost to former Republican Vice President Richard Nixon in the general election. 

If Biden wins a majority of delegates in the primaries, especially if he receives significant financial help from billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a lot of bitter Bernie Sanders followers may sit out November. Recall that in 2016, even though former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primaries and caucuses by a decisive 3.7 million votes over Sanders, many of his followers refused to accept her candidacy. For the first day and night of the Democratic convention the Bernie delegates interrupted speakers and booed Clinton’s name. They even booed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) with a “we trusted you” chant when she endorsed Clinton.  

Defeated revolutionaries do not go quietly into the night. Joe Biden has his work cut out for him just to amass a majority of delegates before the convention opens without alienating the Sanders supporters. If he has to prevail in a contested convention, history suggests that Biden won’t be leading a united Democratic Party into the general election.  

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.

Tags Bernie Sanders Brokered convention Democratic National Convention Democratic National Convention DNC Elections in the United States Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Milwaukee Primary elections in the United States Superdelegate United States presidential nominating conventions United States presidential primaries

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