WASHINGTON—Who’s afraid of a brokered convention? It’s a fantasy scenario for many pundits and journalists, who would welcome the excitement of a dramatic finish to the Democratic Party’s nomination process. But plenty of Democrats are afraid it could damage their chances against President Donald Trump, and they have good reasons.
It appears increasingly likely that Bernie Sanders will win the most votes and the most delegates during the presidential primary contests now underway.
This will make a substantial portion of the party’s members happy: he’s winning because of their votes, after all, and polls suggest Sanders is perceived as the most electable in a race against Trump.
But more than any other candidate, Sanders also prompts an “anybody but” reaction from the party establishment, who fear his self-proclaimed “democratic socialism” will doom him to defeat in the general election.
Take that opposition, and add another factor: Sanders supporters are the most likely to say they will not vote for any Democratic candidate other than him.
This is not a script that ensures a round of “Kumbaya” at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee this summer, especially if the nominee is ultimately chosen by delegates there. And a “brokered convention” — in which no candidate arrives with a majority of the pledged delegates — is among the most likely outcomes of primary season, according to the election projection website FiveThirtyEight.com.
So what should happen if no one has enough votes to win on the first ballot? Should the party hold a series of run-off votes, with the lowest performers dropped from each round, until one candidate finally gets a majority? Or should the candidate who came to the convention with the most votes become the nominee?
When the six candidates onstage at last week’s debate in Nevada were asked that question, five of them said the run-off votes should be held to select a consensus nominee. But Sanders argued for a first-past-the-post process — where the candidate who gets the most votes wins, even if he or she does not earn a clear majority.
“The will of the people should prevail,” he said. “The person who has the most votes should become the nominee.”
This raises the prospect of a Democratic Party coming out of its convention bitterly divided. If Sanders has the most delegates going into the convention but another candidate winds up winning, there’s a strong chance that his supporters — cheered on by Trump — will cry that the nomination was “stolen.”
At first glance, a runoff-ballot contest would seem like a useful tool for landing on a consensus candidate — it allows like-minded voters to coalesce behind the strongest standard-bearer for their ideas, and prevents the ascension of one who is actively disliked by an outright majority of the voters.
But there’s a wrinkle. In addition to the “pledged delegates,” who are chosen through the primary process by voters, there are also “superdelegates” — elected officials and party brass, basically the party establishment — who get to vote on the second and subsequent ballots. (In the past, they got to vote from the beginning, but beginning this year, they only get to vote after the first-ballot is concluded.
At the Democrats’ 2016 convention, when superdelegates were allowed to vote from the first ballot, Sanders lobbied for their support, even though Hillary Clinton had won a majority of pledged delegates. He has changed his position on what seems fair now that he is the one likely to arrive at this year’s convention with the most votes.
It all raises two unwelcome possibilities for the Democrats: that a plurality of voters who chose Sanders could be overruled by the party establishment, or that Sanders could be chosen contrary to the wishes of a majority of the party’s members.
The first scenario could leave Sanders and his supporters less likely to support the party’s nominee if they come away from the convention feeling the nomination has been stolen by the hacks and fixers of the Washington establishment. (It would also feed into a Trump narrative about the swamp that the president claims — often contrary to all evidence — to be draining.)
The second scenario raises the possibility of centrist Democrats feeling alienated from their own party’s candidate. While the prospect of a second Trump administration may bring many of them onside during the general election, there’s no certainty about anything in politics, and anti-Sanders Democrats are warning about what could happen when the Republicans’ anti-socialist campaign gets into gear.
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No option appears ideal for the Democrats. Perhaps their best outcome would be a Sanders victory on the second or third ballot, demonstrating that enough delegates liked him as their second choice. And there remains the possibility that Sanders — or another candidate — could win a majority on the first ballot.
But the Democrats’ fears of what could be a bitter finish are not unfounded. In addition to fighting a president with an unshakable base in a strong economy, they could go into the general election still fighting themselves.