Joe Biden’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary no doubt strengthens the hope of those who want a brokered Democratic National Convention this summer. But Bernie Sanders will probably still be able to win the presidential nomination on the first ballot. And even if he fails to do so and the convention becomes brokered, it probably won’t be able to produce a candidate who can defeat President Trump.
To win the Democrats’ presidential nomination on the first ballot, a candidate must win an absolute majority of the votes cast by the approximately 3979 pledged delegates—those who were won in the primaries and the caucuses. But if no candidate wins a majority, the convention goes to a second ballot in which not only the pledged delegates but an additional 771 “superdelegates”—members of Congress, governors, party officials, interest group leaders and other dignitaries—vote, and to win the nomination a candidate must win a majority of the combine vote of the pledged delegates and the superdelegates.
It’s easy to see why many Democrats want a brokered convention. They believe Senator Sanders is simply too radical to win the general election. His presidential nomination this summer would hand the presidency to Donald Trump this November. But if Sanders fails to win a majority of the pledged delegates on the first ballot, the superdelegates, by participating in subsequent ballots, could throw the nomination to a more moderate candidate who would presumably have a better chance of defeating the President in November.
It’s also easy to see why many Democrats and members of the media think a brokered convention is possible. To win pledged delegates to the convention, a presidential candidate must win at least 15% of the popular vote in a state’s Democratic primary or caucus. Each candidate who meets that standard wins delegates in proportion to his or her share of the popular vote in the given state. Thus even candidates unable to actually win primaries and caucuses have an incentive to stay in the delegate hunt, given the possibility that enough candidates will win enough delegates to prevent any one candidate from amassing the majority of pledged delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot.
But the hope for a brokered convention is probably forlorn. The last convention in which more than one ballot was required to select a presidential nominee was in 1952. In every election since then, the presidential nominee has been selected on the first ballot. Even in all the contests with multiple presidential candidates since 1972, when primaries were used to allocate a majority of pledged delegates for the first time, a single candidate has been able to emerge as the undisputed frontrunner, and the others have dropped out and swung their support to him, thereby enabling his first ballot victory with no opposition. If history is any guide, the most likely scenario this spring is for Sanders to amass enough delegates in the primaries and caucuses to establish himself as the frontrunner, thereby triggering the transfer of enough popular and financial support to him induce the others to withdraw. He then enters the convention with a clear majority of pledged delegates and wins the nomination on the first ballot—to the dread of many more moderate Democrats, and the delight of President Trump.
And even if Sanders fails to win a majority of pledged delegates on the first ballot and the superdelegates then swoop in to help give the nomination to a relative moderate, the Democrats may still be at a competitive disadvantage compared to the Republicans. Sanders is already arguing that the nomination should go to the candidate who wins the most pledged delegates, regardless of whether or not he’s won an outright majority. For superdelegates not won in primaries or pledged to any candidate to help give the nomination to someone else may trigger complaints that Sanders was “robbed” of the nomination. While this would not cause him or his supporters to vote for Trump, this could discourage enough Sanders supporters to simply not vote at all, thereby helping Trump win re-election anyway.
As of this writing, the Super Tuesday primaries are still two days away. On Wednesday we’ll have a better idea of whether the Democratic national convention will be Bernie’s or brokered. But either alternative increases the probability that the presidency itself will remain Donald’s.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.