2020 Election: Democrats Heading to a Brokered Convention?

An occasional commentary on the 2020 US Presidential Election in which demographics and identity politics play a bigger role than ever before. Here, we explain why primary and convention rules make it difficult for a frontrunner to emerge in a crowded field.

Today, President’s Day, is as good as any to draw some lessons from the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Crowded Field

FIRST, the Democrats do not yet have a candidate with proven national appeal. Although Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg ranked first and second in both states, they have yet to show that they can do well in states that are more ethnically diverse. Iowa is only 4% African-American and 6.2% Hispanic/Latino, and New Hampshire only 1.7% and 3.9% respectively. The United States overall is 13.4% African-American and 18.3% Hispanic/Latino.

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For Bernie and Pete therefore, the test of national appeal will come in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday when several states with large minority populations will hold their primaries.

Although Bernie came first in New Hampshire with 25.7% of the vote, that result was as much cause for concern as for celebration. In 2016, running against only Hillary Clinton, Bernie had won New Hampshire with 60.1% of the vote. Of course, the lesser draw this year is explained by a more crowded field. Nonetheless, it showed that 74.3% of New Hampshire Democrats preferred someone else over Bernie, so long as her name was not Hillary Clinton.

Further, if we consider ideology, the total progressive vote, if you add Elizabeth Warren’s (arguably the closest ideologically) paltry 9.2% to Sanders’ 25.7%, was only 34.9%. If that figure is the progressive wing’s natural percentage in a New England state, it does not bode well for them elsewhere.

By contrast, committed centrists took a majority of the vote in New Hampshire with Buttigieg at 24.4%, the surprising Amy Klobuchar at 19.8% and Vice-President Joe Biden at 8.4% for a combined total of 52.6%. They achieved a majority in Iowa too with a combined 54.3% of the total vote.

Had Biden performed better so far, he could claim that he has national appeal. But his showing was poor in both Iowa and New Hampshire (15.8% and 8.4%). Biden’s big tests come on February 29th (South Carolina) and on Super Tuesday which is on March 3rd. His vaunted popularity among minorities, if borne out by the results, would serve him well in several Southern states where minorities account for more than a quarter of the population, and perhaps more than half of Democrat voters. California and Texas with their large Hispanic/Latino populations should also look more favorably on Biden, even if he does not come first.

Unfortunately for Biden, Super Tuesday is unlikely to be decisive for him because it also includes a number of states that look more like Iowa and New Hampshire. These are Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and perhaps Colorado. Sanders and Buttigieg will probably do well there, with Massachusetts going to Warren. Mayor Mike Bloomberg will also be a contender.

Along with Sanders, Warren is the other candidate coming out of New Hampshire who should be worried. Though she was a respectable third in Iowa with 18%, she only drew 9.2% in New Hampshire, a state neighboring her home state. One of Warren’s weaknesses is the absence of a natural base of support. It is not hard to answer the questions of who is the Bernie voter? Who is the Buttigieg voter? Who is the Biden voter? But it is not clear who is the Warren voter. Her appeal as a strong woman is undeniable but that vein is less productive as long as Klobuchar is a viable competitor.

Warren’s ultimate strength is also her weakness in the early primaries: she is a generalist who can potentially appeal to all Democrat constituencies. But at this stage of the race, each of these constituencies is better represented by another candidate. In theory, she could still be the nominee if she manages to survive to the end of the primaries and if the convention ends up being contested. More on this below.

Klobuchar’s result in New Hampshire is attributed to her success with “small-government Democrats”, a phrase that reads vaguely like an oxymoron. The questions then are how many such people are there in other states, and how many of them bother to vote in the primary. A priori, one would have to guess “not many”. But perhaps Klobuchar has tapped into a hitherto neglected constituency that is large enough and motivated enough to keep her alive until the convention.

Then there is Mayor Bloomberg who did not participate in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Bloomberg can boast of an excellent track record in business and government. His perceived success as mayor of New York City is valuable given that the metro area is more populous and more complex than many states. On the other hand, his vulnerabilities are well known, chief among them his unpopularity among minorities due to ‘stop and frisk’ and other measures, and his enormous wealth (over $60 billion) that makes him an easy target for the likes of Sanders and Warren.

Bloomberg could do well on Super Tuesday with possible good results in Colorado, California and other places. His appeal in the South is a question mark, except in Florida where he is polling first neck and neck with Biden. It is doubtful that he can obtain a majority of the delegates before the convention however.

No Clear Frontrunner

Which brings us to the SECOND lesson and a few words on the mechanics of the primaries and of the convention.

Since New Hampshire, several commentators have written that populist Sanders will gain momentum quickly in 2020 just as populist Trump did in 2016. This shows a poor understanding of the mechanics of Democratic primaries in 2020 as compared to Republican primaries in 2016.

One major difference is that Trump was able to quickly garner a large number of delegates because of several states that were either winner-takes-all states (the winner gets all the delegates) or that heavily favored the winner (the winner gets a disproportionately large number of delegates).

In 2016, Trump won the Florida and South Carolina primaries and winner-takes-all rules gave him all of the delegates, 99 and 50, in those states. In the Alabama primary, he collected 36 delegates out of 50 although he won “only” 43% of the  popular vote against Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. In the Georgia primary also against Cruz and Rubio, Trump too 42 of 76 delegates though he won 38.8% of the vote. And so on.

Winner-takes-all and other state rules that favor the winner were intended by the GOP to create a strong frontrunner early in the race, one who could then concentrate his fundraising and his energy on the main prize which is the general election.

Democrats will certainly rue the absence of such an approach this year. Their playbook is markedly different and, based on what we are seeing so far, it could lead to a convention with no clear frontrunner.

What Democrats lacked in foresight however, they compensated for in simplicity because the rule for awarding delegates is the same in all states. And it goes as follows: for all candidates that exceed 15% of the popular vote (at Congressional district level and/or statewide), the number of delegates is awarded proportionally to the percentages, adjusted up so the total is 100%. So if candidates A, B, C and D get 25%, 20%, 16% and 10% of the vote (with other candidates getting the rest) in a given state, A gets 41% of the delegates, B gets 33%, C gets 26% and D gets nothing from that state.

To be thorough, we should mention that in theory, there is a possibility that Bernie could take a strong delegate lead if he wins large states like California and if the candidate who comes second gets less than 15% of the vote. In the event, the crowded field would play in his favor by fragmenting the votes among his opponents, and a very large share of the delegates of those states would revert to him. This scenario, while possible, seems highly unlikely according to current poll results.

Convention Mechanics

Given the number of strong candidates, each with his natural constituency, this approach is likely to lead to a convention where no one has a majority of the delegates on the first round of voting.

If this is not frustrating enough, it gets worse.

There are 3,979 pledged delegates and 771 super delegates, for a total of 4,750. Pledged delegates are the delegates accumulated by the candidates in the primaries. Super delegates are party officials.

In 2016, super delegates were much in favor of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Bernie and his supporters complained that having super delegates at all was anti-democratic. The party then changed the rules and decided that super delegates would only start voting in the second round at the convention.

So by now, you should see where this is going. A fragmented field of many viable candidates, a delegate award system that does not create a clear frontrunner, two unique features of 2020 that could easily result in an inconclusive primary season.

We are likely headed to a contentious brokered convention with no clear majority for anyone in the first round of voting. Given the party’s dislike of Sanders, his chance of winning the nomination would drop significantly in subsequent rounds. All that is needed to stop him is to ensure that two other candidates have a sufficient number of delegates to deny him a majority on the eve of the convention. Super delegates will then weigh in for another candidate on the second round, Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, or Klobuchar.

In theory, any of them could beat Trump. In theory.

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Related Reading: In 2017, we predicted the rise of Bernie Sanders on the idea that socialism is not a system that replaces capitalism, but that it is one form of cronyism that replaces another form of cronyism. See Father of the Bernie Sanders Presidency.

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