The 2020 election is likely to be an even bigger mess than 2016

Alexandria Runnion | The Phoenix

During the 2016 presidential election, it was common to see speculation that the Republican National Convention (RNC) would be a mess, and many predicted it would be a contested convention. Now the shoe is on the other foot. 

The problem for the Democratic Party is it just neutered superdelegates, throwing out its best line of defense against a contested convention. 

Simply to keep the primary process somewhat orderly, both parties have ways of ensuring their candidates get enough votes to be all-but-nominated before the convention even rolls around. 

On the Republican side, this comes in the form of lots of winner-take-all primaries, with many states and congressional districts allocating either all or a disproportionate amount of delegates to the winner of each primary contest. This allows the leader to build up a large lead early on, and it’s what helped President Donald Trump win the Republican nomination even though he won only a plurality, not a majority, of primary votes. 

On the Democratic side, the method had long been superdelegates — a free-agent at the convention who can vote for anyone they choose, instead of having to vote for the winner of their state like normal delegates. In practice, these votes often serve to push a candidate with a plurality — but not an absolute majority — over the 50 percent threshold, making that person the nominee.

There are still superdelegates; however after the 2016 controversy about more superdelegates supporting Secretary Hillary Clinton than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), their number has been cut from 15 percent of the final vote to five percent. 

Before the change, a prospective nominee would have to win somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the delegates plus most of the superdelegates to clinch the nomination. Essentially, they just have to find a combination of popular vote and superdelegates to add up to 50 percent. 

With the Democratic Party’s new rules, a candidate would have to win 45 percent or more to have a shot at the nomination. It seems highly implausible that a single candidate — out of the dozens currently expected to run — would be able to win the new 45 percent to even have a chance at a quick nomination. 

Historically, contested conventions have been rare in modern politics, and neither party has seen one since primaries moved from back rooms to the ballot-box. 

Occasionally, this isn’t the case. In a contested — or brokered — convention, the nominee isn’t completely decided by late summer, which is when the convention typically takes place. This would only happen if one candidate doesn’t have at least half of elected delegates by the end of the primary process.

So, what would this mean? What would a contested convention look like? 

For one, no one would know who the candidate was until the convention had already begun, meaning that Democratic infighting would continue until July or August. Contrast this with the other side of the aisle, where Republicans would have long-been united around Trump because of the Republican winner-take-all primaries — not to mention the fact that he’s already president.

Secondly, it would mean that all — instead of pomp and circumstance and promotion of one candidate — the coverage of the convention would instead be about the fight for the nomination. This means the eventual nominee would miss out on the “convention boost” — a two to five point bump in the polls that has historically been brought on by a candidate’s convention. 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s possible the party never fully unites behind a nominee who might not have received the highest vote total — much less a majority — of the popular vote in the primary. Imagine the problems Clinton had in 2016 trying to get Sanders supporters on her side, but if she had to do it without a convention and with an added floor fight, likely to be decided by party insiders.

I don’t think 2016 was the end of superdelegates. Party leaders aren’t dumb. They know there has to be some way for almost-nominees to make that final step, and, whether or not we call them “superdelegates” in the future, this system will be back, in one form or another. 

The problem for Democrats is this change is likely to be too late for 2020.

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