It’s tough to reach deep into the recesses of history and remember the February 19 Democratic debate, but a crucial moment transpired after two hours of the standard squabbling and platitudinizing. Viewers were presented with a surprising coda: moderator Chuck Todd asked the six contenders, “Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority?”
Certainly not, said Michael Bloomberg: “Whatever the rules of the Democratic party are, they should be followed.” In an atypical show of consensus, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar all agreed that the party should “let the process work.” Bernie Sanders was the lone dissenter: “I think the will of the people should prevail.”
Sanders’s response elevated the straightforward democratic principle of “whoever gets the most votes wins” above the abstruse protocol of the Democratic party — whereby, if no candidate breaks the 50 percent threshold, the convention moves to a second vote in which 764 elected officials and assorted distinguished Dems, the superdelegates, can break the self-imposed stalemate by adding their votes to those of the 3,979 pledged delegates. Superdelegates can vote for whoever they want, and their votes far outweigh those of ordinary citizens, by a ten-thousand-to-one ratio.
One might ask, though, is it really fair to insist on scrapping the superdelegates now? After all, as a recent Esquire piece argued, “The rules are the rules. You all agreed to run as members of the Democratic Party and, as such you all agreed to abide by the rules that party set down for nominating its candidate.”
But there’s a problem with this logic: Democrats are trying to win an election, not a rule-following contest. And besides, rules that are blatantly undemocratic probably shouldn’t be followed. Following such rules will alienate the voters they most need to attract. And coronating a candidate who came second, third, or fourth in votes would be disastrous for their short- and long-term electoral prospects.
A Brokered Convention Would Hand Trump a Highly Effective Attack
Donald Trump may not be blessed with great policy expertise or moral gravitas, but he does have a knack for zeroing in on criticism of his opponents that’s often accurate and effective. His attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American ancestry so troubled her that she foolishly took a DNA test to prove it (and failed to do so). His claims that Hillary Clinton was “crooked” and Marco Rubio a “choke artist” similarly directed public attention to already apparent weaknesses in their public personae.
Any Democratic opponent will face insults from Trump — but if that opponent is a person who didn’t get the most votes, the put-downs will write themselves. Trump will savagely attack them as a loser — someone who’s fraudulently seeking to govern all Americans when they couldn’t even win their own party’s primary. What comeback will they have? That “rules are rules”?
The party, too, will fare badly in this scenario. Democrats have frequently criticized the electoral college as enabling undemocratic minority rule. In March 2019, Warren tweeted that “by getting rid of the electoral college and replacing it with a national popular vote, we can protect our democracy and make sure everyone’s vote counts.” Agree to become the nominee in a process dominated by a small group of insiders, and they’d be handing ammunition to the argument that Democrats don’t really care about democracy.
In a Crowded Field, Pluralities Are Inevitable
One might argue that a candidate who didn’t get a majority of the votes, well, doesn’t have a majority of the votes. Isn’t it undemocratic to hand them the nomination when the majority voted against them?
But this logic, too, has a flaw. In an election format that allows many candidates to run (eight, as of February 2020), it’s very likely that no candidate will pass the 50 percent threshold. And failing to clear that barrier isn’t a sign that the top vote-getter is opposed by everyone else. In Sanders’s case, polls show him as the most common second choice of people who support other candidates, and beating his Democratic opponents in hypothetical one-on-one matchups.
A ranked-choice voting system might more accurately reflect the preferences of voters whose favorite candidate doesn’t make it to the top. But with no mechanism in place for the millions of Democratic primary participants to realign once their votes have been cast, the choice is to either accept the plurality winner as the closest to a majority we have, or to toss those votes in the trash.
There’s No Such Thing as a “Moderate Consensus”
There’s an added subtlety to the “front-runner isn’t actually winning” line of argument. Defenders of a brokered convention argue that such an outcome might reflect an underlying consensus because Sanders’s opponents share the quality of being moderates.
This was the contention of a recent NBC article titled “Bernie Sanders isn’t the frontrunner in the Democratic race. The moderates are.” It read, “In Iowa and New Hampshire, the moderate share of the vote beat out Sanders’ and Warren’s. Iowa gave 54 percent of its votes to Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Biden . . . Nationally, with Mike Bloomberg in the mix, the moderates are polling well ahead, garnering 48 percent to the progressives’ 39 percent.”
But this method of classifying candidates reflects the priorities of pundits, not those of ordinary people. In the real world, most voters don’t award their support based on ideological abstractions like “moderate,” or view the other moderates as essentially allied with them.
Suppose the superdelegates tried to make a pick that would appease the moderation-loving majority. Each choice presents problems.
Klobuchar admirers enthused about the prospect of a female president might be irked if she were passed over for, say, Biden. Fans of Biden’s extensive experience are unlikely to view him as interchangeable with a thirty-eight-year-old small-town mayor. Mayor Pete die-hards might not be thrilled to switch their allegiance to Klobuchar, who taunted the former onstage with lines like “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.” (Buttigieg doesn’t call himself a moderate anyway — he’s said he’d be “the most progressive nominee we’ve put forward in a generation.”) And with Bloomberg coming dead last on surveys of which candidate “shares my values,” almost no one would be happy to see their top choice picked over for him.
The Sanders-versus-moderates framing is nonsensical: If a non-winning candidate is coronated in Milwaukee, not just Bernie’s supporters but everyone else’s will be furious. The way to have the fewest supporters angry that their candidate lost is to nominate the candidate with the most supporters.
Democrats Can’t Afford to Spurn New Voters
A first-place finish for Bernie may not be an inevitability — after all, some commentators still assure us that the electorate hungers deeply for moderation. But for now, his supporters are driving a rise in turnout and a huge bump in participation by young and first-time voters. In Nevada, voter turnout broke records: two-thirds of voters aged seventeen to twenty-nine supported the socialist, along with most first-time caucusgoers (over half those who participated), hospitality workers on the Las Vegas strip, and independents.
If this trend continues, a huge number of people nationwide will take part in electoral politics for the first time to support Bernie Sanders. Many don’t identify strongly as Democrats and may not be swayed by appeals to “vote blue no matter who.” (They certainly have little investment in the obscure “process” Bloomberg et al. praised on the debate stage.) But their votes are needed to reverse Republican majorities in the Senate and elsewhere. If the party were to signal its disdain for them by undemocratically selecting a nominee they don’t want, their votes could be lost to the Democratic Party for many election cycles to come.
Democratic candidates and party officials should follow Sanders in affirming that “the will of the people should prevail.” If they don’t, the rest of us should think strategically about how best to avoid a brokered convention. By lending their votes and volunteer time to the candidate likely to get the most delegates, they can increase the chances of that candidate breaking 50 percent and avoiding electoral disaster.