Brokered conventions are the fan fiction of political junkies. They’re rich in dramatic possibilities, and can fill a mundane process with intrigue. In every presidential election, the prospect of a brokered convention is raised not because it is likely but because it is fun to discuss the what-ifs and to imagine the convention as something other than the choreographed boredom it has become.
But now that a convention beginning without a clear nominee is more plausible, the amusing hypothetical has given way to a nightmarish reality. A contested convention would be an opportunity for a political party to tear itself to pieces on live television.
It remains far from certain, after only four contests, that the convention will be contested. Yet that has not stopped a stronger than usual wave of speculation, including a New York Times piece in which Democratic superdelegates muse about the possibility of a convention with Bernie Sanders as the leader in delegates but short of a majority. The insiders quoted by the Times are clearly in favor, in that scenario, of nominating a non-Sanders candidate.
Many writers, such as Shuja Haider in The Outline, have made the argument that to deny the nomination to Sanders in this hypothetical would be unfair and undemocratic. Other writers, like Julia Azari in The Washington Post, argue that leaving the ultimate choice to convention delegates can still be democratic.
But, fair or unfair, there is zero question that it would be stupid—an act of self-sabotage by a party faction more interested in asserting dominance within the party than in winning an election.
Clearly, the Democratic Party rules allow a nominee other than the leader in pledged delegates to be chosen if no one enters the convention with a majority. So this becomes not a question of “Can they?” but of “Should they?” And the answer is a resounding no, assuming they want to win the election.
Given that Democratic insiders see the intransigence of Sanders supporters as one of his campaign’s biggest problems, no reasonable scenario has been presented in which the most passionate Sanders supporters would be likely to support a compromise nominee. If the mainstream Democrats’ strategy is to nominate a Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg “compromise candidate” and then shout at Sanders supporters that they are obligated to vote for him or her, what is the evidence to suggest that will work?
The gamble, then, would be that whatever number of Sanders supporters balk at supporting the compromise nominee could be offset by gains among disaffected Republicans and independents. (Note that in most polls, Sanders is more popular than other Democrats among self-identified independents.) Democrats have bet many times that running a moderate will pay off, and the results have been inconsistent. As for the electoral result of nominating a legitimate leftist, it has not been tried recently enough to draw a meaningful conclusion about the odds of success.
Beyond any effects of the ideology of the eventual nominee, if Democrats experience a visible split during their convention—something akin to the convention floor chaos of 1968, during which punches were thrown—it would deal a serious, if not fatal, blow to the party’s odds in the general election. It certainly hurt the campaigns of Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Adlai Stevenson in 1952, although arguably the 1952 race against Dwight Eisenhower was unwinnable by any Democrat. Humphrey was chosen in 1968 despite having competed in no primaries after the unusual circumstance of the assassination of the front-runner, Robert F. Kennedy, on the evening of the California primary. That is the kind of extreme and limited circumstance under which a choice who has not competed and done well in the primaries should be chosen.
Having been sensitive for decades to “the optics” and how their political choices will be perceived, Democrats should know intuitively that a wild, public fracturing at the convention in Milwaukee would be a very bad look. Imagine the 24-hour cable news cycle and social media full of video clips of a compromise nominee being booed, an angry walk-out by perhaps as many as 40 percent of pledged delegates, or members of Congress (all of whom are superdelegates) screaming and jabbing fingers in each other’s faces. It could, and very likely would, get ugly.
Although short-term benefits and consequences are always at the forefront of decision-making during elections, perhaps the most important consequence would be the disengagement of a large, young, and diverse faction within the Democratic Party. The effects would not be confined to 2020, either. Those voters may end up turning their backs on the Democrats for a long time. Sanders counts among his followers many younger people who are not otherwise strongly attached to the Democratic Party or electoral politics writ large. Many already harbor resentments from conspiracy theories about the fairness of the 2016 nomination process, but that ended with Sanders endorsing Hillary Clinton and campaigning vigorously for her. It is far more difficult to see that kind of unity again in 2020, as both groups are now openly antagonistic after four years of stewing. If Sanders is not the nominee, there is very little chance that either he or the majority of his supporters will be enthusiastic about whoever is.
Again, a brokered convention is not a certainty, and tomorrow’s Super Tuesday races could do much to clarify the odds. Superdelegates, of which the widely read New York Times piece of February 27 spoke with only a fraction, do not weigh in on the nomination if a candidate enters the convention with a majority of the pledged delegates. The vastly preferred outcome for every faction of the Democratic Party should be that some candidate does so.
Classic political science texts on political parties (John Aldrich’s Why Parties? or Party Politics in America by Marjorie R. Hershey) agree that the fundamental purpose of political parties is to nominate candidates, win elections, and attempt to enact policy. That description is difficult to dispute. That is why a brokered convention scenario in which Sanders or any other candidate enters the convention with a delegate lead and is not the nominee, is simply a terrible idea. If the primary goal is to win the election, there is no clear or even plausible path from alienating Sanders’s base of supporters to winning the election in November.
We can avoid the charged argument over whether a brokered outcome is unfair by focusing instead on the fact that it would be self-destructive and unlikely to produce a nominee with any chance to win.