Every four years, the Democratic National Convention formally appoints a party nominee to take on a Republican candidate in the presidential race — usually, with little fanfare. The process that occurs after Super Tuesday results is generally rote, with minimal drama that American political spectators have come to crave from their electoral politics. As results show a divided Democratic party, the specter of a "brokered convention" or "contested convention," which is so routinely raised, might soon become a reality. The process that happens if no candidate receives enough delegates or a clear majority to become the party's nominee is making this round of primary elections spicier than ever.
But let’s back up for a second: What exactly is a brokered convention, and to what extent should we be bracing for one in 2020? A brokered convention is what happens when a candidate fails to win a majority of delegates in the first round of voting. Similarly, a contested convention is what happens when a candidate secures the lead in voting but not necessarily the nomination after the first ballot, as reported by the New York Times.
According to U.S. primary rules, a given candidate must secure more than half of the available pledged delegates — local officials who vow to represent the candidate at the party’s convention — in order to become the presumptive nominee. In order to win the Democratic party’s nomination in 2020, that means a candidate will need to win 1,991 delegates. Prior to the Super Tuesday vote, only 145 delegates have been allocated, with Sanders at 56 and former Vice President Joe Biden at 48, which should give you a good idea of just how many pledged delegates are still up for grabs at this early stage of the race.
But the prospect of a brokered convention largely hinges on what happens if no one clears that 1,991 benchmark. If one candidate is just below the threshold, they will likely call for the party to unify under one banner rather than contest the nomination. But if two candidates are jockeying for the top spot and no one winner seems clear, chaos will ensue.
In a brokered convention scenario, a big responsibility falls to what’s known as “superdelegates” — a group of party leaders and elected officials from each state who can support any candidate they choose at the convention, and are not bound by the results of any one primary. For context, there hasn't been a brokered convention scenario for Democrats since 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to win the general election.
This year, the possibility of a brokered convention seems less like political fan fiction and more likely a plausible reality. While Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as the solid frontrunner following the first rounds nominating contests (with the exception of Biden's South Carolina win), the still-crowded Democratic field could pose a threat to his potential to amass delegates during the coveted Super Tuesday voting spree, where big-delegate states like California and Texas are up for grabs. And, even if Sanders does emerge victorious, there are superdelegates chomping at the bit to deny him the nomination, all but certainly teeing up a messier-than-usual showdown on the convention floor in Milwaukee come July.
The plausibility of this scenario will become much more clear after the results of Super Tuesday are announced, and without one candidate commanding a decisive lead, anything will still be possible. If recent American history has proven anything, it’s that political outcomes have become increasingly impossible to predict, so grab a snack and settle in for what’s sure to be a wild summer in Milwaukee.