Why the Democrats might be on track for a contested convention

Unless Bernie Sanders separates himself from a divided field, the Democrats could be headed for a contested convention in July.

Bernie Sanders is out in front - but he has to start winning big to avoid a contested convention

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is leading the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, but is far from being in a position to win a majority of delegates to the party's July convention. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

The race for the Democratic nomination has a front runner and his name is Bernie Sanders. But does that mean he's the candidate most likely to take on Donald Trump in November?

Not exactly.

There's one obvious reason why it's way too early to say Sanders will be named the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in July. Only two states have voted and more than 98 per cent of delegates have yet to be awarded. A lot can happen over the next five months.

Sanders's support has proved resilient, though. There is every indication he can keep up this pace.

But while this pace might be good enough to win more delegates than any of his rivals, it might not be brisk enough to win him a majority. That would result in a contested convention in Milwaukee — with a potentially unpredictable outcome.

The rules governing Democratic primaries and caucuses differ from state to state, but they generally give all registered Democrats (and, in some cases, Independents and even Republicans) a chance to vote.

But the process determines the allegiance of the 3,979 delegates who get to go to the Democratic National Convention. Normally, the eventual nominee has already secured a majority of delegates by that point, making the vote a formality.

That might not happen this time. If it doesn't, the decision on who becomes the next Democratic nominee will be made by delegates on the convention floor — much like the delegated conventions that, until recently, were common in Canada.

On this side of the border, these conventions have generated some unexpected outcomes. Stéphane Dion was the compromise candidate who won the 2006 Liberal leadership race, despite finishing in third place on the first ballot behind frontrunners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Joe Clark (in 1976) and Brian Mulroney (in 1983) both became the Progressive Conservative leaders without leading on the first ballot.

It's too early to even speculate about what might happen if the Democrats wind up in a contested convention. Everything would depend on who's still in the running and how many delegates they have. But it isn't too early to recognize that, unless there is an important shift in the race, there's a strong possibility that the party is on track for a long, hot summer of internecine politics.

Sanders vs. the moderates

It really comes down to math. Sanders just might not have the numbers working in his favour.

The Vermont senator won the most votes in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, but he doesn't have the delegates to show for it. Though delegates are largely awarded proportionally, that sharing-out can depend on how each candidate's vote is regionally distributed. According to the latest estimates, Sanders has 21 delegates compared to 23 for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Sanders's results in Iowa and New Hampshire were relatively modest — 26 per cent of the vote in both contests. That kind of result is enough to top a divided field, but it doesn't deliver a lot of delegates.

Sanders is cornering one big segment of the Democratic electorate while his rivals split up the rest. According to entrance and exit polls from the two states, just under a quarter of voters considered themselves "very liberal." Sanders averaged 44.5 per cent of the vote in the two states among these voters, putting him 21 points ahead of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Among "somewhat liberal" voters (about two-fifths of the electorate in the two states), Sanders ran nearly even with Buttigieg.

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., scored two surprises with strong performances in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. But the next votes will take place in more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina, where Buttigieg has less support. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Only among "moderate" voters (about a third of the Democratic electorate) did Sanders run behind. Buttigieg averaged 26 per cent among these voters, putting him narrowly ahead of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (23.5 per cent). Former vice-president Joe Biden followed with 18 per cent. Sanders took 14 per cent and Warren just five per cent.

Better performances among moderates would have delivered both Iowa and New Hampshire to Sanders easily. But he will keep winning as long as he continues to be competitive among more centrist Democrats, runs up the numbers among progressives and lets his rivals divvy up the pie of moderates among them.

A very long road to 1,990

It looks like the field will continue to be divided for some time to come. In the wake of his poor showing so far, Biden's support in national polls has been dropping. But no moderate candidate has been the sole beneficiary of Biden's slide; Buttigieg and Klobuchar are both making gains, as is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Support for Buttigieg and Klobuchar, however, remains relatively modest — and Bloomberg isn't even contesting the first four states on the primary calendar (Nevada on Feb. 22 and South Carolina on Feb. 29 are next).

The race heats up on March 3, when 14 states (and American Samoa) vote in what's known as "Super Tuesday." Sanders is likely to do well across the board — his support is relatively uniform across the country and among different demographic groups. 

That means Sanders is likely to emerge from Super Tuesday with a lot of delegates, while each of his opponents are well-positioned to win delegates in certain parts of the country. Biden is banking on the South, due to his strong support among African Americans. Buttigieg could contend in less diverse states and Klobuchar and Warren in their home states. Bloomberg is looking like he could do well — particularly in places where he has spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money on campaign ads.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar finished a surprising third in the New Hampshire primary, significantly beating her polls. She scored well among moderate voters in particular. (Robert Bukaty / Associated Press)

According to the forecast estimates from FiveThirtyEight, Sanders hypothetically could come out of Super Tuesday with nearly 40 per cent of the delegates — roughly twice as many as any of his rivals.

That's a problem. Assuming Sanders is somewhere around 600 delegates, that would put him about 1,400 shy of what he would need on the convention floor to win a majority. But after Super Tuesday, only about 2,500 delegates will still be up for grabs. That means Sanders would need to win more than 55 per cent of delegates in the remaining caucuses and primaries.

That's a tall order for a candidate who hasn't polled higher than 30 per cent throughout this election cycle and won just 45 per cent of delegates against a single opponent (Hillary Clinton) in the 2016 primaries.

To avoid a contested convention, Sanders will need to separate himself from the field — while hoping it stays divided. There is a decent prospect the field will remain fractured and a contested convention looks like a real possibility — which would serve as an incentive for candidates to stay in the running and take their chances on the convention floor. But if Sanders does separate himself from his divided opponents, there's a greater chance that the field (and voters) will consolidate behind a single moderate.

Perhaps developments in the next few weeks will make this discussion moot. But it seems the major moderate candidates are, for the time being at least, prepared to stick it out for the long haul.

With only two states having voted, it's obvious that this race is far from over. But it could take a lot longer than usual for the likely nominee to emerge.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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