Democrats who were initially skeptical of the prospects for a brokered convention now see it as a likelier scenario with eight candidates still battling it out for the nomination.
As the Nevada caucuses approach, strategists say it’s becoming clear that none of the Democratic candidates are likely to win the majority of the delegates before the convention in July.
Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said he was once “extremely skeptical” of a brokered convention.
But lately, particularly with the Democratic Party requiring a proportional allocation of delegates, “it’s definitely seeming like it could happen.”
One Democrat who worked on two campaigns for former President Obama called a brokered convention “the biggest nightmare Democrats can imagine.”
“If you want to see a complete shit show, tune in to the brokered convention,” the Democrat said.
Adam Parkhomenko, who worked on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said “this is currently heading for a convention fight at this rate.”
“If the number of candidates scoring in the double-digits that are splitting delegates continue to do so through Super Tuesday and beyond, it’s just math, unless all of a sudden a number of candidates drop out,” he said.
While campaigns say they are focused on the upcoming primaries, they are quietly thinking more about building out their teams in the event that a brokered convention takes shape, according to sources on various campaigns.
The reason? Most candidates seem unlikely to suspend their campaigns before Super Tuesday, mainly because the money continues to flow into their campaign coffers.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I- Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised $34 million and $24 million, respectively, in the fourth quarter of 2019. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has also benefited from fundraising momentum since her third place finish in New Hampshire.
Even candidates who finished behind the top three in New Hampshire — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden — have raked in more than $20 million each. And former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been ascending in recent polls, has shown no signs of pulling back on spending with his self-funded campaign.
Another complicating factor is the calendar of nominating contests. The four early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — amount for just 6 percent of the overall delegates needed to win an outright nomination.
More than 50 percent of the delegates come in the March contests when states like California and Texas are up for grabs.
“The longer we go without a dominant front-runner, the greater the likelihood of a brokered convention,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who served as an aide on Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Payne said if the contests are split between three or four candidates, including Bloomberg, “the likelihood goes up exponentially.”
He added that the numbers game in a brokered convention scenario would work against Sanders in the long run.
“If it’s Bernie or even Warren on one side and three or four moderates on the other side, all with delegates, the odds are that the moderates would have enough delegates to team up and hold off a Sanders nomination,” Payne said.
In 2016, Sanders battled Clinton until the very end of the primary and vowed to take the fight to the convention.
“It is virtually impossible for Hillary Clinton to reach a majority of convention delegates by June 14th, which is the last day a primary will be held, with pledged delegates alone. She will need superdelegates to take her over the top at the convention in Philadelphia,” he said at the time. “In other words, the convention will be a contested contest.”
But in an MSNBC interview last week, Sanders said it would be a “very divisive moment” for the party if the candidate with the most delegates, or a plurality, doesn’t get the nomination.
At the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the six candidates on stage if the contender with the most delegates heading into the convention should win the nomination, even if it’s not a majority. Five candidates replied that the process should work its way out, meaning the primary should go to the convention where superdelegates would have a chance to vote on the second ballot.
But Sanders was opposed to that idea.
“I think the will of the people should prevail. Yes, the person with the most votes should become the nominee,” he said.
A brokered convention would pose a risk to party unity heading into the general election.
“That of course would be wrought with a lot of risk of alienating the progressive far-left segment of the party that you would still need engaged to beat Trump in November,” he said.
The last time a political party came this close to a brokered convention was in 1976, when the GOP split into two sides — one for Gerald Ford and the other for Ronald Reagan. But the tension eased by the summer heading into the convention.
“In general, pundits always like to predict a brokered situation. But the primaries and caucuses have worked their magic by nomination time in the post-1960s era,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, who acknowledged there’s a “serious possibility” of a brokered convention this time around.
To win the party nomination, a candidate needs to secure a majority of pledged delegates: 1,991. But because of a new rule implemented by the Democratic National Committee, reaching that number could be challenging for White House hopefuls.
The rule states that superdelegates — including Democratic leaders and lawmakers — could vote on the first ballot at the convention, helping to boost candidates who had a plurality of delegates. But because of the new rule, those delegates are not eligible to vote until the second round.
A convention fight “would be tough on Democrats, especially with new rules diminishing the power of superdelegates, because it would add to the perception of chaos and heighten already deep tensions within the party right before the general campaign,” Zelizer said.
“The party could still get over it because antipathy to Trump is so high,” Zelizer added. “But this would not be the process most Democrats were hoping for in 2020.”
It’s also not a scenario that many former skeptics were expecting earlier in the race.
“With how crazy this cycle has been, I wouldn’t be surprised if another crazy plot twist is still to come,” Vale said.