Democrats May Be Headed For Another Primary Disaster Of Their Own Making

All the states participating in Super Tuesday, March 3rd. Now including California!

Let’s back up and review how the Democratic Primaries work this year: because some aspects are very different than any election year before. 

Before we get into all the complicated stuff: remember first of all, it’s not like the general election. If a Democratic Presidential candidate “wins” a state, that doesn’t automatically mean all the pledged delegates in that state go to that candidate. That’s great, right? Sort of. Because delegates are not really allocated by popular vote either. And in some potential scenarios very much not.

As long as a candidate is among those getting 15% or more of the vote, the delegates are proportionately divided up. Using the New Hampshire results as an example, Bernie Sanders won with 25.7% of the vote and got 9 delegates, Amy Klobuchar came in 3rd behind Pete Buttigieg, but her 19.8% is more than 15%, so she still got 6 delegates, Elizabeth Warren got 9.2% of the vote; 0 delegates.

If a candidate doesn’t clear the 15% threshold, their votes get divided up among those who did, and so the front runners proportionately get more delegates.

Pretty simple so far.

Now here’s where it gets tricky:

  • What if no candidate clears 15% of the total vote? With Bloomberg entering the race and no one else appearing to be on the verge of dropping out, this could happen. In that case, the delegates would still get divided up, but not evenly among whomever’s in the field. Instead, the person with the highest percentage of votes would be considered the new benchmark, and in order to get any delegates, the trailing candidates would have to get at least 50% of what that person got in order to get any delegates. In other words, if the “winner” of a certain state only got 14% of the total vote, other candidates would now have to clear 7% in order to get delegates, not 15% anymore. .
  • Conversely, if only one candidate clears 15% (that’s also likely to become more likely after Bloomberg comes in) then it’s winner take all for that person in that state. Even if one candidate gets just a tad over 15%, and two or three others get 14% plus, which is also very possible, it’s still winner take all for the candidate with 15%.

So you can probably already start mapping out how either of those possibilities could lead to a lot of inequity. And anger.

Would it be fair if one candidate with just a small handful more votes than another gets all the delegates for a particular state just because they’re dangling on the positive side of that magic 15% threshold and their opponent isn’t? No. But those are the rules this time.

In a lot of ways it’s a system designed with a 2 or 3 person race in mind, not a 7-way.

This week Democrats have got Nevada, then they’ve got South Carolina, then it’s Super Tuesday, March 3rd. That’s when many states all have their primaries on the same day. It’s always been a big deal. But it has the potential to get very, very messy this year because of a major change.

That’s because California’s joining in this time around, moving its primary earlier. And California has more delegates than anybody: 415. (Compare that to the 24 fought for so dearly in New Hampshire).

So now, including California, Super Tuesday this year will account for 1,357 of the 3,979 total pledged Democratic delegates to be had to send to their national convention. That’s 34% or slightly more than 1 in 3 of all the pledged delegates available. So it’ll be really hard to play catch up much after that day. (Even though a few big states, like New York, do still have their primaries later.)

So where exactly is the potential mess? Wouldn’t this giant Super Tuesday event more likely snap things suddenly into focus much earlier than usual? Yes, that’s possible. Candidates who don’t do well that day almost certainly will drop out. Thing is, if they don’t drop out fast enough (and no one really knows what fast enough is), could end up with a situation where candidates who are fairly close on the political spectrum cumulatively amass a huge number of votes, but garner almost no delegates between them (because individually they repeatedly fail to break 15%). And therefore have no delegates to hand off to whomever they may endorse at the time they drop out.

If this scenario plays out, the most likely beneficiary will be Bernie Sanders, since he appears to be considerably ahead on the “progressive” side of the field, and is leading the entire field in a lot of places too, while the “moderates” are more bunched up in a pack.

And if Bernie just edges out those moderates in terms of votes but comes away with a huge advantage in number of delegates, that’s sure to leave a whole swath of Democrats upset and angry at the party’s eventual choice. And that, in turn only benefits one person: Trump. Who needs Democrats to be furious at each other to win.

But we’re just getting started here

Potential mess #2: what if no one Democratic candidate commands a majority 1,991 delegates going into the convention, so no one will be able to seal their nomination on the first ballot?

Then guess what? Superdelegates come into play again. Who are now called
“Automatic Party Leaders and Elected Official Delegates”, or “automatic delegates” for short. Because they jump in and start voting in round 2. Which means if there is a contested, or brokered convention, it’ll likely be decided by Superdelegates–who are elected or other party officials, but were not elected as delegates in the primaries. (And presumably, Bernie loses his advantage here. So he almost must go into the convention with an insurmountable delegate lead).

If you remember, the role and influence of Superdelegates caused massive controversy in 2016, and because of that, they’re sitting out the first ballot at the convention this time around. But if there is no decision on the first ballot, they’re likely to be the deciding votes on the 2nd or subsequent ballot.

And if a moderate just edges out Bernie as a result, that’s sure to leave a whole swath of Democrats upset and angry at the party’s eventual choice. And that, in turn only benefits one person: Trump. Who needs Democrats to be furious at each other to win.

Didn’t we just say this about another possible scenario above, that’d be almost the opposite? Yes. Both would be terrible outcomes. And both would be self-inflicted.

How likely is a brokered or contested convention? It’s something political pundits and analysts love to fantasize about: it’s like a unicorn for them. They talk about it every time there’s an election like it’s a real possibility or even a probability, but then it never happens. At least not in our lifetimes. In fact, the last time there was a brokered convention was in 1952.

But because of the changes to Superdelegates, and Super Tuesday, and the large number of candidates who’ll still be in it on Super Tuesday (with Bloomberg still to come), it’s more likely than ever that they’ll finally get their wish this year. Though it’s still hard for us to believe it’ll actually happen.

And anyway, let’s end on a positive note: the Democratic primary should definitely get more interesting in the next couple of weeks, if not all the way through the convention, and whomever does emerge with the nomination is sure to have gone through a gauntlet of some kind, which will at least prove they’ve got some resonance and staying power. Won’t it?