A Contested Convention Would Be a Crazy Nightmare

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As the world burns, we on “the left” will continue to focus exclusively on how to propel Bernie Sanders OR Elizabeth Warren to the White House, and also on how much we all consider one another to be vile sellouts. I will now put forth an argument for why a popular electoral strategy on the left is dangerously misguided. Read it and wail!

We will start here, as always, with the premise that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the two best candidates in the race, and that, if you are a moral person with a fair understanding of the most important problems facing America at this time, you must want one of them to become president in 2020. If you dispute this premise, there are many places to discuss that dispute, but this particular essay on this website today is not one of them. (We also will not be having a long and pedantic discussion here about what does and does not qualify as “left”—that’s what podcasts are for.)

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For Democrats, this presidential election is not comparable to 2016. It is not one establishment candidate and one antiestablishment candidate running to succeed a popular two-term Democratic president; it is two decent candidates on the left, one decrepit but popular establishment former Vice President harkening back to olden days, and a dozen assorted randos scrambling to be anointed as the one who will save America from fascist disaster. Some are doing it out of ego, or from pure habit, and a couple are doing it because they are well prepared to tackle the underlying problems that got us here.

From the beginning, I feared that having two good lefty candidates created a serious possibility of a nightmare scenario in which the progressive vote was split, opening a lane for a centrist like Joe Biden to waltz into the nomination, with a majority of Democrats coalescing around him as the “safe” choice as the left argued amongst ourselves. For that reason—and because Bernie is an old white guy—I would have preferred that he back Warren from the beginning, influencing her policies for the better and using his clout to propel her to the nomination, rather than having both of them run.

After they both decided to run, I proposed another solution: since the important thing is that either Bernie or Warren win, whichever of them is losing by Super Tuesday—March 3, 2020, when a slew of important states hold their primary votes—should drop out and throw their support behind the other. This would allow them both ample time to run their campaigns and say whatever they want to say to America and participate in multiple state primaries, but would also let whichever one has weaker support bow out and ensure that they would help the candidate whose policies and beliefs most resemble their own. It would, in essence, allow them to sacrifice their candidacy in order to promote their ideals, and avoid the whole “splitting the progressive vote” issue.

A response to this idea that I heard from several lefties was that such an agreement is not necessary in 2020. This counterargument was summed up well by Ryan Cooper, writing in The Week. (Please read it all because I am about to gloss over some arcane DNC rules.) It has two main points. First, that the Democratic primary is not winner-take-all, but rather awards delegates proportionally, so it makes sense for Bernie and Warren both to stay in the race, because they can always aim to secure the nomination on the floor of a contested convention: “The party’s primary process doles out delegates on a proportional basis and the crowded field means it will be quite possible for nobody to win on the first vote at the 2020 convention. So long as Warren and Sanders are pulling from different demographic categories, and both can remain above the 15 percent threshold for getting some delegates, it makes sense for both of them to stay in and try to beat Biden at the convention.”

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And second, that it is not the case that Sanders voters would automatically go to Warren if he dropped out, or that Warren voters would automatically go to Sanders if she dropped out; current polls show that the second choice of both Sanders and Warren voters is just as likely to be Biden as it is to be the other lefty.

Let me take the second point first. Of course it is not the case that a candidate can drop out and wave a magic wand and send 100 percent of his supporters to another candidate of his choosing. But the relevant question here is not, “Do current polls show that the second choice of many Sanders and Warren voters is Biden?” The relevant question is, “Will either Sanders or Warren dropping out and throwing their support behind the other make it more likely that one of them wins the nomination than simply continuing on their campaigns against one another?” It is not going overboard to assume that a strong endorsement from Sanders or Warren for the other would have some positive effect on their support relative to Biden et al. If Warren were to drop out and tell her wavering supporters, “You must vote for Bernie, he is the only possible choice to carry the torch for my policies, it is vital that you support him,” it is reasonable to expect that some portion of her voters would be swayed by that—they believe in her, after all—and would take her advice. So the actual portion of these voters that would migrate to the other lefty candidate would be greater than the current level in polls, because there would be a strong endorsement! Followed by active campaigning for the candidate in question! And a sharing of political resources! The basic point is that in the event that one of them dropped out and endorsed the other, there would be an increase in support for the one who was endorsed, and a strengthening in their relative standing in the race that would not occur if both Warren and Sanders march on to the bitter end with their campaigns. Furthermore, if polls remain something like they are now—with Warren and Biden roughly tied, and Sanders in third—having the majority of Sanders voters migrate to Warren could be the decisive margin of victory that she needs.

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Now, to the point about the contested convention. It is true, as a point of fact, that the current structure of Democratic primary rules do allow for a (not so far fetched!) scenario in which Biden, Warren, and Sanders all win more than 15 percent of the primary vote in many states, and we end up at the convention without any candidate having a decisive number of delegates on the first ballot, which would open up a true floor fight at the convention. As Ryan Cooper writes, “So long as both Warren and Sanders are behind Biden but above the 15 percent threshold, it may make good tactical sense for both to stay in the race, and to try to win by combining forces at the convention — at which point superdelegates might actually decide the outcome for once, despite the post-2016 reforms reducing their influence.”

Speaking as a reporter who may be covering the conventions, this would be great. Political conventions are news-free made-for-TV events dripping in insincerity and hypocrisy, and having some actual excitement there would be fun. Speaking as someone who wants the best possible Democrat to win the nomination and then go on to defeat Donald Trump, having Sanders or Warren secure the nomination in this manner would be an absolute fucking disaster. Are you crazy??? Does anyone remember the 2016 Democratic convention? I do. What I saw there were thousands and thousands of Bernie supporters who were full of righteous fury about the fact that powerful political insiders had worked to shut Bernie out of a fair and democratic shot at the nomination. With good reason! Now, just four years later, we have lefties casually embracing a plan in which Bernie takes the nomination away from a candidate who got more votes than him via superdelegate-powered insider machinations at the convention.

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That is not good.

It is not a good plan. It is a bad scenario to embrace! There is nothing imaginable that could more intensely splinter and embitter Democratic voters, and the last fucking thing we need in an election against Donald Trump is a situation in which half of Democratic voters are righteously pissed off about party insiders stealing the nomination outside of the normal voting process. More insider machinations is not the direction that we need to be moving in the Democratic party. Quite the opposite. It is bananas for progressive voters with two good candidates at their disposal to imagine that this is something that we should simply proceed toward without trying to do anything to avoid it. The reason that a lefty can win the presidency in 2020 is that we are going to have higher and more energized Democratic turnout than in 2016, because people are very motivated to vote against Trump. The only way to fuck that up is to have something happen that would instantly and profoundly disillusion a huge portion of the party. That’s what this is.

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Would I support Bernie or Warren in a convention fight over Biden? Sure. Of course. Biden is also bad. And if we had reached a point where our options were constrained within the rules of a convention fight, you would obviously try to have the best candidate win, not the worst. But, to be extremely clear, a convention fight should be considered a scenario that we do not want to deal with if we don’t have to. And we don’t have to. Because we are having this conversation now, months before the first primaries, and not on the eve of a convention in which three candidates have split the vote. We can see that this is a possibility, and we can imagine how bad it would be, and we can act to ensure that it does not happen, so that we can A) get a truly progressive Democratic nominee and B) win the presidency. That can be accomplished, as I pointed out before, by either Bernie or Warren dropping out after Super Tuesday and campaigning hard for whichever of the two of them is ahead. This plan still allows them to campaign for a whole damn year and make their cases and say everything they want to say and to allow voters to cast their votes and demonstrate where the support lies. And after that—while there is still time—whoever is losing sucks it up and takes one for the cause. The cause is important, not the name on it.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com