It looks like the Democrats might be headed for, to quote The Good Place (RIP), a “category 55 doomsday crisis.”
Remember 1968? The only party convention we collectively remember? Remember why we remember it? Because of the … you know, riots? Kind of like that.
The New York Times interviewed 93 superdelegates participating in this year’s July 13-16 Democratic National Convention. Of them, only nine said Bernie Sanders should be the party’s nominee if he doesn’t win a majority of delegates before the convention—even though he’s likely to arrive in Milwaukee with a plurality.
Record scratch. Freeze frame. You may be wondering how we ended up here.
The Pledged Delegate System
The reason this is coming up now and you have to hear the inherently irritating word “superdelegate” even earlier than usual is because of this sedan-sized clown car of candidates.
One candidate almost always wins a majority of delegates through primary contests.
Delegates go to candidates in rough proportion to how many votes the candidate won in their state. The number of, say, Georgia delegates awarded to Amy Klobuchar is dependent on how many votes Klobuchar got in Georgia.
However, because this Democratic primary resembles the house party in teen movies that was supposed to be a two- or three-person sleepover, but then spiraled out of control into a school-wide rager at which all mom’s vases got smashed, it’s possible the field has so divided up votes that no candidate will enter the convention with a majority of delegates. In fact, it’s probable: According to FiveThirtyEight, while Sanders has a 37% chance, the candidate with the highest chance (48%) of winning a majority of delegates before the convention is, and we quote, “no one.”
How the convention normally works is that in the first round of voting, 3,979 “pledged” delegates cast their vote for whomever they’re assigned based on how their state voted in its primary. Usually, through primary contests, one candidate has secured the 1,991-delegate majority necessary to win during this round, and the primary election ends. Drop the balloons! Hear Michelle Obama speak! Yay, democracy, yay liberalism, yay to staying in more!
The Return of the Superdelegates
The old rules allowed superdelegates (ugh) to vote during this round for whomever they, in their infinite wisdom, thought it best for the party to anoint; however, in 2016, Sanders supporters (those meddling kids!) loudly objected to the undemocratic nature of the superdelegate system and got superdelegates removed from the first round of voting.
Now it appears the superdelegates want their revenge, and will enact it during the second ballot, which, again, a convention almost never actually reaches. This time around, though, since “no one” will win a majority during the first round, it’s looking like a second round is imminent, making the contest a brokered/contested convention. Those 771 “unpledged” superdelegates are now in the game. Plus, in a twist that seems devised by the sadistic Gamemakers of the Hunger Games universe or their real-life equivalents, The Bachelor producers, even some of the previously pledged state delegates are “released,” making them unpledged and able to vote for whomever they choose, unbound by their state’s primary results.
Here’s the thing about superdelegates. Their very humble, inconspicuous, man-of-the-people title might mislead you, but they are not all actually average Joe populist heroes. Pew Research described them as “the embodiment of the institutional Democratic Party,” composed of “former presidents, congressional leaders and and big money fundraisers to mayors, labor leaders and longtime local party functionaries.” Sure, sounds like a group of folks who would be inclined to vote for a zillion-year-old Socialist Pied Piper to us.
Though they usually vote for whomever gets the most votes, superdelegate and former Vice President Walter Mondale put supporting Sanders without a majority almost out of the question, telling the Times: “(The superdelegates) will each do what they want to do, and somehow they will work it out. God knows how.”
The Superdelegate Uprising
Here’s where the “category 55” part comes in. The Democratic Establishment and Sanders have made no secret of their mutual ire.
Though Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted during a closed-door House meeting “whoever our nominee is, we will enthusiastically embrace,” many establishment Democrats count themselves among the “Stop Sanders” crowd. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on ABC’s This Week that Sanders is “stoppable,” and advised moderates to “coalesce around one person.” Representative Jim Himes, a superdelegate, revealed to the Times that “there’s a vibrant conversation about whether there is anything that can be done” to circumvent a Sanders nomination.
Most objections, naturally including those from Sanders’ fellow candidates, have been on the grounds of electability. “We need to pick a nominee who can beat Donald Trump and that means we gotta have someone who is talking to all parts of the party,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said on MSNBC.
Even so, that kind of top-down candidate selection spelled chaos when it last (clearly) occurred in 1968. At that convention, former President Lyndon Johnson’s behind-the-scenes dealings won Hubert Humphrey the nomination, despite his not competing in 13 primaries, narrowly beating an anti-war faction and sparking historic protests at the Chicago convention.
On MSNBC, David Plouffe, former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, warned of the consequences of an improperly brokered convention: “I believe that, whoever’s the plurality leader … we’re really going to take the nomination away from them in Milwaukee? I’m not sure the party recovers from that for decades.” he said. “And the party bosses have decided the person who got the most delegates is now not going to be the nominee? Parties don’t recover from that for a long time.”
Still, Super Tuesday—in which 1,344 pledged delegates, about a third of the overall total, will be awarded—is days away. The contest isn’t over. Forecasts show Sanders coming to Milwaukee with a lead but not a majority, though we saw how the forecasts turned out last time. Sanders could win a firm majority in the upcoming primaries, or Biden could catch up by the convention, or Marianne Williamson could place a hex on the entire enterprise and end democracy forever.