The 1924 Democratic National Convention took fifteen days and 103 ballots to complete. Prominent progressive leader and future Senator, William Gibbs McAdoo won nearly all the primaries and finished with 59.8% of the popular vote. You likely do not know his name because the Democratic Party nominated John W. Davis to head the ticket in that year’s presidential election. You also likely do not know his name either, because Republican Calvin Coolidge won in a landslide, winning 54% of the popular vote while Robert M. La Follette ran a third-party progressive campaign which captured just 12% less of the vote than the Democratic ticket.
In 1952, Senator Estes Kefauver dominated the Democratic primary in a similar fashion as McAdoo. He led on the first ballot at the convention, but it was not enough to clinch it, and Adlai Stevenson (who didn’t even run in the primary) was appointed by Democratic power brokers at the convention to face General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the general election. Stevenson won nine states and Eisenhower became the only Republican to gain office in the years between Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Which brings me to today’s report in the New York Times about some Democratic superdelegate plans for the 2020 Democratic convention in a piece titled “Democratic Leaders Willing to Risk Party Damage to Stop Bernie Sanders.”
Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times has interviewed 93 party officials — all of them superdelegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention — and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.
On MSNBC, a former Obama adviser asserted that us voters don’t even have the right to pick the Democratic nominee.
If Sanders falls short of 50% and this superdelegate backroom plan comes to fruition, it will hand reelection to President Trump. Guaranteed. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.
We have two historical examples proving how damaging this is to a party’s ability to turn its voters out when they need them the most. How can you convince a voter that their vote matters and is desperately needed when you just proved to them a few months ago that it does not?
Plus, it won’t just be this election where this move would cripple Democrats. Both the 1924 and 1952 defeats brought an additional one four years later. It is difficult to be more alienating to voters than vetoing their votes.
These Superdelegates Are Willing to Risk Losing Entire Generations for One Election
According to an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released last week, 53% of people under the age of 45 are Democrats, versus 33% as Republicans. This is one of the biggest demographic advantages of the Democratic Party. Over half, 54%, of 45-year-old and younger Democrats support Bernie Sanders. In 2018, there were more Gen X, millennial, and Gen Z voters than voters from Boomers and older generations. It doesn’t take a degree in advanced statistics to see what a hundred superdelegates leading the charge to overrule millions of young people would do to the future of the Democratic Party (not to mention the fact that these superdelegates spearheaded the 2016 loss to Trump).
This would also be irreparably damaging to American democracy itself. The Marist poll reveals that people under 45 are almost evenly split on their opinion of whether elections are fair in this country, versus a +15% edge in the over 45 crowd who believe democracy is alive and well. Taking the election away from Bernie Sanders if he wins the most votes is certain to flip the under 45 perspective negative, and the only question left would be how far it would fall into the red. Most folks believing that elections are not free and fair here is complete and total uncharted territory for this democracy, and that is the direction we are guaranteed to travel if the Democratic superdelegates execute their scheme.
This doesn’t just threaten the legitimacy of the party, but the entire foundation upon which our electoral system rests. Democracy only works if we believe it does.
Now, those of us on the left should not let these entirely predictable events fill us with dismay. The 93 superdelegates the Times spoke to comprise roughly 12% of the total superdelegates who would vote on a second ballot at the convention. A superdelegate is any major party official, which means that Sanders allies like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are superdelegates just like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (which is why the only answer to any of these battles is to win office and gain power). Plus, rumors of a brokered convention are an American tradition.
Additionally, the pundit math assumes the votes for the moderate candidates will all coalesce behind one moderate alternative, which is far too simplistic and simply wrong. Morning Consult tracks the Democratic primary daily, and as of this writing, they estimate that 33% of Biden supporters, 38% of Warren supporters, 20% of Bloomberg supporters and 20% of Buttigieg supporters would all flip to Sanders if their candidate were to drop out. It’s entirely possible and maybe even likely that Bernie Sanders could fall short of 50% needed delegates on the first ballot and win on the second with supporters from other candidates and his slice of the superdelegates pushing him across the finish line.
Regardless of the nuances of this race, a healthy party does not publicly pledge to rob the candidacy from its current frontrunner in the nascent stages of the primary. That courageously anonymous Beltway elites are even discussing this prospect out in public when Sanders has 2% of the total pledged delegates he needs to obtain is proof positive of the rot atop the party which enabled the 2016 humiliation to a game show host. If the Democratic establishment wants to stop a Sanders nomination, then they should follow Sanders’ lead and try to whip up popular support for their preferred nominee, instead of publicly pledging to mount a coup and alienate half of Democrats under the age of 45 for at least a decade, if not a generation.