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How The Democrats’ New Party Rules Could Turn Their 2020 Convention Into A Free-For-All

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Anders Hagstrom White House Correspondent
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The Democratic presidential field has grown smaller and smaller as the party’s convention in Milwaukee approaches, but some strategists are worried it’s not nearly small enough.

A confluence of superdelegates, a packed field, and new rule changes have brought about the possibility of a contested convention, something Democrats haven’t dealt with since 1952. In most years, Democratic Party conventions are little more than coronations, with the winning presidential candidate becoming obvious weeks ahead of time. In a contested convention, however, none of the candidates would have the majority necessary to secure the nomination, leaving candidates to barter for votes behind closed doors.

The red flag causing whispers of a contested convention to be taken more seriously this year is the downgraded role of superdelegates at the 2020 convention. While normal Democratic delegates are pledged to a candidate before the convention begins, superdelegates – who are often party insiders – are free to vote for whichever candidate they choose.

DES MOINES, IOWA - JANUARY 14: Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) reacts as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) makes a point during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Six candidates out of the field qualified for the first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, IOWA – JANUARY 14: Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) reacts as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) makes a point during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Six candidates out of the field qualified for the first Democratic presidential primary debate of 2020, hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This structure is a long-standing practice for Democrats, but it lead to an uproar in 2016 when many viewed superdelegate votes for Hillary Clinton as a party elite veto of Bernie Sanders. (RELATED: Rigged? Bernie Wins In Wyoming, But Hillary Leaves With More Delegates)

As a result, superdelegates won’t be allowed to vote until the convention’s second ballot, should there be one. Instead, the only votes cast in the first round will be from regular delegates, which are awarded to candidates in proportion to their performances in state primaries.

This is where the state primary rules come into play. A candidate needs just 15 percent of the vote to earn a share of a state’s delegates. This means that as polls stand today, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg are all likely to take a slice of delegates from most states, making it starkly possible for none of them to reach a true majority of delegates before the convention. (RELATED: CNN’s Jake Tapper Challenged DNC Chair To Explain ‘Rigged’ Superdelegate System)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)) walk on the stage after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)) walk on the stage after the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Biden may be able to nip these fears at the bud if he is able to sweep the first four primary states and pressure the poor-performers out of the race. The first four states are Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Biden has a 6-point lead in Iowa, a 4-point lead in Nevada, and a 17-point lead in South Carolina. He is only losing in New Hampshire, where he has been chipping away at Sanders’ now 2-point lead. (RELATED: ‘Bull****’: Buttigieg Flips Out On NYT Writer Who Says He ‘Was On The Front Lines Of Corporate Price Fixing)

Were Biden not to sweep the opening states, however, the first ballot at the convention may have no clear winner, leaving candidates to barter with one another behind closed doors and court superdelegates for the second ballot, all as cameras broadcast the disarray to the entire country.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 20: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were chosen from the larger field of candidates to participate in the debate hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Punting superdelegates to the second ballot was intended to lessen their perceived control over nominations, but under the current structure they would essentially serve as kingmakers in the second ballot. (RELATED: VOTE: Who Will Be The 2020 Democratic Party Nominee?)

A contested convention may not be the end of the world, however. Biden has held a consistent, if fluctuating, lead over his opponents throughout the primary, and he’s likely to enter the convention with at least a plurality of delegates. It is entirely possible that Biden maintains his lead through the first ballot and the superdelegates fall into line to propel him to the nomination. (RELATED: A Third Of Democratic Primary Voters Expected Elizabeth Warren To Perform Best At Debates)

But all bets are off if the superdelegates don’t behave, according to Republican strategist Karl Rove.

“Imagine the anger on some parts of the convention floor if the superdelegates — party insiders and elites — go for someone other than the first-ballot leader.”