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What’s the Best Way for Parties to Pick Presidential Nominees?

Contested conventions have pluses and minuses, writes Brennan Center Fellow Walter Shapiro.

February 20, 2020
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Drew Angerer/Getty

A single tweet on the even­ing of May 3, 2016, abruptly changed the way we nomin­ate pres­id­en­tial candid­ates. After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with­drew from the GOP race after losing the Indi­ana primary, Repub­lican National Commit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus tweeted, “@real­Don­aldTrump will be presumptive @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeat­ing @Hil­laryC­lin­ton.”

Forget (if you can) Donald Trump, the 2016 candid­ate and pres­id­ent. In this case, what matters is that Priebus declared Trump the de facto nominee when the real­ity-show host was still nearly 200 deleg­ates short of a conven­tion major­ity. And while Cruz had indeed hois­ted the white flag, then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich was still plan­ning to fight on.

Never before in modern polit­ical history had a party chair­man prema­turely halted a pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion fight before a candid­ate had corralled a conven­tion major­ity.

Tradi­tion­ally, losing candid­ates in hotly contested races had taken their quix­otic fights to the conven­tion floor, as Sen. Ted Kennedy did against Jimmy Carter in 1980. The first major excep­tion to this rule was Hillary Clin­ton in 2008. Trail­ing Barack Obama by about 100 votes when the primar­ies ended, Clin­ton conceded the race after she lost a last-ditch fight over the allot­ment of deleg­ates in the DNC’s rules commit­tee. At the time, Clin­ton’s decision not to carry the struggle to the Denver conven­tion was regarded as a major conces­sion to party unity.

So how should a pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion battle be decided?

This is neither an airy abstrac­tion nor is it a half-forgot­ten arti­fact of 2016 Repub­lican primar­ies. It is, in truth, a vital ques­tion of Amer­ican demo­cracy — and it may be as relev­ant for the Demo­crats in 2020 as it was for Repub­lic­ans four years ago.

After the crackup in the 2020 Iowa caucuses and a close finish in the New Hamp­shire primary (with one-time fron­trun­ner former Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden finish­ing fifth), talk of a contested Demo­cratic conven­tion in Milwau­kee is increas­ing. The latest stat­ist­ical model at FiveThirtyEight estim­ates a 41 percent like­li­hood that no Demo­crat will have won a major­ity of deleg­ates by the time the primar­ies end in early June.

Already, Sen. Bernie Sanders had adop­ted his own version of the Reince Priebus line. In an inter­view with Chris Hayes on MSNBC after the New Hamp­shire primary, Sanders said that it would be “divis­ive” if the conven­tion failed to nomin­ate the deleg­ate leader after the primar­ies, even if that candid­ate did not have a major­ity. Reflect­ing an obvi­ously self-serving view, Sanders asked, how could the Demo­crats explain that “candid­ate X got the most votes and won the most deleg­ates at the primary process, but we’re not going to give him or her the nomin­a­tion?”

In truth, it is diffi­cult to predict how Demo­cratic voters would react to the 2020 nominee emer­ging from a contested conven­tion. (The tradi­tional phrase had been a “brokered conven­tion” until it became evid­ent that there were no longer polit­ical bosses who could broker a second-ballot nomin­a­tion for anyone in a smoke-less back room.)

A series of polls in the spring of 2016 asked GOP voters who the party should nomin­ate if no candid­ate won a major­ity in the primar­ies. The answers in the national surveys were roughly the same, even though the word­ing of the ques­tions varied. Typical was a mid-April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll find­ing that 62 percent of Repub­lic­ans believed that the conven­tion should pick the “candid­ate with the most votes in the primar­ies,” while only 33 percent opted for the “candid­ate who the deleg­ates think would be the best nominee.”

But, even though Trump’s name was not mentioned in many of these 2016 polls, GOP voters may have intu­ited that the entire ques­tion was about him. In this case, the impli­cit ques­tion would have been, “Do you want to nomin­ate Trump or let the GOP estab­lish­ment choose some­body else?” Trump’s grow­ing support among main­stream Repub­lican voters may have partially explained the unpop­ular­ity of the conven­tion pick­ing the nominee.

What is fascin­at­ing is that Demo­cratic voters in 2016 came to a diamet­ric­ally oppos­ite conclu­sion. 

A late April Suffolk Univer­sity/USA Today poll asked Demo­crats, “Do you think Bernie Sanders should with­draw from the race if Hillary Clin­ton has clinched the Demo­cratic nomin­a­tion or should he continue his campaign to the Demo­cratic National Conven­tion no matter what?” By a 54-to-37-percent margin, Demo­crats wanted Sanders to fight to the end, which may have partly reflec­ted the views of his die-hard support­ers.

The reason it is diffi­cult to obtain reli­able polling answers about a contested conven­tion is that few voters still remem­ber one. The last time that a Demo­cratic conven­tion actu­ally chose the nominee was prob­ably 1952 in Chicago when Adlai Steven­son was nomin­ated on the third ballot, although there was also uncer­tainty surround­ing John Kennedy’s first-ballot selec­tion in Los Angeles in 1960. Since then, conven­tions have become little more than TV back­drops for four-day infomer­cials by each polit­ical party. 

Complic­at­ing everything are two other factors. The Demo­cratic conven­tion would be elephant­ine as a decision-making body, with nearly 4,000 elec­ted deleg­ates plus 771 super­deleg­ates (mostly members of Congress and party offi­cials) who could vote for pres­id­ent only on a second ballot and after­wards. Also, there is virtu­ally no one still alive who under­stands conven­tion nomin­a­tion strategies. It is a once-common skill that has disap­peared over the years like the abil­ity to crank start a Ford Model T.

But ulti­mately, what choice do the Demo­crats have other than letting the conven­tion choose the nominee if there is not a party-wide consensus before the deleg­ates arrive in Milwau­kee?

It is hard to argue that a lead­ing candid­ate with, say, 35 percent of the deleg­ates has an auto­matic claim on the nomin­a­tion even though 65 percent of Demo­cratic voters preferred someone else. And maybe, despite the poten­tial for chaos, a contested Demo­cratic conven­tion could turn into the most rivet­ing real­ity TV show in years.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.