Democrats Should Prepare for a Contested Convention

Why “Super Delegates” May End Up Deciding the Nominee

Tonight, Democrats in Iowa caucused to award the first 41 of the 1,990 delegates needed to win the 2020 Democratic nomination. Democrats are going to experience one of the most competitive races in years, and I think there’s a high probability that the Democratic convention will open in July Milwaukee without a clear first-ballot winner. In that event, convention delegates will end up determining the nominee on subsequent ballots for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Here’s why.

First of all, there are at least four candidates (and maybe more) who have the support and the financial means to stay relevant until March — those are former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (who seems to have taken significant support recently from Democratic voters sympathetic to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren), former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former mayor / businessman Michael Bloomberg.

Second, consider the rules of the Democratic nomination process. When there are multiple candidates consistently polling in the double-digits, it is very difficult for any one candidate to collect a majority of convention delegates. Democrats allocate delegates proportionally to all candidates who exceed 15% of the vote in a state or district.

Third, the Democratic schedule is much more front-loaded this year than in prior years, making it easier for marginal candidates to stay relevant until a majority of convention delegate are chosen. In prior years, a candidate had to raise money and win votes in multiple states over a grueling four-month gauntlet in order to be competitive at the convention. This year, 69% of the delegates will be chosen by the end of March … that’s 13% more than in 2016.

It appears that Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren and maybe Senator Amy Klobuchar will come with away delegates from Iowa. Next up is New Hampshire, with 24 more delegates up for grabs. Senator Bernie Sanders (who hails from neighboring Vermont) was sure to do well even before his surge in Iowa, and now he has an opportunity to consolidate support from supporters of Senator Elizabeth Warren. According to recent polls, Sanders and Buttigieg may end up dividing the delegate count, though former VP Biden is lurking right below 15% and could break into the mix.

If both Iowa and New Hampshire go to Sanders, history would suggest that Biden has a tough road ahead. In the last 40 years, just one person has gone on to win the presidency after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire — Bill Clinton.

After New Hampshire, two more key states hold their primaries. Nevada goes first with 36 delegates on Feb. 22, and then South Carolina (which carries the biggest prize among these early states, with 54 delegates) votes the following week. In both the Silver State and in South Carolina, Biden has been leading comfortably and is likely to win the most delegates.

In Nevada, an average of the last few polls has the former VP at just over 20%, with Sanders right behind. Biden and Sanders could split the 36 delegates more or less evenly. In South Carolina, Biden has been averaging just over 30% and leading comfortably, Sanders polling at just below 20%, and businessman Tom Steyer (who is spending a lot ) just above the magic 15% threshold. South Carolina would then divide 26 to Biden, 15 to Sanders and 14 to Steyer.

Going into the Super Tuesday contests on March 3, Biden would hold a slim lead over Sanders, 68–63. Super Tuesday will happen on March 3, with 16 states and territories and over a third of all delegates to the convention. In theory, this is where Biden should start pulling away. Demographically, African-Americans will represent over 40% of Democratic voters in most of these states, and Biden recently has been leading that voter group by over 20 points. Biden also leads in two of the three largest states — Texas and North Carolina.

But Michael Bloomberg is a wild card here. He is now spending over $100 million a month — an unprecedented number — and is running fourth or fifth nationally now (see yesterday’s Morning Consult poll). He is explicitly targeting Super Tuesday states, and he will be a factor throughout the remainder of the campaign, pulling largely from would-be Biden voters.

The other wild card is California, by far the biggest state in the field with 495 delegates. Every recent poll taken here since Thanksgiving has shown a very tight race, and recently Sanders has been leading the pack, with Biden falling behind by double digits.

If Biden can’t establish a clear majority of delegates by Super Tuesday, then it will be almost mathematically impossible to get to 1,990 delegates by June. In that case, the 765 “super delegates” could decide the nomination. They will be prohibited from voting on the first ballot (that’s a new rule) but they will take over the second ballot and would swing the decision in a close vote.

The last time this happened on the Democratic side was in 1952, when Sen. Estes Kefauver (the front-runner) couldn’t beat Vice President Alben Barkley, whose fractured relationship with labor cost him the nomination. Democrats instead nominated Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson II. The party then felt that Stevenson would be able to unify the party, which went through a platform fight over civil rights.

President Harry Truman played a key role in that convention in Chicago, ordering some of the candidates out of the contest, and the party came out of Chicago largely unified and happy. It may take another “Chicago Miracle,” this time in the form of President Barack Obama, to unify the Democrats.

Former C-suite at PayPal, Sonos, eBay. Now general partner & founder at Practical VC, a secondary venture capital fund.