The final question at last night’s Democratic debate in Nevada, as Dave Hopkins and Ed Kilgore pointed out, was about what should happen in a contested convention — and five of the six candidates on the stage disagreed with Bernie Sanders, who insisted that whoever gets a plurality of votes in the primaries should therefore be the nominee.
I’ve already written about how a contested convention is probably less likely than some believe. But it certainly is possible. So is Sanders right about what should happen, or are the other candidates?
It’s a tricky question: No one is right about this kind of thing. Party conventions are just more of the nomination process. Their decisions are political, and, like the rest of the nomination process, decided along political and not ethical lines.
In other words, the answer is “It depends,” and what it depends on is the political context.
Yes, the candidate who won the most votes would be able to argue based on that fact. But a situation where a candidate wins half of the votes but falls just shy of half of the delegates is very different from one in which several contenders each win a quarter of the voters or less. In that case, candidates would make claims based on their total votes won, their margin of plurality over the other candidates, the number of delegates they have, any national polls that show them as the favorite of party voters, and any polls that show them doing well in the general election. If a candidate didn’t have the largest group of delegates but won more states at the end of the primaries, he or she would argue that the late ones are more important.
Not all arguments are equally valid. A candidate who wins primaries in general election swing states will claim electability, but there’s no reason to believe that winning a state’s primary is a meaningful predictor of general election success. Similarly, I’m sure candidates would tout their success with swing demographic groups in primaries, but again that might be meaningless for the general election.
Nevertheless, the delegates, and any party leaders they care to listen to, would be free to consider — or ignore — any of these arguments.
The real question isn’t so much how the convention would weight various factors in reaching their decision. The real question is whether all the candidates would be willing to abide by that decision, and to do so with a sufficiently strong endorsement that their followers would choose to accept it and work for the ticket in the general election. If a contested convention does appear to be likely in the next few weeks, the best thing that party leaders could do would be to secure the strongest possible commitments from each of the contenders to do just that.
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg