Two weeks ago, after a disappointing showing in Iowa and on the eve of more bad news in New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, published a memo outlining the Senator’s narrow path forward.
Almost seven pages long, the memo is a fascinatingly deceitful document, one that gestures towards a thesis that it never outright states: Warren is the best choice for the nomination and it’s unlikely she will win a majority of delegates. “Elizabeth Warren is the consensus choice of the widest coalition of Democrats in every corner of the country,“ Lau writes, noting her wide support in red counties in Iowa, her high favorability among still-deciding voters, and her strong organization in upcoming states.
Examining the weaknesses of her opponents, Lau concludes that “no candidate has come close yet to receiving majority support among the Democratic primary electorate, and there is no candidate that has yet shown the ability to consolidate support,” including Warren. He predicts that the race, after Super Tuesday, will narrow to a three-way contest between Biden, Sanders, and Warren.
Except: surviving into Super Tuesday isn’t a path to victory, nor is competing in a three-way race with two candidates who outpoll you. Yet looking past Super Tuesday, Lau barely makes an electoral argument, instead concluding that “Warren is the candidate with the highest potential ceiling of support and the one best positioned to unite the party and lead the Democratic ticket to defeat Donald Trump.”
He’s speaking, at least on some level, to the idea of a contested convention; where no candidate receives a majority of delegates on the first ballot, forcing everyone into a chaotic free-for-all second ballot. In the scenario which Lau seems to be preparing for, Warren would be the party’s strongest concensious option, a digestible bridge between the party’s center and left.
Going down the road of a contested convention almost certainly dooms the Democrats to disaster in 2020, if not beyond.
The potential of a polarity
As Bernie Sanders solidifies his lead in delegates, the idea of a contested convention is being publicly floated by party officials and candidates. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Bloomberg’s campaign manager acknowledged it was a option the campaign was preparing for, even going as far to reach out to delegates to gauge whether they would support Bloomberg. At the last debate, all candidates aside from Sanders expressed an openness to a second-ballot realignment.
The idea goes like this: if the moderate field continues to be so divided, it's likely that no candidate will be able to come close to Sanders in terms of overall delegates. However, a divided field also means it's unlikely that Sanders will be able to gain a majority of delegates. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight election model puts the current odds of Sanders winning a majority of delegates and no one winning a majority at roughly even. Without that majority, Sanders could potentially earn the most delegates yet lose the nomination on a second-ballot where delegates are free to switch alligence.
This is a risky, undemocratic proposition without any clear benefits. Even acknowledging the radical nature of Sanders’ agenda, it’s a slate of policies that poll well with most Americans. He consistently beats Trump in many national and critical state polls, frequently leading Warren or Bloomberg.
Yet as we’ve seen repeatedly this campaign season, attacks on Sanders by mainstream Democrats are often disconnected from logic. In the minds of many prominent moderates, Sanders’ democratic socialism is a death knell for electability. The most progressive candidate in modern history may force the party to take dramatic action.
Political parties have done this in the past, often to disastrous results. By hightening fractures in the party and denying the ultimate legitimacy of voters, contested conventions often doom the victorious candidate to failure.
A history of failure
The last contested convention was in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot at the Democratic convention and then lost horrifically to Eisenhower. The modern history of contested conventions is littered with this kind of spectacular failure; Davis weakly grinding out a victory on the 103rd ballot in 1924; Hughes’ compromise candidacy dooming the Republicans to a second Wilson administration in 1916; Dewey and Willkie’s brokered wins ensuring Democrats controlled the White House throughout the 1940s. Candidates emerge from these conventions struggling under the weight of a bitterly divided party, forced to rally a disenfranchised base while their opponent can focus on winning the general election. Considering Trump’s sky-high approval rating among Republicans, its clear any potential brokered Democrat would struggle in this scenario.
Since 1900, candidates emerging from contested conventions have won 3 elections and lost 6. Yet even that ratio may be optimistic. Voters expect much more involvement in the primary process now than they did in the past; there’s a reason we haven’t seen a true brokered convention since 1952.
What we have seen since 1952 is the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention, a nightmare of violence and riots in Richard Daley’s Chicago. Robert Kennedy’s assassination threw the nomination process into uncertainty, which bled into chaos at the convention; despite over 80 percent of votes being cast for anti-war candidates (Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy), delegates at the convention rejected a peace proclamation and handed the nomination to the Johnson-ite Hubert Humphrey, who did not compete in any of the state primaries. He gave his acceptance speech calling for party unity against Nixon, as blood dried in the pavement outside the convention hall.
Humphrey lost to Nixon, and the splintering of the party in Chicago contributed to over two decades of near-total Republican control of the White House (one brief term of Jimmy Carter in the aftermath of Watergate broke the streak). The destruction caused by a undemocratic nomination may very well last for longer than a single election.
There is simply no coherent argument for why a Elizabeth Warren nomination is worth risking this kind of chaos. A contested convention would be seen immediately and perpetually as a disregard of popular choice, even if the procedure would technically follow the party’s rules. It’s difficult to see how Warren could possibly unify the fractured party in time to defeat Donald Trump.
If Democrats want the best shot of beating Trump in 2020, they should let whoever receives the most delegates win the nomination. Even if that means moderates begrudgingly rallying behind a “radical” like Sanders.