Special Washington Update: Democratic Primary Election: Will it be "Contested?

U.S. Office of Public Policy, 04 Feb 2020

We have recently received a number of questions about the Democratic primary election process to nominate a presidential candidate, specifically how it works as well as what will happen if there is no clear nominee by the time the Democratic National Convention (DNC) commences in July. If this last scenario was to occur, commonly referred to as a "contested convention," it would be the first such convention for either party since the 1952 Democratic primary election. That year, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson was chosen as the nominee on the third ballot of voting at the DNC. Governor Stevenson, who was not a declared candidate prior to the convention, was then handily defeated in the 1952 presidential election by then Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. While we do not believe that a contested convention will be the most likely outcome for the 2020 Democratic nomination at this time, the change in the Democratic primary rules for this year (outlined below), the lack of a clear frontrunner and the large number of Democratic candidates increases the chance of this possible outcome.

The Delegate Process. 

The Democratic primary awards pledged delegates proportionally in states with the caveat that a candidate must get at least 15% of the vote in order to receive any delegates. The amount of delegates that each state has is based on a formula that takes into account the state's popular vote for the Democratic nominee in the previous three elections, the state's electoral votes and when the state's primary is held. This year will feature California voting on Super Tuesday for the first time (and starting its early vote process today), which means that after Super Tuesday (March 3), 38% of all pledged delegates will have been awarded. By the end of March, 65.4% of the delegates will be allocated and by the end of April, 86.9% of the delegates will be allocated. The graphic below provides a visual representation of when the primaries will be occurring.

The 2020 Democratic primary will feature 3,979* pledged delegates (delegates that can be won during primaries, caucuses or party conventions in each state) as well as 771* automatic delegates (superdelegates). The 771 superdelegates do not get to participate in the first ballot at the Democratic convention in July. For a candidate to win the nomination on the first ballot, he or she must receive the support of 1,991 pledged delegates (a majority). If there is no winner on the first ballot at the convention, the 771 superdelegates would be able to pledge their support to the candidate of their choice at that time. Due to the increase in total delegates with the addition of the superdelegates at a convention vote, a candidate would need the support of 2,376 delegates (combined pledged and super) in order to win the nomination. If a candidate is not selected on the first ballot at the convention, this is when the convention becomes "contested."

Behind-the-Scenes Maneuvering.

If a candidate drops out of the race before the convention (and has won pledged delegates), the delegates he or she won become unbound and are technically able to vote for whomever they want, but in practice most will support whoever their candidate endorses upon dropping out. However, a candidate can suspend their campaign (stop actively campaigning for president but still be on the ballot at the convention) and keep their pledged delegates. If later on in the primary process no candidate is a clear favorite to reach 1,991 pledged delegates by the convention, expect the front runners to begin trying to woo over lesser candidates who don't have a shot at the nomination but do have enough delegates to help another candidate. If the race is close with no clear winner, the chance of some of the minor candidates with pledged delegates choosing to suspend their campaign instead of dropping out of the presidential primary increases as they hope to leverage those delegates with the top candidates who need them.

The Democratic National Convention.

This year, the DNC will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from July 13 – 16. The conventions typically are a formal end to the nomination process and mark the start of the presidential general election. In recent years, the conventions have been a formality since the nominees have already secured the delegates needed to win the nomination. Instead, the conventions have served as a high profile social event for party supporters to rally behind their candidate. They are also used as a platform to recognize up-and-comers who are given time to speak on stage and introduce them to a wider audience. In 2004, state Senator Barack Obama of Illinois gave a keynote address that is widely credited as helping kick start his 2008 presidential run.

In the event of a contested convention, the first day or two of the convention would be used by the candidates to bargain and try to win over the endorsement of other candidates who have pledged delegates but no chance of winning the nomination, as well as attempting to persuade superdelegates to support them. The former will be more important than the latter as a nominee will be hoping to win on the first ballot of voting, and as mentioned earlier, superdelegates are unable to vote until the second ballot. While we won't know who superdelegates will vote for until and unless there should be a second ballot of voting at the convention, we can gain a sense of who might have the most support based on endorsements from sitting House members and Senators who will serve as superdelegates.

Looking Forward.

As of today, we still believe the most likely outcome will be that one of the candidates will secure enough pledged delegates before the convention to ensure he or she will win the nomination. However, given the circumstances on the ground, a contested convention is more likely this year than in years past. Super Tuesday (March 3) will be an important day that could help catapult one or two candidates, or it could further highlight the parity among candidates that will show how difficult it will be for one to emerge as the clear front-runner. By the end of March or April, we should have a clearer picture of whether a single candidate will have the momentum and ability to win the nomination before the convention – or not.