With so many candidates running for the 2020 nomination, thereâ€™s growing speculation that the Democrats will wind up with a contested convention next summer. Pundits are pointing out that the way the party allocates delegates - by proportional representation - makes it hard for a candidate to reach a majority if there are a large number of contenders splitting the pie.
Bernie Sandersâ€™ campaign even seems to think he can win the nomination by reaching the convention with as few as 30 percent of the delegates. That almost certainly wonâ€™t happen.
For one thing, plenty of candidates have already dropped out. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe is the latest. By my count, thatâ€™s 15 Democrats who have done candidate-like things but have declined to formally enter the race. Granted, thatâ€™s a bit fewer than the number who have announced, with several other candidates still deliberating.
But while the initial field is large, the pressures that get candidates to drop out havenâ€™t changed - which is important, because the main way that this time could be different is if the usual incentives to leave no longer work.
Take the debates. The Democratic National Committee is assessing the threshold needed to qualify for debates beginning in September. In all likelihood, theyâ€™re going to raise the low standards being used for earlier rounds in June and July. That, in turn, will almost certainly help winnow the field further. What tends to happen is that those on the bubble expend a lot of resources to get an invitation to the debate. If they fail, not only do they lose out on crucial free publicity but they also donâ€™t have much money left -and hence have no way of generating the buzz needed to replenish their candidacies. So they drop out.
Of course, the biggest culling of the flock will come during the early caucuses and primaries. And if the winnowing process works normally, almost all the candidates will exit without winning a significant number of delegates. Again, itâ€™s possible that this time will be different. But so far there are no indications that it is.
That leaves only one plausible path to a contested convention. First, it requires a protest-type candidate, similar to Jesse Jackson in 1984 or Ron Paul in 2008, who stays in without any realistic chance of being nominated while also staying popular enough to win quite a few delegates. On the Democratic side, that means regularly getting at least 15 percent of the vote.
But thatâ€™s not enough by itself. To deadlock the convention, itâ€™s also necessary for two relatively evenly matched candidates to fight it out all the way to the end. For Democrats, that happened in 1984 with Walter Mondale and Gary Hart; in 2008 with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; and, to a lesser extent, in 2016 with Clinton and Sanders. In 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2004, a solid winner emerged fairly quickly.
So how might that play out at the 2020 convention? Itâ€™s possible (though hardly certain) that Sanders will win a lot of delegates. The deadlock only happens, however, if he does well enough to collect those delegates - but not well enough to eliminate all, or all but one, other candidates. In other words, Sanders has to wind up in a narrow range where he gets at least 15 percent of the vote, but no more than about 30 percent, while two other candidates slug it out.
Is that possible? Yes. Is it likely? No, not really.
Again, winnowing may not work this time, and several candidates could win significant chunks of delegates going into Super Tuesday next March and beyond. But thereâ€™s just no reason to expect that to happen.