Is a Showdown Between Sanders and the Democratic Party Inevitable?

He is threatening to toss out the rules and throw the convention into chaos.

According to the model Nate Silver developed to predict the outcome of the 2020 Democratic primary, the most likely scenario is that no candidate will receive a majority of delegates—leading to a so-called “contested convention.” There are several factors that have contributed to the possibility of that happening for the first time since 1952.

  • The unusually large field of candidates.
  • The proportional allocation of delegates from each state.
  • The front-loaded primary calendar, with roughly two thirds of the pledged delegates being allocated by the end of March.

According to the rules established by the Democratic Party, a candidate needs to have a majority of pledged delegates (1,991 of 3,979) secured in order to be the nominee. If no one reaches that majority, the convention goes to a second ballot, where pledged delegates become unpledged and so-called “superdelegates” are allowed to vote.

Given the possibility of that scenario occurring in July, Chuck Todd asked the candidates at Wednesday’s debate whether the person with the most delegates should be the nominee, even if they fail to reach a majority. Of the six candidates on stage, five of them said no, the process should be followed, with Sanders being the only candidate to say that the one with a plurality of votes should be the nominee.

There are a couple of factors to weigh when considering those responses. The first is that, in a primary where no candidate won a majority, the process laid out by the party would force them to develop the kind of coalition that will be necessary to defeat Trump in November. In a sense, it would mirror what happens during parliamentary elections in other countries. For example, if both Sanders and Warren are still in the race, they might try to convince the other candidate’s delegates to join them to produce a majority.

But it is also important to think about how these rules came about. As we all know, the 2016 primary between Clinton and Sanders was very contentious. By June, Clinton had amassed a majority of pledged delegates. But Sanders refused to concede, suggesting that he could win over superdelegates (who were then allowed to vote on the first round), in order to give him a majority. He was unsuccessful in that effort, and Clinton became the nominee.

Recognizing the tensions that remained after the election, DNC Chair Tom Perez created a Unity Reform Commission to review the party’s rules. Members were appointed by Clinton, Sanders, and Perez. The process was long and excruciating, but the final agreement included the proposal backed by Sanders to only allow superdelegates to vote on a second round. That is the process that all of the candidates except Sanders affirmed on Wednesday night.

In the end, Sanders has gone from refusing to concede the nomination in an attempt to woo superdelegates, to negotiating their elimination from the first ballot, to now suggesting that the rules he negotiated shouldn’t be followed. The only thing that ties those three positions together is a determination of what would be in the best interests of Bernie Sanders.

For years now, Sanders has shown his contempt for the Democratic Party—only assuming membership when it comes time to run for office. He has now assembled a group of followers who wield their power by threatening to not participate unless their demands are met. That has proven to be an effective political strategy, with leaders like Perez and Minority Leader Schumer attempting to bring him and his followers back into the fold.

It might be time to question whether those efforts have been warranted, or if an ultimate showdown is coming regardless of what they do. In other words, a confrontation could be inevitable.

Based on his response in the debate, that is precisely what Sanders is threatening to do if he is unable to win a majority of delegates in this primary. He will attempt to toss out the rules that were so painstakingly agreed to, throwing the process into chaos. That might be in Sanders’ best interest, but it would be devastating for those who are committed to defeating Donald Trump and restoring democracy in this country.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.