There’s no need to mince words here: I’m no fan of Bernie Sanders. Of the top-tier presidential candidates in the Democratic field, he would honestly be my last choice. Call me old school, or a neo-liberal shill, or whatever, but I just don’t think nominating a self-proclaimed socialist gives Democrats the best chance to win sweeping victories up and down the ballot.
But I’m not writing this to bash Bernie. Quite the opposite, actually. While I may doubt his general-election formidability, I have zero doubt about this: The single most disastrous outcome for the party would be for Sanders to win a plurality of pledged delegates, only for Democratic power brokers to try to deny him the nomination at a contested convention.
I shudder to imagine the visceral outrage this would unleash among Bernie voters. It would legitimize their long-standing grievances against the Democratic establishment, and do lasting damage to the party at a time we can least afford it—even if the maneuver ultimately failed. Were it successful, the fallout would be even more dire. One has to assume that many of the millions who voted for him would clamor for him to run as an independent, declare war on the Democratic Party, and refuse to vote for whomever we put on the ticket. And their fury would be justified.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t about appeasing ‘Bernie bros’ to avoid their wrath. It would be fundamentally undemocratic and incompatible with our party’s core ideals—regardless of what may be technically possible under DNC rules—to try to subvert the will of the people in favor of backroom horsetrading to anoint a nominee. It would betray both our principles and our political goals in one fell swoop.
So let’s preemptively kill that inevitable clusterfuck before it can kill us. Every Democrat in the field should commit right now to support the pledged delegate leader at the convention.
Now, I know the hypothetical contested convention is a quadrennial pipedream of the pundit class, but the prospect has never been so real. Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have finished top-two in both Iowa and New Hampshire. A surging Amy Klobuchar is now positioned to rack up delegates on Super Tuesday. Warren and Biden are both fighters who intend to plow ahead, and Tom Steyer has made inroads in South Carolina and Nevada. Then, of course, there’s the $60 billion elephant in the room—Mike Bloomberg.
And as The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein observed in a column Monday, this race is particularly resistant to rapid consolidation due to the nature of each candidate’s appeal: “So far, none of the candidates has built a coalition that reaches broadly across the party,” he wrote. “Instead, each is confined to a distinct niche of support that is too narrow to establish a commanding advantage in the race.”
Finally, the map this cycle severely compounds the probability of diffuse delegate accumulation. Consider this: 57.6 percent of all pledged delegates will be allocated between March 3 and March 17, and unlike Republicans, every state will assign them proportionally. Suddenly, it becomes impossible to see how anyone could emerge from this process with an outright majority.
Am I getting ahead of myself? Sure. But getting ahead is important. It’s an increasingly likely scenario that ought to be addressed with a handshake in February, not a horror show in July.
Now is the moment for Democrats to state unequivocally that our nominee will not be chosen through 11th hour bargaining by ‘party elites’—that whoever enters the convention having duly earned the most delegates shall be nominated by acclamation. Yes, even if it’s a certain disheveled revolutionary from Vermont.
Let’s commit to Senator Sanders right now that if he wins this war of attrition— and with his devout base, relative strength with non-white voters, and grassroots fundraising machine, nobody is better positioned—we’ll all unite behind him. (Perhaps, he’ll even commit to return the favor if he falters.)
To borrow from Bernie’s rhetoric, it is not a radical idea that the delegate leader should be our nominee. It’s called democracy. What is radical is a status quo that says, ‘if no one amasses an outright majority, screw the voters and let the big wigs decide.’ That’s literally how it would work—there’s no small-d democratic backstop. Every delegate would be unbound after the first ballot, and a mad scramble would ensue to convince a majority to line up behind one person.
Can Bernie win? I don’t know. Who is the best alternative to him? I don’t know that either. But I know that a bitter brokered convention is a surefire recipe for four more years of Trump. Everyone running knows it too, so they should lead the way in staving off that nightmare.
And to my fellow Democratic voters—if your least favorite candidate of the bunch comes away with the most delegates, I beg you to do what I’ll do: recognize that person as the rightful nominee, put on my best smile, and grab a clipboard.
Jesse Lehrich is a Democratic strategist and former foreign policy spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.