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Here’s what could happen if Bernie Sanders doesn’t get a majority of Democratic delegates

A Secret Service agent stood guard in a sea of balloons after the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

With eight Democrats still vying to be the party’s presidential nominee, some Democratic officials and analysts say it’s increasingly plausible that no single candidate will garner a majority of pledged delegates by the end of primary season.

That would be messy.

"The chances are going up all the time for it being a contested convention,” said Steve Grossman, former Democratic National Committee chairman and Massachusetts state treasurer. While he usually flies home the Friday after the party convention, Grossman said this year he plans to book extra days at his hotel in Milwaukee, “because I think we may well be there for a while.”


The candidates themselves seem to be gearing up for the possibility, too.

During a town hall on CNN Wednesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said she intends to stay in the race all the way to the convention if no other candidate wins an outright majority of delegates. She suggested Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking to change the rules — by saying whichever candidate has a plurality should be the nominee — because he “now thinks there’s an advantage to him" to do so.

“A lot of people made $5 contributions to my campaign to keep me in it,” Warren said.

Still, some party officials say it’s too early to speculate about the prospect of a contested convention.

And they emphasize that word: “Contested” sounds better to them than “brokered,” which evokes images of smoke-filled rooms where party bosses back-slap and horse-trade their way to a nominee.

By contested, insiders and pundits generally mean there’s no clear winner under party rules, sparking complicated negotiations and — under new rules for 2020 — the return of the so-called superdelegates.

Experts say the prospect of a contested convention is real enough, even if it’s not quite likely at the moment.


The ever-changing forecast model built by polling gurus at FiveThirtyEight as of Thursday afternoon predicted a 1 in 2 chance, or 49 percent, that “no one” amasses more than half of pledged delegates by the time the primary season wraps up in June, the number needed to clinch the nomination outright.

That scenario is currently more likely than any other. Next most likely is that Sanders ends up with a majority of pledged delegates, which the model puts at a 32 percent likelihood.

The prospect of a contested convention popped up in the Nevada debate. NBC’s Chuck Todd asked each of the six Democrats on stage if the candidate with the most delegates should get the nomination even if they are short of a majority. All but Sanders, the race’s front-runner, replied with some version of “not necessarily.”

“Let the process work its way out,” said former vice president Joe Biden.

But Sanders? “The person who has the most votes should become the nominee,” he said.

Behind this growing chatter about a contested convention lie the Byzantine rules of how the Democratic Party picks its standard bearer. To win the nomination outright, a candidate needs a majority — or 1,991 — of pledged delegates.

Two key factors are at play this cycle to increase the chances no single candidate can amass the necessary majority ahead of the convention, according to analysts. First, in the Democratic nomination process, states reward pledged delegates proportionally as opposed to “winner take all.” Candidates who win at least 15 percent vote share get some portion of the state’s delegate pool, though the exact math of who gets what is complicated.


Second, there is a very large field of candidates, many of whom appear determined to stick around. If enough of them persist to the convention in July, they could continue to slice up the pledged delegate pie enough for it to get messy.

A big field plus proportional delegate allocation — “if you wanted a brokered convention, that’s where you would start,” said Gregory P. Magarian, an election law expert at Washington University Law School.

If Sanders — or one of his rivals — amasses close to the magic 1,991 delegates when the primaries conclude in early June, with no other candidate anywhere close, then it is almost certain that the leading candidate would become the nominee without drama, strategists say.

If two or more candidates have large numbers of delegates but no one has a majority, things will get far more interesting.

Jim Cauley, a longtime Democratic strategist in Kentucky who served as Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign manager, recalled how intense the behind-the-scene fights were to get Hillary Clinton delegates to back Obama at the 2008 convention in Denver, and that was when Obama had already won a majority of pledged delegates and Clinton had withdrawn from the race. That’s the passion of the grass roots, he said.

So looking at the potential of Sanders as the front-runner headed into the Milwaukee convention, Cauley predicted that if he secures anything under 45 percent of the delegates, it will be a fight. ”Under 35 will be a bloodbath,” he said.


If no candidate hits that 1,991 threshold on the first ballot, electing the nominee would go to a second ballot. At that point, those superdelegates you heard so much about in 2008 and 2016 get to jump into the action.

Superdelegates, also known as “automatic delegates,” are elected officials and other party insiders who are free to choose a candidate to back, regardless of the outcome in their state’s primary or caucus. Changes to DNC rules pushed by the Sanders campaign after the 2016 campaign, when superdelegates overwhelmingly backed Clinton over Sanders, mean superdelegates no longer vote on the first ballot.

But if the convention goes to a second ballot, suddenly there would be 771 additional delegates in play.

Several New England superdelegates said it’s too early in the process to seriously worry about a contested convention. Only a tiny fraction of delegates have been awarded so far. The race should be clearer after Tuesday, when 14 states hold primaries, these officials say.

“On March 4, I will have a very firm opinion on this,” said Elaine Kamarckwhen asked about the odds of a contested convention. She is both a Massachusetts superdelegate and a scholar who has written a book on the nomination process (and an online primer for 2020).

The big fear for many Democrats is that a contested convention would fracture the party as its nominee heads into a fight with President Trump, prompting embittered voters to stay home.


Some took note that Sanders, in his debate answer, already appeared to be challenging the new rules, suggesting that superdelegates should defer to the “will of the people."

“You do know that that was Bernie’s position in 2016,” Warren said at her CNN town hall Wednesday, when asked about the issue. “That it should not go to the person who has a plurality,” noting that Sanders’ “last play” was to try to convince superdelegates to switch allegiances from Clinton to him.

“Bernie had a big hand in writing these rules. I didn’t write them, but Bernie did," Warren said. "I don’t see how come you get to change it just because he now thinks there’s an advantage to him to doing that.”

Grossman, the former DNC chair, said he doesn’t believe party officials should conspire to block Sanders from getting the nomination, but he disagrees with the notion that superdelegates shouldn’t be able to vote for whomever they want if it gets to a second ballot.

“The rules are the rules” and superdelegates have a “legitimate role” to play if no candidate has a majority on the first ballot, he said.

Requiring a candidate to have 50 percent plus one, as opposed to just a plurality of delegates, is an “intentional design," said Boston attorney Jim Roosevelt, who is cochair of the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee and will cochair the important credentials committee at the convention, which is responsible for resolving questions about the seating of delegates. The rules force candidates to demonstrate they have the ability to “reach out beyond their initial group of supporters,” and unify the party behind them, which will be crucial to beating Trump, he said.

“Once you get to the convention, it’s about finding a way to assemble that majority and you need that majority to run an effective campaign in the fall,” said Roosevelt, who is remaining neutral in the primary.

Several party officials from Massachusetts said they’re optimistic that even if there is a contested convention, the party will unite behind the standard-bearer.

“I’m an optimist,” said Grossman. “If the voters and grass-roots activists say beating Donald Trump equals saving the future of this country as we know it, and that is the overarching objective, we will have record turnout and a turnout election is death to Donald Trump."

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her @vgmac.