How the Democratic Primary Could Descend Into Chaos: A Contested Convention and a Snub to Sanders

The emergence of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as one of the top 2020 presidential contenders isn't the only thing that arose from the first Democratic elections of the primary—so did the likelihood for a contested convention.

Although months away with an endless number of twist and turns yet to play out, there is a more than a one-third chance that no candidate wins a majority of the pledged delegates, according to FiveThirtyEight's forecast, which could result in a contested convention. Democrats fear how such a chaotic scenario would unfold on live T.V.: World War III on the floor of the Democratic National Convention.

"This thing is a mess," Chris Kofinis, a longtime Democratic strategist, told Newsweek. "The possibility that it could happen could really tear the party apart."

More importantly, a contested convention—or sometimes referred to as a "brokered" convention—means that although someone wins the plurality of delegates, they won't necessarily be the nominee. A first round of delegate voting with no majority candidate means the process spills over into round two, yielding the added wildcard of powerful superdelegates.

The scenario where a candidate wins the plurality but loses the nomination is perhaps most likely to occur for Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist arousing deep fears within the moderate wing of the party about what his name and liberal policies at the top of the ticket could mean for Democrats across the country.

But snubbing Sanders of a victory—something many of his supporters believe took place in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, who was backed by the establishment and most superdelegates—in such a situation would fracture the party and potentially deny Democrats the ability to oust President Donald Trump from office.

What could be even worse for Democrats' re-election chances and aptitude to defeat the president, strategists warn, is not coalescing around whomever proves victorious by the primary's conclusion—contested convention or not.

bernie sanders contested primary
Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a Primary Night event at the SNHU Field House in Manchester, New Hampshire on February 11. Bernie Sanders won New Hampshire's crucial Democratic primary, beating moderate rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in the race to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House. Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty

"People in the party are underestimating the consequences if the person with the most delegates doesn't become the nominee, despite who that person is," Kofinis said. "There's anxiety in the party about this."

Adrienne Elrod, a former senior adviser to Clinton's presidential bids, said there should be "no tolerance" for "anything but unity" when it comes to a nominee. That includes Sanders.

"There's way too much at stake. We're not running against a Mitt Romney or a moderate, like John McCain," the Democratic strategist told Newsweek. "We're running against the most dangerous president to ever occupy the White House."

With delegates divvied up among so many potential nominees, it becomes more difficult for any one candidate to stand out. And the larger group of moderate, more centrist hopefuls—former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—make it difficult for any one of them to surpass Sanders and win at least 1,991 out of 3,979 pledged delegates.

Sanders' biggest opponent standing in his way with the party's most progressive voters is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She's currently in third, trailing Buttigieg and Sanders.

"There is nobody that's seemingly emerging or could potentially emerge as the standard bearer for all the factions of the party," Kofinis explained. "The longer that goes, the more these far-fetched scenarios about a contested convention and other candidates that sound implausible are going to start sounding plausible."

In snubbing Sanders the nomination at a contested convention, there exists the scenario where any moderate candidates still in the race could urge their delegates to coalesce around one of them to obtain a majority, alleviating vulnerable Democrats' greatest fear that he might cost them the White House, jeopardize their House majority and push them further into the minority in the Senate.

"I respect Senator Sanders; I think he's injected some important discourse in the democratic discussion. But would he impact House races, and would he perhaps undermine replacing Donald Trump in the White House because of the four, five, six states that really matter? Yes," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who's endorsed Klobuchar, told Newsweek.

"Many of us have that concern," he expounded. "If this becomes a race not between Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee but between capitalism and socialism, that's both unhealthy for the country and certainly unhealthy for Democrats."

Sanders pushed back against the notion his nomination would endanger the dozens of at-risk congressional members, many of whom flipped House districts in 2018 won by Trump. He argued that his candidacy would increase voter turnout and help down-ballot races.

"When you vote, you grow the voter turnout and you bring working people into the political process and young people into the political process," Sanders told Newsweek. "A large voter turnout is going to help everybody, from the top of the ticket to the bottom."

contested democratic convention chaos snub bernie sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders (R) waves to the crowd after the Vermont delegation cast their votes during roll call on the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Some of his top surrogates on Capitol Hill, like freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are also trying to quell any fears from colleagues.

"I think there's going to be concerns, no matter who the candidate is," she told Newsweek.

"No one needs to be a clone of him," added Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), another Democratic backer of Sanders. "If they're in districts where they disagree, they can take positions that depart from him."

Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair during the 2016 primary, declined to speak about what a Sanders nomination or a contested convention would mean for the party. She will not be endorsing a candidate until after the primary, she added.

"We are a long way from knowing who are nominee will be," Wasserman Schultz told reporters. "At this point, I am focused on making sure we can hold on to our House majority."

The best way to avoid a contested convention? Know when to drop out

contested democratic convention
Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) entrepreneur Andrew Yang (who's since dropped out), former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar arrive for the sixth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by PBS NewsHour & Politico at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California on December 19, 2019. Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty

There remains yet to be a candidate who's amassed a wide enough coalition to win the majority, the driving force behind concerns about a contested convention. Though Sanders won in New Hampshire, he underperformed in comparison to his 2016 performance and secured just one-fourth of the total delegates.

After Super Tuesday on March 3, roughly 40 percent of the delegates will be doled out, lending the likelihood more candidates will drop out and offer a more accurate depiction of who the front-runner is.

"I would have one word of caution for all of the Democratic campaigns: look at what happened four years ago on the Republican side," New Hampshire Democratic strategist Jim Demers told Newsweek. "Candidates should think hard about when it's time to get out of the race, rather than putting the party in a contested convention situation."

Despite less than 2 percent of delegates awarded so far, the New Hampshire primary only heightened the credibility of those who say a contested convention is on the horizon. Progressive candidates Sanders and Warren totaled about 35 percent of the vote, while moderates Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden amassed roughly 52 percent.

Bloomberg, who will siphon delegates from other moderates, has yet to compete in a primary election, sitting out the early-voting states to instead focus his resources on Super Tuesday and swing states down the road.

"I just don't want to see a convention where there's a lot of horse trading going on and the party leaves fractured because somebody isn't happy with the outcome," Demers added.

Among the strategists Newsweek interviewed, Elrod had the most confidence a contested convention would be avoided. The chance, she predicted, is "very slim."

"Voters' disdain for Trump will be elevated this time around," Elrod said, "no matter who the nominee is."