(JFK as a Delegate for Adlai Stevenson, at the last contested Democratic National Convention in 1952)
If the Democrats want to win and to drive the dripping-with-dollars Trump campaign to distraction, they would be quietly pushing for the first deadlocked—or contested—Democratic National Convention since 1952. And, it’s not such a stretch to see it happening with four leading candidates divvying up the primary delegates (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren), and several favorite son or daughter candidates (Klobuchar and Booker) already playing a prominent role among their home state’s delegations.
Let’s look back to the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, —the last time any major party convention went past the first ballot—for some instruction, recognizing the one huge difference between the Democratic Convention rules of 68 years ago and now—which make a contested convention more likely today. In 2018, Democrats, for the first time in modern history, passed a rule change preventing 766 so-called “super-delegates,”—DNC Members, Members of Congress, Senators and Governors, and “distinguished party members like ex-Presidents or Vice-Presidents– from casting their votes on the first ballot. This change alone might guarantee that no candidate will have enough delegates to win the Democratic Nomination on the first ballot, as happened in 1952, the first year national political conventions were televised.
Despite having Harry Truman as an incumbent President, Democrats entered the 1952 election cycle deeply divided. Truman, bogged down during the third year of the Korean War and being mauled on television each day by Wisconsin’s Right Wing Senator Joseph McCarthy during the “Red Scare,” was supported by only 36% of Democrats nationwide, according to a Gallop Poll. In the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Democratic Primary in February, 1952, Truman was toppled by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who was then conducting televised Senate investigations into organized crime, and surfing a wave of public support.
Just as Lyndon B. Johnson would do 16 years later, Truman interpreted his weak New Hampshire primary showing as a message to not seek re-election. With Truman out, Kefauver became the front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination, locked in a tough competition with Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, a staunch segregationist, and the liberal Averell Harriman of New York, who served as President Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, and later became Governor of New York. No one arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year with anywhere near the 616 delegates needed to win the nomination.
The Convention opened with a welcoming speech by the Governor of Illinois, Adlai E. Stevenson II, whose grandfather by the same name served as Vice President under President Grover Cleveland. Young Adlai’s speech was so well received, it began a boomlet for him to seek the nomination—something he had steadfastly resisted until that moment. Truman, who fought hard to integrate the Armed Services forcing segregationists into their own Dixiecrat Party in 1948, was adamantly opposed to having a Southern segregationist as the Party’s standard bearer. President Truman threw his backing behind Stevenson, persuading Averell Harriman to pledge his 121 delegates to the Illinois Governor after the second ballot. With strong support from Harriman and Truman, Stevenson stormed past the two Southern Senators on the Convention’s third ballot, tallying 617 votes to the combined total of 540 for Kefauver and Russell.
In 2020, with a half-dozen or so Democrats seriously competing for the party’s Presidential nomination, the likelihood of a deadlocked convention is the greatest it’s been in 68 years. Support from 1,990 elected delegates is needed to win the nomination, and with both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary just one month away, none of the present candidates appears positioned to win a majority of votes on the first ballot. Granted, the delegate votes of all of the February, 2020 contests—including Nevada and South Carolina—represent only 4% of the total number of delegates needed to win the nomination. Yet, even if one candidate swept all four of the February primaries, they’d still have to dominate delegate elections on Super Tuesday, March 3, and during the remainder of March and April, when a whopping 83% of the delegates to the Democratic Convention will be chosen.
As of today, that does not appear likely to happen, with four major candidates—Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren — carving up the votes into four roughly equal slices in a consensus of national polls, and early state-by-state polling. California, which holds the motherlode of 495 delegates—or 25% of those needed to secure the nomination– serves as a perfect illustration of why we might be headed for a deadlocked convention. Now that the State’s own Senator Kamala Harris has withdrawn from the race—even though she already had some two dozen California “Super” or “Automatic” delegates committed to her—at best, that could give each of the other four candidates 100-125 delegates from California, since there’s a 15% threshold requirement to claim delegates in Congressional districts, and proportional voting is the rule. And, that doesn’t account for a further splitting of California’s delegates if Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar does well in the earlier primaries.
On the same Super Tuesday California Democrats vote, so do Democratic voters in delegate rich states like Colorado (80 delegates), Texas (262), Minnesota (92), Virginia (124), North Carolina (122) and Massachusetts (114). If Minnesotans and Massachusetts voters give strong support to their favorite daughters, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, and Coloradans back their own Senator Michael Bennet, the drive to a deadlocked convention will only deepen. Since there are a total of 3,769 Democratic delegates up for grabs for a first ballot nomination—not counting the 766 “Super” or “Automatic” delegates who cannot vote on the first ballot— the Democrats could have four top candidates with 800 to 1,000 delegates each, and a smattering of lesser candidates dividing up the rest. With some 1,990 delegates needed for a first ballot victory, it’s entirely possible that no single candidate will have enough to win. Rather than whining about this prospect, Democrats should welcome it. A fresh, new Democratic nominee would have the distinct advantage of not having been attacked by Trump and his Twitter Trolls for the past year.
A second ballot, would not only free-up committed delegates to vote for anyone of their choice—including potentially new candidates like Admiral William McRaven, Stacey Abrams, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, former Attorney-General Eric Holder, or Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth (a woman of color and a disabled Veteran, who coined the knock-out nickname “Cadet Bone Spurs” for Trump)—it would also free the 766 “Super” or “Automatic” delegates—the elected and party officials—to vote for anyone they choose. Conceivably, it could take a second, third or even fourth ballot for one candidate to aggregate enough support to win the nomination, the way Adlai Stevenson did after three ballots in 1952.
It didn’t work out so well for Stevenson and the Democrats in the general election 68 years ago because they had the distinct disadvantages of following five-consecutive Democratic Administrations, and running against Dwight D. Eisenhower, an immensely popular bi-partisan war-hero, with a spotless record. This time around, however, the circumstances are far different. Singularly focused on beating Trump, Democrats could, after several ballots, nominate by acclamation, a war hero of their own like Admiral McRaven, or Senator Duckworth, who would stand as stark, patriotic and incorruptible contrast to Trump or any GOP candidate. The choice of an Eisenhower-like McRaven, who commanded the Navy Seals which Trump has disgraced by pardoning one who committed war crimes—forcing the Secretary of the Navy to resign in protest–would unify the party and the nation. The Admiral who led the mission to bring down Osama Bin Laden could further electrify party activists by picking a rising star for his running mate, like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Rep. Val Demings of Florida, or Senators Duckworth, Harris or Booker—all candidates of color who would drive Democratic voters to the polls in droves. A McRaven-led Democratic ticket could win both the popular and electoral votes in a landslide, which is precisely what we need to do, to flip the Senate and hold onto the Nancy Pelosi-led House.
Only a deadlocked convention can produce such an unanticipated result, catch the GOP flat-footed, and send mainstream and social media, and the Trump campaign, into a frenzy during the final four months of the campaign, making everyone forget the droning Democratic debates of 2019. All it needs to work is for a highly diverse group of 4,500 Democratic delegates from across the nation to reach a consensus, because they believe the future of our Democracy and the rule of law are at stake.