A ‘brokered convention’ is when the process of choosing a candidate via the primary process has been so inconclusive that the candidate is horse-traded and negotiated at the party convention itself. In the modern era this is very rare, and requires an exceptionally divided field… which is just what the Democratic race in 2020 is proving to be.
This is the state of race so far: Young people are voting for an old man (Bernie Sanders, 78), while old people are voting for a young man (Pete Buttigieg, 38). So far, the old man is ahead, but only just. In fact, Buttigieg, while having won fewer votes, has won more delegates.
Sanders, a self-declared ‘democratic socialist’, was the clear favourite to win New Hampshire, which neighbours his home state of Vermont. But it’s the rest of the field where things get interesting. At the start of the race no one was expecting Buttigieg to be doing so well or Joe Biden (the former frontrunner) to be doing so badly.
Last night, Biden limped in fifth having come fourth in Iowa. The next Primary, at the end of the month, is in South Carolina — where black voters make up a much bigger share of Democratic electorate than the mostly white states that have voted so far. As Barack Obama’s Vice President, Biden was expected to win in SC. But now, to arrest his backward momentum, he absolutely has to.
His job will be made harder because he has failed to unite the moderate wing of his party. Among the rival moderates there’s Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) who we’ve mentioned, and also Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who finished a strong third in New Hampshire. Then there’s Tom Steyer — a billionaire activist who’s been pretty marginal in the race so far, but is splashing the cash in South Carolina.
As for the radical wing of the party, Sanders has only one serious rival and that’s Elizabeth Warren. She took a poor fourth in New Hampshire, winning no delegates (unlike in Iowa, where she did OK). However, she still beat Biden, so lives to fight another day. Sanders, despite his poll position, is only one health scare away from dropping out of the race — in which case Warren would be the best-placed candidate to inherit his voter base.
But as things stand, there is a field of five viable candidates who have all won delegates (i.e. to the Democratic convention where the nominee is chosen): Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Biden. Also, let’s not forget Steyer and his pile of money — and, waiting further down the line, Mike Bloomberg and his even bigger pile of money. Bloomberg’s strategy is to let his rivals exhaust themselves in the early states, while he builds up support in the states that all vote on Super Tuesday (March 3rd).
So despite the early successes of Sanders and Buttigieg all the ingredients are in place for a deadlock in which no candidate establishes a commanding lead. If this leads to a brokered convention, just about anyone could emerge victorious.
Including Hillary Clinton.