A brokered 2020 Democratic convention could be just the disaster the party needs
The Democrats might not have a nominee when the Democratic National Convention opens on July 13 in Milwaukee. A chaos convention is more likely in 2020 than at any time since the modern primary system began in 1972.
You’ve got the weakest front-runner in decades in former Vice President Joe Biden, a gaffe-prone septuagenarian who’d be the oldest president in U.S. history on the day of his inauguration. Also, you’ve got the largest field of candidates ever, and some of them won’t quit even after several losses. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will go all the way to the convention, as he showed in 2016, and his fervent Bernistas will not go with anyone else until absolutely necessary (and maybe not even then!).
You’ve got two billionaires, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, who can keep running hard even if no one gives them a dime. You’ve got a few people who have no more races left. Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg, at 77, 78 and 77, respectively, are in their last Democratic primaries. The same is likely true of retiring Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, who has been making Democrats uneasy and flirting with third parties for years. All anyone has to do to get some delegates in a state is eke out 15% of the vote. Right now, in most early state polls, four to five candidates are at or close to that mark.
Scripted conventions make terrible TV
Most analysts would consider a brokered Democratic convention a huge boost to President Donald Trump’s reelection chances. After all, chaos at the convention has always been bad for a party. In 1968, the riots in Chicago helped Richard Nixon narrowly win. Turmoil in Miami four years later helped doom George McGovern. Since that time, both parties have done their best to present unified, well-organized conventions, to avoid the kiss of death that a tumultuous convention seems to bring.
Nonetheless, a brokered convention could be the best thing for the Democrats in 2020.
One positive thing about Trump’s run for the presidency is it revealed that a lot of the conventional wisdom about American politics isn’t true. If you had asked 20 pundits whether someone could win an American nomination fight after insulting a decorated prisoner-of-war hero, all 20 would have said hell no. Or the probability of the Republicans nominating a political novice who used to be for legal abortion and strong gun control?
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at a debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2019. (Photo: Chris Carlson, AP)
And what about Trump’s convention? His top rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, stunned the crowd by refusing to endorse Trump based on conservative principles. Remember, the tepid support that Sanders gave Clinton in 2016 is still blamed by many for her defeat, but Sanders never did anything as treacherous or as shocking as Cruz did.
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Yet Trump won, even though his convention was far more controversial and chaotic. Which, amazingly, didn’t seem to bother him at all. Hey, if there’s one thing Trump does know, it’s how to make good television. And for nearly five decades, conventions have been terrible television. Predictable, long winded, scripted.
Imagine if four or five Democrats go into the Milwaukee convention with some delegates, but none has enough to win? That’s great television! America would watch!
Obama, Franken, Clinton, Gates
It’s no accident that two of the biggest shows about presidential politics, “The West Wing” and “House of Cards,” have had versions of a brokered convention. The writers knew that a regular convention was the ultimate TV sin — boring. And, after the first ballot, new names could emerge. And after the fifth or sixth or 10th ballot, they almost certainly would.
Most Americans don’t know it, but our executive selection system is by far the longest in the world. In many countries, a challenger to a sitting prime minister can emerge from within the ruling party in a week or less.
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Imagine if America suddenly had a new name in front of it, at least to consider for a couple days. Michelle Obama. Al Franken. Hillary Clinton! Hell, Bill Gates! So long as the last picture of the convention is one of unity, the chaos and turmoil will draw more eyeballs to the affair and do no lasting harm.
Imagine a prime-time speech in which the dark-horse winner emerges, and millions of Americans watch her speech, because unlike every other year, it’s someone whom they haven’t heard much about yet. Picture Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic superstars anointing the dark-horse winner after that speech, and bringing the highest rated convention in history to a close.
That’s a picture that should strike fear in Donald Trump.
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Follow him on Twitter: @JerryDMayer
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