Bernie Sanders wants a contested convention for Democrats.

Can Bernie Sanders Force a Contested Convention? We Did the Math.

Can Bernie Sanders Force a Contested Convention? We Did the Math.

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April 5 2016 4:03 PM

Bernie Sanders’ Brilliant Plan to Force a Contested Convention

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Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd gathered at the Phoenix Convention Center during a campaign rally on March 15 in Arizona.

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Here we go again. After months of talk of a GOP contested convention, on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager suggested that his man hopes to force a contested convention of his own. “I think what this campaign is looking for and what the senator is looking for is going into the convention and coming out with the nomination,” Jeff Weaver told CNN, adding: “So when we arrive at the convention, it will be an open convention. … So I think it’ll be an interesting Democratic convention.”

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.

Sanders has long been clear that he has the money and motivation to fight on, but Weaver’s comments were the clearest suggestion to date that the Vermont senator plans to take his campaign all the way to Philadelphia in July. So, can Bernie really force a contested convention? Potentially!

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To become the Democratic nominee, a candidate will need the support of 2,383 of the 4,764 delegates in Philadelphia this summer. But while each delegate has only one vote, not all delegates are created equal. There are pledged delegates, who make up about 85 percent of the total, and there are superdelegates, who make up the remaining 15 percent. The former are awarded based on the results of primaries and caucuses, and are required to vote for their assigned candidate. The latter are Democratic lawmakers and other party bigwigs who get to vote for whomever they want when the time comes, regardless of whom they’ve previously said they’ll support. (No one said it’s a fair system, but it is the system.)

And therein lies the crux of Bernie’s case. Since superdelegates are free to change their mind as many times as they want before the convention, the only way Hillary can say 100 percent, beyond-any-shadow-of-a-doubt that she has locked up the nomination is if she wins 2,383 pledged delegates during the primary season. That requires a candidate to win roughly 59 percent of all of the non-super delegates, a high bar given states assign those delegates proportionally. (Unlike on the GOP side, there are no winner-take-all or even winner-take-most states for Democrats.)

To put that challenge into context, I crunched some numbers based on the latest estimates from the Associated Press: Clinton has built a commanding, 263-delegate lead on Sanders over the 35 contests to date, but she’s still only won about 56 percent of the total non-superdelegates, meaning she’ll need to win roughly 62 percent of the not-yet-pledged delegates going forward to reach the magic number without the help of her super friends. That’s a heavy lift given that she tore through the South—particularly friendly territory for her—and still didn’t crack 60 percent during the first half of the race. If she can’t do even better in the remaining contests, Sanders really could follow through with his plan of taking his fight all the way to the convention floor. There’d be nothing Clinton could do to stop him.

Bernie has even less of a chance of locking up the nomination ahead of the convention. By my count, he’d need to win a whopping 77 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to reach the magic number without the help of superdelegates. He’d need to win a still-daunting 57 percent of them just to arrive in Philadelphia with more pledged delegates than Clinton—which is central to his case that he deserves the nomination over his establishment-backed rival.* Hitting that mark would take a major reversal of fortunes. To date, Sanders has won only 44 percent of pledged delegates. While the unfriendly terrain of the Old South is behind him, he’s currently trailing Clinton by double digits in the three biggest delegate-prizes remaining on the calendar: New York, Pennsylvania, and California. Even if Bernie gets hot and reels off wins in all three of those contests, he’d need blowout wins, not narrow victories—and that still might not be enough to take the lead.

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Team Sanders wants superdelegates to divvy themselves up between the candidates based on the popular vote, effectively removing themselves from the equation altogether. That, though, is not going to happen, since the party created superdelegates for the very purpose of picking the party’s preferred candidate in a tight race. The best Bernie can reasonably expect is to force the superdelegates to decide the race, and hope they abandon Clinton en masse at the convention. (Since the Democratic contest is a two-candidate race, the nomination is all but certain to be decided on the first ballot, unlike the GOP convention, which could go on indefinitely.) Barring some sort of Clinton catastrophe, that’s just not going to happen if he’s still trailing Hillary in the pledged delegate column.

Remember, superdelegates are, by definition, part of the Democratic establishment. To date, of the 500 superdelegates that have committed to either candidate, 469 are backing Hillary. There’s no reason to think enough of them would jump ship to pick Sanders, a self-styled democratic socialist who only joined their party to run for president, over Clinton, a party stalwart who is pretty much the living embodiment of the Democratic establishment, if the race is tight.

Then again, that’s also what makes Team Sanders’ talk of a contested convention so brilliant, politically speaking. The only way Clinton and her allies can swat it away today is by hyping her structural advantages—hardly a good look in any year, let alone this one. And so regardless of whether Bernie takes his fight to the convention floor, he’s found a way to use the superdelegates that won’t vote for him to his advantage anyway—even if only for the time being.

*Correction, April 7, 2016: An earlier version of this post misstated how many of the remaining delegates Sanders needs to win to secure a majority of pledged delegates at the convention. Before his win in Wisconsin, he needed 57 percent, not 67 percent.