A heated debate has broken out over Democratic delegate math. It's probably a big waste of time.

A heated debate has broken out over Democratic delegate math. It's probably a big waste of time.

Disclosure: While AlterNet doesn’t endorse candidates, I personally support Sen. Elizabeth Warren.  


Toward the end of the Nevada Democratic debate, NBC's Chuck Todd touched off a modest firestorm with this question:

I want to ask all of you this simple question. There's a very good chance none of you are going to have enough delegates to the Democratic National Convention to clench this nomination, OK? If that happens, I want all of your opinions on this. Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has the best chance of going into the convention with a plurality of pledged delegates, answered in the affirmative. Everyone else on the stage did not.

That exchange has led to a roiling debate over what the party should do in such a circumstance. And it also drove a flurry of follow-up stories.  Politico reported that Mike Bloomberg is "privately lobbying Democratic Party officials... to flip their allegiance to him — and block Bernie Sanders — in the event of a brokered national convention." The New York Times ran a piece based on dozens of interviews with party members who are reportedly "willing to risk intraparty damage to stop [Sanders] nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance."

In one sense, this is a pointless debate because of motivated reasoning. It's obvious to those who are invested in Sanders' movement that the winner of the popular vote should be the nominee based on Democratic principles. For those who believe that Americans won't elect a self-described social democrat, it is equally obvious that the rules are the rules, Sanders appointees to the DNC's Unity Reform Commission agreed to them, and averting a potentially disastrous second term for Trump is all that matters. (As many have pointed out, Sanders and his supporters took the opposite view in 2016, urging unbound "Superdelegates" to swing the 2016 contest to Sanders despite Clinton coming into the convention with a significant majority of pledged delegates.)

But more importantly, it's unlikely that there will be such intrigue at the convention. While FiveThirtyEight's model estimates a 48 percent likelihood that no candidate secures a majority going in (remember that Superdelegates don't get a vote on the first ballot this year), that significantly over-estimates the chances of delegate math being an issue. That's because it's important to differentiate between a candidate coming in with a large delegate lead while falling a bit short of a majority and a close finish between the top two. If there's a big gap, the delegate leader is almost certain to become the nominee.

Voters tend to rally around perceived winners so if a candidate maintains a consistent lead, the states and territories that weigh in later in the process are likely to break for the frontrunner giving him or her either a majority or a substantial plurality.

And Democrats' overarching desire to beat Trump probably makes a contested convention even less likely. As Eric Levitz points out over at NYMag, Republicans faced a similar scenario in 2016.

Once the threat of a contested convention became tangible, Trump-skeptical Republicans opted to unify behind a nominee they didn’t love — and whom they’d been given every reason to consider unelectable and unacceptable by party elites and Establishment media — out of an ostensible aversion to prolonging intraparty discord and embracing an anti-democratic process.

There are obviously important differences between the voting behavior of each party’s base... But there’s little reason to believe that Democratic voters wouldn’t emulate their Republican counterparts, were they presented with a choice between rallying behind their party’s insurgent front-runner, or accepting the inevitability of a contested convention.

It's still February, and only 3 percent of the Democratic delegates have been allocated. A hotly contested convention is an unlikely scenario that could occur four months from now. Democratic insiders should stop riling up Sanders supporters by floating the idea of blocking their candidate at the convention. And everyone else should realize what a waste of time it is arguing over it at this still-early stage of the game.

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