An open convention?

In 1968, Hubert Horatio Humphrey was chosen by delegates to the Democratic Convention in Chicago on the first ballot. He did so without contesting a single primary election in any state.

The diminishing number of people as old as I remember that convention, which was marked by riots and clashes between Mayor Richard Daley’s police and the Chicago Seven (or Eight) and their epigone. A fond memory of the convention was Dan Rather (I think) “reporting from the floor of the convention,” meaning literally on the floor, where he had been knocked flat on his back by protesters.

Humphrey was able to win in what was a “brokered” convention because none of the candidates who did contest the primaries secured enough delegates to constitute a majority. Likely Robert Kennedy would have, but he was assassinated 4 June during the celebration of his victory in the California primary, over Gene McCarthy.

This history is of interest because of the increasing likelihood that next July’s Democratic convention could be “open,” in the sense that no candidate will have a majority of the delegates when the convention is gaveled in 13 July in Milwaukee.

There were only 13 Democratic primaries in 1968, but today nearly every state chooses its delegates by primary. And there are also a lot more Democratic candidates so that the odds are that they will splinter the primary vote to the point that none will have a majority.

The first four states choosing delegates are (1) Iowa (which uses a caucus system much like the maligned method we used to use in Utah); (2) New Hampshire; (3) South Carolina; and (4) Nevada (another caucus state). Quite conceivably, delegates in these four states could be split four ways, among the present front-runners (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren). The delegates from the caucus states will obviously be allocated proportionally, but so will those from the primary states. Under Democratic Party rules, it is only the later primaries which are “winner-take-all.”

Well, then, Super Tuesday should settle it, shouldn’t it? That’s a congeries of 15 states all holding primaries on the same day (or at least in the same week), in this case, 3 March. But with 11 candidates polling at 1% or better, and the electoral entities ranging from California (population 40 million) to American Samoa (55,000), and remembering that proportional representation barrier, the chance of anyone getting a clear majority is slim.

Incidentally, Utah is part of the Super Tuesday mix. As of now, there are 17 Democrats on the ballot (tho Kamala Harris will likely be removed), giving us an up-close look of what the Democratic primary electorate faces on that day, and in the primary season in general.

So do we go to Milwaukee and get a brokered convention? The protests and violence in 1968 will look like a walk in the park if that happens, given the vast expansion of grass-roots, primary political participation since then. After Super Tuesday there are still another 30 or so states picking delegates, but it is easy to see how a super-rich Mike Bloomberg can think that he can skip the first four, and maybe not do even that well on Super Tuesday, but still have a chance in a brokered convention, maybe picking up a significant block of delegates in his own New York and a few other Northeast states in the “Acela” Primary, by spending some portion of his $55 billion fortune.

All that needs to happen is that no candidate gets a majority on the first ballot. After that, two things happen. First, most delegates can vote their conscience on subsequent ballots. A delegate from, say, Utah, who was bound on the first ballot to vote for Joe Biden, as the winner of Utah’s Democratic primary, can now indulge his or her actual preference for Elizabeth Warren (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez!).

Secondly, the 700+ Superdelegates are now entitled to vote. And who are they? They are the party pros and the Democrats holding state and local office. They are the ones that nominated Humphrey in 1968. Since then, their power has ebbed and flowed, as the number of primaries has increased in a democratization process that will be politically explosive to reverse. At that point, something like 2,375 delegates will be needed to secure a nomination, and the Superdelegates, as party chairs and office-holders, are influential beyond their numbers. They are also those most invested in nominating a winning candidate, which likely means avoiding nominating an avowed or obvious socialist.

All of the candidates who have garnered delegates will be in the mix, of course, but also in the wings are figures like Bloomberg, Patrick Deval, some of the centrist dropouts like Steve Bullock. Perhaps Amy Klobuchar, a centrist unlikely to reach critical mass in the primaries, could attract the lightning strike in the back rooms of Milwaukee hotels.

And there is still Hillary Clinton, who is perhaps best positioned to pull a Humphrey. She is, as he was, a known quantity with a solid base of support and total familiarity among the Superdelegates, and beloved by not a few of the regular delegates elected pledged to someone else. Team Hillary excels at the kind of horse-trading that makes for success in an open convention. She can honestly say that while she didn’t compete this year, she is no stranger to the campaign, and has won delegates in the past. That is the kind of argument that might make a nomination plausible.

However this “brokering” pans out – if it happens at all — it is inevitable that there will be massive disappointment among the delegates and in their constituencies back home. Will the Democrats be able to unify sufficiently to defeat Donald Trump, who faces only token and fringe opposition to his re-nomination? Will the Cheerios Kid save the maiden? We’ll soon find out –but not soon enough!


Gordon S. Jones is a long-time political observer and activist who spends his declining years mentoring students at Mount Liberty College in Murray (www.mountlibertycollege.org).

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