Q: What happens if neither Clinton nor Obama wins enough delegates to secure the nomination?
A: A brokered convention would result in the very unlikely event that neither sews up the nomination beforehand. We have no idea what would happen then.
What will happen if neither Obama nor Clinton gets enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot at the convention? If it goes to a second ballot, aren’t all delegates then free to vote any way they want?
For 2008, the Democratic National Committee allocated a total of 4,048 delegates, divided between 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and a handful of U.S. territories. (Florida and Michigan were stripped of all their delegates for violating party rules.) Of the 4,048 total delegates, 3,253 are pledged, which means that they are distributed on the basis of the results of state primaries and caucuses. The remaining 795 delegates – the so-called superdelegates – consist of elected officials (such as Democratic governors and members of the U.S. House or Senate) and party leaders (such as the head of the DNC). To win the nomination, a candidate needs to secure 2,025 total delegates.
Superdelegates are not pledged to any particular candidate, which means that they are free to vote for whomever they please at the convention. Pledged delegates, on the other hand, vote for … well, whomever they please. Unlike delegates to the Electoral College (many of whom are bound by state law to vote for whichever candidate won their state), the DNC does not require that delegates be bound to a particular candidate. Indeed, the DNC’s rules state that:
DNC Delegate Selection Rules (Rule 12J): Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.
In an e-mail to Time magazine, a DNC spokesperson explained rule 12J to mean that "delegates are not bound to vote for the candidate they are pledged to at the Convention or on the first ballot." The rule was intended to allow the convention to function "as a deliberative body" and to free delegates "to vote for the presumptive nominee" in the event that the candidate to which they were pledged has since dropped out of the race.
In practice, pledged delegates are unlikely to change their votes. DNC rules allow candidates to vet their list of pledged delegates and to remove any delegates they wish. Thus, pledged delegates are likely to consist of a candidate’s most fervent partisans. It’s unrealistic to expect that many pledged delegates could be convinced to switch allegiances.
Moreover, it’s extremely unlikely that the first ballot will fail to produce a clear winner, which would happen only if neither Clinton nor Obama reached 2,025 delegates. In a pure two-way race, that outcome would be impossible. In this case, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards does have 18 pledged delegates, so a brokered convention is possible. (A "brokered convention" is one in which delegates pick the nominee through further ballots and deliberation.) But it would occur only if Clinton and Obama fall just a few delegates short of an absolute majority. In that unlikely event, Edwards could ask his supporters to cast their votes for either Clinton or Obama. Or the delegates could decide on some third candidate entirely.
A somewhat more likely scenario is a convention fight over seating delegates from Florida and Michigan. The DNC may have officially stripped the two states of their delegates, but that didn’t stop either state from holding a Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton won both contests, although none of the Democratic candidates campaigned in either state, and Obama’s name wasn’t on the Michigan ballot. The two states would have a total of 367 delegates, which is likely to be larger than the difference between Clinton and Obama’s finally tallies.
That would be the first convention floor fight for the Democrats since 1972, when a coalition of Democratic leaders (led by then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter) argued that California had violated party rules by awarding all of its delegates to George McGovern in a winner-take-all primary (rather than in the proportional manner specified in party rules). McGovern argued that changing the rules after the fact was unfair, and his supporters eventually carried the day – then went on to lose in the general election in a landslide.
It’s fairly unlikely that the Democrats will drag their decision all the way to the convention. Party leaders are likely to recall that their last intra-party convention battles resulted in general election losses to Richard Nixon. Indeed Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he and other party leaders may push superdelegates to commit to a clear choice before the convention. But should the 2008 Democratic nomination come down to a convention fight, we feel good about making one prediction: It’ll make for a wild ride.
Cox, Ana Marie. "E-Mail from Stacie Paxton, DNC Press Secretary." Time.com, 22 April 2008.
Democratic National Committee. "2008 Delegate Selection Rules." 19 August 2006. Democratic National Convention, 22 April 2008.
Tapper, Jake. "Reid, Pelosi, Dean May Push Uncommitted Superdelegates to Decide by July 1st." ABC News, 24 April 2008.
Democratic National Committee. "2008 Democratic National Convention — Delegate/Alternate Allocation." Democratic National Committee, 17 March 2008.