Democratic Convention FAQ

It’s hard to remember, but the manic bickering between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton does have an end in sight: the Democratic National Convention. One of them will ascend the stage in Denver in late August, about 18 months after he or she started campaigning. But even total political junkies still haven’t fleshed out the nuances of the convention. With that in mind, we OD’d on DNC delegate rules to answer three burning questions that haven’t gotten much attention.  

1.   Can we get to the convention without knowing who our nominee will be?

No matter what Howard Dean and Harry Reid tell you , this is a possible—but not probable—scenario. Picture this: Hillary Clinton stays in the race until June, when all of the primaries and caucuses have been held, the Democrats decide not to hold a superdeledgate primary , and enough indecisive superdelegates still can’t make up their minds after all the voters have had their say, so they stretch their decision-making through the dog days of summer. Clinton, still convinced she has a shot, presses on to the convention. If enough superdelegates don’t go public and side with Obama or Clinton by then, we’ll go into Denver not knowing who the nominee will be—but that doesn’t mean the convention will be “brokered.”

2.   Is a brokered convention possible?

Almost certainly not—but a “contested convention” is. Here’s the difference. The definition of a “brokered convention” is a convention with more than one round of voting. If a candidate does not receive a majority of the delegates (2,024) on the first ballot, then the convention will go to a second ballot. If there is still no nominee, a third, and so on. A “contested convention” is when neither candidate reaches the magic number through pledged delegates, but the winner gets the majority needed via superdelegates. A contested convention is settled on the first ballot, but the winner is in doubt leading up to that first vote.  

Because we have only two candidates, a second round of voting is nearly impossible. There are a fixed number of total delegates at the convention, so an even split between Obama and Clinton would result in one of the candidates getting the majority needed to win. For example, there are currently 4,047 delegates total. If you split that evenly, one candidate would have 2,023 delegates and one would have 2,024.The candidate with 2,024 would win on the first ballot because of simple math. (Caveat alert! If there were an even number of total delegates, a candidate would have to scrounge up one extra delegate.) In this case, the superdelegates would still decide the nominee because neither candidate can reach 2,024 with pledged delegates alone. But that doesn’t make it a brokered convention.

Keep in mind two highly improbable reasons why that could not happen: indecision and John Edwards. From what I can tell, any delegate could abstain from voting. Considering the candidates essentially control their delegations, this is highly unlikely. Moreover, the campaigns would probably swap the dead-weight delegate out for an alternate if that was the case. (Every state has alternate delegates just in case.) Again, this isn’t going to happen, but it could.  

Slightly more likely (but still highly improbable) is that John Edwards could be the difference in the primary. According to DemConWatch , Edwards currently has 16 delegates who are still pledged to his candidacy. Because he suspended (rather than withdrew) his campaign, his delegates have not been released from their pledges to him. Let’s return to our even-split example above. I was a tad misleading by suggesting that all of the delegates were to be split between Obama and Clinton. As of now, all but 16 of the delegates (4,031) will be split between the two. If there’s a completely even split of those 4,031, one candidate would have 2,015 and one would have 2,016. The leading candidate would still be eight short of the number needed for the nomination. If—and I’d like to reiterate how huge of an if this is—Edwards’ delegates continue to vote for him, then we would have a brokered convention because the Democrats would need a second ballot to settle on the nominee.

As you can see, the margin for a brokered convention is terrifically small. If it happened—which it won’t—it would totally overshadow every other historic political story we’ve seen this year. But it’s not going to happen.  

3.   Will we know whom the superdelegates eventually vote for?

Yes—which means that eventually Howard Dean, Al Gore, and Nancy Pelosi have to choose one of the candidates. All votes at the convention will be made public, but maybe not immediately. The superdelegates make their votes known to a state party official at the same time that pledged delegates do. Their votes are tallied and recorded by the secretary of the DNC, Alice Germond. Eventually Germond will make that list public, but that could take anywhere from two hours to two weeks.  

Those are just three questions—there’s plenty more. If you’ve got burning queries, e-mail us and we’ll do our damndest to drum up some details.