Taking the Fight to the Convention? History isn't on Bernie's Side

flickr / Phil Roeder

With Bernie Sanders yet to concede the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, what are the historical precedents, in recent years, for a candidate with the second-most pledged delegates taking a nomination?

As of Wednesday morning, Sanders has vowed to fight on, despite big Clinton wins in California and New Jersey. “I am pretty good at arithmetic and I know that the fight in front of us is a very, very steep fight but we will continue to fight for every vote and every delegate that we can get,” Sanders said in California.

Technically, Clinton now has 1,981 pledged delegates won in directly in elections, compared with 1,643 for Sanders. The nominee will need at least 2,383 to take a first-ballot nomination. In the category of additional Super Delegates, Clinton has the support of at least 542 more delegates, giving her a 140-delegate victory margin. And that doesn’t include 370 directly elected pledged delegates available to both candidates from California as of early Wednesday morning.

The math, indeed, is steep for Sanders, who would need to convince hundreds of Super Delegates to switch their commitments on the first ballot. But such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented.

In recent years, there have been scenarios where Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale lead going into conventions without a clear first ballot majority of pledged delegates. In each case, these candidates gathered enough ground support to win on the first ballot anyway. But the 1984 convention with Mondale is the only one where the Super Delegates were in play.

Back in 1952, the Eisenhower camp was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Robert Taft supporters over the delegate seating process.  Primaries were in their infant stage, and Eisenhower headed into the Chicago convention with a narrow delegate lead over Taft. On the convention floor, Eisenhower’s managers contested the seating of Taft delegates from several southern states. Ironically, Eisenhower manager Herbert Brownell used the same “Fair Play” amendment strategy employed by William Howard Taft in 1912 to deny Theodore Roosevelt the GOP nomination. (President Taft was Robert Taft’s father.) The Fair Play victory led to Eisenhower’s first ballot nomination.

President Ford also faced a delegate challenge in 1976 from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford was a sitting President who hadn’t been elected as Vice President or President, and Reagan had used a late primary winning streak to pull nearly even with Ford heading to the Kansas City convention. The Reagan team demanded a roll call vote to force Ford to name his Vice Presidential pick before the first nomination ballot. (Reagan had named Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his VP pick, which had offended some conservatives.)  If Ford lost that vote and refused to name a Vice Presidential pick, his delegates would have been free to vote for other candidates. Instead, Ford won the challenge by 89 votes, indicating he would win a first ballot nomination the following night.

The bitter 1980 Democratic convention fight between Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy led to the creation of Super Delegates for future Democratic conventions.  Carter had a 700 pledged-delegate lead heading into the convention in New York, with an estimated 300 more delegates than needed for the nomination.  But the Kennedy supporters forced a last-ditch floor vote to allow pledged delegates to vote for anyone on the first ballot, citing President Carter’s low popularity poll numbers. The convention debate took place on prime-time television, and the Carter took the floor vote, forcing Kennedy to concede the nomination.

In 1984, the Democrats moved to a new Super Delegate system, which was intended to appoint party leaders as special uncommitted delegates chosen outside of the presidential primary process. These party leaders, in theory, would be able to avert an ugly floor fight like the Carter-Kennedy struggle in 1980. Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina led the commission that created the Super Delegate system; among the opposition was Senator Edward Kennedy. A compromise proposed by Geraldine Ferraro led to Super Delegates making up 14 percent of the total convention delegates.

That system came into play quickly in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale headed to the Democratic convention in San Francisco with a plurality, but not a majority of pledged delegates. Mondale had a big lead in getting commitments among Super Delegates, who shunned Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, his two biggest rivals. (Mondale had commitments from an estimated 80 percent of the Super Delegates.)

But Hart won the California primary and then claimed he had been able to sway some delegates away from Mondale, putting Mondale’s first ballot nomination in doubt. However, Mondale responded by getting 40 more Super Delegate commitments and holding a press conference to declare victory over Hart and Jackson.

Hart didn’t quit his campaign after the Mondale announcement. Instead, he appealed to Jackson for Jackson’s endorsement and the release of the Jackson delegates to vote for Hart. The reasoning was that Hart performed much better that Mondale in head-to-head match-up polls against President Ronald Reagan. Instead, Jackson kept his delegates so his name could be placed in nomination at the convention, and Mondale took the first ballot win.

In overall popular voting during the primary season, Mondale took 38 percent of the vote, with 36 percent for Hart and 18 percent for Jackson. Mondale had 1,606 directly elected pledged delegates before the nomination, with 1,967 needed for the nomination. His final total was 2,192 including Super Delegates. Mondale subsequently lost 49 states in the general election match-up against President Reagan.

For Sanders, he now trails in the 2016 Democratic Primary overall popular vote by 3.6 million votes, in addition to lagging behind Clinton in pledged delegates. He has pledge to fight until the Democratic convention, but how that fight unfolds remains to be seen.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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