David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report published an op-ed article in the New York Times on Wednesday provocatively titled "Why a Long Democratic Primary Slugfest Might Help Re-Elect Trump." In the piece, Wasserman argues that the Democratic presidential nomination race in 2020 could well turn out to be a protracted fight that exposes or exacerbates wide rifts within the party, that the identity of the Democratic nominee might remain unresolved until the national convention, and that internal conflict could prevent Democrats from unifying to defeat Donald Trump in the November general election.
At the foundation of Wasserman's case is an important observation: under the internal rules of the Democratic Party, winning a majority of pledged delegates requires attracting at least a near-majority of the popular vote in presidential primaries. That's because Democrats, unlike Republicans, mandate the proportional allocation of delegates; all candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district are entitled to a corresponding share of the delegates chosen there regardless of whether they place first. If there are multiple candidates attracting significant but not overwhelming popular support over an extended segment of the primary calendar, no single candidate will accumulate a majority of delegates, and therefore the national party might assemble in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020 without a certain nominee.
However, I think that this scenario is far less probable than Wasserman suggests—and that even if no candidate ends the primary season with a majority of delegates formally pledged to him or her, neither unusually bitter infighting nor ineffective opposition to the Republican ticket are particularly likely consequences. Here are some of the reasons behind this skepticism:
1. The early states will immediately cull the field. At the current preliminary stage of the process, it's relatively easy to envision a long competition with multiple strong contenders. But the early states invariably impose a deep and sometimes brutal mark on the race, reinforced by the news media's enthusiasm for branding candidates as either winners or (more commonly) losers. There have been 20 contested presidential nominations since the modern system was introduced in 1972, and the eventual nominee placed no worse than second in the New Hampshire primary in all 20 elections. Unsuccessful candidates may not immediately drop out if they do badly in the first few states, but unless they can consistently reach the necessary 15 percent threshold of popular support in the face of the resulting negative publicity or media inattention, they won't be able to deprive the front-runner of delegates.
2. Front-loading might end the race sooner, not later. Wasserman argues that the front-loading of the nomination calendar paradoxically increases the chance of a dragged-out competition, because many pledged delegates will be chosen at a point when multiple active candidates could potentially split the electoral map among themselves. It's possible to see things working out that way. But it seems equally plausible that the evolution of Super Tuesday into an early March quasi-national primary raises the level of financial and organizational resources necessary to run a viable campaign beyond the reach of more than a handful of candidates, and that the extensive media coverage required to catch the eye of voters tuning into the race after Iowa and New Hampshire will similarly be divided among just two or three main contenders. If the results of Super Tuesday and the two following weeks give one candidate a large enough lead in the delegate count, the front-loading of the calendar could produce an apparent nominee by March 17, since the combination of proportional allocation requirements and the lack of delegate-rich states voting later in the season makes it even more difficult for a trailing opponent to mount a second-half comeback.
3. The Democratic Party is not "highly fractious." Notwithstanding the wildly disproportionate fascination in some circles with a few backbench members of the House of Representatives, the Democratic Party is arguably as unified, at both the mass and elite level, as it's ever been in its history. There are important differences among Democrats, of course, and some of these differences will be publicly litigated over the course of the 2020 presidential nomination race. But there's little reason to believe that internal party divisions are any greater, or harder to overcome, than they were in 2008, or 1992, or 1976, or 1948, or 1932. Democrats universally dislike Donald Trump and are highly motivated to defeat him in 2020; no major candidate or group within the party will want to risk being forever blamed for Trump's re-election by stirring up trouble between the convention and the November vote.
4. A true contested convention is very unlikely, because party leaders will work hard to prevent it. Media discussions of hypothetical contested conventions often carry the whiff of hopeful anticipation; many journalists find today's scripted coronations to be impossibly boring and yearn to experience the excitement of yesteryear's dark horses and smoke-filled rooms. But party leaders have exactly the opposite view. They fear and despise the unpredictability and colorful in-fighting that media types live for; above all, they want an exuberant, harmonious, drama-free party. Democratic officials will therefore do everything in their power to prevent the kind of rollicking free-for-all that the term "contested convention" or "brokered convention" commonly connotes.
For risk-averse party leaders who are habitually obsessed with maintaining internal unity and popular legitimacy, the obvious path of least resistance in a situation where no candidate has accumulated a majority of pledged delegates is to close ranks around the first-place finisher in the delegate count. Secondary candidates could be pressured to release their own delegates and endorse the leader; alternatively, superdelegate votes could deliver him or her a numerical majority on the second ballot at the convention. Denying the nomination to the candidate with the greatest demonstrated popular support would risk a highly inconvenient public debate over whether the "voice of the people" was being silenced by the scheming of party "bosses," as the experience of the 2008 and 2016 superdelegate controversies demonstrated so memorably. At the same time, the Democratic leadership is quite unlikely to let a contested nomination play out without attempting to direct the proceedings in advance; it's not obvious how a modern convention could even be competently staged without a presumptive nominee to take charge of its organization.
Until such a turn of events actually happens, it's impossible to know whether the nominal majority requirement for presidential nominations is, as I suspect, closer to a plurality requirement in practice. But the prospect of a chaotic nomination process or national convention doesn't seem like a leading concern for the Democratic Party at this stage of the election. Whatever challenges Democrats may face in 2020, a deeply divided or unmotivated party base is unlikely to be one of them.