Sen. Bernard Sanders’ supporters have been stricken with an acute case of paranoia about the Democratic Party hijacking the nomination from their guiding light at the national convention this summer.
The fears persist despite party bosses rewriting the nomination rules after the nasty 2016 primary race to quell a backlash from Sanders’ supporters, including scaling back the influence of the “superdelegates” who backed Hillary Clinton en masse.
Shaun King, a top Sanders surrogate, took to Twitter this week to question whether the Vermont socialist’s top 2020 rivals would back him if he enters the convention with a plurality of support, but not enough delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot.
“Stop asking, ‘Will you support the nominee?’” he said. “Let’s get VERY SPECIFIC.”
All the candidates have vowed to support the eventual nominee, including Mr. Sanders.
That sort of kumbaya moment, however, could be fleeting if no one wins the nomination outright by collecting at least 1,991 of the 3,979 pledged delegates that are up for grabs in the caucus and primary contests.
If they fail to cross that threshold on the first ballot at the July convention in Milwaukee, then two things happen in round two: the 771 “superdelegates” who were relegated to the sidelines under new DNC rules will get a say and all of the pledged delegates that were bound to a certain candidate based on the primary or caucus results in their home states would be free to support whomever they wished.
As a result, to win in the second round of voting a candidate needs a majority from a bigger pool of delegates, 4,750.
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said Democrats should tread carefully.
“Any attempt by the Democratic Party establishment to gang up on Bernie Sanders would backfire,” he said. “Even if party bigwigs were able to stop the senator from Vermont, it would backfire and increase his support now and later alienate his supporters who might not vote in November.”
Any doubts about an anti-Sanders conspiracy within the party in the 2016 contest were erased when Russia hacked the email of top DNC officials and revealed them plotting to sabotage his campaign.
Sanders backers in the early primary states this year are cautioning there would be a big price to pay if the party again tries to put its thumb on the scale.
Dale Kistler-Collins, a 29-year-old from Denver who drove to Iowa to volunteer for Mr. Sanders, predicted he will have at least 40% of the delegates by the time the convention rolls around.
“If we get to the point where everybody takes all of their delegates and puts them into Biden, or Pete or Warren, we are not going to show up,” he said.
Others think the party will have no choice but to fall in line if Mr. Sanders continues gaining steam.
Mike Zlotowicz, a 38-year-old boat captain from Manchester, New Hampshire, compared the current situation to the 2016 GOP presidential race when then-candidate Donald Trump started racking up wins much to the chagrin of party leaders and insiders, most of whom eventually got on board.
“I think he will win it, and I think just like the Republicans [who did] not want Donald Trump to win, they will get in line,” Mr. Zlotowicz said. “A dark horse, non-party member won their base, won their nomination, and they fell in line and he changed the party.”
A big difference between the Republican and Democratic presidential primary races is that Democrats do not have any winner-take-all contests.
Instead, the delegates are awarded on a proportional basis, making it harder for candidates that appeal mostly just to one part of the party — including perhaps Mr. Sanders, who has struggled to win over center-left voters.
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Delegates are doled out to candidates that amass at least 15% of the vote statewide or in an individual congressional district.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who finished first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, now leads the early delegate chase with 22, according to a running tally from the Associated Press. Mr. Sanders is right behind him with 21, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 8, Sen. Amy Klobuchar with 7, and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden at 6.
Still, Mr. Sanders is widely viewed as the frontrunner in the race.
The 78-year-old is buoyed by a massive fundraising network, die-hard supporters, and a level of familiarity with voters from his run four years ago.
Mr. Sanders is well-positioned to add to his delegate count in the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses and the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary.
He also has a good chance to create some distance with the rest of the field on Super Tuesday primaries March 3 when 14 states hold contests. For example, he has consistently led polls in California, where the biggest cache of delegates, 415, are on the line Super Tuesday.
But the contests on Super Tuesday will be the first involving former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has invested over $200 million into an advertising campaign and is thought to have entered the race in part to block Mr. Sanders from the nomination.
Mr. Sanders said it would be “very divisive” if a candidate who headed into the party’s convention with a solid plurality of delegates didn’t end up as the nominee.
“In general, I think it is a fair statement to say that it would be very divisive,” he said this week on MSNBC. “You have to take a look at the whole nature of the campaign and a whole lot of factors within the campaign that we don’t know yet.”
“The convention would have to explain to the American people: ‘hey, candidate X, you know, kind of got the most votes and won the most delegates in the primary process but we’re not going to give him or her the nomination,’” Mr. Sanders said. “I think that would be a very divisive moment for the Democratic Party.”
In 2016, Mr. Sanders’ team talked up the possibility of convincing superdelegates to switch allegiances even as Hillary Clinton was building a lead over him in pledged delegates. He ultimately endorsed Mrs. Clinton in July, about a month after news networks declared her the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been happy to stoke the flames of a brokered convention.
“Can you imagine what that would look like?” Corey R. Lewandowski, former Trump campaign, said in an op-ed for the Hill Newspaper. “Bloomberg handing out stacks of cash to delegates on the floor. Mayor Pete running from delegation to delegation, campaigning like he would-be president of his college politics club. Joe Biden wandering in circles,” Mr. Lewandowski wrote.
“And the party figureheads, the ‘superdelegates,’ thinking to themselves how Bernie isn’t fit to be the nominee and maybe running Hillary a second time is the best idea,” he said. “I might buy a ticket to that convention.”
⦁ S.A. Miller contributed to this report.