What is a contested convention? Inside the chaotic process Sanders voters fear most

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You hear whispers of it: Will there be a contested convention? What happens if superdelegates don't support the frontrunner? What about the will of the voters? This Super Tuesday, with 14 states plus American Samoa and Democrats Abroad voting in presidential primaries, talk of a contested convention has ramped up. But what exactly would that entail? And more importantly, is a contested convention even democratic? Here's everything you need to know.

1. What even is a contested convention?

Democratic presidential candidates are vying to win a majority of 3,979 pledged delegates. Each state primary and caucus rewards participating candidates a certain number of pledged delegates — delegates who are bound to vote for the winner of their state's contest at the Democratic National Convention in July, where the party's presidential nominee will be named.

That means in order to win the Democratic nomination for president outright convention, a candidate needs to pass the threshold of 1,991 delegates. Each candidate enters the convention with the pledged delegates they won via state primaries and caucuses. If no candidate enters with a clear delegate majority, then the door is opened for some political machinations.

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Delegates are required to vote for their pledged candidate on the first-ballot vote. If no candidate meets the 1,991 delegate threshold in this vote, then a second vote is taken. In this round, pledged delegates are newly free to vote for a different candidate than whoever won their state's race.

Superdelegates are also able to vote on the second ballot. In 2018, Democratic Party leaders changed the convention rules so that superdelegates could not vote in the first round. Their involvement in the second round of voting, however, means that they have an outsize impact on who the nominee will be if things reach a second vote. Superdelegates are comprised of a variety of elected officials, party bigwigs, and more. The inclusion of superdelegates brings the total number of votes to 4750, meaning a candidate has to win 2,375.5 delegates to win the second vote (or any subsequent vote). Per Politico, some superdelegates have half votes, hence the fraction.

2. Why is there a chance of a contested convention?

Basically, some higher-ups in the Democratic Party really don't seem to want Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be the nominee. They'd much prefer Vice President Joe Biden or maybe even former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — just some candidate who's not as far left as Sanders is. They're worried that Sanders won't be able to beat President Trump in the general election, that he's running on an unfeasible platform of Medicare-for-All, that he's technically an independent rather than a loud-and-proud, capital-D Democrat.

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And where most voters focus on the presidential race in November, party officials are additionally concerned about down-ballot races for state legislatures as well as the House and Senate, where they believe Democratic candidates' chances would be adversely affected by Sanders at the top of the ticket.

3. Is a contested convention the same thing as a brokered convention?

A contested convention is slightly different than a brokered convention. In a brokered convention, if a candidate does not receive the support from a majority of delegates (in this case, 1,991) in the first round of voting, they fail to secure the nomination. The inconclusive first round of voting would then trigger a "complex series of negotiations," as the Brookings Institution explained it, with party heavyweights like governors and senators trying to persuade delegates individually to back one candidate or another. It may also involve candidates offering their rivals certain appointments or incentives for dropping out. More rounds of voting would then be conducted until a nominee receives the majority of delegates.

In a contested convention, the same first-ballot vote takes place, and again the goal is for a candidate to win the majority of votes. But if that doesn't happen, per Brookings, it's more up to the candidates themselves to convince delegates to back them in subsequent rounds of voting instead of the candidate who held the delegate lead after the first round.

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Per The New York Times, the last time a Democrat won the general election after multiple rounds of voting was in 1932, with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both parties held contested conventions in 1952, with Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower emerging victorious in the general election against Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

4. Who supports a contested convention?

At the Democratic debate in South Carolina, candidates were asked whether they believed that whoever wins a plurality of delegates — but not a majority — should be the eventual nominee. Every candidate except Sanders, who currently leads in the delegate count, said no, that they preferred the party's "process" to work itself out.

Even Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders's closest ideological ally, pledged her support for the established convention process. In fact, a contested convention increasingly seems like her campaign's goal; Warren campaign manager Roger Lau said outright in a memo released Sunday that the nominating convention in Milwaukee "is the final play."

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Similarly, in speaking to reporters Tuesday, Bloomberg admitted his preference is for a contested convention, saying, "I don't think I can win any other way."

5. What are the risks of a contested convention?

Pundits have noted that a contested convention, especially if Sanders is the candidate who enters the convention with the most delegates, threatens to alienate the Democrats' progressive base. But the Times reported that Democratic Party officials are indeed willing to risk intraparty damage — including endangering down-ballot candidates and ballot measures and harming voters' trust in party leadership — if it means nominating someone other than Sanders.

Meanwhile, as moderates rushed to rally behind Biden in the final days before Super Tuesday, it seems clear the Democratic establishment is moving to stop Sanders from claiming the party mantle this summer. Glenn Greenwald harshly described the machinations at The Intercept: “The Democratic establishment is rapidly snapping into line behind Biden like the sheep that they are, falling all over themselves to endorse him now that he won his first state in 30 years of running for president.”

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At stake is the “will of the voters,” which could potentially be overruled by superdelegates and the national Democratic Party. Sanders supporters, and other Democratic voters to be sure, claim that the influence and potential usurpation of the vote by superdelegates and party officials is undemocratic; if Sanders won the most votes, they argue, then he should be the nominee, even if he won a plurality and not a majority.

Ironically, superdelegates were only made an official part of the nominating process after 1980, in an attempt to make the whole process simpler.