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Democrats should welcome a deadlocked convention

  • 3 min to read
Adlai Stevenson, Harry S. Truman

President Harry S. Truman wags a thumb at Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic Party’s 1952 presidential nominee, as he presents him to the convention in Chicago, July 25, 1952. (AP Photo)

If the Democrats want to win and to drive the dripping-with-dollars Trump campaign to distraction, they would be quietly pushing for the first deadlocked — or contested — Democratic National Convention since 1952.

And, it’s not such a stretch to see it happening with four leading candidates divvying up the primary delegates (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren), and several favorite son or daughter candidates (Klobuchar and Booker) already playing a prominent role among their home state’s delegations.

Let’s look back to the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, — the last time any major party convention went past the first ballot — for some instruction, recognizing the one huge difference between the Democratic Convention rules of 68 years ago and now — which make a contested convention more likely today.

It’s time to turn off the lights for good on PG&E, the power company without power, money or the will to do routine maintenance, nor competent management that puts the public’s safety ahead of profit or political influence.

In 2018, Democrats, for the first time in modern history, passed a rule change preventing 766 so-called “super-delegates,” — Democratic National Committee members, members of Congress, senators and governors, and “distinguished party members” — from casting their votes on the first ballot.

This change alone might guarantee that no candidate will have enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot, as happened in 1952, the first year national political conventions were televised.

Despite having Harry Truman as an incumbent president, Democrats entered the 1952 election cycle deeply divided. Truman, bogged down during the third year of the Korean War and being mauled on television each day by Wisconsin’s right wing Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the “Red Scare,” was supported by only 36% of Democrats nationwide, according to a Gallup Poll.

In the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Democratic primary in February, 1952, Truman was toppled by progressive Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, who was then conducting televised Senate investigations into organized crime, and surfing a wave of public support.

Truman interpreted his weak New Hampshire primary showing as a message not to seek re-election. With Truman out, Kefauver became the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he was locked in a tough battle with Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a staunch segregationist, and the liberal Averell Harriman of New York. No one arrived at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year with anywhere near the 616 delegates needed to win the nomination.

The convention opened with a welcoming speech by the governor of Illinois, Adlai E. Stevenson II. His speech was so well received, it began a boomlet for him to seek the nomination — something he had steadfastly resisted until that moment.

Truman threw his backing behind Stevenson, persuading Harriman to pledge his 121 delegates to him after the second ballot. With strong support from Harriman and Truman, Stevenson stormed past the two Southern senators on the Convention’s third ballot, tallying 617 votes to the combined total of 540 for Kefauver and Russell.

In late August, 2017, Billy Joel walked out on stage at Madison Square Garden, where he is the artist-in-residence performing monthly to standing-room-only crowds. On the left side of his dark suit jacket, a yellow Star of David was pinned prominently over his heart.

In 2020, with a half-dozen or so Democrats seriously competing for the party’s presidential nomination, the likelihood of a deadlocked convention is the greatest it’s been in 68 years. Support from 1,990 elected delegates is needed to win the nomination. With both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary less than a month away, none of the present candidates appears positioned to win a majority of votes on the first ballot.

Even after the “Super Tuesday” primaries in March, the Democrats could have four top candidates with 800 to 1,000 delegates each, and a smattering of lesser candidates dividing up the rest.

Rather than whining about this prospect, Democrats should welcome it. A fresh, new Democratic nominee would have the distinct advantage of not having been attacked by Trump and his Twitter trolls for the past year.

A second ballot, would not only free up committed delegates to vote for anyone of their choice — including potentially new candidates like Adm. William McRaven, Stacey Abrams, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Attorney General Eric Holder, or Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (a woman of color and a disabled veteran, who coined the knock-out nickname “Cadet Bone Spurs” for Trump) — it would also free the 766 “Super” or “Automatic” delegates — the elected and party officials — to vote for anyone they choose.

Conceivably, it could take a second, third or even fourth ballot for one candidate to aggregate enough support to win the nomination, the way Stevenson did after three ballots in 1952.

It didn’t work out so well for Stevenson and the Democrats in the general election 68 years ago because they had the distinct disadvantages of following five-consecutive Democratic administrations, and running against Dwight D. Eisenhower, an immensely popular bi-partisan war hero with a spotless record.

This time around, however, the circumstances are far different. Singularly focused on beating Trump, Democrats could, after several ballots, nominate by acclamation, a war hero of their own like McRaven, or Duckworth, who would stand as a stark, patriotic and incorruptible contrast to Trump or any GOP candidate.

Only a deadlocked convention can produce such an unanticipated result, catch the GOP flat-footed, and send mainstream and social media, and the Trump campaign, into a frenzy during the final four months of the campaign, making everyone forget the droning Democratic debates of 2019. All it needs to work is for a highly diverse group of 4,500 Democratic delegates from across the nation to reach a consensus, because they believe the future of our Democracy and the rule of law are at stake.

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Steve Villano is a Napa-based blogger. He was a director of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s New York City press office, and is the author of “Tightrope: Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother.” This is an abridged version of an essay first published on his blog on


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