A telling moment came toward the close of Wednesday night’s Democratic debate when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the candidates what they thought should happen if one of them ended the primaries with more delegates than anyone else, but not a majority.
Sen. Bernie Sanders said the Democratic convention should give that candidate the nomination — clearly signaling that he expects to be in that position. The other five on stage all clearly shared his assessment of who would be in the lead: They each said the convention should follow its rules and be free to nominate someone else.
Just like four years ago, Democrats seem headed for a springtime of debate over whether a candidate who ends up short of the 1,990 delegates needed to win the nomination can nonetheless claim it. Once again, Sanders is at the center of the debate — only this time he’s switched positions.
Four years ago, as Hillary Clinton steadily accumulated delegates, Sanders insisted that the battle for the nomination should not end until the actual roll call vote at the convention. Even once Clinton had a clear majority, he pressed onward, noting that her total included elected officials and other so-called superdelegates who were free to vote for any candidate.
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Get ready to hear a lot about 15%
This time, the 771 superdelegates are not allowed to vote in the convention’s first roll call: They get to vote only if the delegates can’t agree on a nominee on the first ballot — something that hasn’t happened at a major party convention since 1952.
Whether Democrats in Milwaukee this summer will repeat that long-ago experience will depend a lot on how close Sanders (or some other candidate) gets to 50% of the delegates: Blocking a candidate who has 48% is a lot harder than stopping one who has 30%.
Right now, polls nationally and in states soon to hold primaries consistently show Sanders in the lead, but winning somewhere between a quarter and a third of the vote.
Four years ago, Donald Trump, in a similar position in the Republican primaries, ended up with a majority of the delegates. But that’s because Republicans have winner-take-all contests in which a candidate who may get no more than a third of the vote in a multicandidate field can walk away with all the delegates. Democrats don’t allow that.
Under the Democrats’ rules, states award delegates in proportion to a candidate’s share of the vote, but only to candidates whose vote passes a threshold amount. In most cases, that’s 15%, either statewide or in a smaller area such as a congressional district. That’s been the basic rule for several election cycles; Sanders’ allies played a major role in the most recent tweaking of those rules after the 2016 contest.
The combination of proportional allocation of delegates and the threshold requirement means two numbers will be crucial in each of the contests over the next few weeks: How big a victory the winner gets and how many other candidates cross the threshold for delegates.
For example, odds are good that Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will win her home state’s primary when it votes on March 3 — one of 14 states to vote that day, although a poll this week showed Sanders effectively tied with her. The Massachusetts primary will allocate 91 delegates (the state has an additional 23 superdelegates). If no other candidate got 15%, Warren could end up with all of them. But if Sanders or others cross the 15% mark, she would have to share the bounty.
The same will be true in all the other states to vote. In California, which also votes March 3, 415 delegates will be on the line. Our last statewide poll, in January, showed Sanders in the lead, with Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden also on track to get delegates. All the other candidates sat well below the threshold. In that scenario, Sanders likely would end up with more than 40% of the delegates, with the other two splitting the rest.
A new California poll released Thursday from Monmouth University’s polling institute similarly showed Sanders in the lead, but with Michael Bloomberg moving up into third place behind Biden and Warren fourth.
We’ll see in our final survey how the lineup has changed and, in particular, how much Bloomberg’s huge expenditure on ads has boosted his prospects. The key point for all the contenders, however, is that even relatively small shifts in the vote can make a big difference — a candidate with 15% of the vote in a state could get a decent share of delegates, while one with 10% might walk away with nothing.
Bloomberg’s no good, very bad debate
Eight years ago, President Obama met Republican nominee Mitt Romney for their first debate, and Democrats ended the night despondent. Obama, like several previous incumbents, had assumed his past experience would allow him to coast into the debate. He hadn’t taken debate prep seriously, and his performance stank.
Bloomberg, with less experience than Obama but a similar level of self-assurance, appears to have done the same: He lacked answers for obvious questions about his record, offered lines that will almost surely come back to trouble him, especially when asked about nondisclosure agreements his company has with women who sued over allegations of harassment, and generally appeared unprepared, as Evan Halper, Seema Mehta and Arit John wrote.
Almost immediately, Bloomberg aides began telling reporters that they had tried to get their impatient and imperious boss to sit still and practice and that he had largely ignored them.
Unfortunately for Bloomberg, Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas had the biggest TV audience of any of the debates in this election cycle, according to Nielsen’s ratings. Fortunately for him, he gets a do-over in just a few days, as the candidates are set to debate again Tuesday in Charleston, S.C.
A lot may turn on whether he, like Obama, takes a lesson from his poor performance and puts in the work necessary to do better. A candidate, especially one with an unlimited budget as Bloomberg appears to have — he had already spent $406 million on his campaign by the end of January — can probably overcome one bad debate. Two in a row will be more difficult.
As Janet Hook wrote, the combination of Bloomberg’s halting performance and the other candidates’ focus on him had the net result of boosting Sanders’ prospects.
But Sanders wasn’t the only candidate to leave the Las Vegas stage with gains: As Mark Barabak wrote, Warren had one of the best nights she has had in the campaign, with Bloomberg proving to be a near-perfect foil for her.
As Hook and Mehta wrote, by the next day, the Massachusetts senator had gotten an infusion of energy and desperately needed cash as a result of the debate. That, plus the support of a new super PAC, something she had previously disdained, has given Warren’s supporters hope that she can realistically continue her campaign despite disappointing results from the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire.
What to watch for in Nevada
Much is riding on the outcome of Saturday’s caucuses.
Sanders remains the clear favorite — his strong support among younger voters and Latinos should pay off in a victory. But by how much?
The state’s strongest union, the Culinary Workers, dislikes Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan, which would upend the highly admired healthcare plan that the union has spent years negotiating and building for its members. Some of his supporters have harshly attacked the union’s leadership, as Michael Finnegan wrote.
Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Biden all have hopes that they can do well enough in the state to keep their fundraising healthy and move on to March 3 and beyond.
Buttigieg spoke at a town hall at USC on Thursday, repeating his pitch that nominating either Bloomberg or Sanders would risk dividing Democrats and handing Trump a second term.
The Nevada Democratic Party also has a lot to prove.
Nevada, Iowa and Wyoming are the three states left that use a caucus, rather than a primary, to pick Democratic convention delegates. After the debacle in Iowa last month, Nevada party officials hope their caucuses will provide a sharp contrast.
“Everybody in Nevada is just praying and focused on not being Iowa,” Tick Segerblom, a commissioner in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, told Mehta and Matt Pearce.
The results could be crucial for whoever wins the nomination, but for the most powerful Democrat in Nevada, that’s a secondary consideration. Former Sen. Harry Reid, in remarks before Wednesday night’s debate, made it clear what really matters to him — persuading Democrats to have his state replace Iowa as the kickoff of the nominating season.
The state party will need to deliver a smoothly functioning caucus to achieve Reid’s ambition. We’ll be following the results as they come in Saturday night — and maybe Sunday morning — so check back at latimes.com/politics.
Sanders reneges on promise for health records
After his heart attack in October, Sanders said he planned to release his full medical records. “I want to make it comprehensive,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
In late December, he released letters from three doctors saying he was healthy. Since then, he has declined to release any additional information, and in recent interviews has made it clear that he doesn’t plan to. His campaign aides have aggressively pushed back against reporters’ questions. One compared the call for medical records to “birtherism,” as Erin Logan wrote.
None of the candidates so far this year have released as much detail about their health as the late Sen. John McCain did in 2008, when he was the Republican nominee. Obama also fully disclosed his records. But then-candidate Donald Trump proved in his campaign that voters would put up with less disclosure, and so far, his example has set a new, lower standard.
Another Trump ally sentenced
A federal judge criticized Trump Thursday as she sentenced his longtime adviser, Roger Stone, to 40 months in prison for lying to Congress and witness tampering, as Logan and Del Wilber wrote.
Trump has repeatedly said he doesn’t think Stone did anything wrong and has suggested he might give him a pardon. Judge Amy Berman Jackson made clear she disagrees.
“The truth still exists, the truth still matters,” Jackson said. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracies. If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one political party; everyone loses.”
Stone, convicted of seven felonies in all, won’t have to report to prison right away. With skirmishing over legal motions still to come, he might not begin serving his sentence for months. Trump could wait until after the election to make a decision about clemency.