Sanders says he would honor a Biden delegate lead if there’s a contested convention

Sen. Bernie Sanders kicks off his second presidential campaign in Brooklyn on March 2, 2019.
(Craig Ruttle/AP)

Bernie Sanders says he would support Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy if the former vice president goes to the Democratic National Convention with the most delegates but not with a nomination-clinching majority.

“If Biden walks into the convention, or at the end of the process, has more votes than me, he’s the winner,” the Vermont senator told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in an interview Wednesday.

“And that’s true whether or not he has a majority or a plurality [of delegates]?” Maddow asked.

“Absolutely,” Sanders said.


Sanders was doubling down on a position he’d taken in recent weeks that the Democratic Party should rally around whichever candidate ends the primary campaign with a plurality of delegates, which would result in a contested or “brokered” convention where party insiders, not voters, decide who becomes the nominee.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden both need to recalibrate and — to some extent — rebrand to broaden their appeal and unify an increasingly fractured party. Can either assemble the kind of coalition and drive the turnout needed to beat President Trump in November?

“I just want all of you to think about what it will look like to this country if candidate X — and I don’t know who that candidate X might be, I hope it’s me, could be somebody else — goes into the convention in Milwaukee with the most votes, and then the party leadership and the insiders and the corporate world say ... ‘We’re going to select candidate Z,’” Sanders said at a news conference in Burlington, Vt., earlier Wednesday. “I think that would cause massive dismay within the American people.”

Up until recent days, the Democratic world was abuzz with the prospect that the hypothetical “candidate X” — with a plurality but not a majority — would be Sanders, who had just finished strong performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, while moderate voters remained split between several weaker candidates.

Sanders was fearful that in such a scenario, opponents would try to snatch the nomination away from him at a contested convention where no candidate had secured the 1,991 delegates necessary to clinch victory.

They hinted as much at the Feb. 19 debate in Las Vegas, when the campaign winds were firmly in Sanders’ favor, with the other candidates asserting that the party should follow its set procedures that allow party officials to nominate a candidate different from the leader in case of a contested convention. Sanders was the only candidate at the time who said the plurality leader should be the presumed nominee in such a scenario.

“I think that the will of the people should prevail,” Sanders said at the debate. “The person who has the most votes should become the nominee.”

But the dropouts of several moderate candidates and Biden’s strong showings in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday have raised the prospect that it might be Biden, not Sanders, who might enter the Democratic National Convention with the plurality of delegates, if not an outright majority.


That would be a scenario somewhat similar to the one Sanders faced in 2016, when he faced another strong moderate candidate in a hard-fought primary: Hillary Clinton.

Sanders had a different message on plurality leadership during the 2016 race, though the nominating rules were also different. At the time, “superdelegates” — party officials, activists and elected leaders who can make their own choices for who to support for president — were allowed to participate in the initial nominating process alongside the delegates bound to regular voters’ preferences. Many of those superdelegates had signaled their preference to support Clinton before voters had even weighed in, leading Sanders to complain that their participation was undemocratic.

When Bernie Sanders took an early, exploratory trip to Iowa, a curious crowd of 150 or so turned out at a college-town bookstore, where they listened politely as he raged against the billionaires and oligarchs he said were destroying America.

But in the later days of that campaign, when it became clear that Clinton was going to be heading into the party’s convention with the lead in delegates, Sanders signaled that he was going to appeal to the party’s superdelegates to throw their support behind him, not Clinton, who was then the candidate with the most support.


“The convention will be a contested convention,” Sanders said in May 2016, predicting that Clinton would not be able to clinch a majority of delegates.

That, of course, was not what happened. Clinton reached a majority of delegates and superdelegates and clinched the nomination before that cycle’s convention in Philadelphia. Sanders threw his support behind her candidacy there, though many of his supporters protested outside the gates of the convention, and the bitterness never really ended — especially after Clinton went on to lose the election to Donald Trump.

Since then, the Democratic Party, at Sanders’ prodding, rewrote its nominating rules to shift power away from superdelegates and toward the party’s voters, as represented by the delegates. But there is a catch: Superdelegates can join the fray on the second round of convention balloting if there is no majority winner among the delegates in the first round.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had been planning for the possibility of a contested convention before dropping out Thursday, had recently needled Sanders for his calls for Democrats to support the plurality leader.


Warren has dropped out of the presidential race after failing to bridge the Democratic Party’s left and right behind her ambitious agenda.

Her remarks came in response to a Sanders supporter who asked Warren at a CNN town hall before the South Carolina primary about her position that the plurality leader should not necessarily be the nominee. “That was Bernie’s position in 2016, that it should not go to the person who had a plurality,” Warren said.

“Those are the rules that he wanted to write and others wanted to write. Everybody got in the race thinking that was the set of rules. I don’t see how come you get to change it just because he now thinks there’s an advantage to him for doing that.”

Sanders defended himself Wednesday. “I get a little annoyed because the media has been distorting my record on that,” Sanders said in his news conference. In the case of 2016, “if superdelegates were voting on the first ballot, yeah, give us some thought,” he said. “But right now there are no superdelegates voting on the first ballot.”


Sanders added: “I believed then and I believe now that it should be the American people through the primary process who determines who the Democratic nominee is.”