On Monday, officials in New York announced the cancellation of the state’s Democratic presidential primary, calling the event “essentially a beauty contest,” and a risk to public health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
While New York Democrats cited the inevitability of Joe Biden’s nomination for the party’s candidacy as justification for calling off the primary, it could actually make the former VP’s spot on the ticket anything but a forgone conclusion.
Biden is the prohibitive favorite for the nomination to face Donald Trump in November, but New York could become the first domino to fall in an unlikely set up for a contested Democratic convention between two Catholic politicians with national profiles.
Although Bernie Sanders is officially out of the race, Biden does not yet have an overall majority of convention delegates. As of April 27, the former vice president has 1,305 of the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch a first-round coronation at the party’s convention. New York offered 320 delegates up for grabs, 274 pledged to the primary winner; a prize that would have brought Biden closer to the nomination.
If New York’s decision triggers other states to cancel their own primaries, it is entirely possible that Biden could arrive at the Democratic convention without a guarantee of the nomination.
Assuming the convention begins without a majority of delegates pledged to Biden, the nomination process, during which delegates conduct floor votes, would become a live-fire exercise, rather than a pro forma step in Biden’s coronation as nominee.
If Biden does not secure a majority on the first ballot, delegates could offer another candidate from the floor.
Official Democratic operatives would likely dismiss talk of a contested convention as fanciful, but it will not stop some of them from quietly acknowledging the benefits of the possibility.
While Biden performs well in head-to-head polling with Trump, especially in key states like Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania, his recent media appearances have been inconsistent. In live interviews from his family home, the presumptive nominee has appeared flustered, even under friendly questioning, and during early state primaries Biden appeared to bristle on the stump at even modest criticism from voters.
Questions have been asked about how the former vice president would fare in a live head-to-head debate with Trump, an aggressively provocative debater.
More recently, media coverage has begun to re-examine accusations of sexual harassment against Biden by former Hill staffer Tara Reade.
Even as Trump’s own approval numbers are dropping after his initial pandemic bump, Democratic party leaders might quietly welcome the reserve option to field another candidate against the president.
In that event, New York’s own Gov. Andrew Cuomo looks the most likely to benefit from a potentially contested nominating convention. Cuomo has been widely praised for his handling of the coronavirus in New York, so far the state hardest hit by the virus.
As the governor of the state at the pandemic’s frontline, Cuomo also has the campaigning advantage of a daily press platform, perhaps second only to the president’s, at a time when Biden has struggled to remain part of the news cycle.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Cuomo was a regular face on the cable news circuit and an aggressive debater in his own right. Many would see him as a more obvious match for Donald Trump in a televised head-to-head.
Cuomo is having a moment, as they say, but unless he gets the nomination in a convention surprise, he will likely be of little help to Democrats in the presidential election. Biden has pledged to nominate a woman to the ticket’s v.p. slot; Cuomo is not a woman. And if Cuomo has ambition to run in a future election cycle, he might decide there’s little benefit in campaigning for Biden this time around, especially if a Biden win would set up his vice presidential pick for a future election.
From the Catholic perspective, Cuomo represents another pro-choice Catholic politician who has tangled with bishops, not unlike Biden. If New York’s governor ends up with the nomination, it would put a spotlight back on the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who has faced calls in the past to formally sanction Cuomo for his aggressively pro-abortion action in the governor’s mansion. But whether Biden secures the nomination, or Cuomo becomes a convention spoiler, bishops this autumn will face the challenge of a candidate who flaunts his Catholicism while flouting Catholic teaching on abortion.
Of course, the New York Democrats’ decision to cancel may prove to be a lone outlier, and motivated mostly by the battle against coronavirus.
But in whatever cost-benefit analysis was used to make the decision to cancel, it is worth asking if the chance, even a remote one, of leaving open the door for a contested convention was regarded as a potential cost, or as a benefit.