A Contested Republican National Convention: How It Would Work

PHOTO: Balloons fall at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Flori, Aug. 30, 2012.PlayScott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images
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Talk of a potential contested convention began swirling among top GOP officials before primary season even began.

And now, with crucial March 15 contests in the rear-view mirror and multiple GOP candidates still remaining in the race, a contested convention is looking increasingly likely.

The Republican Party expects to have a presumptive nominee before the July convention, a GOP convention spokesman says, but some rules and procedures are already in place for the “what if” scenario.

Donald Trump, who has now won more than half the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination, must increase his share of delegates from here to win the nomination outright. One crucial, winner-take-all contest in Arizona next week and important winner-take-most states like New York and California will be crucial in deciding whether Trump is sailing toward the nomination outright or whether a contested convention is coming.

Here’s what you need to know about how a contested convention could work:

What Is a Contested Convention?

In most election years, one presidential candidate wins enough delegates during the primary-caucuses process in order for the presumptive nominee to earn a majority of the delegates before the convention begins. In a contested convention, however, no presumptive nominee exists because no candidate garners a majority of the delegates on the first ballot. So even though a convention is often just a perfunctory meeting for top party officials used to rally around the flag into the general election, a contested convention means the meetings actually make a pivotal difference for who the nominee will be.

Could a Contested Convention Happen This Year for Republicans?

It’s possible, but still unlikely. A Republican candidate needs to win 1,237 of the 2,472 total delegates in order to become the presumptive nominee. The Republican National Committee will hold its nominating convention in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 18-21.

Isn’t It Also Called a Brokered Convention?

Sometimes a contested convention is called a “brokered convention,” under the presumption that powerbrokers will negotiate backroom deals in order to determine the ultimate nominee. The terms are essentially interchangeable, but “contested convention” is more precise because the situation may resolve itself more organically.

What Are the Rules Going to Be?

Convention delegates will vote over and over again until one candidate hits the magic number of 1,237 delegates. Most state parties have their own rules for their own delegates about how many times they are required to vote for the candidate to which they are bound. But by the third ballot, nearly all delegates will be free to vote however they choose. Other national rules will be set by a panel of 112 party officials – two from each state and territory – who will have the power to change the rules just days before the convention, potentially making or breaking the presidential aspirations of candidates who fell short.

But What About the Eight-State Rule?

GOP rules say that a candidate needs to win a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be nominated on the floor of the convention. It was originally aimed at stifling Ron Paul supporters at the 2012 convention. But party officials say this threshold could be lowered in the days before the convention to either allow (or block) certain candidates from getting nominated on the convention floor. For example, if Candidate 1 won eight states, Candidate 2 won six states and Candidate 3 won four states, then Candidate 1 may try to keep the threshold at eight states to block other candidates from being nominated, while Candidate 2 and Candidate 3 would each try to lower the bar to their own level, while blocking candidates beneath them.

So What Does It Mean for the Campaigns Now?

The jockeying for seats on the crucial rules panel will likely start long before the July convention. While caucuses and primaries are in full swing, an under-the-radar battle for the 112 spots on the rules panel will be under way among the delegates in each state and territory. Each state’s national delegates will gather “promptly” after being selected, the RNC’s rules state, and “shall elect from the delegation … their members of the convention committees … consisting of one (1) man and one (1) woman for each committee, and shall file notice of such election with the secretary of the Republican National Committee.” This will be an ultimate test of party infrastructure and grassroots orchestration.

When Is the Last Time This Happened?

A convention has not advanced past the first ballot since the 1952 Democratic convention selected Adlai Stevenson. In 1976, Gerald Ford didn’t have enough delegates before the convention to secure the nomination, marking the last time a GOP nomination wasn’t secured during the primary season. But Ford still won enough votes on the first ballot in order to receive a majority. Now, parties aim to avoid a contested convention because a floor fight can leave their nominee bloodied and support splintered going into the general election. The last time a contested convention produced a winning U.S. president was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.