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The Republican convention in 2012
Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty

Contested conventions, explained

Why the GOP's best hope to stop Trump is so risky and dangerous.

There's a growing consensus that the only way Donald Trump can still be stopped from winning the GOP nomination is through a contested convention — one that would award that honor to somebody else instead. (According to a new report from NBC News, Trump has begun actively planning for this possibility.)

Yet such a move could also cause a firestorm that could tear the Republican Party apart. At worst, as Trump himself has warned (or perhaps threatened), "you would have riots."

It appears highly likely that the billionaire will finish the primary season leading the delegate count. But it's far from certain that he'll amass the outright majority of delegates — 1,237 — that he needs to actually win the nomination at the convention. Our projections do show Trump on track to hit that target, but just barely. Even a modest decline in his support, or lucky breaks for his rivals in a few contests, could lead him to fall short.

And if there's no majority winner when the Republican delegates gather in Cleveland this July and cast their ballots, the math of the GOP contest would immediately be transformed. Most of the delegates would quickly be freed to make up their own minds, and round after round of voting would take place until someone finally manages to secure that elusive majority.

To an extent, this contested convention would hark back to the way the nomination process went down decades ago, before primaries and caucuses reigned supreme. The choice would effectively be taken out of the hands of the "people" and handed over to a select group: the delegates.

But while all this would be perfectly in line with the party's rules and a great deal of tradition, it would be a far tougher sell today, now that we've had four decades of a voter-dominated presidential nomination process. Americans have gotten used to the idea that the person who comes in first in the primaries wins.

Giving the nomination instead to someone who came in second, or who didn't even run, would look rather unfair — especially to the many enthusiastic Trump supporters out there. "If you disenfranchise those people," Trump said recently, "and you say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but you’re 100 votes short, even though the next one is 500 votes short’ — I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before."

That's the catch for Republicans. In a contested convention scenario, their delegates would technically have a ton of power to do what they want. Even in a convention where Trump does have a delegate majority, the delegates have far more power to change the outcome than most people realize.

But the more the delegates actually use that power to tip the scales against Trump, the more intense and volatile the backlash would be. "It would be highly explosive," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "It would functionally tear the party apart."

1) What is a contested convention?

Many people use the term "contested" or brokered" convention inexactly. But they're usually referring to one or more of these three scenarios — all of which look like real possibilities for Republicans this year:

  1. At the time the convention begins, no candidate has a clear majority of delegates, and the outcome looks uncertain. The remaining candidates then make intense efforts to win over any uncommitted delegates and sway the convention rules in their favor. (This happened with Republicans in 1976.)
  2. When the delegates actually vote, no candidate gets a majority. The contest is then thrown open — we proceed to a second round of balloting, in which many delegates are all of a sudden freed up to vote however they choose. (This has never happened in the modern nomination system, which has existed since the early 1970s.)
  3. A candidate does enter the convention with support from a majority of delegates, but there's a serious, organized effort to depose him anyway, usually in an attempt to change the rules. (This happened with Democrats in 1972 and 1980, though both efforts ended up failing.)

In my view, all of these are "contested" conventions — because, well, there's a serious contest at the convention. However, some purists prefer to only use the term to describe the second scenario, in which a candidate falls short on the first ballot of delegate voting. In all three cases, though, the outcome is somewhat up in the air after voting concludes, and is truly determined by the convention's delegates.1

Many people use the term "brokered convention," but there's a strong case that that phrase is misleading in the modern context. Decades ago, state and local party bosses chose and effectively controlled the votes of huge slates of the delegates that headed to the national convention. So it was possible to "broker" a deal among these bosses, who could reliably instruct their yes-man delegates to vote a certain way. That's not the case today — modern delegates are, generally, much freer to make up their own minds.

2) So what would actually happen at a contested convention?

Trump and Cruz

The modern presidential nomination conventions we're used to are essentially rubber stamps. The identity of the nominee is clear well in advance, and there's little or no drama on the convention floor.

But a contested convention would be filled with drama from the very beginning, as various factions struggle to determine who the nominee will be. The key to winning this struggle is to win over a majority of delegates — 1,237 out of 2,472 for Republicans this year.

Now, around 95 percent of these delegates will go to the convention "bound" to vote for a particular candidate for president, based on the results of primaries or caucuses in their respective states.

But there are still another 5 percent or so who will go to the convention uncommitted. So in a contested convention scenario, expect furious efforts by the remaining candidates to woo those few uncommitted delegates.

Simultaneously, there would probably be some titanic fights over what, exactly, the rules for the convention should be — because those rules aren't yet finalized, and the delegates can change them however they'd like, even if those changes would hugely affect the outcome.

For instance, even if a majority or plurality of delegates are bound to vote for Trump, they're not bound to vote in any particular way on rules. So they could simply vote to change the rules to "unbind" themselves, and then vote however they want. Few believe the delegates would take such an extreme measure, because it would provoke too much outrage. But if they did want to do so, no one could stop them.

Finally, after the rules are set and the convention is headed to its conclusion, the delegates will vote on whom the party's presidential nominee should actually be. If a majority of them don't support any one candidate on the first ballot, then they will have to vote again, for as many rounds of balloting as it takes for one candidate to get a majority.

3) What happens if nobody wins the nomination on the first ballot?

The main reason a first-ballot deadlock at the convention could fundamentally transform the contest is that a great many of the delegates would be suddenly freed to make up their own minds.

Different states have set different rules for when the "bound" delegates they send to the convention become unbound — but for most of them, it would happen immediately after a first round of inconclusive voting.

This year, around 95 percent of GOP delegates are bound to particular candidates initially. But by the second ballot, only 25 percent or so will still be bound — a massive change that drastically shakes up the math of the contest. By the third ballot, even more delegates would be released from their pledges.

Now, we don't really know how this would play out, because no convention under the modern system has ever progressed to a second round of balloting. But it's safe to assume that there would be a frenzied effort to court these delegates, and all sorts of offers might be made. Keep in mind that we're talking about 2,472 people here, so coordination will certainly be difficult. But some could organize themselves into blocs — perhaps by state, by issue, or by ideology — and make demands.

Still, it's probably a mistake to assume that "the Republican establishment" will all of a sudden be allowed free rein to make some sort of deal, like the party bosses in conventions of yore. Some delegates will have loyalties to the political establishment in their respective states, but others may feel loyal to evangelical activists, the Tea Party movement, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or even their state's voters.

We don't yet know if any one faction or coalition will have dominant strength among the delegates. But if the vote proceeds to a second ballot, everything depends on just who those delegates are and what they choose to do.

4) Okay, so who are these delegates, then?

Delegates at the 2012 Republican convention. (AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV / Getty)

Delegates at the 2012 Republican convention. (AFP PHOTO/Mladen ANTONOV/Getty)

We don't know who, exactly, the vast majority of this year's 2,472 Republican delegates will be — 45 states haven't finalized them yet. But in most cases, the winning candidate in a particular state has very little say on who his or her delegates from that state will end up being.

Every state party has its own delegate selection rules, so there's a good amount of variation on who ends up being picked. Some are party establishment figures. Some are deeply committed activists. Some are more or less ordinary people who have volunteered.

But one of the most intriguing wrinkles this year is that many "Donald Trump delegates" heading to the convention might not truly support Donald Trump — because, in many states, the delegate selection process has absolutely nothing to do with the primary outcome.

Instead, many states select their delegates through a series of caucuses or conventions, often at the county or state level. Depending on the political situation and particular rules in each state, these processes could end up being dominated by the states' political establishment — or by highly motivated and organized conservative activists. In many cases, says former RNC chief of staff Mike Shields, "you're talking about local grassroots activists who couldn't be further from the establishment in DC."

By most accounts, Ted Cruz's campaign has been much more organized and tuned in to this stage of the process than Trump's has been. So many of Trump's delegates could actually be what GOP operative (and would-be uncommitted Virgin Islands delegate) John Yob has dubbed "SINOs," or "supporters in name only." Though bound to vote for Trump on the first ballot, these people could in fact be working to deny him the nomination.

SINOs could hurt Trump in two main ways. First, if the nomination fight goes through multiple rounds of voting at the convention, they could abandon him as soon as their particular states' rules unbind them. And second, these Trump-bound delegates have absolutely no obligation to vote in Trump's interests in fights over the convention's rules — fights that could be crucial.

5) Tell me more about these potentially crucial fights over the convention's rules!

Ted Kennedy eyes Jimmy Carter, whom he'd challenge for the Democratic nomination in 1980.
Mikki Ansin/Getty

"When you’re trying to bust up a convention, you can’t just take the risk on the nomination vote," says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Primary Politics. "Because if you lose, then he's the nominee. There's always a test vote beforehand. And it would probably be about the rules."

Now, fights over rules may seem arcane, but they actually present great opportunities for mischief. That's because the delegates get to make their own rules and can change them however they like.

So supporters of one candidate are perfectly free to propose a last-minute rules change meant to hurt another candidate — and if a majority of delegates approves it, there's no higher body that can overrule the decision. Here's how the process will unfold:

  • First off, when you hear people talk about the current rules, they're referring to the party rules from the last convention that have been modified by the RNC. You can read through them here.
  • But these are just tentative. They'll be reviewed and likely modified first by the RNC's rules committee and then by the new convention's rules committee, which is made up of around 110 delegates (two from every state and territory) and will meet in July.
  • Finally, the full convention's delegates will have to vote on whether to accept the rules package recommended by that committee, and on whether to make any further changes.

This is one big reason the question of just who the delegates are is so important. Because if many of Trump's bound delegates are in fact "SINOs" who do not actually want him to be the nominee, they could simply change the rules to make Trump's victory more difficult.

Here's one dramatic example: Even if Trump wins a majority of delegates in the primaries — "binding" them all to vote for him — the delegates at the convention could simply vote to change the rules to "unbind" themselves, so they could then vote however they want.

This is what Ted Kennedy pushed for when he challenged President Jimmy Carter at the 1980 Democratic convention, as Kamarck describes in Primary Politics. Kennedy knew Carter had the advantage in bound delegates, so he and his allies lobbied those delegates to simply eliminate what they called the "robot rule," saying this change would "free the delegates" to vote with their consciences. (The delegates didn't bite.)

That would be quite an extreme measure, but it's also possible the scales could be tipped more subtly. For instance, in 2012, the GOP approved a new rule that to be nominated, a presidential candidate must have the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight or more states or territories. So far, only Trump has gotten there, which seems to indicate he's the only candidate who can be nominated (though there's still time for Cruz to get there). But the new convention and rules committee could lower that threshold, raise it, or abandon it entirely.

It all depends on what the delegates want to do — but also, importantly, on how much they're willing to provoke a backlash. Because there's no way around it: Changing the rules at the last minute will look really shady to a lot of people. And the bigger the change, and the more it seems to affect the outcome, the more controversy it will cause.

6) Can a contested convention nominate someone who didn't even run?

Miss me?

Theoretically, the delegates can do whatever they want. So if a majority of them want to nominate someone who never even bothered to run, no one can stop them. If there's a rule in the way, it can be changed. And in the old, convention-focused system, it was relatively common for some sort of compromise, dark-horse choice to emerge late in the game.

Now, an outside-the-box choice like this would probably have to have some legitimacy. For instance, it could be the party's last nominee, Mitt Romney, or its last vice presidential nominee and current speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Still, the nomination of a party favorite who didn't compete in a single primary or caucus would be viewed by many as absurd, outrageous, and undemocratic. It would also be intensely opposed by any candidates still in the race, who of course still hope to get the nomination themselves. An anonymous RNC rules committee member scoffed at this idea to MSNBC's Ari Melber, saying, "You want to have World War III and destroy the party?"

And if Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — two intensely anti-establishment figures — win the most delegates, the nomination of an insider would seem especially bizarre. "If that happened, it would be the height of arrogance on the part of elites and the establishment to publicly try to subvert the will of the voters," says Fabrizio, the GOP pollster. "I don’t know how that would be any different than an election in some kind of tin-pot Third World dictatorship."

Now, an effort by Cruz (assuming he comes in second) to try to supplant Trump at the convention could be a different story. The Texas senator has had an impressive nuts-and-bolts campaign operation so far. And if his efforts to influence delegate selection have paid off, it's conceivable that he could gather a majority of delegates who would vote with him on rules changes that could benefit him over Trump.

But the further away Cruz is from first place, and the closer Trump is to 1,237 delegates, the tougher a sell this will be. Cruz's second place might give him a better claim than Romney or Ryan — but it's still second, and not first. And Cruz will have to decide whether he'd rather be the frontrunner for 2020 (should Trump lose the general election) or the guy who "stole" the nomination from Trump and outraged many of his supporters.

7) Why do the delegates get to decide, anyway?

1968 convention protests
Protesters and National Guard members face off outside the 1968 Democratic convention.
CBS Photo Archive/Getty

Simply put, our current presidential nominating system is a bizarre hodgepodge that nobody designed from scratch.

First there was the old system. For most of the 19th and 20th century, ordinary voters had essentially no say in whom the major parties nominated. State parties would send delegates to a national convention, and that insider-dominated convention would — sometimes quickly, sometimes after a great deal of drama — choose the nominee.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, though, pressure started building to give rank-and-file voters more of a say. Several states had long held primaries and caucuses, but they seemed to have little impact on whom the parties chose to nominate — particularly in 1968, when Democrats outraged their base by nominating a pro-Vietnam War candidate who hadn't run in a single primary.

So both parties adopted reforms that created the modern nominating system. From now on, many delegates' convention votes would be tied to the results of primaries or caucuses in their respective states.

Yet the parties didn't throw out their old rules entirely. States still send delegates to a national party convention, and those delegates still end up choosing the nominee. For the past 32 years, their "choice" has always been a coronation of someone who clearly won the primaries. But if there's no clear winner — or if the clear winner is unacceptable to the party — that's when the delegates could start to really matter again.

8) Doesn't this all sound kind of shady and undemocratic?

Well, that gets to the root of the problem with all these elaborate contested convention scenarios: The American people have gotten kinda used to the idea that the person in first place wins the nomination.

So while it may be perfectly fair by the party's rules for delegates mostly selected in arcane and obscure processes with little voter involvement to nominate the second-place finisher or someone who didn't even run instead of Trump ... it certainly won't look fair to a whole lot of voters. Especially not to Trump voters.

When you think about how a contested convention might play out, then, keep in mind that the fear of public backlash will be on many of the delegates' and party leaders' minds. They are not making these decisions in a vacuum.

Instead, they'd be at the center of the biggest media frenzy of the year. The modern major party convention has traditionally been a days-long, somewhat bland infomercial for the party's brand, ideas, platforms, and major figures. But a contested GOP convention would instead be a chaotic, divisive, days-long, and perhaps even violent battleground. This is not the image the party wants to project.

Trump himself, who is not exactly known for his forgiving nature or coolheadedness, could do some real damage too. Of course, he has already suggested that riots would break out. He could well go on TV insisting that the nomination was "stolen" from him and insulting the Republican nominee for the rest of his campaign. And he could even urge his voters to stay home, back a third party, or — perhaps most plausibly for this self-promotion addict —write in "TRUMP" on their ballots.

This is a fight leading Republicans don't appear to want. The utter and conspicuous silence from most of the Republican congressional delegation on whether Trump should be stopped is worth noting. And what's the best case here? Replace Trump with likely second-place finisher Ted Cruz, whom GOP elites also hate and whom is also considered highly likely to lose the general election in a landslide? Or choose some third option that will infuriate both Trump's voters and Cruz's voters?

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean there won't be an attempt to stop Trump. Again, it's delegates, not Congress members or "the establishment," who call the shots at the convention — and we don't know what their leanings or tolerance for risk will be. Some Republicans and conservatives truly believe Trump's nomination would be disastrous for their party or for conservatism. Others think he might be downright dangerous as president.

If any of those is the case, a fight to stop Trump might well seem worth the cost. But the closer Trump is to 1,237 delegates, and the further ahead he is from whoever's in second place, the shadier such a move will seem and the tougher it will be to unite a majority of delegates behind such an effort.

Throughout a sizable chunk of American history, the idea that a party convention would choose the party's nominee wouldn't have been controversial at all. It was simply the way things worked. It was the norm of the time.

Things are different now — the genie is out of the bottle. Once you have given voters a say, it looks very, very bad to take the decision out of their hands. Any delegates hoping to stop Trump at the convention will have to reckon with this reality — and decide whether they can withstand the outrage that will inevitably ensue should they move against him.

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