A contested convention could be the GOP’s last hope of stopping Trump
As Donald Trump continues his primary winning streak, many Republicans looking to thwart his path to the nomination are resigned to a rare and controversial tactic to take him out: a contested convention.
The chaotic insider’s game of picking the nominee hasn’t happened in decades. And even longtime strategists are uncertain how, or even if, a contested convention would play out.
Still, anyone-but-Trump Republicans are convinced it’s their best shot to defeat the businessman, who they fear will doom their White House chances in 2016. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s victory in his home state on March 15 kept those hopes alive.
What is a contested convention?
A contested convention arises if no candidate earns a majority of delegates by the end of the primary process. That leads to an unpredictable situation where the delegates — party stalwarts from the various states, some of them with stronger loyalty to the candidate they’re officially pledged to than others — will get to decide their party’s nominee.
How people become delegates ranges widely from state to state. Traditionally those delegates were establishment-leaning party insiders (think county chairmen who might also be involved in their local Chamber of Commerce).
But some local and state parties have been taken over by activists of various stripes in recent years (especially libertarian Ron Paul activists in certain states), so it’s a mixed bag who their personal loyalties lie with.
In the case of Republicans, a candidate must win 1,237 of the 2,472 total GOP delegates to win the nomination outright.
Delegates are awarded to candidates based on how they perform in an individual state’s primary or caucus, with rules varying widely by state as to how the delegates are assigned.
A convention is contested if no candidate has a majority of delegates going into the convention, but wins a majority of delegates on the first round of balloting. A convention is brokered if it takes multiple rounds of balloting before a nominee emerges.
Who wants a contested convention?
Everybody not named Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
A contested convention run by party elites could sink Trump’s chances at the nomination, and many establishment Republicans loathe Cruz as much or more than Trump, meaning they’d likely look for any other option.
That’s why Kasich has been openly talking up the possibility of a contested contention — and why Trump and Cruz have been critical of it. It’s likely the only way Kasich (or someone else palatable to moderates and the establishment) might wind up as the nominee.
Trump has held firm against the idea of a contested convention. But Cruz softened his tone recently as it looked more like Trump might not be stopped without one.
What are the rules?
The rules are complicated, to say the least.
Imagine trying to decide where to eat with 10 of your friends. If one restaurant gets the majority of people backing it, everyone goes there. But if there are a few options with a few backers, there’s inevitably a lot of fighting, it takes forever to make a decision, the hangriest person ends up losing their temper and people come away with hurt feelings while no one’s thrilled with the eventual meal.
Imagine that situation, but with close to 2,500 party activists packed into a convention center.
Candidates will go into the convention with a certain number of pledged delegates. Those delegates are required — bound — to vote for a candidate on the first round of balloting based on the results of their state.
That means the delegates Trump has amassed so far must vote Trump on the first ballot, and the delegates Cruz has earned must vote Cruz, and so on. If any candidate has 1,237 delegates, he wins outright.
But if the front-runner is just short of that mark, the convention is contested and things get interesting.
There are a few hundred delegates who come to the convention “un-pledged” — free to choose whomever they wish.
If a candidate gets enough votes from those un-pledged delegates in the first round to reach the 1,237 delegate mark, the process is over.
If no one reaches that mark, the process becomes known as a “brokered” convention, and continues on to successive balloting rounds until a candidate receives a majority.
In the second round, more delegates become unbound from their candidate and can vote however they choose on a second ballot. But some states still require bound delegates to stick with their initial candidate for multiple rounds, which could drag out the process even longer and lead to increased chaos.
The nomination isn’t decided until a majority of the delegates rally around one candidate.
Is that all?
There’s a new rule this year called Rule 40, which says a candidate must have won a majority of delegates in at least eight primary contests to even be considered at the convention.
The rule was adopted after the 2012 convention as a way to prohibit outsiders who hadn’t run in primaries from hijacking the nomination at a convention.
So far, only Trump is on course to meet that benchmark.
The Republican National Committee meets throughout the year, and can attempt to change the rule before the convention or as it begins.
Some RNC members want to do just that — though there’s fierce resistance from others.
That fight broke into the open during the RNC’s winter meetings in Charleston, South Carolina — and is likely to only intensify in the coming months if it looks like the only way to stop Trump.
How likely is a contested or brokered convention?
Trump is currently ahead of pace to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, according to FiveThirtyEight delegate estimates.
Kasich won his home state of Ohio on March 15, taking all 66 delegates and increasing the likelihood of a contested convention.
On the other hand, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race after Trump took all 99 of Florida’s delegates.
Has this ever happened before? How did it turn out?
Contested conventions are rare. And they don’t usually portend good things for a party in a general election in November.
The last time Republicans had a contested convention was in 1976, when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan kept President Gerald Ford from receiving a majority of delegates before the convention.
But Ford was able to convince enough unbound delegates to support his campaign, securing his nomination on the first round of balloting.
Ford and his divided party went on to lose the White House that year to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Democrats had a similar scenario in 1984, when then-Vice President Walter Mondale was 40 delegates short of the nomination at the convention. But he ultimately beat then-Sen. Gary Hart in the first round, only to lose to Reagan in a landslide in the general election.
The last time there was a brokered Republican convention was in 1948, when Thomas Dewey defeated Robert Taft after three rounds of balloting.
Dewey went on to lose in November to Democratic President Harry Truman.