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Contested conventions

Not common, not unusual

Created date

June 9th, 2016
Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a speech for the nomination of Alfred Smith at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. This was a contested convention, and, after 130 ballots, the party chose not Smith but John W. Davis.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a speech for the nomination of Alfred Smith at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. This was a contested convention, and, after 130 ballots, the party chose not Smith but John W. Davis.

By the way things are shaping up, the ongoing presidential race looks like it could be one for the books. 

For roughly a year, the Republicans and Democrats have whittled away at their respective stables of contenders; the Republicans having started out with close to a dozen presidential hopefuls. 

At this point, each party is down to two serious candidates: Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders on the left; and Ted Cruz against Donald Trump on the right.

And while this appears perfectly normal as the parties approach their conventions, there is dissension in the ranks that runs counter to the harmonious nomination process that otherwise occurs. Although we expect opposing views within a party, the current election has proven itself one of the most internally fractious contests in a long time—especially for Republicans.

In fact, if you’ve been following the news over the last several months, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “contested convention” tossed around in reports about the GOP’s primary race. That’s because there is a near-even split amongst party members supporting either Texas Senator Ted Cruz or real estate magnate Donald Trump. 

Ideally, the hope is that a party will unify behind a single person by the time its delegates meet at its nominating convention to cast their official votes. In the Republicans’ case, this means Cruz or Trump would have to arrive in Cleveland this July with a clear majority (at least 1,237) of the party’s delegates.

As it stands, that probably won’t happen.

Down to the math

“In order to avoid a contested convention, Donald Trump needs to get more than half of all the remaining delegates,” says Douglas Hervey, a policy analyst and director at the Salt Lake City-based consulting firm Leavitt Partners. “So he would have to win New York—which he did—but he’ll also have to do well in states like Maryland, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.”

Hervey believes that Ted Cruz can potentially pick off some of the Mid-Western states like Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota, racking up nearly 100 delegates; however, the big prize will be California’s 172 delegates.

“Even under some of the best circumstances,” he notes, “Donald Trump could fall short by maybe 50 to 100 delegates when all is said and done. I think Trump is going to be very close to 1,237, but if he doesn’t meet that threshold, there’s going to be a contested convention.”

So, what exactly is a “contested convention” anyway?

Simply put, it’s when none of the candidates arrives at the nominating convention with a majority of delegates. Under this scenario, the party will form a rules committee and cast ballots for a nominee. 

But according to Hervey, that’s not all they do.

“During a contested convention, you’re going to see a lot of horse trading and, perhaps, bribery,” he says. “Amazingly, it is not illegal to buy off delegates. There are no rules that outlaw the exchange of money and perquisites for an uncommitted delegate’s support.”

It’s happened before

Though this whole process seems alien to many voters, this will not be the first time it’s happened. 

Hervey points out that the Democratic Party has had its share of contested conventions over the years. Beginning in 1832, it required a candidate to obtain a two-thirds majority to win the party’s nomination.

With so challenging a quota, contested conventions were more likely, particularly when highly divisive issues were up for debate.

In the 1924 presidential race, for instance, the Democrats saw a contested convention in which it took 130 ballots to finally choose John W. Davis as their candidate, Prohibition being the source of disagreement.

For the Republicans, the most prominent contested convention of the twentieth century was when Thomas Dewey was nominated, who ultimately lost to Democratic incumbent President Harry Truman.

In the past 180 years, the major parties (Democratic, founded in 1832; Republican, in 1856) have held a total of 90 nominating conventions. Of this total, the Democrats have seen 16 contested conventions, and the Republicans, 10. 

Statistically speaking, that’s just 30% of all major party conventions in American history.

“Contested conventions aren’t exactly unusual, but they’re not common either,” Hervey says. “I predict that the upcoming race is going to be one to remember.”

Editor's note: Ted Cruz has ended his campaign following his defeat in Indiana.