Open (Contested) Convention Explained

The result of the Wisconsin primary election almost assures that we will see an open Republican Convention. Hyped by the media for months now as a potential contested or brokered convention, the more appropriate and official name for it is open convention (but you will continue to hear it called contested or brokered). Primary conventions, the last step in selecting each party’s presidential nominee, are either presumptive or open. Most primaries are presumptive, meaning one candidate has earned the majority of required delegates before the convention begins. Less common are open conventions where two or more candidates are still in the running with no one claiming a required majority of delegates (1237 this year for Republicans) before the convention begins. See my last post for a review of the delegate process.

Usually, by convention time, a party’s candidate has won the majority of pledged delegates, and the convention is no more than a time of celebrating the victory of the nominee as all delegates are released to vote unanimously for the winning candidate. However, an open convention is much more dramatic and intriguing as two or more candidates enter the convention without a majority of delegates. In this case the delegates at the convention vote on one of the candidates in a first round, or first ballot, of voting. If still no candidate receives a majority, a second ballot will be voted, and so on. Multiple rounds of convention ballots have been required only 14 times in the last 150 years, the last of which was in 1952 when Democrat Adlai Stevenson eventually won the party’s nomination, but not the presidency. The last president to win his party’s nomination after multiple ballots was Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The last convention where the party’s nomination was not decided until the first ballot was the Democratic race between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in 1984. It is interesting to note that rarely has the winner of an open convention gone on to win the general election.

Under current Republican Party rules, here is how an open convention this year in Cleveland would work. Delegates for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich would gather at the convention and cast a first ballot. Also voting would be delegates won by a few other candidates who later suspended their campaigns along with about 150 unpledged, or unbound, delegates. If one of the candidates were close enough to a majority that the unbound delegates voting for him gave him the majority on the first ballot, that candidate would become the nominee, and it would be all over except for the celebration. If no one gets the 1237 delegates on the first ballot, a second round of voting is necessary. Current state-by-state rules releases 57% of the delegates to vote for any candidate they please in the second round.

If, unlikely as it would be, the second ballot votes are still so evenly distributed that no candidate gains a majority, a third round of votes is cast with 81% of the delegates released from their pledge to a particular candidate. Of course, one of the three candidates could be eliminated in any round. The likelihood of a candidate not winning a majority by the end of the second or third ballot is very slim. Remember that the second or third ballot unbound delegates would not all feel obligated to the will of the states they represent. Enough of them would probably be influenced to vote for a commonly agreed upon candidate and give him the majority at that point.

There is a major rules factor that is critical to John Kasich. We are hearing a lot about Rule 40 which was established in 2012 by the Republican Rules Committee which consists of a man and a woman from the Republican party of each state and territory. All delegates ultimately vote on these rules, and they can change right up to the convention. Rule 40 states that any candidate who doesn’t have the majority of delegates from eight states cannot be nominated at the convention. It’s pretty obvious that Kasich will not have these delegates. However, there are rumblings that the Rules Committee may drop that rule which would allow Kasich and even other candidates with perhaps no delegates to be nominated. There are hardly any restrictions on what the rules can be. Many would consider rule changes to favor certain candidates as corruption within the party, but it would be legal and would be Kasich’s and others’ only hope of being nominated. Kasich’s only path to the nomination would be the scuttling of Rule 40. Then a majority of delegates could embrace Kasich or another candidate after multiple rounds of voting failed to give Trump or Cruz the majority. This would be a very long shot.

Some people argue that, if Trump arrives at the convention with close to a majority of delegates and considerably ahead of Cruz, he should receive a near unanimous free-agent delegate vote in the first round and become the nominee. The counter view is that, since the majority of voters voted against Trump, such a presumptive vote would be against the will of that majority. An open convention is not designed to deprive the candidate with the plurality of votes. It is rather designed to fairly ensure the true wishes of the majority of voters. Another consideration is that many of the initially bound voters could actually favor a candidate other than the one to which they are pledged. Once they are released after the first or second ballot, those delegates could cross over to a candidate without the majority, thereby giving that candidate the majority.

The candidates are already trying to woo the unbound delegates and those presently still pledged to candidates who suspended their campaigns. A candidate could possibly still reach a majority of delegates before the convention if enough of these unbound delegates would align with the candidate beforehand. Marco Rubio, however, is still holding on to his delegates just for the remote chance that he would be considered after multiple rounds of ballots.

Keep in mind that almost all delegates are party leaders—local, state, and national—who probably lean toward the Republican establishment and traditional thinking. Once they become unbound, they may migrate toward a more traditional candidate. This could be to Trump’s disadvantage after the first round and could even be bad for Cruz if Rule 40 becomes a non-factor.

Realize that much of what I have written here and what you will hear from the media can be overridden by the highly flexible options of the Rules Committee. If the Committee gets too loose with rule changes, they will suffer voter backlash, so I wouldn’t expect much change. But you never know how desperate they might become.

Yes, it is highly probable that we are going to see the most dramatic primary in the history of politics play out before our eyes this year. After you have voted, there is nothing you can do of any real consequence except buckle up and watch it take its course. The outcome will be pivotal for this great nation.

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