How Republicans Could Still End Up With a Contested Convention This Year

Balloons drop at the end of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's address at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Balloons drop at the end of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's address at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

One of the weirdest presidential election years on record — Does it get any stranger than mud-slinging over the size of a candidate's manhood? — may end, at least on one side, in the weirdest political convention in years. Or ... maybe not. It depends on whom, and when, you ask. And it also depends on what happens between now and the Republican National Convention taking place July 18-21 in Cleveland, Ohio.

And if we get that far and the Grand Old Party still hasn't settled on a nominee?


"That," says Phillip Ardoin, a political scientist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, "is when things get interesting."

Debates Benefiting Democracy?

Many political pundits are predicting a contested Republican convention. A contested convention is what used to be known as a "brokered" convention, when powerful male politicos smoked big cigars in back rooms and wielded a lot of power.

A contested convention now is, in definition, straightforward: It's a convention in which no candidate has won the majority of delegates (in this case, 1.237) needed to secure a nomination. It's happened plenty — that's why there's a term for it — though not lately.

Here's how it could happen:

— If no candidate arrives at the convention with 1,237 pledged delegates, it's still possible for him (or her) to get to the number with a little backroom wooing before the first vote is taken. Some delegates are not bound to any candidate, so if a candidate is close, a good early convincing could make all the difference. But ...

— If after the first vote no candidate has hit the magic number, all bets are off. Many delegates (depending on the rules of their state) will be released from their commitments and a true free-for-all for their votes breaks out.

But naturally, It's a tad more complicated than that. Some delegates are bound to vote a certain way until later votes are taken (if later votes are taken). Some, as we said, are free agents from the start. Rules can be changed. (That's a biggie. A little more on that later.)

The real question: Is a contested convention happening this year?

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Dwight D. Eisenhower accepting the Republican Party's nomination as its presidential candidate in 1952, the most recent year the political party chose its candidate at a "brokered" or "contested" convention.
CBS Photo Archives/Getty Images

The Trump Factor

This is where we mention Donald J. Trump, the bombastic reality-show star, real-estate mogul and front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump — playing this strictly down the middle — is the reason this election year is so whacked-out.

He's a polarizing figure, both inside and outside of the Republican Party. ("Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University," said 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is openly calling for a contested convention).

There are many Republicans who don't see any way that the controversial Trump could win the White House in November's general election, so they don't want him as their nominee. The problem with that is, if Trump has the needed 1,237 delegates, stopping him will be next to impossible. The political-minded and data-driven site fivethirtyeight projects Trump coming up short of 1,237, though it's tantalizingly close.

Others think he'll probably reach it and Cleveland will just be a rubber-stamp thing.

"I think the Republican Party, prior to the convention, will solidify and fall behind Trump," Ardoin says. "Trump needs to get about 55 percent of the remaining delegates ... He should be able to do that. I would say there's a 70 percent chance that's going to be the case."

And there are some — in charge of the GOP — who just aren't sure.

"It's going to get old, it's going to get clarified, and it's going to feel like it was a long time ago when we're sitting in the middle of summer with a nominee," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told CNN earlier this month.

A few days later, Priebus told ABC News, "We're preparing for that possibility."

Trump has said that his delegate totals should be enough, even if he doesn't have a majority when he gets to Cleveland, and has hinted that his backers could cause "riots" in Cleveland if things start to turn south for him.

Priebus isn't buying the "I have more than anyone else" argument.

"A plurality is a minority," the RNC's head honcho told ABC, "and a minority doesn't choose for the majority."

Does Contested Equal Chaos?

Republicans against Trump are, in many ways, stuck between a rock and ... another rock. They don't want him as a nominee. But they know, as history points out, that their chances of finding a successful nominee out of a contested convention aren't great either.

From the Pew Research Center: "We looked at all 60 Democratic and Republican nominating conventions from 1868 (the first post-Civil War election) to 1984, the last time a convention presented even a glimmer of uncertainty. Over that time, 18 candidates (eight Republicans and 10 Democrats) were nominated on multiple ballots; of those, only seven were elected president (and four of them were running against another multiple-ballot nominee, so one of them had to win)."

The good part about a convention — and, yeah, maybe a bad part — is that a convention is a fluid thing. There are rules, sure. But rules can be changed. It is, after all, their party, and a privately organized group independent of the both federal and state governments.

"This isn't run a government-run election. This is a party-run election," Ardoin says. "They can change the rules when the convention starts. They can do whatever they want."

In 2012, for example, delegates passed a rule requiring all nominees to have the support of a majority of delegates in at least eight states. That was written specifically to keep Ron Paul from being on the ballot and giving him the chance to raise a ruckus on national TV.

Would the party heads make rules changes to deny Trump an easy path to nomination? Raise the number of delegates needed to 1,500? Make Rule 40 include 10 or 15 states so that nobody reaches that threshold and delegates have more choices? Something else?

A lot is to be decided between now and the convention. Huge states with huge delegate counts, including today's primaries in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and other states, and California (on June 7), are still in play.

It's been a strange ride so far. And the convention is still a long, long ways off.