Contested Convention, Explained

Learn more about what a possible contested convention would look like and how a brokered convention works when choosing a party's nominee.
Bernie Sanders rally in Traverse City, Michigan March 4, 2016 (Todd Church/Creative Commons)

Bernie Sanders rally in Traverse City, Michigan March 4, 2016 (Todd Church/Creative Commons)

What is a contested convention?

A contested convention happens when no single presidential candidate of a party has enough primary delegates to win the nomination outright at the start of the convention. While there are no official distinctions among a contested convention, a brokered convention (multi-ballot) convention or an open convention, a contested convention is generally understood to mean no candidate won a majority of primary delegates going into the convention. At a brokered convention, no one wins the first round of balloting, and the wheeling and dealing begins for subsequent ballots. An open convention is a blanket term for either of the above scenarios. Functionally, it seems a distinction without a difference, though no doubt a helpful Twitter user will inform you otherwise whichever you choose.

The specifics of when a contested convention occurs vary between the Democratic and Republican parties, and the parties can amend those rules. For the Democratic Party, a candidate must receive a majority vote of the delegates; in 2016, the Republican Party required a majority of delegates in eight states to place a name on the nomination ballot. Republicans modified that rule for 2020, requiring a plurality--meaning a split vote--in five states, which could, in theory, allow for more candidates at the Republican National Convention.

Candidates who do not win their conventions outright and have to proceed through multiple ballots rarely go on to win the presidency.

Has it happened before?

Brokered conventions were once the norm, especially as Democrats required a 2/3rds majority vote to secure the nomination prior to 1936. Presidential primaries, which started in the early 1900s, were not binding nor universal until after 1968, when Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race too late for the primaries, nonetheless gained control of the majority of delegates. Humphrey secured the Democratic presidential nomination at the Chicago convention after the assassination of frontrunner Robert Kennedy. (On the Republican side in 1968, Richard M. Nixon won the majority of delegates, beating Mitt Romney’s father, former Michigan Governor George Romney.) While not a brokered or multiple ballot convention, it did lead to our modern primary system, which makes contested conventions far less likely.

The most recent contested convention was in 1976 when President Gerald Ford entered the Republican National Convention without enough delegates to beat former California Governor and later President Ronald Reagan. Ford won the nomination on the first ballot.

In 1952, the last time it took multiple ballots to select a nominee, former Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson II won the Democratic nomination after three rounds. Initially behind former Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee after the first ballot, then-President Truman backed Stevenson as a candidate distanced from Jim Crow. Stevenson ultimately lost to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. It took 4 ballots in 1932 for future President Franklin D. Roosevelt to secure the Democratic nomination.

In 1924, in 103 ballots over 16 days, Democrat John Davis, a former Solicitor General and Ambassador to the United Kingdom, won the Democratic nomination in the longest process to date. Davis ultimately lost to former President Calvin Coolidge.

Though modern multiple-ballot nominees rarely went on to win the election, it took former President Warren G. Harding 10 ballots to secure the Republican nomination in 1920. His opponent, Democrat James Cox required 44 rounds to secure his nomination, and Harding won the general election.

There was much speculation that the wide Republican field in 2016 would result in a contested convention, but it did not. Similarly, after two primaries, speculation abounds that the 2020 Democratic Convention will be contested.

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How are winners selected in a contested convention?

Sticking to the contested vs. brokered convention language, the convention is contested if there is no clear winner at the start of the convention. The delegates will hold their first ballot at the convention, and a winner may emerge from that vote. If there is no winner after that first ballot, the delegates vote again at the now-brokered or multi-ballot convention. Depending on state laws, some delegates may become unbound, and thus able to change their votes.

Once a candidate receives the threshold number of delegates, that candidate wins the nomination. How exactly that happens and the number required differs between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Are contested conventions for Democrats & Republicans the same?

Each political party makes its own rules for choosing presidential candidates. There is no constitutional provision regarding presidential primaries, though states do have their own election laws and party rules, which vary. For example in some states, the winner takes all delegates, and the delegates are required to vote for that candidate at the convention. Other states award delegates proportionally, based on the percentage of the vote. As the state party, not the state itself, determines how delegates are awarded, Democrats and Republicans can have different rules in the same state.

Contested conventions for Democrats and Republicans are similar in that each requires multiple ballots, but there are key differences.

Democratic Contested Conventions

In 2020, the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin July 13-16 will consist of a total of 4750 delegates. Most, or 3979 are “bound” delegates, or required to vote for candidates who either won the state or a percentage of the vote. The other 771 are “automatic” delegates or, the more commonly known “superdelegates” who are not bound to a candidate. They include:

  • Elected members of the Democratic National Committee;
  • Democratic Governors;
  • Democratic Members of Congress;
  • Distinguished party leaders.

In 2020, the automatic or superdelegates will not vote on the first ballot if the convention is contested.

In the first ballot, the candidate will require more than 1990 votes to secure a nomination; with the addition of the superdelegates, the second ballot would require more than 2375. Whether the delegates remain bound after the first ballot varies from state to state, as does what happens if a candidate withdraws prior to the convention. Six states allow for the release of binding on the second ballot; three permit the release after the third ballot.

Republican Contested Conventions

The Republican nominee must secure 1,276 delegates to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 24-27 2020. Republicans have a total of 2,551 delegates, with 2,441 pledged delegates and 110 unpledged delegates.

The Republican unpledged or unbound delegates include:

  • The Pennsylvania delegation, all unbound: 54
  • North Dakota holds no primary, so all delegates are unbound: 29
  • Colorado party leaders: 3
  • Wyoming party leaders: 3
  • American Samoa: 9
  • Guam: 9
  • Virgin Islands: 3

The Republican Convention rule 40(b) was much-cited in 2016 with speculation that the convention could be contested. According to that rule at that time, only candidates who had received the majority in eight states could appear on the convention ballot. In 2020, the rule was changed, allowing candidates who received a plurality, or part of the vote. While this change might, on its face, make a contested convention more likely and more possible, in 2020 five states canceled their Republican primaries, effectively preventing a challenger to President Donald Trump.

In 2016, most Republican delegates were unbound after the first vote; all were unbound by the fourth, though the situation did not arise.

The Rantt Rundown

Though a favorite musing from pundits, contested conventions are rare and unlikely since the adoption of our modern primary system in the 1970s. Differing from a brokered convention mostly semantically, a contested convention is one in which no one candidate has enough delegates going into the convention to secure the nomination. A brokered, or multi-ballot convention is one in which there is no clear winner after the first vote. Details of contested conventions vary between the Democratic and Republican parties.

The most recent contested convention occurred in 1976, when Ford edged out Reagan, though speculation over a 2016 contested Republican Convention ran rampant. Again in 2020, there’s talk of a contested convention, this time Democratic, but only time will tell.

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Rantt 101 // 2020 / Democratic Primary / Elections / Republican Primary