What To Expect if Republicans Have a Contested Convention

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Donald Trump, 2016 Presidential Candidate. Andrew Walker - Getty Images

With Reality TV star Donald Trump struggling to get to the 50% delegate threshold needed to secure the Republican nomination for President, talk of a contested convention is starting to heat up. Trump and his allies are already calling the nomination process "unfair" and demanding that the delegate leader be awarded the nomination, even if he falls short of the majority requirement. But that is not how the system works.

How the Nominee is Chosen

The process for selecting the Republican nominee for President can be very confusing. The spin from various sources of how things ought to be can make understanding the selection process even more confusing. The candidate with the most votes and delegates is the nominee, right? Not exactly. In 2016, all 50 states and various territories are holding primaries and caucuses to award delegates to the national convention. Each state awards delegates differently (though there are some guidelines), and they generally have the discretion to award them as they see fit. In some states, voters don't even vote in a primary at all. There are 2,472 delegates overall, and candidates are battling for as many as they can get, with a target of 1,237 needed to win the nomination. If a candidate secures 1,237 pledged delegates they become the presumptive nominee and then the candidate is formally nominated during the convention.

Over the past three decades there has been little controversy in the system as one candidate has typically emerged midway through the primary process and ran away with later contests. The nominee has typically been known well in advance of the convention and the only mystery that remained was the choice of running-mate.

The 1,237 Delegate Requirement

The problem for Donald Trump in 2016 is that a candidate has to win more than 50% of the delegates to become the nominee. A plurality is not enough. At the convention, most delegates are required to vote for a certain candidate on the first ballot based on the primary or caucus results of each state. There are a number of delegates that are "uncommitted" and can vote for anyone on the first ballot. Because the Republicans started with such a large field with several legitimate contenders, Trump has been consistently held below 50% of total delegates awarded. When the delegates convene to cast votes, Trump will likely have the most delegates on the initial vote, but he may not have the required 1,237. Ted Cruz will have the second-most delegates, and candidates like Marco Rubio and John Kasich could have between 150-200 delegates apiece. (Rubio suspended his campaign on March 15th but has not "released" his delegates. This helps to keep them from potentially going to Trump.)

If Trump is below 1,237 of delegates bound to him on the first ballot, his team will work to convince uncommitted delegates that he is the rightful nominee and to support him on that initial ballot.

If he is successful, he will be the nominee. If he fails to reach 1,237 on that first vote, everything changes. And if Trump fails to get 1,237 in the first round, most analysts believe he will lose the nomination.

What is a Contested Convention?

If no candidates hits 1,237 delegates on the first ballot, the delegates will vote again, but there is a catch: Many of the delegates who were forced to vote for a candidate on the initial ballot will no longer be forced to vote for that candidate on subsequent ballots. A number of delegates that were bound to Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, etc. on the first ballot could vote for anyone they choose on the second ballot, third ballot, and so forth. Some states bind delegates to candidates for several rounds before freeing them completely. The delegates will hold multiple ballots until someone hits 1,237.

There will be negotiations and deals to try to switch candidates from one side to another.

A multiple-ballot scenario is viewed as the worst-case scenario for Donald Trump. While he will initially have the most delegates, the people voting for him as bound delegates in the first round are mostly grassroots activists or party favorites that probably are not fans of Trump. Trump would likely see his numbers fall dramatically after the first round as those delegates become free to choose other candidates.

Who Could Win a Contested Convention?

Technically anyone can win a contested convention, including someone who wasn't even a candidate at all. While Ted Cruz would likely be unable to win a first-ballot nomination, he would be the odds-on favorite to win a contested convention. Many of the delegates being won - even if won by Trump - are likely to be Ted Cruz supporters, and he has worked diligently to secure friendly delegates to the convention. At the very least, they are anti-Trump supporters and would back the most viable alternative. Since Cruz will be the closest in delegates and popular vote to Trump, he appears to be the most "logical" choice.

Still, there is no guarantee that Cruz would win a contested convention either. It could be possible that he also fails to ever hit 1,237 after multiple ballots. In this case, a previous candidate or even non-candidate could be brought into the fold, but Cruz would be a heavy favorite to win in this scenario, all things considered. Bypassing the top two delegate winners would be a bit of a stretch.

Is the Process Fair?

Donald Trump and his allies have fired up the complain-train on the nominating process. But the process exists for a reason, and the process has been the same for decades. Through mid-April, Trump has received just 37% of the vote, with 63% voting for other candidates. He is not running away with the nomination as previous nominees have and 37% is not a mandate to lead the party. The nominee is required to earn a majority of delegates, not just a plurality.

If a plurality were enough, that is how the rules would have been written. It is Trump's job to negotiate his way to the delegates necessary if he falls short of the majority required. Since Trump has based his entire campaign on his amazing negotiating skills, surely he will shine, right?

The scenario can be similarly compared to the 2000 Presidential election. Then, Democrat Al Gore actually won the popular vote. But because of the way that presidential electors are handed out on a state-by-state basis, Republican George W. Bush became President. Was it fair? If you like Bush, it was. If you liked Gore, it wasn't. The fairness of the nominating process probably depends on what you think about Donald Trump.