Nobody Knows What Will Happen If Donald Trump Doesn't Win A Delegate Majority

And that's why everyone is terrified.

For the first time since 1976, Republicans are facing the possibility of not having a presumptive nominee when their nominating convention begins in mid-July.

If they can't find a nominee on the first ballot, or voting round, it will be the first time since 1952 that either party has had a contested convention (the 1976 convention was settled on the first ballot).

There is still a strong possibility that GOP front-runner Donald Trump could get the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright. For that to happen, though, he needs to win 591 of the 1,103 remaining delegates -- not impossible or even improbable given the upcoming primaries, but challenging enough that talk of alternative scenarios is justified.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would need a highly improbable 840 more delegates to win outright, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich would need 1,095. If Trump isn't the nominee by delegate majority, the only other likely scenario is that nobody will be, and we'll have a contested convention. (Note: The delegate counts from the March 15 contests are not final. The delegate counts listed above will change.)

So what would a contested convention mean? Well, to start, let’s look at how a non-contested Republican convention would work.

What would a non-contested Republican convention look like?  

Usually by the time the Democratic and Republican conventions roll around in July and August of an election year, the nominees have been known for a couple of months or more. In 2012, for example, Republican nominee Mitt Romney locked up the delegate majority at the end of March. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the presumptive nominee by early March. Sometimes it drags on longer -- the Democrats had to wait until early June for Barack Obama to win the delegate majority.

For the overwhelming majority of elections in which a candidate has a delegate majority, the convention nominating process is pretty simple -- it’s mostly a formality to coronate the nominee and launch the general election campaign. The delegates vote, but it’s clear who will win.

In this situation, other candidates holding delegates usually allow them to vote for the nominee. In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) “released” their delegates and allowed them to vote for Romney, since he already had the majority. Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton did the same so that her delegates could vote for Obama on the Democratic side in 2008.

Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan angrily gestures during a speech before the Colorado state GOP convention in Fort C
Then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan angrily gestures during a speech before the Colorado state GOP convention in Fort Collins, Colorado, on July 10, 1976. Reagan fought President Gerald Ford for the nomination that year.

What if no one has a majority of the delegates?

That orderly process of voting on the nominee falls apart if no one has a majority of the delegates going into the convention. The general process remains in place -- delegates must vote until a candidate receives majority support -- but that could require more than one ballot.

If the front-runner is close to receiving a majority but is not quite there, there's a pathway to the majority on the first ballot. There are some “unbound” delegates that a front-runner could lobby if he or she is close enough reaching a majority -- but there are only 166 unbound delegates, so it would have to be a small deficit.

Candidates who've won some delegates but have subsequently dropped out of the race might free up a few more unbound delegates, but these numbers aren't known until the voting is finished in all the states. If these unbound delegates aren’t enough to give someone the majority and the first ballot fails to nominate anyone, there will have to be more maneuvering and voting.

Proceeding beyond the first ballot opens up a lot of uncertainty. In many states, even if the candidate doesn’t release their delegates to vote for someone else, delegates are only required (or “bound”) to vote for the candidate they’re assigned to for the first ballot. That means that if no candidate receives a majority vote of the delegates on the first ballot, a whole lot of delegates will be free to change their votes.

Even more delegates become unbound if the voting proceeds to third ballots or beyond. At that point, no one really knows what would happen.

Candidates would certainly continue to lobby delegates and groups of delegates to reach a majority. They'd negotiate with one another, trying to get an endorsement to get delegates from someone else. But it’s not even clear what some of the rules for these subsequent ballot rounds would be -- someone who isn’t currently a candidate could be allowed to jump into the nominating contest.

The voting would continue until a candidate receives a majority of the delegates; there is no maximum number of ballots.

In nominating conventions long past, this was when the most powerful party bosses and candidates would meet behind closed doors -- in the so-called “smoke-filled room” where political deals are purportedly made -- to find a suitable candidate. That hasn’t happened in over 60 years, though. Such a meeting now would be a chaotic media feeding frenzy.  

Trump has said he should earn the nomination simply by winning more delegates than anyone else -- but that would require major rules changes in the nominating process that aren’t likely to happen. He's also said he thinks there will be riots if he’s denied the nomination.

If Trump doesn’t get a majority of the delegates in the first ballot, there’s no way of knowing whether he could bargain for the nomination later in the process. But finding a suitable alternative to Trump who's capable of winning a majority of delegates could prove to be an insurmountable challenge.

If the Republican convention becomes a contested convention, anticipate a wild end to July.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.



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