What You Need to Know to Understand Contested Conventions

Microphone in focus against unrecognizable crowd
Microphone in focus against unrecognizable crowd

The presidential nomination race is finally getting closer and closer to being over. The contest that originally started with almost two dozen candidates has dwindled down to a close race, with two candidates left on the Democratic side and three on the Republican side.

But it's not going to end quietly. The race is so close and in such contention, in fact, that presidential hopefuls on both sides are calling for a contested convention.

On the Democrats' side, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is calling for a challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's projected victory and is insisting he will fight hard until the very end. And Texas Senator Ted Cruz has aligned forces with Ohio Governor John Kasich in an attempt to block Donald Trump from getting the delegates he needs, and force a contested convention.

But, let's slow it all down because this is some confusing stuff.

What is a national convention anyway?

This is an entrance ticket for the Democratic national convention back in 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)

The major political parties each hold a national convention to formally nominate their candidates for president and vice president.

The conventions signify the end of the long presidential primary and kick off the general election. These conventions exist so that each party can meet and focus on one candidate going into the general, as well as adopt their specific platform--the policies the party and candidate stand for.

For years, conventions have been mostly for show and have lost a lot of their actual influence and significance, because usually we know who the nominees are going to be in advance. But this year, with vigorous challengers on both sides, all eyes will be on the conventions.

When are the 2016 national conventions?

The Republican National Convention will be in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18-21. The Democratic National Convention will be in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 25-28.

What are delegates ... and superdelegates?

When you cast your ballot for a presidential hopeful like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, you are actually playing a game of telephone of sorts, because you're telling delegates who you want to represent your party.

Who are these people? Each state picks their delegates, and they can pretty much be anyone--college students, local celebs, activists, etc.

Then there are superdelegates, which is something only Democrats have. There are 712 Democratic superdelegates, comprised of a collection of political folks--sitting governors, members of Congress, previous presidents and vice presidents, and party officials. (President Obama is one too.)

Superdelegates can also vote however they want, meaning they can match the state's popular vote or pick a candidate they personally prefer. (Regular delegates are often referred to as pledged or bound delegates.)

There's a lot of talk about delegate math among supporters of all the candidates. Many passionate Bernie Sanders supporters, for example, firmly believe he can come through victorious. And they're crunching the numbers to show he can win.

What's a contested convention?

"Dissent is patriotic." (vet for peace)

A contested or brokered convention happens if no candidate wins the required number of delegates. For the Republicans that number is 1,237, and for Democrats it's 2,383.

This happens rarely. The last time there was a contested convention in which a candidate went on to win in the general election was in 1932 with Franklin Roosevelt. Several other times, brokered conventions were predicted but didn't end up happening.

Why the Republicans may have a contested convention

The Republicans' chances of having a contested convention mostly hinge on a political strategy by Ted Cruz and John Kasich. The two teamed up in an effort to slow Trump's roll and keep him from winning the nomination.

Trump currently needs 60 percent of the remaining delegates to win the primary straight up. Which is way better than Cruz, who needs 90 percent, and Kasich, who mathematically can't win at all. (Clearly, Kasich isn't in to win outright--he's in to try to #StopTrump.

Why is Trump having a hard time winning that magical number of delegates? Partly because even after dropping out, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has demanded to keep his 121 delegates. Put all together, Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich, have won enough delegates to make it challenging for Trump to win.

As of May 2, Trump has 996 delegates and his three rivals have a total of 889.

What's likely to happen

There are really two scenarios:

1. Trump wins the magic number and is the GOP nominee. Trump has been setting his sights on California's 172 delegates, which is why he's been visiting the golden state. (Although his arrival got heated.)

2. The #Kruzich plan works and Trump doesn't get the nom. This means contested convention. There would be several rounds of voting at the convention, until there is a clear consensus for a nominee.

Trump's problem is that a lot of Republicans don't like him. That's why the GOP has also been tossing around names like House Speaker Paul Ryan and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. If the Republican National Committee suspends its rule that only candidates who have won eight states can be nominated, anything goes.

Why the Democrats may have a contested convention

Bernie Sanders only sees a "narrow path to victory," and that includes ending the race with a contested convention.

Sanders promised his supporters that he will not back down before the party convention in July. He also wants more superdelegates to support him:

"If I win a state with 70% of the votes, you know what? I think I'm entitled to those superdelegates. I think the superdelegates should reflect what the people in the state want. And that's true for Hillary Clinton as well. I can't tell you one thing for me and another thing for Hillary Clinton."


It's not just about superdelegates. Sanders is well behind on pledged delegates too.

What's likely to happen?

Again, there are really two scenarios:

1. Clinton wins the number of pledged delegates she needs outright and wins the nom.

2. Clinton needs superdelegates to put her over the top. That's where there could be a contested convention.

It it worth noting that in 2008, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in a situation that could easily have been a contested convention:

- Clinton and Obama were really close, especially in the popular vote, (closer than Clinton and Sanders are this year, at least so far).
- But, Obama won thanks to superdelegates, many of whom switched allegiance from her to him late in the game.
- Clinton, instead of fighting for a contested convention, acted to united the party. She suspended the roll call--and nominated Obama:

But Sanders is currently trying to persuade superdelegates to switch to him. If that doesn't happen, he is not likely to win the nomination.

This article was written by Allison Hollender and originally appeared on Kicker. Kicker explains the most important, compelling things going on in the world and empowers you to get in the know, make up your own mind, and take action. For more, check out the Kicker site, like their Facebook page, or subscribe to their email newsletter.