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What is a Contested Convention?

26 May 2016

Every four years the two major parties hold conventions to nominate their presidential candidates. For the last several decades, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were undisputed prior to the nominating conventions, following decisive primary and caucus victories.  However, historically, this hasn’t always been the case - Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford were all nominated from contested conventions.  And following an unusual primary season, we may see a contested convention for the first time in a long time.

What is contested convention?
A contested convention means no candidate has earned enough support going into the convention to guarantee their nomination. Candidates must secure a majority of delegates to win the nomination. Delegates cast their vote at the convention itself, making the candidate’s nomination official. Candidates earn delegate support through primary and caucus victories, and the support of superdelegates.  In an uncontested convention, the winner is a foregone conclusion, and voting never goes beyond the first round.  

Delegates vs Super Delegates
States participate in the process through a combination of delegates and super delegates. Delegates are often rank and file party members, while superdelegates are often  party officials, elected officials, or former elected officials.  In the Republican party, superdelegates make up 7 percent of total delegates, while in the Democratic party superdelegates make up 15 percent of total delegates. 

State delegates are divided up in proportion to the percentage of votes candidates received in their state’s primary or caucus, except in winner take-all-states, and a few states where delegates decide who to support without the input of voters.  Delegates  must vote to support the candidate that won their state, or the candidate they were pledged to after the state was divided up proportionally, for the first round of voting. Additionally, the Republican party does not hold primaries or caucuses in North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, American Samoa and Guam. In these states and territories delegates decide who to support at their state conventions. 

Republican super delegates, like “normal” delegates, must support the candidate that won their state. 

However, Democratic superdelegates have more power, and are free to cast a vote for the candidate of their choice. However, this year the Democratic Party of  Maine is eliminating super delegates, and the Alaska Democratic Convention passed a nonbinding resolution asking their super delegates to support the winner of their state’s primary.   

If no candidate earns a majority after the first round of voting, multiple rounds of voting commence until a candidate achieves a majority. In a contested convention, delegates are free to switch their support after the first round of voting.

What would a contested convention look like in 2016?
Before Senators Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the race, a contested Republican convention was a possibility. However, Donald Trump is now the only remaining candidate in the race, and secured a majority of delegates. 

As far as the nomination for the Democratic Party, while former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has a considerable lead over Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), she still hasn’t secured the delegate majority she needs to become the nominee. Clinton currently has 2,201 total delegates, while Sanders has 1,528 delegates. Of those delegates, 524 of Clinton’s delegates are super delegates, which is considerably more than Sanders, who only has the pledged support of 40 super delegates. 

Sanders says he is pursuing a contested convention by asking super delegates to support their state’s primary or caucus winner, or support candidates in proportion to the support they received in their state’s primary. 

Sanders and some other Democrats believe superdelegates should be eliminated from the nominating process, because they can result in a nominee that differs from the choice made by a majority of the voters. For example, although Senator Sanders won Wisconsin by a large margin, a disproportionate number of Wisconsin superdelegates could theoretically support former Secretary of State Clinton at the national convention. If superdelegates lose their independence, a contested Democratic convention is far more likely. 

This article was written by Sara Adams, Vote Smart Bios Department staff

Related tags: blog, contested-convention, election-2016

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