In A Hotly Contested Primary Election Cycle, It's Still Anybody's Game
With the 2016 primary election season in full swing, there has been much talk in the news media about the possibility of a brokered convention (also called a contested or open convention) on the Republican side. And while the phrase is mentioned frequently in passing, many American voters remain unsure as to what a brokered convention actually means. It all comes down to the awarding of delegates, and the individual party rules for clinching the presidential nomination.
More Than A Majority: The Republican Nomination Process
In the presidential primaries, candidates vie for a pledge from their party's delegates (representatives) to cast votes in their favor at the national convention over the summer. Some states award their convention delegates proportionately by legislative districts won in the popular vote, while other states (most notably Florida and Ohio) are “winner take all” states, whereby the primary winner is awarded all of that state's delegates. In either case, a majority of the popuar vote is not required to win convention delegates. However, when it comes to delegate count, a simple majority isn't enough to secure victory.
The Republican National Committee states that, in order for a candidate to clinch the party nomination for the presidency, he or she must win at least 1,237 of the available 1,432 delegates by the conclusion of the primary elections; this equates to roughly 86% of the available delegates, or a decisive super-majority.
The Convention Vote: No Winner? Let's Make A Deal!
When the official vote is taken at the party convention, a delegate is obligated to cast his vote for the candidate who won his state or district in the primary election, regardless of the delegate's own preference. If after the first vote is tallied, no candidate has the 1,237 votes required to clinch the nomination, delegates are released from their obligations, and the convention continues with an open, or brokered, ballot. With the pledge lifted, delegates are free in subsequent rounds to vote according to their own will. This paves the way for caucusing, horse trading, and deal-making, all in an attempt to secure someone – anyone – enough delegates to clinch the nomination. Why is this significant? Because in a brokered convention, it is possible for a candidate who finished last in the popular vote to win the party nomination simply because he or she is more popular among the actual convention delegates.
Assume for a moment that Candidate A wins 1,000 delegates en route to the convention. Assume further that the remaining 432 delegates are split evenly among Candidates B, C, and D. While rank-and-file voters overwhelmingly support Candidate A, the majority of delegates themselves align more closely with Candidate D. Once the first vote of the convention fails to produce a nominee, the delegates cast their second ballot according to their own political preferences, and Candidate D wins with 1,100 votes. Needing only 137 more votes to clinch the nomination for Candidate D, the delegates engage their peers in an all out attempt to sway 137 more votes to their side, for the good of the party. And on the third ballot, Candidate D wins 1,237 votes and the nomination.
2016 Nomination Still In Play
It may seem implausible, but it can happen. Given the fractured status of the Republican party and the heated tone of the elections, the above scenario appears more and more likely with every passing primary. The 86% mark does allow a universally popular candidate to roll to the nomination without intervention from power brokers within the party. But the party sets the bar pretty high. By comparison, only a two-thirds (67%) majority is required for a Congressional override of a presidential veto. Likewise, ratification of a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority of the states. So far in this cycle, none of the GOP candidates has the support needed to avoid a brokered convention. So it's still anybody's game.