Here’s What Happens At A Contested Convention (And The Odds Of Us Seeing One This Year)

It’s hard to believe just a few months ago, the race for the presidency involved about close to two dozen candidates in both fields. Now, with about two months and only 10 primaries remaining, five candidates remain and definitive winners have yet to be named. In fact, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see at least one contested convention. And in case you’re wondering what happens at a contested convention (or brokered convention), before we get to that, brace yourself for some delightful background info.

Since February, candidates for the Democratic and Republican nominations have been competing to get to 2,383 and 1,237 delegates, respectively, in order to secure the nomination.

In the Republican field, front-runner Donald Trump presently has 1,002 according to CNN’s delegate estimates, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz lagging behind at 572 delegates, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich trailing both of them at 156. Of Trump’s 1,002 delegates, 957 of them are pledged votes while 45 are those of superdelegates, who are elected officials of their respective parties who can vote however they want, regardless of state primary results, and can also change their votes at any time at or before the nominating convention. (Choosing these actual delegates who will attend the convention is an ongoing process at county and state conventions prior to the nominating convention.)

Cruz has the support of 26 superdelegates and Kasich, 2. It’s looking more and more like one wall Trump will actually manage to build is a wall around his rivals’ chances at the nomination.

contested convention donald trump ted cruz hillary CLinton bernie sanders
CREDIT: The Hill/Twitter

And in the Democratic field, with about 2,165 delegates (520 of which are superdelegates), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is about 90 percent of the way to sealing the nomination. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders lags behind at about 1,357 delegates. However, it’s worth noting that of those 1,357 delegates, only 39 of Sanders’ are superdelegates. In terms of delegates won proportionally from state primaries, he isn’t that far behind Clinton, who only tops him in these pledged delegates, 1,645 to 1,318, according to Google’s delegate tracker.

At this point, both Trump and Clinton seem fairly confident about their chances at securing the nomination, although Trump has taken things a step further by claiming that after the victory he predicts he’ll win in Indiana, where he currently polls ahead of Cruz by about 15 percent according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist opinion poll, on Tuesday, the Republican race will be “over.” (He actually said on Fox News Sunday that it already is.)

But the truth is that you never know what could happen over these next few weeks and primaries, especially with various machinations such as the #StopTrump coalition, and Sanders’ appeals to superdelegates and the delegate-rich soil of California, so there’s really no harm in educating yourself about how a contested convention works, rare as they are. The last contested convention took place in 1932 with Franklin Roosevelt, and though we’ve come close, we haven’t had one, since.

brokered contested convention hillary clinton bernie sanders ted cruz donald trump
CREDIT: The Hill/Twitter

At nominating conventions, major political parties formally nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates, congregating to adopt specific platforms and rally around their nominee. These nominating conventions are then followed by arduous campaigning to win the general election. At contested conventions, ballots are cast, although most delegates who vote will vote for the candidate they originally pledged to, and if there is no winner on the first ballot, ballots will continue to be cast until there is. Throughout these nominating conventions, “floor fights” and “backroom deals” can occur, according to BBC.

You’re probably thinking “what do the Brits know about American politics?” but floor fights and backroom deals aren’t uncommon at all at this sort of function as candidates and their supporters scramble and do whatever it takes to convince voters to switch sides.


In the Democratic field, things really aren’t looking too good for Sanders, whose campaign fundraising has slowed considerably according to a Monday report. In fact, this is the first time this year that Clinton has outraised Sanders, which is particularly demoralizing when one considers how a focal point of Sanders’ campaign has consistently been the YUUUGE amount of individual, small contributions that drive him and present the image of unity of the common man against the big banks. The “Bernie or Bust” movement, which suggests that the differences between Clinton and Sanders are too irreconcilable and the superdelegate system, too corrupt, for them to vote for anyone but Bernie in a general election, has become increasingly contentious these days.

However, if Clinton fails to win the remaining delegates to hit the magic 2,383, Sanders can at the very least take things to a brokered convention where superdelegates will vote, while also upping his efforts to appeal to them. He’s probably recognized that at this point, convincing them to switch sides is his last shot because at the present, it doesn’t look like superdelegates voting at the convention would work in his favor. Refer to the statistics below, shared by Danny Freeman at NBC News:

Clinton only needs to win 19 percent of the delegates in the remaining primaries to become the nominee and decisively prevent a brokered convention. However, to some, it’s still important that Sanders rides things out to the end, so he can attend the convention and help shape the party platform with his economic and foreign policy stances which are in many ways more progressive than Clinton’s (read: universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and, like, keeping things a little more peaceful).

To offer some additional perspective about the current state of affairs in the Democratic field, from The Washington Post:

Right now, Hillary Clinton has about a 10 percentage-point delegate lead over Bernie Sanders. (For comparison: Barack Obama’s pledged delegate lead was only about four percentage points by the end of the 2008 race.)

The current margin is not likely to change much between now and the end of the contest, with the two likely to play to a draw in California, Clinton to win big in New Jersey and D.C., and Sanders to triumph in smaller states between now and the end of the race.


On the Republican side of things, remaining candidates Cruz, who needs 90 percent of the remaining delegates to become the nominee, and Kasich, who mathematically cannot win, have formed a coalition to #StopTrump, who needs 60 percent of the remaining pledged delegates. Former presidential candidate and current Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is also helping the #StopTrump coalition by opting to keep the 121 delegates he won.

The possibilities that branch from this are that Trump manages to win the roughly 200 or so delegates he still needs, and snags the nomination, or he doesn’t and Republicans take it to a contested convention. A problem arises here, for Trump, who isn’t exactly beloved among Republican leaders and officials. But simultaneously, neither is Cruz.

And let’s not forget that it gets even wilder. Trump has literally/”figuratively” warned us all of the riots and living hell his supporters would unleash, should the nomination evade him. Yikes.