WTF Is a Contested Convention, and Can It Stop Trump?

Everything you need to know about the potential showdown everyone's talking about

Donald Trump's best hope to win the nomination is to collect 1,237 delegates before the Republican National Convention in July. Credit: Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty

Pundits have been talking a lot about contested conventions lately — more so, it seems, each time Donald Trump opens his mouth. But few people (including, frankly, many of those pundits) seem to understand what a contested convention really is, or what the implications could be for this election.

Here's everything you need to know.

What does "contested convention" even mean?
Typically, by the time the national conventions take place in the summer of a presidential election year, the parties already have a pretty good idea who their nominees will be, based on primary results. A contested, or brokered, convention happens when the primary process fails to yield a consensus choice. If none of the candidates running in a party earn at least half of the delegates at stake in the primaries, then the delegates decide who the nominee will be at the convention.

Back up. Start at the beginning, please!
Before the general election in November, primaries and caucuses are held in every state and territory to decide who each party's presidential nominee will be. Delegates are chosen at the state, congressional district or precinct level, and each state is represented by a certain number of those delegates at the national convention, where those delegates vote for the nominee. The number of delegates each state gets is based both on that state's population and its importance to the party in the general election.

In theory, the candidates competing in each primary are awarded a share of that state's delegates based on their performance and according to a different, often convoluted, set of rules determined by the state party. But if no candidate has an outright majority of delegates by the convention, then, technically, all bets are off.

Anyone could be nominated?
Yes, technically. But for someone who isn't running at all (e.g., a Mitt Romney or a Paul Ryan) to suddenly swoop in at the convention itself would require the creation of a new rule by the committee that governs such things. Most of the people who are on that committee right now say they aren't inclined to do that.

They can just make up rules?
Yes, the rules of that governed the previous convention are considered temporary until the rules committee — made up of one male and one female delegate from each state and territory — re-adopts them. There is one rule in particular, lobbied into existence by Mitt Romney supporters in 2012, that says only candidates who win a majority in at least eight states will be considered for the nomination. If readopted, that rule could make it impossible for anyone other than Donald Trump to win (he's the only who has met the threshold at this point), but committee members seem inclined to ditch it this year.

What's more probable is that a candidate who already has some small number of delegates — a John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush or, hell, even a Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee or Carly Fiorina — emerges as a compromise over multiple rounds of balloting. That's what happened in 1920, when Warren G. Harding, in fifth place at the start of the convention, was named the nominee after the 10th ballot.

Hang on, don't delegates have to vote for the person the voters chose in the primary?
Only on the first ballot. After that, they're free to vote for whoever they want.

How many rounds of voting can there possibly be?
As many as it takes for one candidate to get over 50 percent of the vote. In 1924, it took 103 rounds of voting for the Democrats to agree on their nominee: John W. Davis. Don't recognize the name? That's because he Calvin Coolidge annihilated him in the general election; he earned a pitiful 28.8 percent of the vote.

How many times has this happened before?
A truly contested convention, featuring multiple rounds of balloting, has happened 18 times since the Civil War — and almost all of those took place before the Great Depression. The last truly contested convention was in 1952, when Adlai Stevenson was nominated by the Democrats. The closest we've gotten since was 1976, when Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan in the first round of balloting. It took some serious cajoling on Ford's part: Undecided delegates were courted with invitations to the White House and flights on Air Force One.

Who are these suddenly extremely important delegates?
They're just people who volunteer or run for the job! The process varies by state and party; here are the instructions on how to become a Republican delegate in Utah, for instance. Delegates and alternates are certified by the secretary of the Republican National Committee at least 45 days before the convention.

Is it true that the candidate chosen at a contested convention usually loses the general election?
According to the Pew Research Center, candidates who are chosen after multiple rounds of balloting are indeed less likely to win in a general election; 61 percent of nominees chosen after more than one vote went on to lose their elections.

What's the bottom line? Can Trump be stopped?
The bottom line is that Trump's best hope to win the nomination is to collect 1,237 delegates before the convention. If he fails to do that, and it's possible he will — watch next Tuesday's Wisconsin race closely! — there are any number of procedural maneuvers that could be pulled, and ample historical precedence for them, to wrench the nomination from his hands. Basically, the more protracted the fight, the worse the odds that he will be the nominee, or the president.

Watch late-night hosts mock Donald Trump and the prospect of a brokered convention.