After Donald Trump's disastrous performance in the Wisconsin primary this week, political commentators are starting to talk seriously—or perhaps wishfully—about the possibility that the frontrunner might not actually win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. That means it's time for us all to brace ourselves for an unpredictable mess of a convention in Cleveland this summer, and maybe even an out-of-left-field nominee that will send the media into some kind of vetting psychosis.
Over the course of this interminable primary race, you've probably heard a few passing mentions of phrases like "brokered convention," or "contested convention," or "open convention." But if you're like most people with real lives and a passing fascination with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, you don't know what the hell those terms actually mean, and have only a vague understanding of the chaos that they imply.
For most of modern political history, the GOP's national conventions have been predictably boring, besuited affairs, sort of like Comic Cons for America's white, vaguely racist uncles. The frontrunner gives a speech, kisses his wife, and locks arms with his chosen running mate, in front of a hysterical crowd of people in American flag hats. In previous election cycles, there's usually been a moment when political reporters fantasize about the possibility of a contested convention, but its been kinda like how flight attendants talk about oxygen masks popping out above your head, in the sense that everyone knows they will likely never experience such a dramatic event.
Then Trump came along and became the party's runaway frontrunner, which was weird, but to the GOP Establishment's chagrin, it still looked like everything would unfold as usual. With Ted Cruz's win in Wisconsin, though, it now looks like the reality-TV star might not get the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright. And suddenly, there is a real possibility that that oxygen mask might pop out of the panel.
Below is a brief guide that should get you up to speed on just how and why this could all go down.
Trump could fall short In the delegate count
Garden variety party conventions are more like coronations—there's just one vote on the floor, and it's largely symbolic, because the frontrunner has already clinched enough delegates to win the nomination outright. What makes the 2016 convention so ripe for a shitshow is the possibility that the frontrunner won't have actually won the nomination by the time the delegates arrive in Cleveland, giving the party an eleventh-hour chance to rid itself of the Trump scourge.
To backtrack a little, it's worth noting again that the fact that Trump has won the majority of states in the 2016 GOP primary—as well as the majority of delegates—isn't necessarily enough to win him the nomination. As it stands today, after Trump's defeat in Wisconsin, he has 755 delegates, and he needs 482 more—about 58 percent of the remaining delegates—to breeze his way to the nomination.
On Wednesday, political prognosticator Nate Silver wrote that "with Donald Trump's path to 1,237 delegates looking tenuous," a contested convention is "a real possibility." Moreover, in Wisconsin, the party establishment finally seemed to unite behind Cruz as the candidate who isn't Donald Trump, suggesting that the party forces may still be able to deny the mogul the delegates he needs before the convention.
If Trump falls short of the magic number, there's a real possibility that he won't win the nomination on the first vote. That means that there would likely be at least one more vote on on the convention floor—and that's when the convention becomes "contested," or "brokered," or "open." What that really means is that it becomes a party convention, where the 2,472 delegates will settle on a nominee themselves, just like in old-timey times before parties bothered with primaries.
Primaries aren't 100 percent democratic processes, and they don't have to be
One thing that tends to trip people up about contested conventions is that the idea of tossing out a candidate chosen by the people seems a little undemocratic. But it's important to remember that unlike general elections, primary races are only as democratic as the parties want them to be. That's because in America, political parties determine their own nominating processes.
As long as those processes follow the guidelines set by the Federal Election Committee—which are mostly about preventing fraud—parties can do what they want, unbeholden to any kind of constitutional process. (In fact, political parties aren't even mentioned in the US Constitution).
In short, Republicans run their own show, according to their own arcane rules and bylaws—as do the Democrats.
Convention rules can change whenever the delegates feel like it
If you watched the free-for-all Democratic National Convention in season four of House of Cards, you have a fairly accurate picture of just how loose the proceedings can be at these conventions. The rules the party makes to govern the actual convention are far from ironclad; in fact, there are arguably no rules at all.
According to the Republican National Committee website, "Every Republican National Convention is responsible for adopting the rules that will govern that convention." Moreover, the rules can change during the convention itself; those changes are decided by quick-and-dirty voice votes, and can stack the deck for or against a particular candidate.
For instance, in 2012, Republicans at the convention voted to strip away a bunch of Ron Paul's delegates by inventing "Rule 40," which said a candidate had to win the majority of delegates in at least eight states to be eligible for the nomination—which meant Paul was out of the running. To say that rule change came about via a fair process is a bit of a stretch. Here's then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, the chairman of the convention, putting it to a vote:
It's worth noting that Rule 40 would likely prevent anyone but Trump and Cruz from securing the nomination this time around. But of course, the delegates don't have to keep the rule alive in 2016 if they don't want to.
If no one wins the first vote, the convention becomes a free-for-all
At this point, we should backtrack a little and talk about the primaries, which award delegates to each candidate depending on the results. The rules vary by state, but in all cases, these "bound" delegates arrive at the convention with a mandate to vote for the candidates selected by their state's primary voters.
Those "bound" delegates get freed of that obligation at various points during a convention, according to the rules set by their respective state parties. At the second vote, the percentage of of bound delegates drops from 95 to 41, and at the third vote it drops to 20. And when bound delegates are released—in other words, when they are allowed to vote for the candidate they personally support—that's when the fun begins.
Theoretically, a frontrunner without a clear lock on the nomination could realize on a second vote that states he won in the primaries is represented entirely by delegates who support his opponent. And in fact, that's exactly what the Cruz campaign is trying to make happen in 2016.
Someone who isn't running could become the nominee
In a fantasy scenario for Republican elites, a white knight could come swooping in at the convention, and join the mix of potential nominees. Let's say, for instance, that an impassioned speech from Trump-hating Nebraska Senator Bob Sasse brought all of the frontrunner's fans to their senses. If the idea caught on, Sasse himself could, in some universe, find himself under consideration at the second or third vote.
In theory, this last-minute candidate could be anyone. One possibility floating around out there are former nominee Mitt Romney. But the most popular idea out there is Paul Ryan, who as the Speaker of the House will also have the unenviable task of chairing the convention.
An even less likely scenario is that third-place candidate John Kasich could turn out to be the overwhelming second favorite, and a surprise victor among bound delegates when they're suddenly freed. Back on Earth, though, a contested convention would more than likely remain a contest between Trump and Cruz.
Every possible outcome stands to make people very angry
A poll published by Vox on Tuesday showed that 55 percent of Republican voters would be pissed off if anyone other than the current frontrunner (as in, Donald Trump) won the party's nomination; 63 percent said they'd be mad if someone who isn't currently running made off with the nomination.
With emotions already running high over the outcome of the convention, there will also be a dispute over whether or not to be armed. 53,720 people agree with an anonymous—and it turns out, fake—blogger called "The Hyper Rationalist" who created a petition to allow open carry of firearms at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland during the convention. The Secret Service has stated that guns at the convention are a no-go, but America's most ardent gun fans don't exactly have a reputation for just backing down when the federal government tells them what to do.
Of course, this is just an idea of what might go on inside the arena. If everything plays out normally, and Trump actually does clinch the nomination, protesters outside the arena will likely turn the convention into a shitshow anyway. So no matter how things shake out, it's safe to expect chaos in Cleveland this summer.
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