A (Very) Brief Guide to Political Conventions

April 6th, 2016

Nothing compares to a political convention.  It’s really a smorgasbord of snippets of events we experience elsewhere in life all brought together in one unique event.

For example, few venues permit grown-ups to walk around comfortably dressed pretty much like children.  At Disney World, it’s the Goofy hat and the Mickey Mouse t-shirt.  Attend a political convention and you can get away quite fashionably with a “hat” cobbled together from a bunch of balloons. And the cheering and jeering?  It feels like the Super Bowl.

Behind all the craziness there is a serious strain that can also border on the bizarre and that’s the process itself and with that the rules governing the convention.  After all, the potential leader of the free world is being selected.  So while much of it looks like one big party, underneath it all is the gravity of a nuclear summit.

For that reason, it’s important that the public really understands what’s happening behind the scenes, particularly in a year like this one where the final result isn’t clear at all. In fact, it’s reported that yesterday the Republican National Committee held a strategy session on how to deal with a contested convention, so this year could be particularly intriguing.

So in the interest of doing my civic duty having attended a few of these, hopefully I can shed a little light on what we’re all about to witness in Cleveland this July.

First, know that political conventions go way back in our history.  In the early days of our country, conventions served as the sole vehicle for choosing political party nominees for president.  There were no primaries or caucuses.  Instead, there were only political bosses wielding their influence one way or another in order to choose the party’s standard bearer for president.  When there were multiple factions at play in a party and no particular leader, things could get very ugly.

Because of that, many times there wasn’t a candidate chosen until several ballots into the process. So all the brouhaha about a contested convention for the Republican nomination this time around would seem quite strange to some of our forefathers.  For them, it was a regular occurrence.  Abraham Lincoln, who was chosen on the third ballot at the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, could attest to this fact.  So could William Seward, who later became Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Seward lead on the first ballot, tied Lincoln on the second, and finally lost to him on the third. Yes folks, we nearly had a President Seward.  Then again, if we had, we might not have a country today.

Also, realize that political conventions aren’t the thoroughly democratic affairs you think they’d be.  Every state has different rules for electing delegates to the national convention and once those delegates are seated, new rules apply as to how they can or must vote.  For example, some states mandate that on the first ballot delegates must completely represent the candidate who won the popular vote in that state.  By contrast, some states are simple “beauty contests” (e.g., Pennsylvania), so their primary process amounts to nothing more than a mere suggestion to the delegates as to how the voters of the state might like them to vote. The real decisions happen when the state parties hold their conventions.

Then there are the rules of the convention.  A committee of delegates write the rules that govern each convention and it’s incumbent upon each candidate to make sure his or her own delegates are selected to serve on this committee if possible.  Also, when the rules are finally written, each candidate must have a thorough understanding of the rules lest he or she be tripped up by them later.  That’s because the rules will determine, for example, how the Credentials Committee seats the delegates.  Just showing up as a delegate armed with your party hat, banner, and logo t-shirt doesn’t mean that you’ll actually be seated as a delegate.  An opposing campaign may very well attempt to unseat you through some mechanism in the rules during the credentialing process.

Next, there are the rules on what it takes to actually win the nomination.  The number of delegates is the easy and always unchanging part.  On the Republican side, it’s 1,237 and is pretty irrefutable since it constitutes a simple majority of the delegates. After that it gets more complicated since delegates become uncommitted at various stages in the process if no one is selected on the first ballot.

And here’s an interesting tidbit.  The election of the candidate for Vice President has most recently been treated in our history as a courtesy to the eventual nominee. Once the nominee names a choice for VP, it’s presumed that the delegates to the convention will follow suit and nominate that person.  While this typically happens, it doesn’t have to.  In a particularly cantankerous convention, it’s theoretically possible for two not very compatible individuals to end up on the same ticket. Yes, we could actually have a Trump/Cruz or Cruz/Trump ticket.

Finally, if things don’t go smoothly on the first ballot, know that while there may be bands playing and delegates cheering and demonstrating for the television cameras, there will be frantic wheeling and dealing in back rooms all over the convention hall to somehow cobble together victory on the next ballot.  A television news crew that ever managed to get into one of those little meetings would likely have quite a story to tell.

Here’s the bottom line.  To win a nomination for president in either party these days, a candidate needs to know how to win the convention which is basically an inside game as well as how to win the primaries and caucuses.  And it’s the candidate in both parties able to do this effectively that you’ll see on the ballot in November.


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