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Politics for dummies: breaking down the contested convention

As election day approaches, pundits, politicians and primary voters alike have tried to figure out how Donald Trump — only 498 away from the GOP nomination — secured the coveted title of Republican presidential front-runner. 

Whether it was the Republican establishment, the media or even President Barack Obama, Trump-opponents (and other all-around sensible people) can rest assured knowing the Republicans might have a shot at blocking the real estate mogul's nomination: the contested convention. 

What does “contested convention” mean?

If no one candidate secures a majority of delegates’ votes before the convention, the convention is considered “contested.”

If no candidate earns a majority on the first ballot, it becomes a “brokered” convention, characterized by political horse-trading. After the first round of voting, many of the delegates turn into free agents who are unbound to candidates and can vote however they want. They have to go through multiple rounds of voting until one candidate wins a majority, the magical threshold of 1,237 for the Republican Party.

Is it realistic to think Donald Trump will get the GOP nomination?

“Six months ago I thought it was extremely unlikely that Trump could be the Republican nominee, but now it seems like he is the most likely choice,” said Tom Carsey, UNC political science professor.

But Trump — formerly sprinting — is now staggering toward July's Republican National Convention, thanks to recent remarks about abortion and national security and the prospect of losing in Wisconsin during Tuesday's primaries, CNN reported.

The betters at Betfair, the world’s largest online prediction market, put Donald Trump’s chances of winning the nomination at 53 percent, while the changes of a contested convention are at 79 percent.

James Stimson, UNC political science professor, said the odds of a Trump pre-convention majority are low as extrapolated in Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

“That is true in part because Trump is not winning quite a large enough share of delegates and also, less visible, that Trump is not holding on to all those he does win because the Trump campaign has an inferior organizational effort among Republican insiders in each of the states,” he said.

If there is a contested convention, what will happen?

Theoretically, anything can happen at the contested convention because the RNC may change the rules. Even without major rule changes, it would be still chaotic.

Because the concept of pre-convention majority is a modern one, it's hard to predict what will happen.

“Before primaries and caucuses became so prominent after about 1964, not having a committed majority was the norm,” Stimson said.

Carsey added Trump could decide to run as an independent if he is not the GOP nominee, leading some conservatives to discuss launching an independent conservative candidate if Trump is nominated.

How is the contested convention going to affect the 2016 presidential election outcome?

“The problem for the GOP is less exposure than the bitterness and divisiveness that a non-Trump candidate would generate,” Stimson said.

A contested convention would make it difficult for Republicans to win the general election, Stimson said, because of the way contested conventions breaks down party unity and also because Trump voters will be angered by the convention outcome.

Carsey agreed that these divisions in the GOP weaken its chance of winning in November.

“A lot of Trump supporters are not regular participants in GOP politics, so it is hard to say if they would ever support another nominee,” he said.

But Carsey said the Democratic party is not fully unified around a candidate either.

Yes, it ain’t over till it’s over. So let’s see how it goes.

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