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Ask Civics 101: How Does a Contested Convention Work?

Sara Plourde / NHPR

  Today we're answering a listener question about nominating conventions: would a contested convention be similar to a caucus? Read on or listen to this short episode for the answer.

During a nominating convention, states cast votes for their preferred candidate for presidential nomination. Given the primary and caucus process in the United States today, it isn't terribly common that a candidate fails to recieve the majority of votes. We typically know who the candidate will be before the convention is held. Though a true contested convention has not occurred since 1952, we have seen party infighting in the modern era.

The 1976 Republican National Convention witnessed a close contest between California Governor Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford, with the incumbent Ford eventually winning the nomination. The 1980 Democratic National Convention saw a fight between Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter so tense that two aides nearly came to blows. The 2016 RNC pitted the Ted Cruz-supporting "Never Trumpers" against Donald Trump. In all of these cases, however, the parties did reach relative consensus with a single ballot -- the winners being Ford, Carter and Trump, respectively.

We spoke with Shannon Bow O'Brien, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to understand what a contested convention does indeed look like.

"The last time this happened," Bow O'Brien explains, "was during the 1952 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when a reluctant Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois, won the nomination with outgoing President Truman support."

To answer our listener's question, Bow O'Brien says this is similar to a caucus.

"Candidates wheeled and dealed and made concessions, and one by one they dropped out. It took three rounds of voting to beat out his opponents. And in this round, Stevenson received 617 votes. Stevenson's win appears to be a result of a deep racial divide. Truman believed nominating a candidate from a state with Jim Crow laws in force would turn Black and northern white voters away from voting for the Democratic Party." 

Bow O'Brien says that though a contested convention seems to be a net-evil for the party, it may simply be seen as in indicator of varying political beliefs within a party across various states.

Do you have a question for Ask Civics 101? Submit it here, and we'll do our best to find the answer.

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.
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