The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is what happens if Republicans face a brokered convention

As the GOP scrambles to minimize Donald Trump's dominance in the polls, Republican leaders face the question of what would happen if no clear winner emerges. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: SAUL LOEB/The Washington Post)

In election after election, generally (but not always) well before the voting starts, pundits start wondering about the possibility of a "brokered" party convention.

For the casual observer, that term is meaningless — in part because casual observers are mostly not paying any attention to low-possibility outcomes of things eight months from now. But from the perspective of those who enjoy chaos and tumult (the media), it's a not totally accurate shorthand for an enticing prospect: a presidential race so close and so hard-fought that even on the night that the balloons are supposed to drop, no one knows whose head they'll land on.

A "brokered convention," of the type that The Post reported Thursday had blinked to life on the radar screen of the Republican brass, is a convention in which the delegate (that is, voting attendee) votes of each of the states and territories don't add up to more than 50 percent for any one candidate. So after all of the voting and caucuses and conventions, for example, 1,000 of the 2,472 voting Republican delegates like Candidate A and 1,000 like Candidate B and 472 like Candidate C. There is no clear winner.

Let's answer two questions. First, could that happen on the Republican side? And, second, what would happen next?

Could a delegate split happen?

For the most part, there's a strong link between the number of votes candidates get during the presidential primaries and the number of delegates they earn. If you get the most votes, you get the most delegates, and if you get more than half the delegates, you get to run against whoever wins the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.

But it is much, much more complicated than that.

First of all, the Republican Party, which allocates delegates by state, uses a complex calculus to do so.

  • Every state and territory gets a delegate spot for its Republican National Committee representatives and state chair. That's three in total.
  • Each state then gets three delegates for each congressional district.
  • Each state then gets more delegates for a variety of triggers. If a state cast a majority of its electoral votes for Mitt Romney in 2012, it gets 4.5 delegates, plus delegates equal to 60 percent of the state's electoral votes. If the state has a majority-Republican House delegation, it gets another convention delegate. Delegates for state legislatures. For senators. And so on.

The result is that the map looks unusual. Louisiana and Kentucky end up with more delegates than Massachusetts, for example. Vermont and Delaware have the fewest.

How delegates are allocated to each candidate also varies by state. In some states, the winner of the state primary gets all of the delegates. In others, it's split proportionally by the vote in the state, although that's usually limited to people who hit a certain percentage of support (preventing Random Weirdo's 1 percent of the vote earning him a Randomer Weirdo who can go cause trouble at the convention). In some states, the winners in each congressional district get those delegates, with the rest divvied up proportionally or winner-take-all. In others, it's decided at a convention.

Interestingly, as David Wasserman noted for FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, the value of the vote in those less-red states increases, providing an advantage to more-moderate candidates. Take California, where the winner in each congressional district gets that district's three delegates. That means that a handful of Republicans in very-liberal California places will pick three delegates to show up at the convention, a number equal to a decent percentage of other states' entire delegations.

It's generally up to the state to decide how to allocate delegates after the election/caucus. The party created a stipulation for 2016 that any state holding an election in the first half of March had to use proportional distribution. Otherwise, it lets the states do what they want. Anti-federalism, and all that.

So the result is that map looks like this, using definitions established by (the invaluable) FrontloadingHQ. It's a mess.

There are nearly an infinite number of ways, then, that a mix of candidates could put together a slate of delegates that keeps them in the running but doesn't get them to the 1,237 they need to get the party's nomination. (RealClearPolitics made a tool that lets you play with options, but it is necessarily complex.) The broader trends in the race are one thing: who drops out, how support snowballs after candidates start winning races, where the establishment leans on candidates to coalesce in favor of someone else. The number of possible delegate splits from a mathematical sense is another.

It's important to note that, as a state's delegation gets ready to head off to the convention, not all of the delegates on the bus are already committed to a candidate. Those three RNC delegates are often "unbound" by the primary/caucus results and can vote as they wish.

Okay. So let's say we've got some combination of Donald Trump winning a number of states and Ted Cruz winning a number of states and Marco Rubio winning a number of states, and the convention in Cleveland is looming. Now what?

What would happen next

The Republican Party has a detailed set of rules that guide how it operates. A number of those rules deal specifically with the convention, including delegate disbursement and so on. But we're going to focus on the actual voting process.

In rough outline, it goes like this.

  • Rule 29: Each delegate gets one vote. If the delegate holds two voting positions, he or she still gets only one vote.
  • Rule 16: If delegates vote for someone besides the candidate to whom they are bound, those votes aren't recognized.
  • Rule 37: States are called to vote in alphabetical order, but they can skip announcing their vote until later in the queue. The chairman of the state party announces the number of votes for each candidate.
  • Rule 38: States can't decide to cast all of their votes for whomever the majority of delegates back.
  • Rule 40: If, after all of the states (and territories) have announced their tallies, no candidate has more than 50 percent of the delegates' votes, "the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of the states be called again and shall repeat the calling of the roll until a candidate shall have received a majority of the votes entitled to be cast in the convention." (Emphasis added.)

In other words, if after all of the voting no one wins, the delegates will keep voting until there's a majority. And that's where the deliberations come in.

State rules vary on the point at which committed delegates can change their minds. Candidates can release their delegates to vote for whomever they want. Often, delegates are allowed to switch their votes if their bound candidate sinks below a certain level of overall support. (In California, it's 10 percent, for example.) But keep in mind that there are also those unbound delegates wandering around. They can vote however they want.

For a campaign, then, the goal after a candidate fails to hit 50 percent is to cobble together enough votes to hit the 50 percent mark. This is why the selection of the actual delegates — the people who will be in the room — will be critical. Two convention committees — the credentials and rules committees — help guide the process during the convention, including certifying delegates in the former case and setting the order of business in the latter. In 2012, Ron Paul supporters worked the rules in Maine to get a majority of the delegate slots, which resulted in the credentials committee yanking some — with a resulting fight on the floor.

It can get messy, fast.

There's one more wrinkle, and it's a doozy. The RNC's Rule 40 establishes the rules to actually be eligible to be nominated. To do so, candidates have to present signatures of support from the majority of delegates from eight or more states. In other words, the most candidates that could be considered eligible for the nomination is six (six times eight being 48 and there being 50 states). The fewest candidates that could be considered eligible for the nomination is . . . zero.

What if Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Bush and Christie and so on each win seven states? Or, at least, what if they have delegate majorities from seven states, whether or not they won them? There's no one eligible to be nominated. Or what if Trump and Rubio have the same number of delegates, but only Trump has majorities in eight states?

This is unlikely, and the party could change the rules, as needed. More likely — albeit not a whole lot more likely — is that three or four candidates split the delegates on the floor of the convention, and campaigns spend hours cajoling and browbeating and promising and praying in the hopes of getting 50 percent-plus-one in order to head to the general election. In that case, the convention transforms from an anointment to . . . an election.

What happens in the general election, once the Republicans have nominated someone that would probably be considered invalid by a large part of the rest of the party, is a speculative, not-gonna-happen question for another day.

Correction: Josh Putnam of FrontloadingHQ pointed out that delegates voting for someone they weren't supposed to weren't "thrown out." The vote is instead ignored.