Non-Pre-Decided Presidential Nominating Conventions

For as long as I can remember, the major party U.S. Presidential nominating conventions have been little more than coronations of candidates who have been previously decided by the primary/caucus process.

But at this time, just more a month before the first delegates will be chosen, there are at least five candidates on the Republican side who have a chance to gain substantial numbers of delegates. Giuliani, Thompson, Romney, McCain and Huckabee each have been polling in at least the teens in some recent polls. Although the conventional wisdom is that Clinton will quickly sew up the Democratic nomination (absent some unexpected scandal), there’s a chance that several of the Republicans could remain viable up to the convention.

So, a few questions about the nominating conventions and process:

  1. When was the last time that the candidate was not decided going into the convention? What happened?

  2. How are delegates currently selected for the Democrats and the Republicans (I understand they are different)?

  3. I know that sometimes losing candidates drop out and endorse remaining candidates. Must their delegates vote for the candidate they’ve endorsed.

  4. How does the convention voting process work? What does it take to be nominated? What happens if there isn’t a majority (or what ever the required vote is)?


My understanding is that a candidate needs more then 50% of the delegates to get the nomination. Depending on the state, the delegates are bound to vote for the candidate who gained the most votes during their states primary, but if no one gets a majority on the first vote, they are free to switch on subsequent votes.

  1. The last convention to require more than one ballot to select a presidential candidate was the Democratic Convention of 1952, which nominated Adlai Stevenson on the 3rd ballot. There was minor uncertainty at some of the later conventions (1968 Republican, 1972 Democratic), as delegates in that era were less firmly pledged to candidates and losing candidates tended not to drop out until the balloting was complete. However in every such case the pre-convention favorite won on the first ballot.

  2. Delegates are allocated to candidates based on their share of primary and caucus votes, using formulas that vary slightly by party and state. The respective campaigns assign individuals to fill their delegate quotas. In modern times being a delegate is about as exciting as being a member of the electoral college.

  3. No. If the candidate drops out early enough, however, their delegates can be re-assigned to remaining contenders; again this varies by party and state.

  4. Both parties require a simple majority to win. If no candidate receives a majority, the convention continues balloting until someone does. The Democratic Party required a two-thirds majority until 1932, which led to prolonged deadlocks including the 103-ballot fiasco of 1924.

There is close to zero chance that a convention will ever again play any role in the selection of a candidate. Campaigning is inordinately expensive, and candidates who lose the early primaries drop out quickly.

Let’s see… 1972, Democratic National Convention. McGovern came into it with more delegates than anyone else but it wan’t a guaranteed lock. The convention droned on into some horrid single-digit hour of the next morning before finally nominating McGovern, who got his butt handed to him in the general election by Richard Nixon.

Four years prior to that, also the Democratic National Convention… Chicago. Holy Shit. The candidate who had really been on a roll, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. The incumbent, Johnson, was not running. The anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy was the anti-establishment favorite. It was all up for grabs, and the streets filled with politically active young folks and then the Chicago cops who were sent out to roust them, and the reporters. One giant freaking disaster, with the lackluster Hubert Humphrey coming out of it all with the nomination for no particular reason that anyone could discern.

Since then, no conventions where the outcomes were in doubt as far as I can recall, (and from the above you can’t blame the major parties for not having much nostalgia):

76, Jimmy Carter had the Dems locked up and Ronald Reagan had failed to put any serious dent in incumbent Gerald Ford’s momentum, so no suspense there either.

80, Carter had no discernable opposition and Reagan had trounced the other Republicans early and often.

84, I’m pretty sure that Mondale had the Dem votes locked up long before the Cal primary and the convention, and took the Dem nomination only to lose to incumbent Ronald Reagan who had no serious opposition in the Pubbie primaries.

88, Once Joe Biden had shot himself in the foot with a plagiarized political speech and withdrew, (Gary Hart had shot himself in the scrotum a few months before the primary season), Mikey Dukakis became the frontrunner. Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Dick Gephart did not acquire enough votes to keep it from being a Dukakis coronation event. George HW Bush had no significant oppostion among the Republicans that I can recall.

92: Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” caught and passed the other Dem candidates and owned the nomination by the end of the season. No serious Republican challenge was given to George “read my lips” HW Bush, who was renominated to lose to Clinton.

96: No Dem opposition to Clinton, and Bob Dole was anointed by the Republicans long before the Republican convention to go up against him.

00: Gore pretty well mopped the floor and owned the Democratic nom early; the Republican nom was more closely contested than expected at first (a GWBush anointment was expected among the Pubble leadership); but Bush turned back McCain and the outcome of the convention was well-known before the first balloon was filled with helium.
Anyone with better info feel free to correct me wherever I’m wrong.

It only seems like this campaign’s been going on forever. In actuality, it’s still in its early stages. We’re only now heading into the voting period where delegates will start being committed and most of the candidates will drop out. By the time the conventions are run in late summer, we’ll almost certainly have two candidates who have the nominations sewn up and the conventions themselves will be the usual PR events.

I’m not sure that’s the case this year. There’s a pretty reasonable chance that, for instance, Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee could split the early primaries, and each come out of the February 5 mega-Tuesday with a substantial bloc of delegates. If no one candidate comes out with a decisive lead, I could see three or more staying in for the long haul, if only to keep control of the delegates they have, perhaps to parlay into a VP spot or be the man on the spot if the leading candidate melts down over something. There’s also a chance that Ron Paul will pick up a passel of delegates. He has no chance of winning, but he may collect enough to prevent any of the major candidates from taking a majority.

As for electoral improbabilities, could anyone have imagined – even in the realm of bad fiction – that a Presidential election could come down to months of litigation over pregnant chads hanging from poorly designed butterfly ballots in Miami and Fort Lauderdale? I wouldn’t count anything out.

Early in the primary season, Ted Kennedy led Carter in the polls by as much as thirty points, and he won primaries in some key states like New York. Kennedy went into the convention with a little more than a third of the delegates, and was relentlessly working to get Carter’s delegates to swing to his side. His effort failed, and he conceded the night before the nomination. For my money, that was the last time a convention was anything more than a glorified publicity event.

Thanks, I did not remember that Kennedy had been anywhere near that close by convention-time.

IIRC, Reagan was very close in '76 to unseating Ford at the convention. Less than a hundred votes…

The Democrats had a rule in place at the time (and very will still have one) that a delegate had to vote for the candidate s/he was pledged to on the first ballot. Since Carter had a majority of delegates, Kennedy wanted to change the rule and that would allow delegates to switch their votes. The rule change was voted down and Kennedy conceded.

I doubt that Kennedy could have gotten enough Carter delegates to defect anyway.

I remember that convention pretty clearly. It was fairly close but it was also a solidly known quantity. Reagan tried to put a “possible upset” spin on things but he simply didn’t have the votes and the delegates were rigidly pledged as to what they were going to do on first ballot. He (Reagan) tried a pre-emptive strike with a “Right to Know” initiative, meaning that he had told people who his VP candidate would be and that Republicans had the “right ot know” who Ford’s VP candidate would be (Ford had made no such announcement). It was seen as a proxy for the Reagan vs Ford question, no one jumped ship, the R2K initiative was dead, and so were Reagan’s chances. For the time being at any rate.

For a convention to be truly up in the air, the leading candidate has to have less than a majority of the votes locked up. Ford had a bit more than a majority and that was that.

Does anyone have more specific information on how delegates for dropped-out candidates vote. and requirements to vote for the candidate delegates are pledged to, particularly on the Republican side?

It seems highly likely that multiple Republicans will come out of the early votes with substantial numbers of delegates. Even if most of the candidates drop out after the Feb. 5 rumble, the delegates allocated to the candidates who are no longer going forward could be very important.

With two parties and 50 states (plus territories and DC), it’s impossible to give complete information. However, as one example, consider Iowa Republican delegate selection.

The upcoming caucus on January 3 is actually the first step in a three-step delegate selection process, with district caucuses and a state convention to follow in June. At every stage, “delegates” (not national convention delegates, but caucus and state convention delegates) pledged to candidates who drop out can pick a different candidate.

For example, say you’re picked as a Huckabee delegate on January 3. Your next step is to attend a district caucus on April 26. If Huckabee drops out by then, why continue to support him? Even if you do, chances are he’ll fall below a “viability threshold” and your only choices are to find a different candidate or abstain. Long before national convention delegates are named on June 14, Huckabee support will have evaporated.

In primary states, it’s somewhat more possible for losing candidates to retain delegates. Consider Democratic delegate selection rules (PDF) in my home state of Illinois. (Democrats seem to be more anal about posting detailed delegate selection processes online.) There are 100 district delegates selected directly in the primary on February 5, and it appears that a candidate who meets the 15% (by district) viability threshold and then drops out takes those delegates to the convention, whereupon they would become free agents. However that candidate would be ineligible to receive any of the 33 at-large delegates who are named (in proportion to the primary vote) in April, nor any of 20 “pledged party leader and elected official” slots.

Not necessarily. One of the “Big Five” will come in fifth in Iowa and drop out. Another will come in fourth in New Hampshire and drop out. And so on . . .

People say this every time, “Oh my God, there are X candidates, how will they ever winnow this field down?” Trust me, it will happen. Bump this thread in mid-February and we’ll see . . .

I think we are both on the same page, just coming at it from different angles. My view is that the '76 GOP convention was close enough for Reagan to try a few parliamentary tricks that COULD have swayed the vote to his favor. Or he COULD have appealed to a few delegates that had (maybe?) pledged for Ford only out of party loyalty, and the feeling that a sitting President would surely win.

The fact that his effort failed doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count as a competitive convention.

It certainly wasn’t an open convention like those in the early 20th century, but it is a far cry from the 4 day love-a-thon that the conventions have and will be…