Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Political Conventions And The 2016 Election


Alrighty folks, even if you aren’t super political you’ve probably heard all the banter surrounding the United States’ very very strange 2016 election. I am here to distill all the nonsense and prognostications and give (I hope) a very simple guide to what the heck is going on:

What is a political party convention?

A convention is like a huge meeting of the party to decide on important business. It’s at the convention where parties vote on their official platform, elect various officers, and of course, select their Presidential candidate for the next November.

So wait, the convention picks the Presidential candidate for each party?


So like, what are all these primaries and caucuses for then?

Primaries and caucuses elect delegates — the people who attend the convention. So when you vote for a Presidential candidate, you are voting for a delegate who is promising to vote for that said candidate at the Convention.

Wait, I’m still confused!

Okay, no problem, because it is super confusing.

Back in the good ole days, the party conventions did everything and “the people” really had very little say in who attended the conventions and what exactly they did. The convention was just made up of party leaders and handpicked people. There were no primaries or caucuses in the same way we see today.

Over time, however, people weren’t crazy about this system (for understandable reasons) and slowly, each party started giving some of the power to select delegates to “the people” via primaries and caucuses. The convention itself is really a relic of that old process.

So are political conventions “democratic?”

For the most part, yes. The conventions are filled with delegates that YOU elected to represent your interests. You might not know the specific delegates and their issues, but they represent your candidate (and in theory) their positions on policy. It isn’t a direct democracy, but hey, it works…usually.

What about “superdelegates?”

So, in the Democratic Party only, roughly 20% of the delegates (the people who ultimately chose the nominee) are “superdelegates.” These individuals have the right to vote for ANY candidate, regardless of how their state votes.

The argument for their role in the process is that the party leadership should have a say in who is selected, particularly in evaluating how “good of a Democrat” a Presidential candidate might be.

Others say that superdelegates are undemocratic, because they can do whatever they want. In reality, they are just a relic of a procedure that was once mostly undemocratic, and is now mostly democratic.

Okay, so what is this talk about a “brokered” or “contested” convention?

So to be a political party’s nominee you must with a majority of the delegates. That is to say, you must have 50% + 1 delegates vote for you at the Republican convention to be the Republican candidate for President, and 50% + 1 delegates vote for you at the Democratic party convention to be the Democratic nominee for President.

If you have that 50% + 1 (a majority) there is NOTHING the party can do to stop you from being the nominee. There is no contested convention, nothing like that. If you win a majority, you are golden.

BUT, if you don’t have a majority, that’s when things get tricky. Having the *most* votes is not enough. You need a majority. If you don’t have a majority, the party keeps voting until someone finds a majority.

How does that happen?

So, there are different “rounds” of voting.

In the first round, all elected delegates (pledged delegates) MUST vote for the candidate they were elected to represent. In the Democratic Party, of course, the “superdelegates” are still, and always, free to vote for whoever they want.

But then things get interesting. On the second ballot, some delegates are released from their “pledge” to vote for the candidate they were elected to represent. Legally, they can vote for whoever they want.

On the third ballot, almost all delegates are totally free to vote for whoever they want, without ANY regard for how their state voted.

A “contested” or “brokered” convention is just a convention where we go in not knowing the winner.

Is that democratic? Is that fair?

I mean, I think it depends on how you look at it. On first glance, it does seem a little unfair that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t win outright, but there’s another very important way to look at it.

Let’s say we go into a political convention with these candidates who have the following number of votes. Totally making these numbers up:


Kendra Syrdal: 40

Chrissy Stockton: 30

Daniel Hayes: 20

Mélanie Berliet: 10

TOTAL: 100 delegates (51 required for majority)

Okay, so Kendra obviously has the most delegates going into the convention. So if the winner was just the person who had the “most” she would be the nominee. On first glance, that might seem like the most fair outcome. But she doesn’t have a majority.

But maybe the delegates from Melanie knows that she doesn’t really have a chance, and decide to jump ship to support Chrissy, because Chrissy is their second choice:


Kendra Syrdal: 40

Chrissy Stockton: 40

Daniel Hayes: 20

Mélanie Berliet: 0

TOTAL: 100 delegates (51 required for majority)

Okay, so still nobody has a majority. And let’s say that Daniel Hayes’ supporters also realize he probably isn’t going to be the nominee, and let’s say the split 40% for Kendra, and 60% for Chrissy:


Chrissy Stockton: 52

Kendra Syrdal: 48

Daniel Hayes: 0

Mélanie Berliet: 0

TOTAL: 100 delegates (51 required for majority)

And so, as it turns out, despite being in second when the convention started, Chrissy has over 50% of the delegates and is the nominee. In some ways, this system is more fair because it allows the delegates of the “losing” candidates to take their second choice into consideration. It expands representation, and prevents “dead votes” for third and fourth place candidates from being totally disregarded. When we only ask who has the MOST votes the only two candidates whose votes matter are the top two. Anyone who voted for anyone else gets cut out of the equation.

Hmm, I still think that’s a little undemocratic

That’s fair. Unlike in math and science, there are no “right” answers here. I’m just trying to explain the other side.

So does this mean that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could still lose their parties’ nominations?

Yes to Donald, and maybe to Hillary.

Hillary is fairly safe because of the “superdelegates” who are likely to pile onto her at the convention because she is also leading in the elected, or pledged delegates.

The Donald, however, is also leading in elected delegates but because of how many different Republican candidates ran and collected delegates, he is VERY unlikely (but not impossible) to get a majority. What happens at a Republican Convention where he doesn’t have a majority of the delegates is anybody’s guess.