What is a contested convention?

What does it mean when a U.S. political party has a contested convention?

Most simply, it means that no candidate arrives with the support of a majority of delegates, and the party’s nomination for the presidency remains in doubt.

Convention-goers holding signs reading "For President" (© AP Images)
The 1924 Democratic National Convention required 103 ballots to select a presidential candidate. (© AP Images)

That hasn’t happened since 1952, although it used to be much more common. Today, one candidate typically emerges from the series of state caucuses and primary elections as the favorite and captures a majority of delegates well before the convention begins.

But if no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, the delegates keep voting until one does.

So how can a contested convention produce a majority? On subsequent ballots, fewer states require delegates to uphold their “pledge” to a given candidate. So delegates can shift allegiances to other candidates.

Over subsequent votes, if it becomes apparent that a candidate cannot obtain majority support, he may drop out in favor of others. The party may look for new candidates, ones whom a broader base of delegates can agree on. Back in 1924, the Democrats needed more than 100 ballots to agree on their choice, but in the end, a consensus candidate emerged.

A contested convention has the same objective as one without a contest: to identify candidates for president and vice president that a majority of the party can support.

Graphic reading "Elections 2016" (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)