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Here’s how a contested GOP convention might work

House Speaker Paul Ryan will be chairman of the Republican National Convention.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/File 2016

WASHINGTON — It was 1948 when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey won the Republican presidential nomination on the third ballot of a contested convention in Philadelphia. Months later, he lost the general election to Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman.

Could a real contested convention happen again, 68 years later?

If GOP front-runner Donald Trump stumbles in Tuesday’s contests, there’s a chance of a protracted fight in Cleveland in July should favorite sons Governor John Kasich of Ohio and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida defy the polls and take their respective state’s winner-take-all primaries.

Delegates are generally bound to a candidate, at least on the first ballot. Whoever wins a majority of the 2,472 convention delegates, or 1,237 votes, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland is the party’s nominee.


If there is no winner on the first ballot, delegates vote again and again until one candidate gets a majority. On subsequent ballots, most delegates are free to vote for whomever they please.

Most delegates, roughly 4 out of 5, are selected at state or district party conventions and are commonly party activists and loyalists — the establishment types who are more likely to be aghast at the prospect of a Trump nomination.

Relatively few states directly elect delegates already pledged to a candidate. In many cases, those state and local conventions are going to choose actual delegates who may not have a real allegiance to Trump, though the vast majority of such delegates are bound on the first ballot to vote based on the results of their state’s primary or caucus.

So if Trump cannot win on the first ballot, the logical next question is how strongly his delegates support him.

The anybody-but-Trump crowd hopes that denying Trump a majority on the first ballot could rally a majority of the convention around another candidate — perhaps Texas Senator Ted Cruz or even someone not running, like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.


How many votes Trump gets on the first ballot — whether he falls just shy of 1,237 or significantly short of it — probably will factor into what would happen on a second ballot.

At a GOP debate on Thursday in Miami, Trump said that ‘‘whoever gets the most delegates should win.’’ Cruz said a contested convention would be ‘‘an absolute disaster.’’

‘‘There are some in Washington who are having fevered dreams of a brokered convention,’’ Cruz said. ‘‘They are unhappy with how the people are voting and they want to parachute in their favored Washington candidate to be the nominee. We need to respect the will of the voters.’’

To have one’s name placed in nomination, a candidate must win the support of a majority of delegates of at least eight states. Trump is the only one who seems sure to qualify under the rule, which was orchestrated in 2012 by Mitt Romney supporters to deny then Texas Representative Ron Paul an opportunity to be nominated and garner attention at that year’s convention.

If no one else qualifies under the eight-state rule, it could be difficult to deny Trump the nomination on a second ballot if he is close to the threshold and is the only candidate able to be nominated.

The rules favor Trump, as they are now written. Cruz might qualify under the eight-state rule, but it’s not a sure bet. The other candidates look unlikely to meet this test.


All the rules, however, are subject to change by the convention’s Rules Committee, which is generally stocked with party insiders. Any proposal to change the rules requires a majority vote of the convention, and any effort to change the rules to make it easier to defeat Trump is sure to spark a floor fight with passionate Trump supporters that could turn ugly.

In 1976, a possible battle loomed between President Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan, but Ford won on the first ballot. Since then, GOP conventions have been little more than coronations, so there’s the question of how well the system would handle anything more than that.

Basketball arenas aren’t the ideal place for potentially complex parliamentary maneuvering, but interpretation of party rules could tip the balance.

The convention’s chairman, Ryan, has promised to be an honest broker, but he also has discretion in managing the floor dynamics if an effort to defeat Trump gets underway.