The Democratic Party appears to have narrowly missed a contested convention in 2020, with an initially crowded field leading to small plurality wins in early contests, which would have been their party’s first contested convention since 1952. This warrants a look back at previous contested conventions and what sorts of nominees emerge from those events.
A quick terminology note: “Contested convention” and “brokered convention” typically have slightly different meanings. This piece will use the term “contested convention” to refer to both.
Many of us have witnessed a contested convention -- in fiction. Television shows such as The West Wing, House of Cards (U.S. version), and Veep feature a contested convention storyline, leading to the perception that these events can, and do, happen regularly. In fact, the most recent off-screen contested convention was the Republican convention of 1976, meaning Americans under 44 have only television versions as a point of reference.
This is an area where the truth is wilder than fiction. For example, consider the 1924 Democratic convention at which delegates voted 103 times over 16 days, before finally settling on a candidate who went on to lose the general election anyway!
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Party conventions began in the mid-1800s as a way to formalize nominations for president and vice president. Democratic conventions have been held since 1832 and Republican conventions since 1856. Since that time, only 26 conventions have been brokered or contested. Most contested conventions were held prior to 1936, when Democrats still used the “two-thirds rule” which mandated that the nominee receive two-thirds of the vote. Since 1936, both parties have operated under a simple majority rule and there have been only five contested conventions in that time. See the table at the end of this article for a full history of contested conventions.
Modern political parties would be wise to avoid contested conventions because allowing a small group of delegates to select the party nominee on the convention floor could give the impression that the voters’ voices aren’t being heard, and could lead to strong intra-party divisions and animosity. And historically, nominees who emerged from contested conventions have lost the general election more often than they’ve won.
42% of nominees from contested conventions WON the general election
58% of nominees from contested conventions LOST the general election
There is one piece of wisdom that parties can learn from that past, if a contested convention is unavoidable. Parties which nominate the candidate who led in the first round saw their nominee lose 75% of the time. Parties which nominate a candidate other than the first-round leader, which we’ll call come-from-behind candidates, have a better track record.
25% of nominees who were first-round leaders went on to WIN general
75% of nominees who were first-round leaders went on to LOSE general
57% of come-from-behind nominees went on to WIN general
43% of come-from-behind nominees went on to LOSE general
If voters are so divided that they send their party to a contested convention, the party has a tough road ahead. But their best shot may be to nominate a candidate who can build support in later rounds of voting, rather than to charge ahead with the candidate who wins a mere plurality on round one. FairVote’s Dave Daly and Rob Richie have proposed a solution; ranked choice voting (RCV) at the party convention to ensure the nominee has broad support and the best possible chance in the general election.
RCV would allow delegates to identify a candidate in a divided field with the greatest chance of winning in the general election. In times of distrust for party elites, it would also help ensure a more transparent outcome. Rather than hours of round-by-round votes punctuated with secret side conversations, the full ranking of each candidate by each delegate could be plain from the outset. That way, if a candidate does get the nomination despite trailing in first choices, their nature as a consensus-builder with support from different “lanes” in the party would be apparent.
Such a nominee would be in good company. Presidents who emerged from contested conventions after come-from-behind victories include James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding.
Below is a list of all contested conventions in U.S. history.