How a contested convention really works

Ramirez cartoon

Contested Republican Convention? Been there, done that.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” recounts the balloting at the May 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago:

The convention finally settled down and the balloting began. Two hundred thirty-three votes would decide the Republican presidential nomination. The roll call opened with the New England states, which had been considered solidly for (William) Seward. In fact, a surprising number of votes went for Lincoln, as well as a scattering for (Salmon) Chase. Lincoln’s journey through New England after the Cooper Union speech had apparently won over a number of delegates. As expected, New York gave its full 70 votes to Seward, allowing him to leap far ahead. The Seward men relaxed until Virginia, which had also been considered solid for Seward, split its 22 votes between Seward and (Abraham) Lincoln. Chase had assumed that Ohio, which came next, would give him its full 46 votes, but the delegation was divided in its vote, giving 34 to Chase and the remaining 12 to Lincoln and (John) McLean. Perhaps the greatest surprise was Indiana, which (Edward) Bates had assumed was his territory; instead, Lincoln gathered all 26 votes. …

At the end of the first ballot, the tally stood: Seward 173 1/2; Lincoln 102; Chase 49; Bates 48. …

The second ballot revealed a crucial shift in Lincoln’s favor. In New England he picked up 17 more votes, while Delaware switched its 6 votes from Bates to Lincoln. Then came the biggest surprise of all, “startling the vast auditorium like a clap of thunder”: Pennsylvania announced 44 votes for Lincoln, boosting his total to 181, only 3 1/2 votes behind Seward’s new total of 184 1/2. … The race had narrowed to Seward and Lincoln. …

Spectators sat on the edge of their seats as the third ballot began. Lincoln gained 4 additional votes from Massachusetts and 4 from Pennsylvania, also adding 15 votes from Ohio. His total reached 231 1/2, only 1 1/2 votes shy of victory. “There was a pause,” (Murat) Halstead recorded. “In about ten ticks of a watch,” David K. Cartter of Ohio stood and announced the switch of 4 votes from Chase to Lincoln. “A profound stillness fell upon the Wigwam,: one eyewitness wrote. Then the Lincoln supporters “rose to their feet applauding rapturously, the ladies waving their handkerchiefs, the men waving and throwing up their hats by the thousands, cheering again and again.”

That is how a contested convention works. The person with a plurality doesn’t necessarily win. The delegates that first supported a losing candidate may choose to switch their votes on subsequent ballots to the second-place finisher or some other candidate.

But GOP front-runner Donald Trump told CNN a month ago: “I think we’ll win before getting to the convention, but if we didn’t and we’re 20 votes short, or we’re, you know, a hundred short, and we’re at 1,100 and somebody else is at 500 or 400, ’cause we’re way ahead of everybody, I don’t think you can say we don’t get it automatically. I think you’d have riots.”

Scottie Nell Hughes, a part of Trump’s campaign, told CNN: “The majority, the plurality, the people, the majority of the population have voted for Mr. Trump. … So you know, riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it means we’re fighting the fact that our establishment Republican party has gone corrupt and decided to ignore the voice of the people and ignore the process.”

On the first ballot in Chicago in 1860, of the four front-runners, Seward had almost 47 percent of the vote to Lincoln’s mere 27 percent and Chase and Bates at 13 points each.

The current delegate count of the four Republican front-runners, according to Real Clear Politics, shows Trump with almost 47 percent, followed by Ted Cruz with almost 38 percent, Marco Rubio with more than 10 percent and John Kasich with 9 points.

Cruz has more delegates than Lincoln did.