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How would a contested convention actually work?

With growing doubts about the strength of the current GOP field of presidential candidates, key operatives and anonymous Senators are considering the possibility of a “brokered” convention in Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

Calling it a brokered convention is “pejorative,” says Morton Blackwell, founder of the Leadership Institute and an expert on the rules and procedures of the Republican National Committee. Blackwell would prefer to call it, simply, a convention that goes to a second ballot.

The more nuanced term preferred by Republican activists looking to Tampa is to call it a “contested” convention.

Rather than look at the likelihood of a contested convention in August, because, as Mr. Blackwell warned me, “Those who make their living with crystal balls, sometimes have to eat ground glass,” I asked him to walk me through the nuts and bolts of a multi-ballot convention.

Winning the Republican presidential nomination is all about delegates. Under current party rules, the nomination will be decided by 2,286 Americans — including 78 individuals from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

In non-binding caucus states, delegates may vote for whomever they please. By contrast, delegates from primary states are bound to vote for the state’s voters’ choice, regardless of their personal preference.

In some states, delegates are awarded proportionally based on votes, while other states have “winner-take-all” primaries. Finally, each states’ representatives to the RNC serve as delegates who are free to vote for their preferred candidate.

In Tampa, on the night of the first ballot, Speaker John Boehner, who, according to the rules of the RNC will chair the convention, will announce the roll call of the states. At this point, each state will announce whom their delegates are voting for.

If none of the candidates wins the 1,144 delegate votes needed to clinch the nomination, Speaker Boehner will call for a second ballot. All of the delegates who were bound during the first vote based on their state primaries will be released to vote for whomever they please.

If the second ballot doesn’t produce a nominee, the voting will continue until someone wins.

“The danger” with a multi-ballot convention, says Blackwell, “is that someone will suggest that some sinister deal has been made.” The key to avoiding such a perception, he believes is to allow delegates “to vote, unimpeded, for the candidate they want to win.”
With only 225 delegates committed so far, the nomination is anything but decided. Could Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum lock up the nomination before the convention? Could delegates from U.S. territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands or the American Samoa cast critical votes? Could an as yet unnamed candidate ride in on his or her white horse to save the Republican Party in Tampa?

Only time can tell.

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