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US election word of the week: contested convention

 © PhotoDiscIn this series we are looking at some of the language and terminology associated with the US electoral process in the run-up to the Presidential election in late 2016. This week’s word is contested convention.

Now that the balloons have deflated and the banners have been put away, the presidential campaign is moving into its final stages. While the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia were not without their dramas,  neither event produced the most dramatic possibility of all, a contested or a brokered convention.



Back in the spring it seemed possible that the Republican presidential candidate might actually be selected at the party’s convention in July, rather than simply being confirmed there after having emerged victorious from the primary process. With Bernie Sanders keeping and gaining support for longer than most expected, it even seemed possible that the Democrats might be seeing a contest rather than a coronation in Philadelphia. In the event both parties arrived at the conventions with their candidate already decided, although both parties were somewhat less unanimous about their choice than has generally been the case.

Some authorities distinguish between a contested convention, where delegates arrive at the convention with no candidate having secured the required majority during the primaries, and a brokered convention, where no candidate emerges  victorious from the first ballot at the convention. To add to the confusion, either situation can be referred to as an open convention. The more I read about the intricacies of the US electoral process, the more I marvel that it works at all.

While brokered conventions were the rule rather than the exception before the 1930s, they have become much rarer since the introduction of widespread primary elections into the presidential process. The last brokered conventions were in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination and went on to win the Presidency. In 1976 incumbent President Gerald Ford arrived at the Republican convention without the necessary majority of delegates but defeated Ronald Reagan in the first ballot, making that the most recent contested convention.

Look out for the next post in this series. You can find past posts on the language of American politics here and here, or search for other posts in this series using the tag US politics.

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Liz Potter

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