By Amanda Wilcox
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil will not be the only exciting event to watch this summer — the Democratic and Republican National Conventions will also be televised.
The Republican National Convention ran from July 18 through July 21 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Democrats take their turn July 25 to July 28 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can watch all the action on your local PBS Station and check out NewsHour’s Live Blog HERE.
Here’s the lowdown on what happens at national party conventions and why they matter:
- National conventions happen every four years and are organized and supervised by the Democratic and Republican National Committees to formally pick their candidate for the White House.
- Voters do not in fact directly nominate candidates for the presidency. Instead, delegates at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are responsible for nominating candidates for their party. Voters participate in primaries and caucuses to assign delegates to their preferred candidate.
- In order to secure the nomination, a candidate must obtain a simple majority of delegate votes. For the 2016 conventions, the Republican nominee must have at least 1237 votes out of 2472; the Democratic nominee must have at least 2383 out of 4765.
- Delegates are usually party leaders or elected officials and most must pledge their support in order to be elected as a delegate. In most state primaries and caucuses, delegates are awarded to candidates proportionally, meaning in the same ratio as the popular vote. However, some Republican contests are winner-take-all. Across the board, a candidate must win 15 percent of the vote in order to qualify for delegates.
- The Democratic Party uses superdelegates. Unlike other delegates, they are not bound to vote the outcome of a state’s primary or caucus. Rather, they are permitted to vote freely. Since superdelegates are usually party elites, they allow the party some degree of influence over the nomination process and add a check to the whim of the “uneducated masses” — similar fears felt by the writers of the Constitution when they allowed only state legislatures to elect U.S. senators for the first 125 years of the federal government nation’s until passage of the 17th Amendment 125 years later. The Republican Party does not use superdelegates, so its influence over the nomination process is not as strong as the Democrats’.
- The Democratic nomination can depend on the support of superdelegates. During the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton initially had a seemingly insurmountable lead in superdelegates with almost a 2-to-1 advantage. However, as Barack Obama enjoyed increased success in primaries and caucuses, superdelegates gradually changed their allegiances to him.
- Delegates — with the exception of superdelegates — are politically bound to vote in accordance with the outcome of a state’s primary or caucus, but they are not legally bound. Because they are elected, voters naturally expect them to vote for the candidate they were elected to support. However, delegates vote on rules at the beginning of each convention and may vote on whether or not they wish to remain bound. Regardless, existing state laws that bind delegates are not easily enforced.
- A brokered convention happens if no one candidate is able to attain a simple majority of delegate votes. Delegates are released from their pledges and a second ballot is counted, essentially a free-for-all with the hope that leaving delegates to their own free will would allow one candidate to assume a clear majority. In between ballots, negotiations take place and party leaders vie for delegate votes for a certain candidate until one candidate acquires 51 percent of the vote. The most recent brokered convention was in 1952 when the Democratic Party nominated Adlai Stevenson after three rounds of voting.
- A contested convention is slightly different from a brokered convention, even though the two terms are similar. Before Sen. Ted Cruz suspended his presidential campaign, many political analysts suggested that his candidacy could cause Republican front-runner Donald Trump to arrive in Cleveland a few hundred delegates short of 1237, which would define the convention as contested. Contested conventions can easily snowball into brokered conventions if a candidate is unable to secure a simple majority on the first ballot.
- The national conventions are also responsible for developing party platforms. A platform is a detailed list of principles, goals, policy stances on controversial issues such as guns, abortion and foreign policy. Since Sen. Bernie Sanders has chosen to remain in the race even though the Democratic nomination is mathematically in Hillary Clinton’s hands, he may have leverage over the Democratic platform, allowing him to incorporate his policies and pull the party left.
For more information on conventions and why they matter, consult the following articles:
What is a brokered convention, and are we going to have one in 2016? — The Brookings Institution
What You Don’t Know About the History of the Democratic National Convention — The Huffington Post
Amanda Wilcox is a graduating senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.