The Convention of Conventions

National conventions are organized to select the political parties' candidates for the U.S. presidential election, as well as to adopt statements of party principles and goals.

American presidential elections go through several stages prior to Election Day in November. The presidential election cycle begins every four years when various contenders announce their candidacy. After months of campaigning and debates, each state and territory holds primary elections or caucuses between January and June of the election year, for citizens to select their preferred nominees. Following that, each party that fields nominees in the presidential election holds a national convention, in which party leaders and supporters gather to chalk out their plans for the election. While these conclaves are largely ceremonial in nature, featuring speeches by party superstars and celebrities, parties use these events to select and share their choices for both presidential and vice presidential candidates as well as to decide the policies.

The first political convention was held in 1831, when the Anti-Masonic Party met in a Baltimore saloon to choose candidates and draft a “platform” of policies and values on which they would run. The next year, the Democrats met in the same saloon to select their nominees. Since then, the major parties and most minor parties have held national nominating conventions to choose their presidential and vice presidential candidates, and to agree on policy positions.

In order to become a party’s presidential nominee, a candidate has to win the majority of the votes by delegates at the party convention.These delegates can be divided into two types. Pledged delegates, also known as bound delegates, are required to support the candidate they were “awarded” as part of the primary election or caucus results. However, the remaining “superdelegates,” or unpledged delegates, may vote for any candidate they wish.

Typically, the nominee is unofficially selected long before the convention itself, through the primary election and caucus process. In a standard election cycle, a clear winner emerges from these; delegates then cast their official votes at the convention and the nominee is named.

If no candidate receives the majority of a party’s delegates from primaries and caucuses, the convention is considered “contested.” If no single candidate is selected by the majority of the delegates, additional rounds of voting are held at the convention. If a delegate is pledged to a particular candidate, the delegate must first vote for that candidate. Superdelegates, meanwhile, don’t vote in the first round. However, should nobody win the first round, both the pledged delegates and superdelegates are free to vote for whichever candidate they choose. Superdelegates, therefore, can have outsized responsibility in cases with no clear winner.

Second and subsequent votes could potentially open up a frenzy of speculation, brokering and spectacle, known as a brokered convention. Brokered conventions suggest a sense of disunity, so political parties usually seek to resolve any issues prior to the opening of the convention. The voting process repeats until a single candidate receives the required majority.

A contested convention usually happens when a candidate refuses to withdraw, despite knowing they are unlikely to be nominated, and presses her/his bid at the convention. The result is what is known as political “horse trading,” or vote trading. In 1952, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were selected through brokered conventions.

In situations in which two or more strong candidates are still active in the lead-up to the convention, a compromise or concession—such as a vice presidential position offer—may take place. This was the case when Ronald Reagan offered George H. W. Bush a chance to be his vice president. Bush later went on to become president in his own right.

The 2020 national conventions were postponed by both the Republican and Democratic parties due to the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-June, the Republican Party announced that its national convention would move to Jacksonville, Florida, after the opening day in Charlotte, North Carolina, in late August. The official business of the convention will take place in Charlotte, but the events typically associated with conventions, such as the acceptance of the nomination, will be in Jacksonville. Measures like requirement of masks in indoor public places and in any other gathering spots where social distancing is not possible were also announced. In late June, the Democratic Party announced that its mid-August convention, to be held over four nights, would be moved to a smaller venue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Additionally, it was announced that while Milwaukee would anchor events each night, the convention would also include live broadcasts and curated content from other cities and locations across the United States. The party was working on processes to ensure all delegates could cast their votes remotely on the presidential nomination and all other convention matters.


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.