Gov. Leavitt Speaks at WTC Utah event

UB Insider #2 – Former Gov. Leavitt & What Happens in a Contested Convention

About this episode:

Former Gov. Mike Leavitt has worked on presidential campaigns since 1984, including Mitt Romney’s bid for president in 2012, so he knows a thing or two about getting a party’s nomination—and what will happen if no clear winner emerges before the Republican National Convention in July. Listen to some of his thoughts and bets in this episode of UB Insider. Subscribe or download this episode via Stitcher and iTunes.


Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Although the election isn’t until November, the presidential race has dominated headlines for months. At the forefront of those news stories and social media posts is the still heated race for the nomination by candidates for both parties.

Utah has never been a heavyweight in elections, but primaries are tight enough this year that the state was closely watched during its March 22nd primaries. Even Republican front runner Donald Trump’s bid for the president seems to have lost some of its momentum to a renewed push by Ted Cruz. And it’s looking like there’s a real potential for a contested convention when the Republican National Party meets in July.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt spoke about this possibility at a quarterly thought leader symposium hosted earlier this week by the World Trade Center Utah and Zions Bank. The delegate system is unfamiliar to most, he said, but the nation is likely about to get a crash course in it. Much like we did for the electoral college in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: We’re going through a uniquely American experience in democracy. A few years ago, none of us knew anything about the electoral college. We knew it at a civics level, but we had a very powerful educational experience in the context of the Bush/Gore election. We focused on it, we learned about it, it was relevant to us. I would like to suggest that we are going through another part of that process now. We’re going to learn things about the way our democracy works, that we did not know before.

Lisa Christensen: Leavitt, who has held two presidential cabinet positions since leaving the Governor’s mansion midway through his third term in 2003, got his own crash course in the delegate process four years ago when working on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: What most of us won’t have remembered, is that there was a period of time during about this point four years ago when there was a serious question about whether or not Mitt Romney would receive, at that time, twelve hundred and forty-three delegate votes required to get the nomination. The reason for that is that a handful of candidates had continued to stay on in the election long enough, and the process was such that we didn’t know with any certainty until deep into April, whether or not he would get the twelve forty-three. And so we had begun to do the kind of analysis that needs to be done to be prepared in case he did not.

Lisa Christensen: Leavitt became Romney’s, as he calls it, chief delegate counter and starting asking a bunch of people familiar with the delegate process about what would happen if they went into the convention without enough delegates. Romney, as you might remember, did eventually get enough delegate votes to secure the nomination without going into a contested convention. But even though Romney didn’t end up needing all that research in 2012, candidates potentially will this time around.

Trump is still clearly in the lead with 739 delegates with Cruz following behind with 465 votes. Marco Rubio who dropped out of the race in mid-March, but still says he’s keeping his delegates, has 166 and John Kasic has 143. Leavitt says for Donald Trump to secure the nomination he’d have to get 52% of the 959 delegates left. And he could do it, but because of the way the remaining states divide up their delegates, there are still a lot of ways for the candidates to all fall short of the twelve hundred thirty-seven delegates needed and head into a contested convention.

Some states like Utah and Trump’s native New York divvy theirs up proportional to the margin of the candidate’s votes, while others like New Jersey are winner take all. Since political parties started having conventions, there has only been a contested nomination 26 times across both parties, 16 times in the democratic party, and 10 times in the republican party. In those contested conventions, the nomination went to the leading candidate 7 of the 16 democratic contested conventions, and just 3 of the 10 republican contested conventions.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: Why is that? It’s because typically for that to occur, the party must not have achieved unity. And the other candidates have not given up, and when you get there, those alliances hold pretty well.

Lisa Christensen: Leavitt says he thinks that the reason for that lack of unity has more to do with sociology and psychology than it does with actual politics. And that holds true for the democratic race to some degree, as well.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: I would like to suggest that there is more sociology happening right now than there is politics. If you begin to look at what’s happening in the republican nomination, and the democratic nomination, you see that the politics is really overshadowed by sociology.

Lisa Christensen: Some of you might remember the 1976 movie Network. If you don’t, there’s part of the film where a rogue newscaster tells his audience to go to the window and yell, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. A message that spreads rapidly across the nation. Leavitt says some of the campaigning this cycle is a lot like that. A lot of outrage but not a lot of discussion about the actual problems and how to fix them.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: I would suggest to you that what we’re seeing unfold here is something very similar to that. And when you look at that clip, just listen to the message. It was done nearly 40 years ago, and yet it’s almost word for word the message that Donald Trump is delivering. And it’s very clear that he has tapped into something deep in the American psyche, how is it that 40 years ago movie writers could have ascertained that? I would suggest to you that it’s because what they captured there was a sense of sociology. Not just politics. And so as we think about this, and we don’t have sociology parties, we have political parties, we’re not going to be electing a chief therapist, we’re going to be electing a president of the United States. But that’s an important part, I think, in understanding the phenomenon that we are seeing.

Lisa Christensen: During the convention, the delegates are initially held to vote the way their primary elections dictate. The South Carolina delegates, for example, will all vote for Donald Trump. But during the second or third or fourth round of voting, they are freed from those obligations, potentially changing the outcome. Even a candidate like Kasic who is currently running a clean but far less successful campaign than the other two remaining candidates, could have a legitimate shot at the nomination, Leavitt says. And the closer delegates get to the end of the convention without a clear nominee, the more likely they’ll be to consider changing the rules.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: That’s when things begin to get very interesting in my view because if you got close to Saturday, that’s when very mundane details become important. I’m expected back at work on Monday. My hotel room runs out on Sunday. That’s the moment where you may, in fact, begin to see rule changes made if people are required, if people ask if there’s the possibility to get a new candidate. I doubt it. But that’s the process that would occur. You would get to the meeting, you would have had four or five votes, nothing, no one will achieve twelve hundred and thirty-seven and people are getting nervous that this could go on for a long time and they begin to propose new solutions.

Lisa Christensen: Either way, Leavitt says, this election will probably be a good education for the American people.

Former Governor Mike Leavitt: We are in uncharted territory here. And I don’t think there’s any clarity, to use the word of the day, other than what the rules are today and the way it has unfolded in the past. And I think we can all begin to buckle our chin straps and enjoy, what I think is going to be a lesson in the way our two party system works.

Lisa Christensen: You can read more about Leavitt’s thoughts on our website Have your own thoughts on this episode or this subject? Let us know by emailing us at or through our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. Thanks to Adva Biton and Chris Sasich for help on this week’s episode. By the way, our podcast is now available on Stitcher so you can take us with you. Thanks for listening and have a great day.