Picking a convention city: Logistics trump politics

    Today, a pop quiz: When was the last time Republicans staged a national convention in a state that they subsequently carried in November?

    I ask this for a reason. Whenever Republicans pick a host city, they typically suggest that the convention will boost their presidential candidate’s victory prospects in the host state. But when was the last time it actually happened?

    The answer: 1992. The GOP met in Houston, and Bush the elder won Texas in November. (Which was no big deal, because he would’ve won Texas anyway.) But check out the five conventions since 1992: Republicans staged their ’96 confab in San Diego, and ultimately lost California. They came to Philadelphia in 2000, and ultimately lost Pennsylvania. They partied in New York City in ’04, and ultimately lost New York State. They did the ’08 convention in Minneapolis, and ultimately lost Minnesota. They chose Tampa in 2012, and ultimately lost Florida.

    I could go on – the Democrats staged their ’88 festivities in Atlanta, and ultimately lost Georgia; they met in Philadelphia in 1948, and ultimately lost Pennsylvania – but you get the point. Even though the parties typically pick a site in part because of its alleged political value, the summer ballyhooing rarely influences the autumn balloting.

    Which brings us to yesterday’s news. The GOP announced that eight cities – Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Phoenix – have made the cut for 2016. And sure enough, most of those cities are touting their alleged political value, insisting that their site gives the GOP the best opportunity to enhance its brand and “send a message” to the electorate.

    Denver’s boosters say their site would be a great way for the GOP to sell itself as a forward-thinking party, because Colorado is on the cutting edge of social issues (legal weed), and because the city is packed with the kinds of voters (young hip professionals) that the GOP sorely needs. The folks from Las Vegas (by all accounts, the front-running city) point out that Nevada is a swing state with a large Hispanic electorate, and that the GOP needs to do better in swing states with large Hispanic electorates. All three Ohio cities are touting Ohio as the uber swing state, and in fact, no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio (yup, look it up).

    Gordon James, one of the people who’s selling Phoenix, cites his state’s large Hispanic electorate and tells CNN, “The demographics of our community is very important.” Indeed, all the eligible western cities are urging the GOP to send a message. The convention belongs in Colorado, says state GOP chairman Ryan Call: “I think the West is where a lot of our battlegrounds are, because of the demographics and the populations in our community that we need to do a better job, as a party, appealing to.”

    Wow, he sounds just like Ryan Erwin, a member of the Vegas team, who says: “The Mountain West is an important region for the Republican party to recapture and hold, and a big part of that is the Hispanic vote, and the growing Asian vote as well. Everybody kind of understands that Nevada is a battleground, and the Hispanic population is a piece of that equation.”

    The GOP’s convention site should send a message about how the party is trying to broaden its appeal…where have I heard that one before? Oh yeah, 1998.

    That’s when Pennsylvania Republicans touted the alleged political benefits of staging the ’00 celebration in Philadelphia. The party was strong in the Sunbelt, and weak in the Northeast – so all the more reason to choose the Northeast. Governor Tom Ridge told me (I still have the notes), “If we want to be a national party and make converts, go to a place where people don’t expect to see you.” And Frank Fahrenkopf, a national GOP chairman during the Reagan era, told me, “You always want to ask yourself, ‘Where’s a state with a lot of electoral votes that can help you win in November, if you put the convention there?’ The Northeast would be a symbolic statement that the party isn’t walking away from its original roots.”

    Philadelphia got the gig – not just because it was a symbolic statement, but because the logistics – sufficient hotel rooms, ease of transportartion – were good. In the end, the logistics trump everything else. There’s no point in trying to send a message if there aren’t enough hotel rooms. Even as the ’16 cities vie for the best political message, they’re stressing their logistics.

    Front-running Las Vegas is particularly strong on logistics; once comfortably ensconced, Republicans would be able to say, “Hello, swing state full of Hispanics!” (Although Roger Simon, one of my old campaign trail pals, recently toured the gambling casinos and quips: “What I saw in Vegas was a bunch of older, white people seeking enormous wealth. What could be more Republican than that?”)

    Anyway, lest we forget, the ’00 Philadelphia convention didn’t do squat for George W. Bush in Pennsylvania’s autumn balloting. And rest assured that if the GOP picks Las Vegas or Denver or any of those Ohio cities, it won’t mean squat in November ’16 unless they can find a candidate who will actually broaden the brand. Who they nominate is far more important than where they nominate.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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