Every four years, before America chooses a new president, the two major parties study the map, weigh their options (financial, political, symbolic) and then choose where to hold their national conventions.
Some years, the choices seem simple. Take the Democrats’ options for 2016. Having twice dabbled in swing states – Colorado in 2008 and North Carolina in 2012 – after two previous stays in safe blue havens (Massachusetts and California), Democrats might prefer something more biographically appropriate, assuming Hillary Clinton is the nominee. That pretty much narrows the list to Chicago and her native Illinois, or New York City and her adopted Empire State (both cities, of course, where Bill Clinton also accepted his party’s nomination, making for the consummate Clinton love-in).
As for Republicans and 2016, choosing a convention site seems as complicated a task as settling on a nominee – the options are multiple and it’s a question of what direction the GOP would like to head.
Last week, the Republican National Committee’s Site Selection Committee announced six cities in the running for the party’s 2016 national convention: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and Las Vegas. Two other cities that had expressed an interest – Phoenix and Columbus (Ohio) – didn’t make the cut.
The next phase in the process: selection committee members will travel to the cities to hear their pitches and then deliver their recommendations to the RNC, followed by another rounds of cut, and after that a final decision by the national committee this fall.
So what to make of the six cities still in play?
For openers, only two of the six contenders – Denver and Las Vegas – are newbies as far as Republican conventions are concerned. The GOP partied in Cleveland in 1924 and 1936; in Kansas City in 1928 and 1976 (at the latter, Ford edging Reagan in America’s last unsettled convention); and in Dallas in 1984. And, of course, who can forget the 1876 national convention, in Cincinnati, and the nomination of native son Rutherford B. Hayes?
That doesn’t necessarily mean the two Ohio cites won’t make the next round. There’s no state arguably more vital to the Republicans’ national success (no Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio since Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860). Cleveland can make a strong case as a popular tourist destination (words you probably thought you’d never read). And Cincinnati? It has influential friends and neighbors – House Speaker John Boehner grew up there; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sits on the other side of the Ohio River.
Then again, why not Dallas, the site of this weekend’s NCAA Men’s Final Four? It’s George W. Bush’s backyard (his presidential center and policy institute are located on the campus of Southern Methodist University). Besides, the locals seem serious about drawing the GOP’s business: a Dallas contingent already has raised $40 million of the $60 million needed to put on a show.
However, if the overriding concern is making inroads into swing states, then Las Vegas and Denver’s stock goes up. It’s one reason why the Democrats landed in the Mile High City in 2008 (you may recall the open-air acceptance speech at the football stadium, replete with the Greek temple décor). That, and the calculation that Colorado may be the electoral “tipping point” in national contests – the state that pushes the Democratic candidate past 270 electoral votes (in 2016, a role that might be played by Pennsylvania).
That makes Colorado an attractive lure for the GOP. On the other hand, with a helpful push from Sheldon Adelson, Republicans might land on The Strip (here’s the Web site for Las Vegas’ 2016 pitch). As with Colorado, it makes political sense for a party looking to regain its footing with New West Latino voters. And it’s a roll of the dice in terms of what could go wrong: think desert weather, brothels, and the thought of Harry Reid, only an hour away in Searchlight, fooling around with the power grid and Clark County unions and hotel workers.
All of which would make for a few entertaining days in the desert, but probably little difference for the party come November. While national conventions have a profound economic effect on their host cities and states – this study claims the 2012 Democratic gathering in Charlotte had a $163 million impact on the region; according to this report, the 2012 GOP national convention had a $400 million impact on Florida’s Tampa Bay region – the political implications aren’t so clear.
As 2016 is a non-incumbent presidential contest, let’s review the eight previous open-seat elections and see if there’s any correlation between convention cities and November outcomes.
1) 2008 – Barack Obama nominated in Denver, carries Colorado, wins election . . . John McCain nominated in Minneapolis/St. Paul, loses Minnesota, loses election;
2) 2000 – George W. Bush nominated in Philadelphia, loses Pennsylvania, wins election . . . Al Gore nominated in Los Angeles, carries California, loses election;
3) 1988 – George H.W. Bush nominated in New Orleans, carries Louisiana, wins election . . . Michael Dukakis nominated in Atlanta, loses Georgia, loses election;
4) 1968 – Richard Nixon nominated in Miami, carries Florida, wins election . . . Hubert Humphrey nominated in Chicago, loses Illinois, loses election;
5) 1960 – JFK nominated in Los Angeles, loses California, wins election . . . Nixon nominated in Chicago, loses Illinois, loses election;
6) 1952 – Dwight Eisenhower nominated in Chicago, carries Illinois, wins election . . . Adlai Stevenson nominated in Chicago, loses Illinois, loses election;
7) 1920 – Warren Harding nominated in Chicago, carries Illinois, wins election . . . James Cox nominated in San Francisco, loses California, loses election;
8) 1908 – William Howard Taft nominated in Chicago, carries Illinois, wins election; William Jennings Bryan nominated in Denver, carries Colorado, loses election.
Conclusions: Six out of eight times, the presidential winner carried his convention’s state. But there are exceptions, even for the most charismatic of candidates. The Democrats picked Charlotte, for 2012, as proof of the party playing for keeps in the “New South”. Barack Obama ended up losing North Carolina that fall, just as John Kennedy failed to convince California to buy into his “New Frontier”.
Maybe the answer is to do like Ike (and Adlai): hold the two parties’ conventions in the same city, in the middle of America, and only a couple of weeks apart.
And then move on the general election.
Would that it were so uncomplicated. Unfortunately, the two parties’ conventional practice is to overthink their national conventions.
In the process, overstating the case for winning swing states.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen