With all due respect to Tampa, it’s generally acknowledged that Republicans did not select the sprawling metropolis as the venue for last week’s national convention because of its ambience. It was all about currying favour with Florida, a state the GOP needs to win if it’s to reclaim the presidency.
Charlotte, the site of this week’s Democratic convention, is considerably more charming, with a more intimate downtown conducive to a fun convention atmosphere. But here, too, it’s mostly about location, with the Democrats opting for the largest city in a state they’re struggling to hold onto.
To attend both conventions – and, particularly, to speak to some of the locals – is to wonder whether this tactic is actually all that helpful to the parties’ fortunes in the states they’re covering.
“At first we were excited,” a waitress at a downtown Charlotte brewpub said on the eve of the DNC, as a friend who works at another nearby restaurant nodded in agreement. “Now it just seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”
The complaints are familiar, if slightly less frequent in Charlotte than they were in Tampa. To have a large chunk of downtown blocked off for several days, with motorcades and protesters and security enforcement creating traffic snarls well outside the security perimeter, is a big hassle – especially when most of the events are by invitation only.
There’s also some question as to whether it’s really the big boon to business that everyone expects beforehand. Restaurants and bars complain that regular customers all stay away; meanwhile, unless you’re hosting private parties, you may not see all that many visitors. (One of the more amusing running storylines in Tampa involved the city’s plethora of strip clubs grousing that the expected flock of Republicans had not materialized, possibly because a wave of media speculation on that front had scared them off.)
The more apparent benefit for the parties is the blanket coverage the conventions are given by local media. With networks devoting less time than previously to conventions, the parties are at least able to get a lot of attention for both their presidential candidates and their local stars in that one state.
In both cities, well-heeled local supporters have compared it to having the Super Bowl come to your town, and in terms of the hype there’s some truth to that. In Charlotte, celebrity sightings and street performers have combined with the media presence to give the feeling of something special. But it’s still unclear what the vast majority of people just trying to go about their daily lives get out of it, unless they managed to make some cash by renting out their homes and fleeing town (a decision much appreciated by journalists who weren’t able to find hotel rooms).
Battleground-state conventions are a fairly new phenomenon, which makes assessing their merits a little tricky. Until recently, Democrats generally held these events in tourist-friendly cities – San Francisco, Boston, Chicago – within their strongholds. The Republicans tended to either go to their own strongholds (Texas) or choose appealing host cities (New York) in states they probably wouldn’t win.
The results of the new strategy have been decidedly mixed. The Republicans went to Philadelphia in 2000, and George W. Bush subsequently became the first president in decades to be elected without winning Pennsylvania. After going to New York in 2004, they tried their luck with Minnesota in 2008. The traditionally Democratic state was supposed to be in play for them, but they wound up losing it by a bigger margin than in the prior election – albeit with a much less successful national campaign.
The Democrats only broke from their previous pattern in that ’08 campaign, in Denver, and went on to win Colorado. But as with the Republicans’ Minnesota loss, that came in an election in which there was a big swing toward one side.
This year’s race, shaping up as a dogfight, may prove a better test.
It’s entirely conceivable that the Republicans could lose Florida, while the Democrats lose North Carolina. If so, there may be some rethinking of the new received wisdom around convention locations – possibly a relief for the wait staffs of cities that never before had to contend with this sort of thing.