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GOP site selection holds symbolism

Profile image for By Todd J. Gillman
By Todd J. Gillman

It’s down to Dallas vs. Cleveland for 2016 Republican convention

WASHINGTON — Elections don’t hinge on the site of a convention.

But the choice Republicans make for where to go in 2016, whether Dallas or Cleveland, will be fraught with meaning — for the party’s grassroots and donors, and for swing voters and foes.

Cleveland would be seen as an effort to win over the Rust Belt and, perhaps, to de-emphasize tensions between the party’s establishment and its Ted Cruz tea party wing. Picking Dallas would be taken as a sign that Texas is more competitive than Republicans care to admit, and it would magnify the scrutiny of former President George W. Bush’s role in the party.

“It’s all political,” said Ed Martin, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.

For months, GOP leaders have insisted that the selection process hinges mainly, if not entirely, on pragmatic concerns. A host city’s finances, hotels and arena eclipse consideration of whether a state is solidly Republican or a battleground.

Several cities with inferior lodging options or anemic fundraising were knocked out early. And Dallas and Cleveland have strong proposals on the table to woo the four-day event, which could bring 50,000 delegates, protesters and others.

Still, two cities with superior logistics — Las Vegas and Denver — also failed to make the cut. Conservatives recoiled at the thought of spending a week promoting family values in Sin City. Nor were they thrilled about Colorado’s legalized pot.

Each city still in contention presents issues for the GOP to deal with — in Dallas, none bigger than the legacy of Bush, the party’s last president. His library would be a major draw for delegates, and a magnet for news coverage.

“I’m not sure how the public reacts to Texas when you’re trying to swing voters in Colorado. We’ve had a lot of Texas in the Republican Party for 15 years. Maybe that’s not a great thing,” said Martin, whose own favorite — Kansas City — got cut last week with Denver.

As for Bush fatigue, “of course” that exists, he said. “You’d be lying if you didn’t acknowledge that the general public has a little bit of weariness,” Martin added, especially if his brother, Jeb, is a candidate.

In March, as boosters from various would-be host cities made their pitches at GOP headquarters, party chairman Reince Priebus wasn’t impressed by a selling point offered by three Ohio contenders, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati: that they should get extra credit for being in a swing state.

“It can be a factor, but certainly it wouldn’t trump some of the other issues,” Priebus said.

Cleveland boosters see where he’s coming from. They’ve focused on hard numbers and logistics. But they’re not ready to drop the swing-state argument entirely. After all, this may be a business decision, but the people making it are political operatives — elected members of the party’s central committee from across the country.

“It’s no secret that Ohio is a significant battleground state,” David Gilbert, chief executive of Positively Cleveland, the city’s tourism bureau, said in a recent interview. “We certainly do think it’s important.”

Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, framed it another way.

Putting a spotlight on Ohio, a state enjoying newfound prosperity under GOP Gov. John Kasich, would help the party sell a message of “turnaround under Republican leadership.”

He dismissed the argument that going to Texas signals that Republicans are worried about that state slipping away. But going to Ohio, he said, could make a difference in Ohio — a state Republicans can’t seem to win the White House without.

Still, he agreed that where the convention is held won’t tip the election.

“Ultimately these things come down to candidates. It always does,” he said.

That idea of a “convention bump” is a common part of political lore. But history doesn’t support that bit of conventional wisdom.

“It’s kind of like playing a slot machine. You win one of every 20 times and that’s enough to keep you going,” said David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, who got interested in the topic when that city was host to the GOP in 2008.

The hard facts of his research: 85 percent of the time, conventions had no impact, or might even have backfired.

Since World War II, the two major parties have held 34 conventions. Five times, a state flipped into a party’s column after a convention. But six other times, it flipped the other way; the convention was on apparently friendly turf, yet the party lost that state.

That happened in North Carolina in 2012. President Barack Obama claimed the nomination in Charlotte but lost the state he had carried in 2008.

Still, the choice can hold powerful symbolism.

A foray into enemy-held territory signals confidence, and could force the other side to invest more resources there. Each party has engaged in that sort of psycho-political warfare.

Schultz compared it to the yard signs that spring up on the eve of an election. The real impact is hard to show but “they certainly create an impression that somebody has lots of support,” he said.

For Democrats, the prospect of a GOP convention in Dallas is enticing.

Dan Pfeiffer, a top aide to President Barack Obama, issued a taunting tweet after Dallas was announced as a finalist Wednesday: “A convention starring Ted Cruz seems like something Dems will love in ’16.”

Even if the polarizing tea party senator isn’t the GOP nominee and doesn’t get a central role, Democrats see lots of room to exploit a Dallas convention.

“It shows that the Republicans know that they have to fight in Texas now,” said Jenn Brown, executive director of Battleground Texas, a group working to grow the Democratic Party. “It’s a sign that they view Texas as a battleground state just like we do.”

The last few weeks haven’t been great for the image of the Texas GOP. Conservatives pushed through a platform plank at the party’s state convention endorsing “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians. Doctors and psychologists roundly reject the practice.

Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri also criticized the new plank, but doesn’t see it as an impediment for Dallas.

For Brown, a national GOP gathering in Dallas would set an even bigger stage from which Republicans would promote unpopular views.

For Martin, the Missouri GOP chairman, there’s another way to look at it. Texas’ reliable conservatism would make Dallas a special environment for the next nominee.

“It would be like lighting a spark in a keg of dynamite,” he said. “You can envision an energy that would just be extraordinary.”

But the party needs the heartland. It needs blue-collar voters, and using Cleveland as a stage would help reach them.

“If we lose Pennsylvania and Ohio, we’re done,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons that Ohio is attractive.”