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Convening in the Swing States: Why the parties are meeting in Florida and North Carolina

by Andrea Levien, Presidential Tracker // Published August 28, 2012

Was it the hope of swing state victories that led the Republican and Democratic parties to decide to host their conventions in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tampa, Florida? Evidence suggests that it was, even if that may not mean much in terms of either campaign’s ability to win those states.

 In 2010, Republicans were teetering between three choices: Tampa, Phoenix (AZ), and Salt Lake City (UH). While looking back, one might imagine that now-candidate Mitt Romney would have relished the opportunity to return to Salt Lake City, where he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics, of the three choices, a major Florida city, with its large media market and already robust tourism infrastructure, was clearly the most expedient choice.

 Indeed Republicans were quite candid about the logic of their choice. A New York Times story at the time reported “Salt Lake City was seen as doing little to build the party, officials said, considering that Utah is solidly Republican.” Even though no small state has ever hosted a convention, that wasn’t nearly as important a factor as how closely that state might be contested.

 Democrats, on the other hand, narrowed their choice to cities only in three major potential battleground states: Charlotte (NC), Philadelphia (PA), and St. Louis (MO). North Carolina, one of the states that Obama won in 2008 but will have to fight the hardest to keep in 2012, apparently was seen as a good place to officially kick off his campaign.

 It hasn’t always been the case that parties decide to host their conventions in competitive states -- cities in less competitive states have in the past received the attention and tourism money that the conventions can pump into a host city.

 While in 2008, the parties also chose two swing state cities for their conventions – Denver (CO) for the Democrats and St. Paul (MN) for the Republicans – in the four preceding elections, the Democrats held their conventions in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, all major cities in states that predictably voted heavily Democratic in those elections. The Republicans decided to hold their recent conventions in New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Houston, of which Philadelphia was the only swing-state city.

 But in today’s closely pitched political battleground, every decision seems to be geared more and more to swing states – and those swing states can be more reliably predicted.

Whether these strategic picks will have any effect on residents’ vote choice remains to be seen. According to Professor David Schultz of Hamlin University, of the 32 party conventions that have been held since 1948, only five occurred in states where the candidate was lagging before the convention, but eventually went on to win the state. One such example is Colorado in 2008, though this arguably was more because Obama’s campaign infrastructure was so strong in Colorado than because the DNC decided to host its convention in Denver. Conversely, there are five cases of candidates leading a state before the convention but ultimately losing it in the general election.

In short, one should not place too much value on where Republicans and Democrats decided to hold their conventions in 2012. While it may seen unjust to critics of the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College that these two states are receiving an influx of money and attention because of their competitive status, evidence is at best mixed on its impact despite the obvious political calculations at play this year. Obama and Romney, who are both narrowly behind in their two host states, will have to rely on strategic campaigning more than glitzy convention events, to win over North Carolinians and Floridians.