A political nominating convention is, first and foremost, a television event. It’s a chance for a party nominee to introduce him or herself to the nation on the biggest stage possible, free of distraction or return fire from the other party. Properly executed, a convention can help catapult a nominee through the campaign’s final months, all the way to the White House.
Improperly executed, the convention’s lasting historical image may be that of an aging actor, talking to an empty chair.
To be sure, the Clint Eastwood moment, which became the talk of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s convention in 2012 wasn’t host city Tampa’s fault at all – but the incident underscores the convention’s importance – and why nothing can be left to chance.
Everything’s Bigger in Texas
That’s why today, June 17, after two weeks of site visits, Dallas has to be considered the current favorite to land the GOP convention in 2016. The city and state are reliably Republican – and so is the donor class. Dallas says it has raised $45 million toward hosting the convention – an impressive feat for a city which got into the convention sweepstakes comparatively late.
That’s three quarters of the $60 million needed to host a successful convention. There would be no “Tampa panic” moment in Texas, where organizers fretted over raising the last few million dollars before 2012’s effort.
Similarly, there would be no panic over hotel space in Dallas. The nation’s 9th largest city has more than 30,000 hotel rooms within its city limits, and 75,000 in the DFW metro area – one of the country’s fastest growing. Dallas has two major airports, is located in the central time zone and knows how to throw a party – ask anyone who’s ever come down for the Texas/OU rivalry game.
Dallas has a modern arena in the American Airlines Center and a fast-growing, high-tech, diverse image that the Republican party would love to co-opt. And it has money. That makes Dallas the safest choice for Republicans, but maybe not the best.
Everything’s up to Date in Kansas City
Kansas City has fewer people than Dallas, fewer donors, fewer dollars and fewer hotel rooms. But it’s still in the hunt, and may be the second most likely city after Dallas to actually land the 2016 convention. Why? Because Kansas City can give the Republicans the best chance to nail the television event with minimal risk. Hear me out.
Kansas City’s limitations were known to the RNC from the moment KC filed its bid this spring. Republican party decision makers knew then that Kansas City wouldn’t have the hotel rooms of a bigger city, wouldn’t have a new airport by 2016, and wouldn’t suddenly sprout mass transit. Still, they kept the city through two cuts that eliminated larger competitors.
They’ve kept Kansas City because it meets the minimum logistical threshold (and has a healthy $35 million pledged in cash and in-kind contributions), and provides the best possible calendar and narrative of the remaining cities.
Only Kansas City has a pristine, modern arena with no anchor tenant using it in May (Dallas’ American Airlines Center has two – the Stars and Mavericks), and if RNC chairman Reince Priebus gets his way and moves the convention into late June, only Kansas City could open its doors early enough to accommodate them. When planning a massive, worldwide television event, that matters. A lot.
Believe it or not – so too would the Power and Light District – which would keep entertainment and convention closely linked. Delegates having a good time make for better TV in the arena. As one GOP elder statesman likes to say: “distance kills.” Keeping the party close helps the TV show look good.
Kansas City also offers a powerful narrative contrast to a Democratic party that may yet select Hillary Clinton as its nominee, and hold her coronation in Brooklyn. Imagine, if you will, the effectiveness with which Republican candidates and surrogates could contrast Clinton in New York City (there would be no mention of Brooklyn, except for hipster jokes), home of Wall Street, Bloomberg and de Blasio – with good old fashioned Midwest values in a classic American city that is reinventing itself.
RNC leaders like Mayor Sly James, and despite his party affiliation, they trust the seriousness with which he is pursuing their convention, and not the other.
Cleveland is the third likeliest city to land the convention.
A lot of the positives for Kansas City’s narrative also ring true for Cleveland. Cleveland splits the difference in size between Dallas and Kansas City, and also has only one anchor tenant, the woeful Cavaliers, in its convention arena. Cleveland’s location in Ohio matters too, but not for the reasons you may think.
Cleveland gains and benefits from Ohio. It can point to increasingly-popular Republican Governor John Kasich, and has a powerful GOP senator in Rob Portman who remains tightly connected to party leadership. These are positives.
Cleveland is the one remaining city in the Eastern time zone. That means the “TV Event” starts later, and ends later, and delegates are tired. Bad energy on the floor, and bad energy in people’s homes as they watch. This is a negative.
Much has been made of Cleveland’s status in the most pivotal swing state of Ohio, under the theory that this may tempt Republicans to put the convention there in hopes of turning the Buckeye State red. History and common sense say that’s just not the case. Republican candidates have lost every state where they’ve placed their convention since George H.W. Bush won Texas after being re-nominated in Houston in 1992 (he lost that race to Bill Clinton anyway).
Democrats have had slightly better luck. President Obama won Colorado after his Denver convention in 2008 (more on that in a minute), but lost North Carolina after sitting his 2012 convention there. Bottom line: There’s just no evidence putting a convention in a state helps a party carry it – something Priebus said directly during the site selection committee visit to Kansas City.
If you’re the Republican party, there is political value to keeping an Ohio city on your shortlist, to show you care. But there’s no demonstrated value in selecting one to host your convention.
With less money in the bank than Kansas City (only $25 million so far), less of everything else than Dallas, and by hedging its bets and also bidding to host the DNC in 2016, Cleveland’s chances aren’t great. But they’re better than Denver’s.
Rocky Mountain High
Denver is a great American city, with great weather, a great football team, and even a great omelet named after it. But it doesn’t have what the Republican Party needs in a convention city in 2016. It has too much Obama history, and not enough money.
During the site visits, Denver’s bid champion Pete Coors declared the city had raised a paltry $11 million dollars towards its convention bid, terrible news for a city whose bid hinges on convincing the RNC it can provide the same level of enthusiasm, or more, as it did for Candidate Obama. If it can’t meet that threshold – the bid is doomed.
Remember – we’re talking about a television event – and there are few things a television producer loves more than split screen. (Confession: I was once a television producer. I loved split screen). If the GOP goes to Denver, the party is guaranteed a week or more of stories comparing their nominee to Barack Obama circa 2008 – then at the height of his celebrity and popularity on the national stage. A split screen of an arena any less full, or any less energetic than the one that welcomed Obama in 2008 is a deal-breaker. That’s a big risk to take for your narrative.
After that, Denver’s bid is pedestrian. Yes, they have the hotel rooms. They have an arena with one anchor tenant. They’re in Mountain Time, an acceptable time zone. But they don’t seem to WANT it as much as Republican Dallas, or hungry Kansas City. As with Ohio, the swing-state status of Colorado doesn’t matter.
Add that sense of malaise (at least from donors) to the “Obama split-screen,” to a week’s worth of stories about legalized marijuana and you’ve got a bid that’s on its last legs. Why would the GOP want to do the “second best convention” Denver has had in a decade? They won’t. They’ll pass on the Mile High City.
Look for the GOP to narrow its options one more time at its August meetings in Chicago, down to two cities. Republican insiders say Dallas has the logistic and financial edge, but Kansas City has the party’s imagination, a narrative and a historical resonance hearkening back to the 1976 convention. Both cities can promise impressive television events that enthusiastically launch candidates.
And that’s really all that matters.
Garrett covered the 2008 and 2012 Republican Conventions for NBC News. He has covered Kansas City’s effort to land the 2016 Convention since its inception for 41 Action News.