There may not be any active presidential candidates as yet, but each party has now picked the site where their standard-bearer will be officially nominated next year. Democrats last week announced that they would hold their 2012 convention in Charlotte, N.C. This follows the Republicans’ earlier selection of Tampa, Florida. Both will be late summer affairs with Democrats meeting the week of Sept. 3, and Republicans a week earlier.
Conventions are being scheduled later and later in the election year. A generation ago they were held in July and August, but in recent years have slipped into September. The choice of Charlotte and Tampa also continues the trend of choosing convention sites for their electoral clout rather than their geographic centrality.
North Carolina has 15 electoral votes; Florida will have 29. Barack Obama carried both states in 2008. But his narrow victory in the Tarheel State was the first for any Democratic presidential candidate since 1976, while Florida has been touch and go for both parties in recent elections.
Conventions first appeared on the national political scene in the early 1830s. And in the years before the Civil War, Baltimore was a regular host. It had the advantage of geography, being located as it was just below the Mason-Dixon Line. As the country moved west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago supplanted Baltimore as a frequent meeting site for both parties.
Geographic centrality declined as a major factor in convention site selection after World War II, as the nation grew increasingly mobile and all parts of the country became readily accessible. For a while in the 1960s and early 1970s, resort cities such as Atlantic City and Miami Beach played convention host. Since then, the conventions have been on the move, usually appearing in different locales every four years. In the years since 1976, only New York City has held more than one convention. It has hosted four in the last 35 years – three Democratic and one Republican.
The GOP choice of New York City in 2004 was largely symbolic. President George W. Bush had little chance of carrying the Empire State that fall. But with the Republicans meeting in Madison Square Garden, just a few miles north of “Ground Zero,” the choice of New York was an obvious reminder to voters of the importance of national security in the first post-9/11 presidential election.
Republican conventions in Detroit in 1980 and Philadelphia in 2000 also had a symbolic overtone, as the GOP planted its flag in large Northern urban centers in a bid to show its commitment to racial diversity. But in recent years, strategists in both parties have been looking long and hard at the electoral map before picking their convention city.
In 2008, Democrats went to Denver, underscoring their interest in Colorado in particular and the Mountain West in general. At the same time, Republicans headed to the Twin Cities, in a state (Minnesota) that the GOP had not carried since 1972 but had lost narrowly many times since. In 2012, the conventions will be in Charlotte and Tampa, again in states of considerable electoral importance.
To be sure, simply holding a convention in a particular state does not guarantee a party its electoral votes – as the chart below shows. But it doesn’t hurt, either. It can excite local party activists and spotlight the political importance of the state – and its region - to the nation as a whole. In short, in a closely fought election, as 2012 may very well be, the late summer conventions could be a factor in who ultimately carries Florida and North Carolina and their rich lode of electoral votes.
Convention Sites since 1976
(W) or (L) indicates whether party won or lost the state in which their convention was held.
1976 New York, NY (W) Kansas City, MO (L)
1980 New York, NY (L) Detroit, MI (W)
1984 San Francisco, CA (L) Dallas, TX (W)
1988 Atlanta, GA (L) New Orleans, LA (W)
1992 New York, NY (W) Houston, TX (W)
1996 Chicago, IL (W) San Diego, CA (L)
2000 Los Angeles, CA (W) Philadelphia, PA (L)
2004 Boston, MA (W) New York, NY (L)
2008 Denver, CO (W) Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN (L)
2012 Charlotte NC Tampa, FL