Convention cities don’t necessarily deliver states in November

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As the Republican National Convention begins in Cleveland, and then the following week the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia there will be a lot of talk about the impact they will have on presidential voting. The wisdom says that locating a national convention in a swing state like Ohio or Pennsylvania can affect the outcome in November. 

The idea is that a party gets a bump from rallying their troops in a given state. That bump might even be big enough to flip the state to that party or lock in a state that a party narrowly one in the last election.

But that idea is wrong.

{mosads}As Republicans and Democrats selected a convention site for the 2016 presidential election, each certainly considered location as a major factor, as demonstrated by the selection of Philadelphia by the Democrats and Cleveland by the Republicans.

In 2012 during the general election, Pennsylvania was seen as a battleground state, one of the few states that at least one of the presidential candidates visited after the primaries. Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, is a state Democrats want to hold in 2016, thereby endorsing the wisdom of holding their national convention there.

Ohio is the critical swing state to the electoral success of presidential candidates. Obama won it in 2008 and 2012, Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Clinton in 1992 and 1996. If the convention location thesis is correct, then locating the Republican National Convention in Cleveland makes sense.

If convention location matters, the perfect example is the placement of the 2008 DNC in Colorado. Democrats went from losing the state in 2004 by 4.7 percent of the popular vote to winning it with Barack Obama in 2008 by a margin of 8.95 percent — a pickup of 13.65 percent. Yet Obama’s 2008 victory in Colorado seems to be the exception.

Look to the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minnesota. Republicans, including Minnesota’s then-governor Tim Pawlenty, thought that holding the convention there might turn it red. It did just the opposite. In 2004 Kerry won Minnesota by 3.5 percent, Obama then won it by 10.24 percent. The Republicans did 6.75 percent worse in Minnesota when they held their convention there.

Since 1948, there have been 17 presidential elections and 34 major party national conventions. Of those 34, there was no change in who won the state compared to the previous election in 23, or about two thirds, of the situations. In only five instances did a party see their vote share rise enough for the host state to flip.

In 1976 and 2008, the Democrats held conventions in New York and Colorado, both of which flipped from the previous election cycle when they had gone GOP. In 1948, 1952, and 1968 Republicans held conventions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Florida, which also flipped from the previous election cycle when they had voted for the Democratic candidate.

But, the opposite phenomenon also happened. Indeed, there were six times when convention locations seemingly hurt a party’s prospects in the host state. In 1948, 1952, 1980, and 2012, Democrats held conventions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and North Carolina but lost those states even though they had won them the previous election cycle. The Republicans experienced the same in 1960 and 1964 in Illinois and California.

Given that over 34 conventions, five host states flipped, six states counter-flipped, and 23 states saw no change, the conventional wisdom of a convention host state bump is clearly a myth. If anything, there is a slightly better chance of a party losing the state by hosting presidential convention than by not doing so.

Perhaps winning a state does not tell the whole story. I conducted a second analysis to consider whether the selection of convention locations result in making states more competitive, reducing margins of victory and forcing the opposing party to devote more resources there, as opposed to other contested states, to hold it.

At first blush, this theory may seem true. For the 34 political conventions, there is a 1.2 point average gain for the party holding their convention in a state that the popular vote compared to popular vote in the previous election.

But on closer examination, in 19 instances (56 percent), the party holding a convention in a state received a smaller percentage of the popular vote compared to the previous election. So the evidence does not support this theory. In roughly half the cases a party did better, in half the cases it did worse.

In a book I recently edited on each of America’s ten most important swing states, one thing was abundantly clear: presidential candidates focus nearly all their time and energy on those states and visit the others mainly for fundraising events.

Given that the convention location doesn’t give an edge to any campaign, it might well be a boon to voters in the other 40 or so states if the political parties opened up their list of possible convention sites to all 50 states. 

Schultz is a professor and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education at Hamline University in St. Paul Minnesota. He is the author of Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter

The views expressed by Contributors are their own, and not the views of The Hill.


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