Where a political party holds its nominating convention says quite a bit about its hopes and fears. Those greeting Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are no different.
Tampa, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina. As Republicans and Democrats (and more than a few independents) tune in for each party’s national convention, the host cities themselves brace for the spotlight. The site of each event is highly strategic, demonstrating a commitment on behalf of the party to the people and needs of the state. While early nominations were often held in politically “safe” cities, times and strategy have changed. More recent conventions have moved to battleground states or “enemy” territory in the hopes of swaying the local electorate. It’s a smart tactic, but it also reveals many party officials’ perceived electoral strengths and weaknesses. Twenty-twelve is no different, and both sides have their work cut out for them.
Republicans selected Tampa for their 2012 convention, and it’s easy to see why. President Barack Obama carried the state by 3% in 2008 and leads GOP challenger Mitt Romney in local polls. With 29 electoral votes, Florida ties with New York for the third largest prize in the electoral college after California and Texas. But unlike longtime Democratic strongholds New York and California or reliably-Republican Texas, Florida remains in play. It may have gone to Democrats in 2008, but George W. Bush won it for Republicans in 2004.
What makes Florida unique? Its demographics. Nearly one-fourth of its population is Hispanic or Latino, a group quickly proving vital to both parties’ electoral fortunes. Though Latinos are highly religious and value tradition like Republicans, only 16% of their registered voters are registered with the GOP. Another 36% are independents and the remaining 45% are Democrats. Of the independents, 52% identify as Democratic-leaning to just 23% backing Republicans. It’s a national problem for a party sometimes derided as “old white men” pushing an immigration crackdown.
Florida also boasts a large and growing elderly population; nearly 20% of the state is 65 years of age or older. As America ages, it’s another group that neither party can afford to lose. Karl Rove mobilized the traditionally stay-at-home group in 2000 to win the White House for George W. Bush, but many of Florida’s elderly are retirement transplants from more liberal northern shores. Converting them may prove difficult with a vice-presidential candidate known primarily for his controversial Medicare proposals. For Republicans, the issue may also be time-sensitive. As later generations move into old age, they may take their more progressive ideas with them, threatening a critical GOP voting bloc. In Tampa, the party grapples firsthand with the realities of a changing American electorate and what it means for their future prospects.
Following their string of victories in the last presidential election, Democrats may face an even greater challenge. North Carolina went blue in 2008, but just barely. President Obama’s victory was slim—a 50-50 tie with a margin of just 13,692 votes—and he trails Gov. Mitt Romney by 2 points in local polls. With only 15 electoral votes, North Carolina is hardly vital; it’s a useful pickup, but no more than Virginia, Ohio, or Michigan. But Obama and his challenger remain deadlocked in all four states, demonstrating that 2008 success doesn’t guarantee anything in 2012.
In that sense, the selection of Charlotte is less about North Carolina than battlegrounds nationwide. As the president’s approval ratings have fallen, so too have Democratic hopes for the tossup states. The party’s disastrous showing in the 2010 midterm elections seems to have shaken Democratic confidence, something this year’s convention hopes to remedy. Rousing speeches by rising stars such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro aim to bring liberals back to the campaign in a big way.
It may be too little, too late. Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee have trounced Democrats in recent fundraising, fueled by SuperPACs and big-ticket donors. Conservatives have swamped the president with negative ads from coast to coast, spending more than ten times the amount of liberal-leaning groups. With his one-time lead over Gov. Romney evaporating, that’s ground that will be difficult to regain. Try as he might, President Obama can’t undo four years of independent disappointment and liberal disillusionment overnight; too many of his 2008 supporters in too many key states no longer see change they can believe in. Convention-goers in Charlotte can ask for a second chance, but Americans in the battlegrounds may not be willing to give it.
Early polls reveal that Mitt Romney’s convention reinvention didn’t pay off in a post-convention approval boom, but it’s unlikely that President Obama’s pitch will do any better considering ongoing polarization. Entering the final months of the campaign in a dead heat, neither party can afford to pass up a few days of primetime television. Nor can they ignore lingering disappointment with the president or apathy toward his challenger. The two sides are laying everything on the line at their conventions, but the race for the White House is bigger than Tampa or Charlotte. When it’s down to the numbers, it’s still anyone’s game.