The RNC’s short list of possible sites for the 2012 convention is down to Tampa, Phoenix and Salt Lake City (UPDATE: Hotline OnCall's Reid Wilson's is reporting that Houston is also in the running). The committee will reportedly make a decision in late summer of 2010. Convention committees often look at number of factors in choosing a site: Can it logistically handle visitors? Is it in a politically important area? Do local leaders support it? With those criteria in mind, what are they strengths and weaknesses of these cities?
Politically, this is the best choice. It’s the anchor of the swing area in the swing state. A major convention could go a long way to rallying those pivotal I-4 corridor voters. But RNC leaders are reportedly concerned about holding a convention in hurricane alley in the middle of hurricane season. Their 2008 Minnesota convention was beleaguered by a storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast.
Florida and the greater southeast have plenty of Republican activists and volunteers who could work the event. Tampa has also been considered three times and was the runner-up in 2008, according to St. Pete’s Times political columnist Adam Smith. “Maybe the third time is the charm,” he recently blogged.
Arizona is one of those states that Democrats have been hoping will turn blue for about a decade, but one where realities have lagged behind expectations. Barack Obama surely would have made it competitive if homeboy John McCain wasn’t on the ballot, but the Grand Canyon State has still not purpled as quickly as neighboring New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada in downballot races.
Phoenix could easily hold the tens of thousands of visitors – its tourism and housing industries are struggling and space is readily available. It would soak up visitors. Two burning questions: What role does McCain play? And how much “rising from the ashes” rhetoric would we hear about the GOP?
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is the most conservative and most Republican of the three sites, even if it does have Democratic county and city mayors. It certainly wouldn’t be chosen to reach swing voters in a swing state, although it is in a swing region. Utah has some of the lowest unemployment in the nation, which is a theme that the GOP will surely play up and would provide a nice backdrop for the convention.
The state also proved through the 2002 Olympics that it can successfully handle a major event. But on a similar note, “We all know there's somebody who's tied to Utah that may be in the race in 2012,” Jeffrey Hartley, a member of the committee to recruit the convention, hinted to the Deseret News about Mitt Romney. “That may help or it may hurt Utah's chances.”
The wild card: Despite Utah’s strong family structure, low divorce rates and low abortion rates, how would the Pat Robertsons feel in the land of LDS?
Reid Wilson reports that Houston is also in the mix. Good: Strong economy; conservative, pro-business and pro-family culture; able to handle large influxes of people. Bad: The Bushes; swampy climate; reinforces cowboy Republicanism of Bush era.
In 2008, Democrats chose Denver for geographic reasons. It both signaled their commitment to putting the Mountain West into play and also helped fire up 80,000 supporters in a swing state through a rousing night at Invesco Field. In 2004, Republicans chose to focus on imagery rather than electoral geography by choosing New York City. It reinforced their message of security by invoking images of 9/11.
Republicans could take a similar approach in 2012 and choose Salt Lake City. It’s the best-managed of the three cities and has a strong economy in a time when the economy is everything. Of course, Utah isn’t a swing state, but then again, the GOP has never held a convention in the Mountain West and they’re sliding in the region. It's also a state that projects a pro-business, pro-family image (besides a few bad apples), and the weather there is much better mid-summer than sweltering Phoenix or swampy Tampa.
Tampa and Phoenix are economic basket cases and the poster children for the 2005-07 era of Sun Belt fictitious housing wealth – “stucco ghettos of the 21st century,” as AP columnist Todd Lewin put it. Florida and Arizona are also states with contentious and bitter GOP primaries right now that could divide activists for the next couple of years.
Salt Lake is their best choice. Ultimately the question comes down to what aspect of the state weighs heavier in their decision: The strength of Utah’s economy, or the uneasiness many conservatives have with its religious culture. Perhaps that’s a bigger question that party needs to answer.