Why Cleveland Works for the Republicans

by Nicholas Frankovich

Does a party increase its chances of winning a state in the presidential election if it holds its national convention there? No, John Fund and Jim Geraghty say, pointing to the Republicans’ track record on that question in recent years.

But we don’t know, for example, how much closer Romney came to winning Florida in 2012 than he would have if the convention had not been in Tampa. If it helped him in Florida by even a tenth of a percentage point, that’s significant, because when deciding on the location a couple of years in advance, the party can’t know how close the election in that state might turn out to be.

John points out the risk that unions in Cleveland could sabotage the Republican convention in 2016. They could, but they could do that anywhere. Given its size, I assume New York has more union members than Cleveland does, but if they made trouble for the Republican convention at Madison Square Garden in 2004, no one noticed. Delegates voted. The nominee gave a speech and then won the election. It was fine.

As for anti-Republican snark from Ed FitzGerald, it’s from his campaign office. He’s the Democratic nominee for governor (and trailing Governor John Kasich in the polls). The statement from FitzGerald’s public office — he’s the county executive of Cuyahoga County — is positive and nonpartisan, as are his comments to media. He is credited for spearheading Cleveland’s campaign to land the Republican convention. Remember when the Republican nominee for president in 2008 told us we shouldn’t be afraid if his opponent won the election? That’s the spirit of FitzGerald’s effort, except here the parties are reversed.

Jim points out that the location of a national convention is good at least for providing a narrative for the national party. He describes the stereotype that the RNC avoided by not choosing Dallas. (The deal-breaker for Dallas, by the way, may have been simply its inability to guarantee convention space and enough hotel rooms in June as well as in July.)

The prefabricated narrative involving Cleveland is that the GOP is reaching out to the rust belt. That’s reasonable enough, although it’s been a long time since manufacturing was the engine that drove Cleveland’s economy. Clevelanders are proud of that history, but it’s a bit remote, like the stories behind the architectural antiquities that a present-day Roman passes every day on his way to work. Yes, Cleveland is no longer so big or so rich, no longer a capital of the Republican party, as it was long ago, in the days of William McKinley and Mark Hanna, but that’s not such a bad historical backdrop against which to live your life in the here and now. You can visit the tombs of James Garfield and John D. Rockefeller Sr. in Lake View Cemetery on the East Side, near the border with Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland.

Today, Cleveland is a smaller, leaner city. The two largest employers there are the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Unemployment in the region the past five years has been below the national average.

True, Cleveland and the surrounding region remain heavily Democratic, and even a mass visitation from warm, friendly Republicans who tip generously is unlikely to turn the bluest precincts, but I’m skeptical of the assumption that it won’t have an effect at the margins, which, as I say, can make the difference in a close election. Party affiliation is correlated with population density. In that, the Cleveland media market, the region within about a 50-mile radius of downtown, is like the rest of the country. The less densely populated exurbs and outer-ring suburbs include a lot of independent voters whose inoculation against the Republican party is relatively weak. They’re willing to listen.

They’re hungry for the attention, in fact. “Somebody loves us!” sums up the local reaction, on my reading of it. In how many other cities would a Democratic politician lobby the Republicans to hold their national convention there, where it would work to the advantage of his political opponents? Even Clevelanders loyal to the Democratic party are predisposed to reciprocate the RNC’s flattery, as they experience it. If the Republicans can keep the Democratic candidate’s percentage in Cuyahoga County under 60 percent, they’ve pretty much won the state.