Cleveland Finally Wins Something: The 2016 Republican Convention

Hosting the event might not do much for the party or the city.
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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland skyline (Burtcbl/Wikimedia)

The burning river. The LeBron James saga, apparently heating up again, surely only to crush Cavs fans' hopes. Ten-cent beer night30 Rock's mockery. It isn't often that Cleveland gets good news, but Tuesday is an exception: The Republican Party is set to name the city as the host to the 2016 Republican National Convention.

By the time of the announcement, the Mistake on the Lake already looked like a shoo-in. It had already bested cities like Las Vegas (is it really a good idea to have a political convention in a place famous for vice?) and cross-state rival Cincinnati. The other finalist was Dallas, which pundits argued was too closely associated with unpopular former President George W. Bush, and which forecasters pointed out was hellishly hot in the middle of the summer. 

Rest assured, Northeast Ohioans hear the groans of operatives and reporters who aren't pleased about their travel plans in summer 2016—and rest assured, we don't care. (I grew up in Akron, about 45 minutes south of Cleveland.) No one makes fun of Cleveland like Cleveland does, as in this classic 1970s t-shirt, and anyway, there's a good restaurant scene, a great art museum, and a world-class orchestra.

But Cleveland is an interesting and counterintuitive pick for a variety of non-snarky political reasons. Most importantly, it's the anchor of the state's liberal, union-friendly, northeastern corner, as you can see in the county-by-county map of the 2004 presidential election below at left. George W. Bush won the state, but Cuyahoga County, Cleveland's home, and surrounding cities went strongly for John Kerry. (Cleveland is marked with a black dot.) Since 10 percent of the state's population is in Cuyahoga County, Bush only won the state by about 2 percent, despite carrying so many counties.

Wikimedia/The Atlantic

The trend continued in the last two elections. Barack Obama won about 69 percent of the Cuyahoga County vote in both campaigns, and in fact increased his margin slightly in 2012, on his way to winning the Buckeye State twice. (As the map on the right shows, Obama didn't expand the map much; he just increased turnout in strongholds like the northeast.) The last Republican to serve as mayor of Cleveland was George Voinovich, who left office in 1989 and went on to serve as governor and U.S. senator. In these respects, Cincinnati, which has a Democratic mayor but is in a more conservative part of the state and close to Speaker John Boehner's home district, might have made more sense.

On the other hand, the state has Republican governor, John Kasich, and a Republican senator, Rob Portman, both of whom have been mentioned as potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates. Kasich had a rough 2011, pushing an end to public-sector collective bargaining only to be overridden by voters, but since then the state's economy has been fairly strong, and he holds a comfortable lead for reelection over Democrat Ed FitzGerald—who, it happens, is the Cuyahoga County executive. Kasich may be the RNC's biggest winner, since he'll bask in a huge spotlight almost literally in FitzGerald's backyard. The idea of a turnaround for a hard-hit Rust Belt city like Cleveland in a Republican-led state is also good fodder for the party nationally.

Whether that translates into the presidential nominee winning the perpetual swing state is a different question. In 2012, both parties lost the states in November where they held their conventions: North Carolina for Democrats, Florida for the GOP. In fact, Republicans haven't held their convention in a state they won since 1988. Since conventions are held in big urban centers, and cities are increasingly Democratic, there's a built-in GOP disadvantage, but Republicans have also whiffed in purple states like Minnesota (2008) and Pennsylvania (2000). (The last time the RNC was in Cleveland, in 1936, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt won 46 of 48 states.) 

You know who else might not get much out of the deal? Cleveland. As National Journal reported in 2012, cities often make wildly optimistic predictions about the economic benefits of hosting political conventions, and they're almost always wrong:

In a 2009 study, [Holy Cross economist Victor] Matheson and two colleagues reviewed every national political convention hosted between 1972 and 2004, comparing 14 convention towns with 36 similar regions. None of the 18 conventions over that span had any impact on personal income or local employment in the host city, they found.

“There’s no statistically significant evidence that national political conventions make substantial economic contributions to cities,” said Douglas Frechtling, the chairman of George Washington University’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management, who teaches graduate courses on destination economics and reviewed the available literature related to conventions. If anything, Matheson and his colleagues were not conservative enough, Frechtling said.

Of course, there are intangible benefits. Even if Clevelanders have to put up with the hassle and gridlock of a convention, the RNC might result in a more positive national image for the city.

If the naysayers are right, however, and winning the RNC turns out to be a bust, the city will probably take it in stride. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is the Cleveland way, after all.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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