Drama lacking when political parties gather
A worker begins installing banners for the Republican National Convention in front of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, in Tampa, Fla.
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After the cross-country snarling of recent weeks, the presidential campaigns -- amid no suspense whatsoever -- are poised to launch their official general election efforts from two states that could tip the balance.
Tampa, Fla., where the Republican delegates will gather next week, is a pivotal region of a long-recognized swing state. The following week, Democrats will assemble in Charlotte, N.C., another state President Barack Obama carried four years ago. That narrow victory made it one of the surprises of 2008, and one that Democrats hope to prove was not an anomaly.
While there is scant polling evidence or academic research to support the notion that the site of a convention moves local voter sentiment, both parties are working to leverage their locales into electoral votes down the road. Democratic candidates were battered in both states in the Republican landslide of 2010, but polls in both states suggest that they remain close battlegrounds.
If there is real tension about the November outcome, there is little suspense about the likely course of the events of the next two weeks, prompting the quadrennial question of why the parties are again embarked on these massive, expensive extravaganzas.
"It's a foolish waste of time," said L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine who has studied the evolution of the convention process.
In fairness to the officials and journalists who will descend on the two cities, news does occasionally break out even in an age when the nominee has been identified long before the first gavel falls. Four years ago, Sarah Palin was such an unknown quantity for vice president that there was real suspense before she delivered the speech that proved to be the electrifying high point of the Republican gathering in St. Paul, Minn., But it has been more than a quarter century since there was even a suggestion of pre-convention uncertainty about the identity of the nominee himself.
On the trail Saturday, Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney's running mate traded charges over Medicare, the latest flashpoint in the campaign.
The issue is dicey for both sides: Mr. Obama is steering billions from the entitlement to help pay for the expansion of coverage under his health care law; Rep. Paul Ryan is a champion of overhauling Medicare to make the traditional program no longer the mainstay for tomorrow's seniors -- just one of many old-age health insurance choices.
But that didn't stop them from going head on.
On a day Mr. Romney devoted to raising campaign cash in Massachusetts, Mr. Ryan accused Mr. Obama of raiding the Medicare "piggybank" to pay for his health care overhaul and he warned starkly that hospitals and nursing homes may close as a result. The Wisconsin congressman introduced his 78-year-old mother to an audience of seniors in The Villages, Fla., and passionately defended a program that has provided old-age security for two generations of his own family.
"She planned her retirement around this promise," Mr. Ryan said as Betty Ryan Douglas looked on.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Mr. Obama said at stops in Windham and Rochester that it's a promise that the Republican ticket would tear up.
Convention sites are chosen for a variety of reasons. GOP organizers chose Philadelphia in 2000 at least in part in hopes of enhancing their chance in Pennsylvania. Republicans went to New York City in 2004 to stir echoes of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Democrats gathered in Denver in 2008 to symbolize their goal of making inroads in the mountain West. While the GOP was frustrated in Pennsylvania in 2000, the Democrats did carry Colorado, but what role the convention may have had in either outcome is uncertain.
"There's no hard evidence that it worked," Colby College's Mr. Maisel said. Tom Jensen of the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling agrees,
"We polled in Colorado the weekend after the convention," he said about a survey that included questions on how the convention choice had moved votes. "Eighty-five percent said it didn't make a difference and the 15 percent who said it did were pretty evenly split on whether it was good or bad."
Still, he said of this year's choices, "I don't think having the convention in either place will be a big game change, but they both make perfect sense."
It's hard to construct an electoral vote scenario for a Romney victory that does not include Florida, he noted, while the Tar Heel State venue shows that "the Democrats want to make the point that their success in the upper South wasn't a fluke."
The Tampa convention center is in the middle of a five-county region where one in every four Florida votes will be cast.
"It's the largest media market in the state and the most evenly divided media market," said Susan MacManus, an expert on the state's politics on the faculty of the University of South Florida. "Whether you're talking about race, ethnicity, age, urban, suburban, it's a real mix of it all."
Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a national polling firm based in Florida, has compiled election statistics demonstrating the Tampa Bay region's uncanny reliability as a bellwether for the entire state's voting performance. In statewide and presidential elections stretching back more than two decades, the region's results have consistently been within a percentage point or two of the statewide totals.
In the 2010 governor's race, the Bay area split, 48 percent to 48 percent, with a narrow edge to the overall winner, Gov. Rick Scott, over his Democratic opponent, Alex Sink. The statewide results were 49 percent for the Republican and 48 percent for Mr. Sink. In 2008, Mr. Obama carried the Tampa Bay by 51 percent to 48 percent, a difference identical to his statewide margin over Republican Sen. John McCain.
In the epic 2000 presidential battle in the state, finally decided by one of the more controversial rulings in U.S. Supreme Court history, the five counties gave the slightest of margins to President George W. Bush -- about 10,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast -- once again closely mirroring the 49 percent-to-49 percent statewide divide between the Republican Mr. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.
Mr. Romney will be introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, the Tea Party champion elected along with Mr. Scott in the 2010 GOP sweep. That wave also brought a fundamental shift in the political landscape of the state where the Democrats will gather the Tuesday after the GOP delegates head home.
North Carolina had a long pattern of electing Democrats at the local level but giving its electoral votes to GOP presidential candidates. Sen. John Kerry's choice of the state's John Edwards as running mate in 2004 did nothing to change that pattern, but Mr. Obama won it narrowly four years later. Since then, however, Democrats have had little but bad news there. In 2010, Republicans captured majorities in the state Legislature for the first time in a century. In May, the state's voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum banning gay marriage, an outcome that the Democratic governor, Bev Perdue, called "an embarrassment" to the state. Ms. Perdue, elected alongside Mr. Obama four years ago, opted not to seek another term in the face of plunging popularity.
Public Policy Polling's latest snapshot of the state showed Mr. Obama with a three-point advantage over Mr. Romney, but other surveys have shown Mr. Romney with a narrow lead. RealClearPolitics's polling average for the state shows the Republican with a one-point lead.
"The Democrats won in 2008 because they had the enthusiasm, an extraordinary ground game, broke all kinds of records in registration. Now that's flipped for the Republicans," said John Davis, a North Carolina consultant who publishes the John Davis Political Report.
The polling firm's Mr. Jensen sees the possibility that it's the state's local/national pattern that will be flipped in November.
Organizing for America, the Obama organization, is using the president's Sept. 6 acceptance speech in Bank of America Stadium, a reprise of his Mile High Stadium appearance four years ago, as an incentive to its troops. The Obama team is offering tickets to the speech to volunteers who commit to giving nine hours of their time to grass-roots campaigning.
First Published August 19, 2012 12:00 am