According to the Times, the Republican Party has just selected Tampa to host the 2012 Republican National Convention. Located in the vital swing state Florida, Republican intentions with this pick are fairly straightforward.
Not all national conventions take place in swing states. This impression may be due to 2008, when both parties held conventions in fairly competitive (or not, as it turned out) states. In 2004, however, Republicans held their convention in New York City; Democrats in Boston.
On the other hand, holding national conventions in swing states does constitute good strategy. After Democrats held their 2008 convention in Denver, Colorado ended up voting more Democratic than the nation for the first time since 1964. Likewise, the Minneapolis Republican convention helped Senator John McCain stay competitive in Minnesota weeks after Michigan and Wisconsin began moving Democratic. Choosing Tampa is another variation on this strategy.
Tampa, highly populated and fairly diverse, is a good place to hold a political convention. While the city itself probably votes fairly Democratic, the larger surrounding suburbs lean Republican. The convergence of these forces creates a very competitive environment. Hillsborough County, which Tampa is located in, has gone within single digits for the past five straight presidential elections. Whoever wins the Tampa area stands a good chance of winning the state.
Florida itself constitutes a Republican-leaning swing state. This is somewhat surprising; at first glance, Florida looks like a typical Democratic-voting state. Diverse, urbanized, and heavily populated, Florida has more in common with blue California and New York than red Alabama or Kansas. The state, moreover, is becoming more minority-heavy as white retirees are replaced by Latino immigrants.
Yet a number of factors combine to make Florida a red-leaning swing state rather than a blue stronghold. Deeply conservative northern Florida, which is more like rural Georgia than Miami, gives Republicans an immediate base. Many white voters are elderly, conservative-leaning retirees. And – unlike most immigrants – the Cuban immigrant community votes strongly Republican, undercutting the Democratic stronghold in South Florida.
Florida has even been drifting right in presidential elections. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore performed respectably in the state, but Senator John Kerry lost by a sobering margin. Mr. McCain was particularly strong in Florida; he would have won the state by 4.4% given a tied electorate.
This is strange. By all rights, a place like Florida ought to be shifting Democratic, especially given its demographic changes (the opposite is true for much of the Rustbelt Midwest). Yet in the short-term the state has moving in the opposite direction.
When Republicans hold their convention in Tampa, they will attempt to keep Florida in this condition for another presidential election. It is a clever move by a clever party.