Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele and convention organizers made plans to set up a radically different kind of convention if inclement weather threatened the Florida coast at the height of hurricane season.
Several Republicans involved in the planning described talk of contingency plans that began even before the party formally awarded the convention to Tampa, plans that included an innovative nationwide network of delegates and activists participating from afar — and a version that involved delegates hunkered down in their hotels as a storm passed by.
"As the choice for the convention site narrowed to Tampa, one of the first questions we needed comfort on was the weather. The members and I baked into our discussions and initial planning various scenarios related to storms," Steele told National Journal.
Pam Iorio, Tampa's mayor at the time the convention was awarded, raised concerns about a possible hurricane, according to several Republicans involved in the early planning. Iorio said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for first responders to help the estimated 50,000 guests who would show up at the convention in addition to the 335,000 people who call Tampa home.
The solution: A series of watch parties, virtually connected to a convention hub. Steele directed his technology staff to develop the virtual convention, and those staffers reached out to communications companies like AT&T and Verizon to come up with a solution.
Each delegate would have been given an iPad with appropriate security codes. If a storm forced a cancellation, the delegates would huddle in their hotels, where they could watch the proceedings unfold at another location and participate remotely.
"Since the idea of a possible cancellation was not acceptable to me, I asked our Internet and tech-wonks about the idea of going virtual," Steele said. "That led to discussions with Verizon and AT&T to see if we could actually host a virtual convention. When my tech guys said yes to the idea of going virtual, we started looking more seriously at how we could do it. The concept was simply to have a protocol in place that would not require people to turn around [and leave] after having just arrived."
The virtual contingency option didn't advance beyond the initial planning phases, though. Steele lost his bid for reelection in January 2011; the new chairman, Reince Priebus, fired several people involved with organizing the Tampa convention. Their replacements have been tight-lipped about contingency plans had a storm delivered a direct hit to Tampa.
But had the worst happened, the new format might have become an innovative way to deliver something similar to a convention experience without putting anyone in danger.
"It's a lot easier to move 20 people to a room to hold a meeting and stream the proceedings out to 50,000 than it is to move those 50,000 to the meeting in bad weather," Steele said.