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Politics / POLITICS

South by Midwest: Which Convention City Makes the Most Sense for President Obama?

President Obama, who drew more than 100,000 people to a rally under St. Louis's Gateway Arch in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, is mulling a return to the city to launch his 2012 race.(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

December 22, 2010

As Democrats prepare to choose a host city to re-nominate President Obama, they must choose between four mid-size contenders in swing states, each with its own advantages—and drawbacks. The Democratic National Committee is expected to choose among Charlotte, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and St. Louis in the next few weeks.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she believes the contest is down to St. Louis and Charlotte, and she expects a decision any day.

"I can't speak with confidence we're gonna get it, but I think we're definitely in it—it's down to the final two," she said.


Each city comes with its own political and optical considerations. Charlotte is a young and diversifying city in the new South, which helped Obama become the first Democrat since 1976 to win North Carolina's electoral votes. Turnout in St. Louis is crucial for any successful Democrat in the traditional bellwether state of Missouri, which Obama narrowly lost in both the primary and general election. Cleveland is from a similar mold: It's the blue heart of a purple state and a city built on manufacturing—a sector that Obama has concentrated on reinvigorating. Of the four potential convention cities, Minneapolis has the highest share of well-educated voters, another key part of Obama’s coalition, and a crucial swing bloc. (Check out Major Garrett's picks.)

The key questions for DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and Obama to consider, aside from logistical concerns, are what narrative the host city lends to the Democratic Party, and how much help (or damage) the host state’s Democrats can expect to derive from a visit from the national party.


The Queen City may mirror the president’s history and trajectory the closest. The metropolitan area is young, diverse, and well educated, with a large black community and increasing numbers of Hispanics. It is rapidly expanding: Charlotte's population has grown by one third since 2000. Like the president, the city has seen its ambitions checked by the recession: the banking industry that had spurred much of the city’s growth took a big hit. While the city’s unemployment rate has fallen in the past year, it's still in the double digits.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx has a similar profile to Obama. A young black lawyer, Foxx is the youngest mayor in Charlotte’s history at 38 and the first Democrat to hold the post since 1987. Foxx has pushed economic diversification through expanding green energy, infrastructure, health care services, and higher education. “We’re an example of where the country needs to grow,” Foxx told National Journal.

Foxx also pointed out a geographic consideration: Obama’s electoral map expanded greatly when he successfully competed below the Mason-Dixon Line by registering thousands of first-time voters, many of them young voters or minorities. Obama’s 100,000 vote margin in Charlotte’s Mecklenberg County provided him with the cushion to win the state narrowly by 12,000 votes.

“By coming to Charlotte, not only does the DNC pick a city that tells the great story of America, it also returns the Democratic Party to the South,” Foxx said. “This is an opportunity to take the fight right into the heart of where folks have always thought the Republican Party had an advantage.”

Foxx wants the convention because of the spotlight it would put on the city. University of North Carolina (Charlotte) professor Eric Heberlig said Charlotte “almost has a chip on its shoulder—not enough people know how big and important we are.”

The effort to woo the convention has been a bipartisan affair: Foxx has recruited Republicans, including former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and former Gov. James Martin to help make the sale. The person who may have the most to gain—or lose—from the DNC's decision, however, is sitting Gov. Bev Perdue. She benefitted from Obama’s registration push in her narrow 2008 win. Her reelection may hinge on how many first-time 2008 voters come out again for Obama, and how many come out against him.

Scroll below the graphic to read about Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis.


St. Louis

The Gateway City is the key to Democratic turnout in Missouri, a battleground state that has remained just out of reach for the party in the last three presidential elections. St. Louis has been the site of five political conventions but hasn't hosted one since 1916, when Democrats nominated President Woodrow Wilson for reelection.

The city’s large black population is crucial to Democratic efforts in the state, and St. Louis has also weathered the recession considerably better than the nation as a whole, with an unemployment rate below 9 percent as of October.

Besides its bellwether status and demographics, St. Louis also has the appeal of the Midwest, an area Democrats badly need to shore up after the 2010 midterms. McCaskill compared its importance to the South, Democrats' perennial regional target. Sen. Dick Durbin, from nearby downstate Illinois, has lent support to the St. Louis bid, along with a host of other Illinois and Missouri Democrats.

Missouri’s two most prominent Democrats, Gov. Jay Nixon and McCaskill, are up for reelection in 2012. Given the moderate streaks both have used to maintain popularity in their state, a visit from the national party could provide an unwelcome reminder of their affiliations for independent voters. Missouri leans the furthest Republican of any of the potential convention states, and some analysts say a party convention can turn moderates off even as it riles up the party’s base.

However, Will Adams, a retired political science professor from William Jewell College in Missouri, says that conventions just serve as multipliers for existing effects. The fortunes of the Democratic Party will affect candidates in Missouri and other states no matter what, and a convention in St. Louis wouldn’t change that.

“It’s what Obama does between now and then that will have an effect on that,” Adams said. “[A convention] can make a difference, but it’s not automatic. The variables are what national leadership does in the next two years.”

McCaskill and Nixon have clearly taken that lesson to heart. Both have campaigned vigorously to bring the 2012 Democratic convention to St. Louis.

“Both Senator McCaskill and Governor Nixon have been integral parts of the effort from the beginning,” St. Louis bid spokesman Mack Bradley said. “Both have been incredibly supportive. And let’s be honest, you can’t seriously undertake something like this without the active support of your own United States senator and your own governor.”

In McCaskill's own words: "I think there are some positives and there are some things that are maybe not as positive. But in the long run, I don't think it's a huge difference either way in my election."


The bid from Ohio hit a bump in the road this November, when Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland lost his reelection fight to Republican John Kasich. Parties typically like to locate their convention in a state with a friendly governor, which allows more institutional support for the week-long event.

Still, Cleveland remains potentially attractive, because the city could be a good setting for Democrats to talk about economic rebirth. Despite its (and Ohio’s) reputation as a dying region losing its manufacturing strength, Cleveland’s unemployment rate is below the national average, having ticked down during the past year.

President Obama has spent significant time selling his economic agenda, especially the stimulus, in Ohio. If the economy improves between now and 2012, Cleveland would be a powerful symbol for the country’s escape from the recession.

However, there are concerns that Cleveland is less well-equipped than the other bid cities to handle the logistical side of a national political convention. Sources told Politico last week that Cleveland had fallen behind the other potential sites for that reason.

Of the four finalists, Cleveland also makes the least sense demographically for Obama. It is the oldest city of the four and the least well-educated. Cleveland is more representative of the coalition Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tried to ride to victory in 2004 than the voters Obama drew to his banner in 2008.


The co-host of the 2008 Republican National Convention (with neighbor St. Paul), Minneapolis also reflects facets of Obama’s coalition: the city is whiter than the others on the short list but has many well-educated voters and is the youngest besides Charlotte. Obama carried the state by 10 percentage points in 2008 and Democratic presidential candidates have won the state every year since 1972.

President George W. Bush’s strong performance in both his races gave Republicans hope in 2008 that they could expand the map and flip the state, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was forced to play defense in the closing days of the campaign.

Minneapolis proved in 2008 it could smoothly host a convention. The city’s mayor, Democrat R.T. Rybak, was an early Obama endorser, and Democratic Gov.-elect Mark Dayton’s narrow victory makes the state more attractive to the president's party. Republicans remain competitive here both at the presidential level and in statewide races, and freshman Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar may face a tough race this year.

Still, if Obama struggles to win Minnesota it is unlikely that state will be his biggest worry. Some Democrats have also voiced concerns about “following” Republicans to the Twin Cities.

Klobuchar said she did not see winning or losing the convention affecting her race in 2012.

"I think our state has a strong bid for the convention, so we'll see," she said.

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