Convention(al) Wisdom: Why Political Convention Locations And VP Picks Don't Matter

Conventional wisdom pervades presidential politics, even in 2016. Among widely held tales by politicians and pundits is that a political party's placement of a national convention in swing states such as Ohio for the Republicans or Pennsylvania for the Democrats this year can affect presidential voting, flipping it to its presidential candidate or ensuring that it will be held by them. Second, that the selection of a vice-presidential candidate from a specific state as a favorite son (or daughter) will deliver its electoral votes to a presidential ticket. Both beliefs are wrong.

As Republicans and Democrats selected a convention site for the 2016 presidential election, each certainly considered location as a major factor, as demonstrated by the selection of Philadelphia by the Democrats and Cleveland by the Republicans. In 2012 during the general election, Pennsylvania was seen as a battleground state, one of the few states that at least one of the presidential candidates visited after the general election. Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, is a state Democrats want to hold in 2016, thereby endorsing the wisdom of holding their national convention, the DNC, there.

Ohio is the critical swing state to the electoral success of presidential candidates. Obama won it in 2008 and 2012, Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Clinton in 1992 and 1996. If the convention location thesis is correct, then locating the Republican National Convention in Cleveland makes sense.

If convention location matters, the perfect example is the placement of the 2008 DNC in Colorado. Democrats went from losing the state in 2004 by 4.7 percent of the popular vote to winning it with Barack Obama in 2008 by a margin of 8.95 percent- a pickup of 13.65 percent. Yet Obama's 2008 victory in Colorado seems to be the exception. For the most part, there is no location benefit. Look to the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minnesota. Republicans, including Minnesota's then-governor Tim Pawlenty, thought Minnesota was a purple state and that holding the convention there might turn it red. It did just the opposite. In 2004 Kerry won Minnesota by 3.5 percent, Obama then won it by 10.24 percent. The Republicans did 6.75 percent worse in Minnesota by holding a convention there.

Since 1948, there have been 17 presidential elections with 34 national conventions for the Democrats and the Republicans. Of those 34, there was no change in who won the state compared to the previous election in 23, or about two thirds, of the situations. There are only five instances of apparent lifts producing a flip. In 1976 and 2008 the Democrats held conventions in New York and Colorado, both of which flipped from the previous election cycle when they had gone GOP. In 1948, 1952, and 1968 Republicans held conventions in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Florida, which flipped from the previous election cycle when they had voted for the Democratic candidate.

Conversely, there were six times when convention locations seemingly hurt a party's prospects in the state. In 1948, 1952, 1980, and 2012, Democrats held conventions in North Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and North Carolina but lost those states even though they had won them the previous election cycle. In 1960 and 1964, Republicans held conventions in Illinois and California and lost them even though they had won the last time. Five states flipped, six states counter-flipped, and 23 states saw no change.. If anything, there is a slightly better chance of a party losing the state by hosting presidential convention than by not doing so.

A second myth is that Clinton or Trump should select as their vice-president someone from a critical swing state such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia, or Colorado, believing that such a candidate will help them deliver their home state for the presidential ticket. There is potential evidence suggesting vice-presidential candidates might help this way. Bill Clinton did win Tennessee in 1992 and 1996 with Gore on the ticket after Bush won the state in 1988. However, Paul Ryan did not deliver Wisconsin for Romney in 2012. Since 1948, the party of the vice-president won 24 or 70.5% of the home state contests and lost 10. Yet look at the flip factor--did the party of the vice-president change the results from the previous election--then there are only six examples of flips (17.6%). These are in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1976, 1980, and 1992 where the presence of favorite sons appeared to flip the state's popular vote from the previous election. There was also one counterflip, in 1960 where the presence of Henry Cabot Lodge's appearance as the Republican vice-presidential nominee for Richard Nixon did not produce a Massachusetts win. Six examples of flips and one counterflip provide flimsy evidence of a favorite son factor.

Perhaps winning a state does not tell the whole story. One needs to consider the selection of the vice-presidents or convention locations as making the state more competitive, forcing the opposing party to devote more resources there to hold it. The evidence does not support that support this claim.

Convention locations and favorite son or daughter vice-presidential candidates do not matter. Shouldn't advisors and pundits stop making political decisions based on myths and start making them on what matters -- the amenities of the host city and the qualifications of the running mate to serve as vice-president, and, if disaster strikes, as president of the United States?