One of the striking elements early on in the 2008 presidential race was how both major parties selected convention sites designed for offense. The Republicans chose Minneapolis-St. Paul, reflecting an ambition to make gains in the Upper Midwest. The Democrats chose Denver, reflecting their ambition to build upon recent gains in the Intermountain West.
In recent years, the Democrats chose safe locations – Boston (2004), Los Angeles (2000), Chicago (1996), and New York (1992). Not since 1988 (Atlanta) had the Democrats strayed outside their comfort zone, and before that came San Francisco (1984), New York (1980) and New York (1976).
The Republicans have generally chosen equally non-competitive territory – New York City (2004), San Diego (1996), Houston (1992), New Orleans (1988), and Dallas (1984). Only Philadelphia in 2000 marked a convention site in a swing state.
Both parties had reason to be hopeful. The once-liberal bastion Minnesota, which had been the sole Mondale state in 1984, had been surprisingly close in 2004. John Kerry only carried the state by 3.5%. Neighboring Iowa flipped blue-to-red from 2000 to 2004 by 10,000 votes, and neighboring Wisconsin was the single closest percentage state in 2004, a state Kerry carried by a mere 0.4%. Looking at the map objectively, this region seemed ripest to add new electoral votes into the Republican column.
The Democrats looked over the same red-blue stalemate map of the previous two presidential elections and chose Colorado to host its convention despite the fact that labor problems and funding concerns in Denver made New York seem the easier logistical choice. Bush beat Kerry in the state by just under 100,000 votes out of a little over 2.1 million cast, less than 5%. That margin was down from 9% in 2000. Similarly, Nevada was tightening as its population boomed, from 3.6% in 2000 down to 2.6% in 2004. New Mexico was under 1% margin in both elections.
Ironically, despite the narrow previous elections, the realistic opportunity for Dems to play offense with a state like Colorado and the Mountain West as a whole was not as clear-cut at the time Denver was chosen. When Denver was announced on January 11, 2007, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, and it’s hard to think of a worse match than the gun control poster child Hillary Clinton and the libertarian-striped Mountain West Dem brand. (Barack Obama is to Appalachia as Hillary Clinton is to the Mountain West, and the polling data backs this up.)
But now that Obama is the nominee, we see that his opportunity to win Colorado is significant. Based on 538’s projection model, Obama currently leads by 5.9% over McCain. In New Mexico, Obama projects to win by 5% even, and in Nevada by 2.4%.
On the flip side, McCain is not currently competitive in Minnesota, projecting to lose by 12%. Iowa, where McCain finished a distant fourth in his party’s caucus vote behind Fred Thompson (Fred Thompson!) looks equally dismal for Republican hopes at a 9.1% deficit. Wisconsin isn’t much brighter a prospect, where Obama projects to win by 7%.
Perhaps McCain has an opportunity in Michigan, a Democratic state since 1992. Obama has gotten off the mark slowly there, in no small part because it was one of the two states where Democrats did not campaign during the primaries thanks to geniuses like Carl Levin.
All in all, however, the Democratic opportunity to play offense with its regional convention pick seems much better than the Republican opportunity.