Would Donald Trump really move the Republican National Convention to Florida (or somewhere else) from North Carolina? On Tuesday, Trump warned North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper that he has "a week" to decide if he'll meet Trump's demands. Trump doesn’t really seem to want to switch convention sites, and the logistical challenges would be tremendous. But if you don’t think there’s at least a possibility, you don’t know this president.
In case you missed it, Trump went on a Memorial Day Twitter rant that threatened the move. After saying how much he loves North Carolina, Trump warned that “Democrat Governor, [Roy Cooper] is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed..full attendance in the Arena.”
Unless the governor will promise Republicans they can “fully occupy the space,” Trump warned, he would be “reluctantly forced......to find, with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site.”
As is the case with most of Trump’s Twitter threats and proclamations, this could be interpreted as the opening salvo of a “work the refs”-style negotiation. The ideal outcome would be for the governor to cave or, at least, compromise.
But Trump’s threat about North Carolina losing jobs and economic development is not idle. If coronavirus recedes this summer, Charlotte, where the convention is set to be convened, could end up losing money and face if Republicans pull the plug. That wouldn’t be a good look for the gov.
Trump has some leverage. Conventions do matter. Take, for example, the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, which gave the city an influx of about 50,000 visitors. That’s a lot of hotel rooms. And more. Visitors spent an estimated $180 million.
Equally important, conventions can boost a city’s image, especially for a second-tier town. The 2016 convention certainly boosted Cleveland’s reputation. (Yours truly even had to apologize to the city for a premature and scathing column where I underestimated “The Land”.)
Trump does have a point when he complains about the prospect of “spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space.” (I’m still outraged that my trip to see Jim Gaffigan at Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, got squelched. And I’m out zero dollars. Imagine wasting millions.)
The chance that Republicans could be forced (by a Democrat) into a sort of “partial convention” feels understandably unacceptable. A convention that involves onerous social distancing protocols and the donning of PPEs doesn’t really work for a campaign whose messaging requires a sort of “Mission Accomplished” swagger.
Trump’s ego craves screaming throngs of supporters in a jam-packed convention hall. But his campaign brand demands it.
On the other hand, how can he expect a governor, in the middle of a pandemic, and with no strings attached, to welcome tens of thousands of people who, let’s be honest, have already signaled they don’t much care for wearing protective masks, to descend on his state? (Did I mention that North Carolina is one of the states where new cases are still increasing?)
What if a new outbreak in Charlotte precedes the meeting? Would the governor still be obliged to honor the “fully occupy the space” guarantee that Trump wants? That seems absurd.
Then, at the convention itself, if it happens, surely it would be reasonable to insist on a six-foot space between delegates. Surely, balloons could fill up some of the space—and help mitigate the optics associated with a president speaking to a sparsely-filled hall. Could any decent or responsible leader guarantee any large group that these reasonable protocols won’t be required for a huge meeting taking place three months from now?
What if the gathering causes some sort of outbreak? You’ll have all those people, none wearing masks (except the journalists and the facility staff). What if 3,000 or so conventioneers go home and get sick? How would that look for Trump? He’d be thinking about such scenarios if he could think beyond winning the next 10 minutes.
What we have here is a situation where both sides believe they are right. We are left with a few options: Governor Cooper could cave. Trump could cave. The two could work out a compromise. Or Republicans—faced with the inevitability of a marred convention, anyway—could be bold.
Again, the idea of actually moving an entire national convention (at this point) seems daunting, to say the least. If Republicans pulled the trigger today, they would have almost three months to do so (the convention is set to begin on August 24). It could be worse, but anyone who has been involved in planning a convention will tell you this is a headache that you don’t want to introduce to a campaign that is already (according to the polls) losing.
But Trump obviously has demonstrated the logistical ability to organize very large rallies very quickly. One could imagine a sort of hybrid scenario where the business meeting part of a convention is truncated, and Trump formally accepts the nomination at some other large outdoor location (probably in the deep South, where local government will allow it), where he delivers the televised speech to a packed crowd.
Another possibility would be Trump’s Doral golf resort in Florida. Though Trump has denied interest in using the location, why should we take him at his word? Already, the Florida GOP has said they would welcome it. Back in October, Trump planned to hold the June 2020 G7 meeting there—before bowing to pressure. It’s presumably less messy to hold a party event there. If he and his sleazy family can make a buck off it, why wouldn’t they try?
In Trump’s mind, the show must go on. But by insisting on a normal convention speech, he’s risking getting a bunch of loyal Republicans sick for his glory. And then there’s the couple thousand people who’d have to work such an event—concessions, cleanup. In a place like Charlotte, that’s almost entirely black and Latino-Americans.
Perhaps the real question is whether it’s worth it.