Why a GOP Convention in Jacksonville Could Be a Disaster

The decision to move the event from Charlotte has the makings of a political debacle and a health crisis.

Annie Linskey and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post report that “Republicans have tentatively settled on Jacksonville, Florida, as the new destination for the premier festivities of the Republican National Convention in August.” I wrote about this controversy last week, calling it a debacle in the making.

The Republican Party is contractually obligated to hold its national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, but Democratic Governor Roy Cooper would not guarantee that state health restrictions could be lifted for the Aug. 24-27 event. The solution, then, was to keep the convention in Charlotte in a strictly legal sense by holding all the regular business meetings there, but to find an alternative location for the speeches and pageantry.

Linskey and Dawsey do a concise job of explaining:

The highly unusual decision to seek an alternative location for the convention’s marquee events — including speeches by President Trump and others — stems from Trump’s desire to accept his party’s nomination before an enormous crowd…

…The president was dissatisfied with North Carolina’s position, given his desire to address a large, enthusiastic crowd. “I don’t want to be sitting in a place that’s 50 percent empty,” Trump told Gov. Roy Cooper (D) late last month in a phone conversation about the convention…“We can’t do social distancing,” Trump said on the call.

Cooper pushed back, asking Trump whether that wasn’t a risk to the health of the convention’s attendees, who could number close to 20,000. The president responded that he was not worried about an outbreak at the convention, because the biggest impact of the coronavirus is on those who are older or have underlying conditions.

It’s appalling that Trump does not care about the health of his delegates, many of whom are elderly and many of whom must have at least some underlying condition like asthma, high blood pressure or Type A blood that puts them at higher risk. It could be that a lot of the delegates simply won’t come to a convention, especially one where social distancing isn’t practiced. That’s certainly the case on the Democratic side. In May, the New York Times interviewed 59 members of the Democratic National Committee and superdelegates and found “the vast majority of them don’t want to risk their own health or the health of others by traveling to Milwaukee and congregating inside the convention facilities.” Even if the Republicans are more heedless of the risks as a group, I’m sure they’d appreciate it if at least some precautions are taken for their safety.

So, the first thing is that changing the location won’t necessarily help Trump get the packed house visuals he demands for his convention. As I predicted, hotel rooms could also be a problem, Jacksonville had the capacity to hold a Super Bowl back in 2005, so they should be able to pull off the Republican National Convention. Yet, it’s awfully late in the game to be trying to lock down most of the hotel rooms in Jacksonville for four straight days at the end of summer, and this seems to be one of the snags that has so far prevented an official announcement.

If they iron out the accommodations issue, there’s still a scheduling problem. People can’t simultaneously be in Charlotte holding a meeting on the Republican platform and in Jacksonville listening to Mike Pence or Melania Trump give a speech. Trump might have to hire “extras” to fill the gaps.

I don’t think Trump has thought this through. He could wind up creating a public relations nightmare and a huge schism in his own party rather than getting a normal looking crowd for his speech. It’s not unlikely that voters in both North Carolina and Florida will be angry, either for being jilted or for having their health put at risk. As for the delegates, the Congressional Research Service says that the average age of a House member in the 116th Congress is 57.6 and the average age of a senator is 62.9. How many of the these folks are going to stay home for their own protection? And what do they think of Trump telling Gov. Cooper that he doesn’t care about how they’ll be affected?

Finally, Jacksonville will have to relax it’s own health regulations.

Jacksonville remains under an emergency order that restricts some businesses from opening. Bars, restaurants and movie theaters can operate at 50 percent capacity, according to the city’s website. Retail stores, gyms and fitness centers can reopen completely as long as social distancing protocols are followed, according to the website.

Obviously, a prerequisite of the deal is that the city gives assurances that social distancing won’t be required, but objectively there isn’t much rationale for this. Florida is currently getting more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day, and their R value is 1.07, meaning that the infection is spreading rather than contracting.

We’re talking about bringing people from every state and territory in the country to Jacksonville, most of them on airplanes, having them mingle closely in a closed arena, and then sending them back to the communities from which they came. This could create a nationwide spike in COVID-19 which would become evident by mid-September. Quite apart from the health component, I don’t think that’s good politics.

So, yes, I think Trump and the Republicans are setting themselves up for disaster and a well-deserved rebuke by the voters.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com