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November 22, 2014

Bid to bring Democratic convention to state a longshot, experts say

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Posted: Monday, June 9, 2014 5:53 pm | Updated: 11:13 pm, Fri Jun 13, 2014.

Political science experts think Birmingham’s bid for the 2016 Democratic National Convention has about as much a chance of succeeding as Alabama has of turning into a partisan blue state overnight.

Which is to say, none.

But strategy-wise, a bid from a Deep South city like Birmingham — which the Democratic National Committee announced Saturday was one of six seeking to stage the convention — regardless of its actual chance for success, might be a way for Democrats in Republican country to send a message to the national party that they need help.

“It might be just to say, ‘hey, instead of writing us off, why not invest some money in us,” said Steven Brown, the chairman of the political science department at Auburn University. “Don’t just mark off the South as a Republican stronghold.”

Saturday’s announcement of Birmingham’s inclusion among six bidders for the event, where the party’s 2016 presidential candidate will be officially nominated, was head-scratching to many, not just in terms of politics, but in ambition as well. Birmingham is much smaller than its five competitors, which include New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and the Ohio cities of Cleveland and Columbus.

Rob Robinson, a political science professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Department of Government, said that traditionally convention sites have been chosen based on two qualifications. One, the city belongs to a state the party views as a possible tipping point for electoral votes. Robinson points to Denver in 2008, a selection he said that many believe helped Barack Obama win Colorado in that election.

Second, Robinson said, the committee likes to pick a city with enough infrastructure — public transportation, a volunteer base and hotel space — to logistically hold such an event.

"Birmingham doesn't really fit either category" Robinson said. "It's just not a large enough city to host that kind of event."

Birmingham isn’t just small compared to its 2016 competition. It’s historically small. Going back to the 1960s, only Atlantic City, N.J., compares in size to Birmingham for a city to host the convention. Moreover, outside of Charlotte in 2012 and Atlanta in 1988, the Democratic convention has largely steered clear of going to the mostly red South.

“The point of a convention is to put a good face forward for the state delegation,” Brown said. “The question is, what’s in it for the Democratic National Committee? I just don’t see them investing resources into this.”

Glen Browder, a political science professor at Jacksonville State University and former congressman from Alabama’s 3rd District, said while he saw no reason for Birmingham not to try to land such a big event, he gave the city no chance of actually luring the convention to Alabama.

“Alabama is in the Deep South, or not in the presidential wing of the Democratic party,” Browder said. “It’s not in their marketing plan.”

Browder said that Birmingham’s efforts, though, are encouraging, especially to local Democrats who have long asked for the national party to come to the state. A lack of national recognition, he said, has isolated any Democrat in the Deep South from getting widespread support. While he doesn’t see Birmingham’s bid as a serious endeavor, Browder said it could be part of a longer strategy of trying to get national Democratic support in the state.

There’s no indication, though, that the Birmingham bid is even based on politics. Talking to AL.com this weekend, Chuck Faush, chief of staff for Birmingham Mayor William Bell, said the city’s bid was to show off Birmingham, improve infrastructure, and make a big economic splash.

Attempts Monday to reach officials in Bell's office were unsuccessful.

Sheila Gilbert, chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democrats, saw first-hand two years ago in Charlotte the effect a national convention can have.

“People are always interested in seeing the city, going to restaurants and hotels,” Gilbert said. “There’s so much spillover.”

Such spillover could send visitors’ dollars to cities outside of Birmingham, which might not have the infrastructure to house all the visitors, delegates and volunteers needed for the convention.

“Can you imagine?” Gilbert said. “It would benefit Birmingham, it would benefit all of Alabama. Oxford, especially, would see a lot of spillover.”

Not that Gilbert is crossing her fingers. A Democratic convention close to home would be a dream come true for her, she said, but she doesn’t see any reason why the powers that be at the national level would want to set up shop in the state.

“I think you only have to see the vote from last Tuesday,” Gilbert said, referring to the state's primary elections held last week in which very few Democrats ran for office. “These people study these things for years. They just don’t do it on a whim. It’s not going to happen.”

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