Who Says Nothing Happens at Conventions Anymore?

Messaging is one of the most important elements in politics. And drafting the right person to deliver a political message is just as crucial. So Republicans may have been prophetic a few weeks ago when they selected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to give the keynote address at the GOP convention in Tampa.

“Get the hell off the beach,” blasted Christie around this time last year as hurricane Irene threatened the Jersey shore. Christie excoriated surfers and thrill-seekers who didn’t heed his evacuation order as the storm boiled nearby.

Mitt Romney may not have selected Christie as his running mate. But he’s certainly the man for the job as tropical storm Isaac threatens to mature into a full-fledged hurricane and disrupt the convention.

The GOP has contingency plans in place. Forecasters believe Isaac could develop into a Category 1 storm and potentially impact the convention as just tens of thousands of people pour into the city. This is not a Katrina-level event. But Category 1 storms percolate with maximum, sustained winds of up to 95 miles per hour. They peel off roofs and shingles, snap trees and flood city streets.

Republicans want to be prudent. To paraphrase Republican Senate nominee Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), if Isaac emerges as a “legitimate” threat, the GOP will have “ways to shut that whole thing down.”

But nobody’s going there just yet. That’s because the course and strength of the storm is so unpredictable. Plus, most realize this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario here. Republicans and local officials are mindful about safety. If they are too cautious and the storm peters out or veers off nowhere near Tampa, some will declare them to be “chicken little.” And there are consequences if they forge ahead and the storm barrels in at full throttle. There will be moaning if the attendees are simply drenched by soaking thunderstorms from outer bands. Monday morning quarterbacks will opine as to why anyone would want to hold a convention in a hurricane zone in August.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Both Democrats and Republicans held their conventions in Miami Beach in 1972. But Democrats haven’t been anywhere near a hurricane zone since. Republicans have twice tempted hurricane forces since 1972. They held  their 1988 conclave in New Orleans and the 1992 convention in Houston.

It comes down to this: weather, like politics, is unpredictable. And that means that even the best-laid plans are sometimes hijacked.

Did anyone outside the Show Me State know who Todd Akin was before mid-August?

In fact, the public was barely getting to know Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) before Akin began consuming nearly every cubic centimeter of available news oxygen. And Isaac threatens to knock Akin out of the news loop if it even delivers but a glancing blow to Tampa – or, if there’s a shooting at the Empire State Building.

All of this has glued everyone to The Weather Channel to track the storm’s path. And that’s just to follow Vice President Biden’s visit to Tampa next week. The vice president’s remarks sometimes generate as much convection as a tropical depression.

But no matter what, it’s likely there’s going to be heavy rain and wind in Tampa.

Here are the operational problems this causes for the convention. For starters, the Tampa Bay Times Forum sits right off Garrison Channel, a waterway for boat traffic by the Hillsborough River and Hillsborough Bay. One byway bordering the arena is Old Water Street. But “new water” in the form of flooding could seep into the arena from Isaac – to say nothing of flooding around the city.

Fox News is based in the Tampa Bay History Center, which is to the east of the arena and even closer to Garrison Channel. Many other media outlets are stationed west of the arena in the Tampa Convention Center. News organizations are fretting about flooding as they have strung literally miles of cable and wires around these buildings. A storm could easily knock them off them the air. And what’s a convention if you can’t get it on the air.

If a tree falls in the woods….

Then there are questions about ingress and egress to the arena by delegates, convention attendees, workers, dignitaries, politicians and journalists.

The Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies traditionally arrange a security perimeter away from the actual convention building itself. This is where they set up magnetometers and X-ray machines and “wand” persons entering for the event. Tents are often set up to shield the equipment from the elements. But they’re not meant to withstand tropical storm force winds. This is to say nothing of how soaked everyone would get as they stand in line to be cleared to enter the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Big storms tend to knock out power. Certainly there are contingencies for this. But those coming  to the convention from Washington, DC are used to going without electricity. A bizarre derecho windstorm knocked out electricity to millions in the Washington region for days two months ago.

Then Republicans must consider the optics. The GOP is still wary of hurricanes after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. In fact Republicans scaled-back their 2008 convention in St. Paul, MN as hurricane Gustav also blasted the Gulf just as that event was about to start. Isaac is starting off its trek by threatening Haiti, the most-impoverished nation in the western hemisphere. Tent cities still line Port-au-Prince after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed 300,000 people there in 2010. Some have reservations about pictures of the GOP whooping it up while Haiti again staggers through a natural disaster. Then there are concerns about images of the GOP holding its event if parts of the U.S. get whacked.

And it’s not just Republicans who may have to make decisions about this. The Democrats could suffer “image” problems as they prepare for their convention the week after next in Charlotte, NC. Some forecasters are already predicting that the remains of Isaac will surge north and then kick to the east. While it wouldn’t be a hurricane, models predict Isaac’s remnants could produce a major rain event in Charlotte late next week.

Who said nothing happens at conventions any more?

It might not be political news. But it’s news nonetheless.