CLEVELAND – A silver, articulated bus pulls into Cleveland’s Public Square, the first stop in a 7-mile journey that leads from the heart of the city’s downtown and center of $5 billion in redevelopment, to East Cleveland, the once tony suburban home of John D. Rockefeller that is now teetering on bankruptcy.
From the beginning to the end of this bus line are relics of the city’s hardscrabble past, glimpses into the promise of its future, and examples of the income inequalities that have become a theme of both the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination fights. The people working and living around the nearly three dozen stops along the route voice pride for their hometown, confidence in their own ability to pull through hard times, and a cynicism about political leaders vying for their trust.
It’s a frustration that Republicans are hoping to seize on as they target the Democratic heart of one of the nation’s largest swing states — one where general-election voters have unerringly picked every president since 1964 . Cleveland is not only the site of the first Republican presidential debate, but also where Republicans will return next summer to nominate their presidential ticket.
“The fact that they’re coming into a Democratic stronghold tells me they’re thinking,” Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator said about Republicans. “They’re really targeting the African-American community. They’re coming.”
While Democrats have ruled Cleveland for the better part of the past 70 years, the city has been known to break Republican, most recently in 1980 when George Voinovich unseated then-Mayor Dennis Kucinich. Cuyahoga, the county that’s home to Cleveland, can tilt for the GOP, too. Gov. John Kasich, one of the 10 presidential candidates on stage Thursday, won the county with 52 percent during his 2014 re-election.
Those are the exceptions, but the party is still making its play. “The fact we’re in the field now preparing for November 2016, the fact we have the convention there — our increased emphasis on Ohio will, I think, help us carry the state,” said Ryan Mahoney, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
The committee plans to ramp up from a dozen or so field organizers in Ohio to more than 200 by next year, a fivefold increase over 2012. That big footprint is inspired in part by President Obama’s ground-up national campaigns. Rather than being based haphazardly around the state, the Republican organizers will be assigned to “turfs,” where data crunchers have identified 8,000 to 12,000 “persuadable” voters.
By some accounts, a home-state convention is a double-edged sword, which may explain why Republicans have not won the state where they chose their nominee since 1992. “I think it fires up some Republican activists in the state,” said Jo Ann Davidson, the national Republican committeewoman from Ohio. “It might fire up the Democrats in the other direction.”