Convention Wisdom?

The moment is almost here for Denver and St. Paul. But is playing host to the DNC or RNC really worth the trouble? I looked ...
by | July 28, 2008

The moment is almost here for Denver and St. Paul. But is playing host to the DNC or RNC really worth the trouble? I looked at the dangers of hosting a political convention in the July issue of Governing:

"Of Atlantic City it may be written: better it shouldn't have happened." When author Theodore H. White penned that line 44 years ago, he wasn't referring to a gambling weekend gone wrong. He was writing about the 1964 Democratic National Convention. White and fellow reporters told the world about Atlantic City's drab buildings, subpar restaurants and hotels where the showers didn't work. Their favorite saying: "This is the original Bay of Pigs."

The Atlantic City convention went as poorly for the host city as any possibly could--that is, until violence broke out at the Democratic convention in Chicago just four years later. As the Democrats prepare to gather this summer in Denver and Republicans head to Minnesota's Twin Cities, these horror stories raise a good question for the host cities: Are the rewards of holding a national political convention really worth the risks?

The truth is that even when things go well, there can be headaches. Look at the 2004 conventions and their aftermath. In Boston, public employee unions won lucrative contracts from the city after they threatened to picket the Democratic convention. And in New York, the police department has spent years defending lawsuits from protesters who claim they were wrongly arrested at the Republican convention. For 2008, Denver and St. Paul already face legal challenges over their plans for handling protesters.

In spite of all that, lots of cities think the hassles are worth it. A national convention is a bit like a political version of the Olympics. Cities submit competing bids, and then anxiously wait for the parties to announce their choices. As with the Olympics, the preparations are elaborate. Arenas must be renovated, public works projects fast-tracked and millions of dollars raised from private-sector donors. Sometimes the preparations go to the extreme.

In New York, for example, as much as a year before the GOP meeting, the NYPD had begun observing and infiltrating protest groups around the country, as well as in Canada and Europe. One could argue that such aggressive tactics made the convention safer, or that it was a total overreach on the part of law enforcement. Either way, the NYPD doesn't bother with international covert operations when ordinary conventions of nurse practitioners or computer programmers come to town.

The return on all this effort is supposed to be an economic boost from free-spending delegates and the roughly 15,000 members of the media who swarm the host cities. Some economists are skeptical, however. The Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank at Suffolk University, studied the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The researchers found that while organizers promised an economic impact of about $150 million, the local economy ended up netting only $15 million.

Why the disconnect? Paul Bachman, Beacon Hill's director of research, explains that his analysis accounts for the lost spending from tourists and commuters who were scared away by all the hassles of being in Boston during the convention. Jack Kyser, the chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., says the impact of the 2000 Democratic convention in L.A. was negligible, too.

This year's host locations aren't willing to concede this point. Kirsten Morell, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, says her agency's analysis indicates that people who shy away from the Twin Cities during the Republican convention will either spend money elsewhere in Minnesota or visit the Twin Cities at another time. Colorado and Minnesota both expect economic windfalls of $160 million or more.

What really separates political conventions from gatherings of comic book aficionados or psychiatrists, of course, isn't the money they spend but the national exposure they bring. That can be a double-edged sword--just ask Atlantic City or Chicago. But it's also safe to say that the exposure factor is overrated. When a political convention goes as planned, the cameras almost always are trained inside the convention hall, and not on the city outside.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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