early and often

Will the 2024 Convention Site Actually Help Democrats Win?

Did Trump sweep Ohio in 2016 because his supporters whooped it up in Cleveland? Probably not. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Getty Images

National party conventions are an archaic relic of the days when presidential nominees were selected at such gatherings, rather than by primaries. When COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the 2020 conventions (reducing the Democratic confab to a mostly virtual event and bouncing Republicans back and forth between North Carolina and Florida), it looked like that might be the end; conventions would finally give way to slickly produced party informercials filmed in studios, without the massive audience of extras wearing funny hats. But now it seems the two major parties are going back to their old presidential-election-year traditions.

The GOP has already settled on Milwaukee, which theoretically (but not really) hosted the 2020 Democratic convention. The rationale for that city is its location in one of the country’s most competitive battleground states.

Democrats, meanwhile, have not yet decided where they will gather next summer. But the finalists, according to most observers, are Atlanta and Chicago, with New York making a late run at the alleged prize, spearheaded by the New Yorkers who lead the Democratic caucuses in Congress (Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries).

The arguments for each site illustrate some of the confusion over what party conventions are supposed to achieve for the parties and for the host communities. Academic research has long concluded that the economic benefits from sponsoring one of these dinosaur events are routinely overrated. The political advantages are more debatable. Sometimes a city is chosen to symbolize some national-party or campaign thematic. That’s why, for example, Republicans met in New York in their first national convention after September 11. A bit more subtly, Democrats met in Atlanta in 1988 to show they had not written off a region in which they were really struggling (it didn’t work that year: Michael Dukakis lost every state of the former Confederacy, most by large margins).

In wooing the two parties, some potential hosts focus on what their cities reflect in the way of party traditions, while others focus on what their cities might help the party achieve. In the former category, the Democratic competition for 2024 has often revolved around Atlanta’s rich civil-rights heritage, and Chicago’s robust (relatively speaking) labor movement. The contestants are not above negative campaigning, it should be noted, with both Chicago and New York boosters pointing to Georgia’s right-to-work laws and loose gun regulation. But Atlanta would seem to have an advantage in representing Democratic political aspirations: It’s in an important battleground state, while Illinois and New York are already in the bag for Democrats in 2024. This kind of raw political calculation seems to be persuasive to Republicans: Since that 2004 convention in New York, the GOP has consistently met in competitive states (Minnesota, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina).

It’s not entirely clear, however, that holding a convention in a particular state has a big impact on who wins its electoral votes. Republicans lost the convention-hosting state in 1996 (California), 2000 (Pennsylvania), 2004 (New York), 2008 (Minnesota), and 2012 (Florida). They did win Ohio in 2016, but that was likely the product of a big national and regional swing in white working-class votes rather than any joy over Donald Trump’s coronation taking place in Cleveland. And while Democrats did win Wisconsin in 2020, the convention’s footprint on the state was so very light (to the great disappointment of Milwaukee business and civic leaders) that it’s unlikely the convention sealed the deal.

The best-known academic research on the political impact of party conventions on host states suggests that they tend to both stimulate support and turnout for the hosted party, but also can produce a backlash that tends to limit any net effect. There is often a strong local effect within the immediate vicinity of a convention, as political scientists Christopher Mann and Joseph Uscinski explained in 2016:

For the cities hosting the conventions, the conventions are a massive and all-consuming event. The intense local atmosphere created by tens of thousands of attendees, millions of dollars in revenue, and increased local media coverage impact local preferences and behavior in a distinct way …

Past Democratic national conventions have boosted the Democratic nominee by up to seven percentage points in counties won by Democrats in the previous election.

That doesn’t matter much to the statewide 2024 presidential results in Illinois. And that state, like Georgia, does not have any non-presidential statewide races of note on tap for 2024. But the local effects of a convention might affect U.S. House races in the host city’s media market, and here it’s New York that has a big advantage. There are no competitive House races in the Chicago and Atlanta areas expected in 2024. There are three in the New York media market that will be crucial to Democratic hopes of reflipping the House in 2024. You can be sure Hakeem Jeffries will be making that point often in lobbying for his city to host Democrats in 2024.

If there’s no convincing political case for holding a convention in one place as opposed to another, then more quotidian concerns could become crucial: the availability of hotel rooms; the amount of money that can be raised for the national and state parties via such events; and, yes, the relative friendliness of local elected officials and business folk. Before heading to Atlanta, for example, Democrats will probably want to make sure Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders in Georgia are capable of putting on phony grins for a few days while welcoming an invasion of “union bosses,” “abortion-loving” feminists, “woke corporation” executives, diversity advocates, and assorted coddlers of immigrants and prisoners. It’s not an easy calculus. But until the parties sober up and abandon conventions altogether, it’s one they have to make.

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Will the 2024 Convention Site Actually Help Democrats Win?