Stop pretending that hosting the RNC is a big deal

June 12, 2020

This year’s Republican National Convention is essentially leaving Charlotte, North Carolina, because the GOP can’t agree with the Democratic governor and Democratic city officials on how to hold that kind of event during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Republicans will spend one day in Charlotte conducting some business and then the rest of the convention will be held in Jacksonville, Florida, where a Republican governor and Republican mayor will let Donald Trump put on the television show he wants.

So, of course, when the Charlotte Observer published its update on this issue, the report highlighted an unlinked and unsupported claim that the convention was projected to bring 50,000 visitors and have a positive $150 million economic impact on Charlotte’s economy. The number of visitors might have some basis in reality, but the $150 million number, as with virtually every other “economic impact” projection proffered by boosters of various events, is the product of a public relations effort designed to garner your support for the event or program and ought not be taken seriously.

To begin, even if we were to accept the $150 million number on its face, most news reports provide no context about whether or not that’s a big number. It turns out, as succinctly summarized by Carolina Journal, that would be less than 0.1% of Charlotte’s annual economic output.

But I don’t accept that number on its face, in part because I can’t track down where it came from. As best I can tell, the Observer hasn’t linked to an actual published projection, and even its skeptical coverage accepts previous economic impact estimates that were commissioned by the local tourism booster entity — which appears to not even have that information up on its own dedicated RNC page.

I also don’t accept the number because it doesn’t pass the basic smell test. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimated the 2012 Democratic National Convention generated about $163 million in economic impact from about 35,000 visitors for the four-day event. In contrast, the same organization estimates that the CIAA basketball tournament, a de facto reunion week for all 12 HBCUs in the CIAA, has about a $43 million economic impact from more than 150,000 visitors. They’re suggesting that nearly five times as many people, spending more time in the city, would have a little more than one-fourth the economic impact.

Even if you could show that some percentage of the CIAA visitors come from within driving distance or stay with acquaintances and thus don’t need hotels, or that this particular group of (Black) mostly college-educated professionals generally doesn’t spend as much as the (mostly white) media and political professionals brought to Charlotte by a major convention, it still beggars belief that there would be that kind of difference — unless the final numbers for the convention are being fudged by adding in a bonus for “exposure” given that national political conventions undoubtedly receive more media coverage than a D-II basketball tournament.

CRVA head Tom Murray has said as much, telling WFAE that, “I always say these big events are always really important to us as a community, particularly in their media value and the way we can reach communities that we normally can’t reach.”

In the end, we’re left with a rationale for attracting conventions that appears very similar to the rationale for hosting the Olympics: Claim the event creates far-reaching economic improvement, and then do it again every few years despite the lack of evidence that there was ever any positive economic impact in the first place, and in fact there’s plenty of evidence that hosting the Olympics is more an opportunity to funnel money to a select few while leaving municipalities holding the bag.

The best part is that when big numbers go by unchallenged, it emboldens other authorities to float their own big numbers in totally unsupported ways. Jacksonville’s mayor is already saying the RNC will bring a $100 million economic impact to the city. Good luck trying to figure out where that number came from.

(Photo: "IMG_9734: 2012 Democratic National Convention" by Steve Bott. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)