A former sports team owner threatened yesterday to move a planned event out of town if his arena demands weren’t met, and the only surprise, really, is that the culprit was the president of the United States:
…full attendance in the Arena. In other words, we would be spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space. Plans are being….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 25, 2020
Let’s for the moment ignore the bit where the nation’s leader is demanding to pack 20,000 people into an indoor arena during a pandemic where the one thing we know is that packing people into indoor spaces is the worst possible thing you can do. (And the bit about “building the Arena to a very high standard,” since in fact it was Charlotte taxpayers who just spent $27.5 million on upgrading the Hornets‘ arena.) Instead, I’d like to focus on Trump’s claim that if he isn’t allowed to fill the Charlotte arena to capacity, he will take his “jobs and economic development” and go elsewhere. How many jobs do political conventions create, anyway?
The usual lazy way (or self-interested way, if you’re in the business of staging conventions) of calculating convention economic impact is to add up all the visitors to a city and multiply it by how much you think they spend, which results in numbers as high as $230 million. The better way would be to look at all the cities that have hosted conventions and see if there was any discernable change in job growth or personal income as a result — and sports economists Robert Baade, Robert Baumann, and Victor Matheson did just that in 2008, finding that “the presence of the Republican or Democratic National Convention has no discernable impact on employment, personal income, or personal income per capita in the cities where the events were held confirming the results of other ex post analyses of mega-events.”
In other words, political conventions are much like the Super Bowl: They bring a ton of people into town, but they also drive away other potential visitors who steer clear of the convention week crowds (and convention week hotel prices), as well as local residents who may stay at home if they think restaurants and such will be too crowded. As Baade, Baumann, and Matheson noted, “During the week of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, for example, attendance at Broadway shows fell more than 20 percent compared with the same week a year earlier despite the presence of tens of thousands of visiting conventioneers and journalists.”
(Matheson and Baade also previously crunched the numbers for the NCAA tournament, another brief “mega-event” similar to political conventions, and found that the men’s tournament appeared to have a small negative impact on host cities’ economies, which is impressively bad.)
Reached via email, Matheson further observes that political conventions don’t even provide the “feel-good” effects of a major sporting event, where residents at least report an increase in warm fuzzies from having been in proximity to greatness. (The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he notes, seem to have been an exception.) Political conventions, by contrast, are generally remembered in story and song for less cheery reasons.
Now, there’s an obvious caveat here, which is that a pandemic economy is not a normal economy; hotel stays in North Carolina are way down what with much of America not leaving the house, so there may not be many tourists to drive away with a convention (though that’s already starting to change as the state slowly reopens). Matheson writes:
No one is going to fill those rooms up if the convention were to not take place. Hotel occupancy across the country has essentially fallen to zero, so the crowding out effect of mega events has disappeared during COVID-19, leading to real economic damage done by the cancellation of sporting (and political) events.This also gives Trump’s threat slightly more teeth. In normal times, Trump’s threat to move the convention would be just another inane bit of bluster from a guy who likes to make threats he has no ability to carry out. There would be no city in the country with available hotel rooms and convention space that you could move the event to with this little notice. Nowadays, however, there are probably 30 different cities that actually have availability to host an event like this with last minute notice.
A chunk of the convention spending that advocates like to crow about, however, is from going out on the town during the event: Another paper by Matheson (with co-authors Lauren Heller and Frank Stephenson) found that convention-goers would have to spend seven times as much on food and entertainment as on hotel rooms to justify the most common economic impact claims. Restaurants, though, remain limited to 50% capacity in North Carolina, and if my experience getting takeout food in Brooklyn last night is any guide, there’s plenty of demand for restaurant food from bored, hungry locals right now, so it’s extremely likely that at least some Charlotte residents would choose to stay home rather than line up to sit six feet from Republican convention visitors from who knows where, with their icky who-knows-where germs.
Gov. Cooper hasn’t yet responded to Trump’s demands beyond a brief press statement saying North Carolina will make its decisions based on “data and science,” which certainly could be read as “Yeah, yeah, the president is tweeting at us, give him 24 hours and he’ll be off tweeting at clouds instead.” But don’t sell Donald Trump short: In his time as New Jersey Generals owner, he surely learned something about ways to leverage his power to get concessions from his foes. Or, you know, not.