Chicago’s DNC Will Be a Dud or a Debacle

May 15, 2024

The DNC will be a letdown for Chicago in more than one way

There are many political leaders and members of the local media reading an old playbook when it comes to reporting on the 2024 Democratic National Convention.

In three months, the Democratic National Convention will come to Chicago. Though most of the major events including the nomination of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the top of the Democratic ticket will be held at the United Center, some events are scheduled to be hosted at McCormick Place.

Chicago media is cheering for the upcoming DNC. In an earlier Contrarian essay titled “Rebranding Chicago,” this author excoriated Crain's Chicago Business' first take on the upcoming DNC. The thesis behind the criticism of Crain’s article was Chicago’s problems are largely intractable. Reversing a mountain avalanche is easier. A solution for Chicago’s needs extend far beyond a rebranding.

A month later, Crain's, undoubtedly in reaction to the well-deserved ridicule it received for its first analysis, responded with Steve Hendershot's “The DNC will shine a spotlight on Chicago — for better or worse.”

Both Crain’s pieces miss the mark because there isn't a mark to hit. National political conventions are now an anachronism. They are expensive taxpayer subsidized infomercials. The last major party convention where there was some doubt regarding who the nominee would be occurred in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were competing for the Republican nod. However, there was a little bit of drama in 1976 because Ford was the incumbent president and never trailed in the delegate count during primary season. We must reach back to 1952, when Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson, for the last presidential nominating convention at which delegates had to go beyond the first ballot to choose their general election candidate.

President Biden was 10 years old in 1952.

Predictably, television viewership of these informercials has plummeted over the decades. In 2020, Politico recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s, over 50 percent of television viewers tuned in to political conventions. Looking past the COVID year conventions, both the RNC and DNC each attracted around 30 million viewers in 2016. Sure, streaming and YouTube replays are not included in those numbers, but for perspective, keep in mind that over 300 million people lived in the United States eight years ago and over 130 million Americans cast votes in the 2016 presidential election.

Meanwhile, Illinois politicians from Governor J.B. Pritzker on down believe that Chicago's hosting of the DNC this summer will spur a Chicago renaissance because so many people will be watching. Yes, so many!

No, relatively speaking, few people will be watching, as interest in these functions have waned.

In related news, the last first-run episode of The Brady Bunch aired in 1974.

Because interest in national political conventions has receded, it is helpful to remind readers the cities which hosted the last two hosted the last two Democratic and GOP conventions. In 2016, the GOP chose Cleveland; and four years later hosted in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Democrats visited Philadelphia, and in 2020 held its convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Governor J.B. Pritzker was exuberant at last year's press conference announcing Chicago would be the DNC host. While he was not as boisterous as Lyndon B. Johnson during the banquet celebrating NASA's move to Houston in the movie The Right Stuff —"Lookahere what I brought you," he bellowed — Pritzker's response resembled Johnson’s animated reaction.

Seemingly, there were dollar signs in the governor's eyeballs at that presser.

Nevertheless, even if things go perfectly in Chicago for the DNC, there probably will not be much of a financial windfall. 

In their 2017 report, “Unconventional Wisdom: Estimating the Economic Impact of the Democratic and Republican National Political Conventions,” authors, Lauren R. Heller, Victor Matheson, and E. Frank Stephenson of Holy Cross University, threw cold water at the predictable forecasts of economic boons from these political gatherings. These events financially crowd out other activities. For instance: Heller, Matheson, and Stephenson discovered that when the DNC was held in New York in 2004, attendance at Broadway plays dropped 20 percent from the same week one year prior. The authors also contended infrastructure improvements touted as a part of convention projects most likely would have been constructed despite the convention. The study also concluded security is a major expense associated with political conventions, with many police officers from other states are hired to keep the peace and direct traffic. The authors revealed most of the money from the officers' paychecks likely returned home with them.

Regardless, Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson are hoping that tourists and business leaders will see Chicago in a favorable light and decide to visit — or open shop here — because of the DNC, similar to the economic boost Nashville received when the Predators made deep runs into the Stanley Cup playoffs. For better or worse — and generally the latter — unlike Nashville, Chicago is a known quantity to most people. Besides, television coverage of every Chicago Bears home game and other local events includes clips of runners and walkers on the lakefront — with sailboats in the distance — after commercial breaks, as well as other glamour shots.

As for the bar and club scene at Nashville's Broadway — the Honky Tonk Highway — it was largely unknown outside of Music City until the NHL success of the Predators. 

Economically, the 2024 DNC will be a dud for Chicago, or a wash.

Or perhaps worse.

Apropos to news coverage, there are two scenarios for the 2024 DNC to become a hit for television ratings, and both involve actual news breaking during the convention. One way is for Joe Biden or Kamala Harris — or both — dropping out of the race. Biden, however, has been running for president since 1973, so itis unlikely he will surrender his spot on the Democratic ticket. It is also unlikely Harris will be dumped from the ticket. Yet an open convention would be, to use the old NBC phrase, “Must See TV.” And if that unlikely scenario plays out, the coverage of real news will crowd out fluff pieces about the Magnificent Mile — which is not so magnificent anymore — as well as visits to Chicago-style pizza restaurants, and stale staged arguments about ketchup on hotdogs and the correct pronunciation of Goethe Street.

The second path for viewership success would be a replay of 1968 — the protests and more. In short, “Blood in the streets in the town of Chicago,” as Jim Morrison sang in “Peace Frog.” It will be 2020-style “riot porn.”

Chicago has been watching the coming attractions for the DNC since the anti-Israel protests began after the start of the Israel-Hamas War in October 2023.

For convention delegates and attendees, McCormick Place and the United Center may not be safe from flare-ups. Only last week, Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported that the Democrats are considering pre-recording some traditional parts of the convention, even the roll call of the states, to prevent off-message Code Pink-type outbursts, such as a “Free, free Palestine” chant. 

Such staged tantrums will pull in viewers — both live and by way of social media replays. 

Brandon Johnson, then still a Chicago Teachers Union organizer, was mayor-elect when Chicago received the nod from Democrats to play host for the 2024 convention. Johnson has done a terrible job on pretty much everything, but his record on crime prevention is by far his biggest failure. And Johnson's sympathies regarding the anti-Israel rallies and encampments are with the protesters and their so-called “mostly peaceful” activities. Chicago's mayor in 1968, Richard J. Daley, was on the side of law and order.

The pro-Hamas demonstrators are emboldened and seasoned. They see the 2024 DNC as their Super Bowl. If demonstrations become violent and rioting breaks out, it will be a black eye for Chicago that tarnish the Windy City for decades. Of course, people are still talking about the violent showdown in 1968 between the Chicago Police and anti-war protesters in Grant Park. 

No one is discussing or even briefly thinking about the 1964 DNC or the Democrats' convention in 1972. No one remembers which cities hosted them. No one cares.

For those who needed their memory jarred, Atlantic City hosted the 1964 DNC and it was Miami Beach's turn in 1972. 

The best-case scenario for Chicago with this year's Democratic National Convention will be that it ends up as a financial dud, a forgotten infomercial.

However, the 2024 DNC could be another debacle for Chicago.

Either way, do not look for Pritzker to hold up his arms a year from now and scream, “Lookahere what I brought you!”

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