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Is Hosting a Political Convention Worth It for a Mayor?

City leaders looking to boost their political profiles may want to think twice.

Workers install lighting for a giant banner in downtown Cleveland near the site of the Republican National Convention. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

For mayors with lofty political ambitions—like say, eventually running for a higher office—hosting a presidential convention like the RNC in Cleveland this week or the DNC in Philadelphia next week can present an apparent opportunity to show off their cities as well as their own political talents.

But how much does hosting a major political party’s convention really boost a mayor’s career, propelling them into higher offices such as governorships or congressional seats?

The short answer, it seems, is not a whole lot.

A recent study led by Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and published in Urban Affairs Review examines a variety of factors that bear on the success of U.S. mayors. One particularly intriguing aspect of the study is an examination of how mayors who hosted political conventions fared afterward compared to those who bid for them and lost, as well as mayors overall. In total, the fates of mayors from 104 cities, between 1992 and 2012, were included by the study’s authors.

Presidential conventions can play a unique role in a mayor’s accomplishments and career, according to the study. Conventions enable a mayor not only to show he or she can deliver a major event to their city, but they also provide an opportunity to increase the mayor’s visibility with party insiders and donors, paving the way perhaps to a bigger political future. This is especially true for mayors who host their own political party in their city (58 percent of the convention-hosting mayors according to the study).

The table below, based on data the study’s authors supplied to CityLab, lists mayors that did host conventions and their subsequent career paths.

Host mayor

City

Convention

Career path after convention

Dianne Feinstein

San Francisco

1984 DNC

Elected U.S. Senator from California

Andrew Young

Atlanta

1988 DNC

Ran for governor and lost

Sidney Barthelemy

New Orleans

1988 RNC

Won re-election, retired

David Dinkins

New York City

1992 DNC

Lost re-election

Bob Lanier

Houston

1992 RNC

Re-elected twice, retired

Richard M. Daley

Chicago

1996 DNC

Re-elected three times, retired

Susan Golding

San Diego

1996 RNC

Won re-election, ran for U.S. Senator and lost

Richard Riordan

Los Angeles

2000 DNC

Ran for governor and lost

Ed Rendell

Philadelphia

2000 RNC

Elected Governor of Pennsylvania

John Street

Philadelphia

2000 RNC

Won re-election, retired

Thomas Menino

Boston

2004 DNC

Re-elected twice, retired

Michael Bloomberg

NYC

2004 RNC

Won re-election, retired

John Hickenlooper

Denver

2008 DNC

Elected Governor of Colorado

R.T. Rybak

Minneapolis

2008 RNC

Won re-election, ran for governor and lost

Chris Coleman

St. Paul

2008 RNC

Won re-election

Anthony Foxx

Charlotte

2012 DNC

Appointed U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Bob Buckhorn*

Tampa

2012 RNC

Won re-election*

Rick Baker

St. Pete

2012 RNC

Retired

Clearly, some of the mayors on this list are quite well-known: Michael Bloomberg, Richard Daley, Tom Menino, Diane Feinstein, Ed Rendell, John Hickenlooper, and so on.

And yet, according to the study, hosting a convention does not appear to have a significant effect on mayoral careers overall. Note the results when the researchers compared the career trajectories of mayors who hosted conventions to those who sought and failed to secure one, plus a control group of all other mayors:

Convention-hosting mayors were more ambitious than others. Roughly 27 percent of their career decisions were to seek higher office, compared to 9 percent of decisions by mayors whose convention bids failed and 8 percent of all other career decisions by mayors. But ambition didn’t necessarily spell success for the convention-hosting mayors. Of the eight convention-hosting mayors who ran for higher office, just three won (37.5 percent), compared to two of four mayors whose convention bids failed (50 percent) and 29 of 61 mayors in the control group (47.5 percent). Of course, it’s important to take the small sample size of the first two groups of mayors into account here, as the study notes.

But otherwise, hosting a convention has no statistically significant effect on a mayor’s career. While mayors may see conventions as key to advancing their careers and attaining a higher political office, these sorts of mega-events do little to impress voters over the long term. As Heberlig tells CityLab: “The way most voters make decisions is on party identification and name recognition. So while a multiple-day convention can bring attention to a mayor, that only resonates so far. A person who is a few counties over cares more about crime and jobs when they decide how to vote.”

The study’s main findings may be lukewarm news for mayors but they’re good news for cities. Mayors—especially politically ambitious ones—have historically tended to ignore data which show that hosting a mega-event can be a waste of money and does little to boost a city’s economy. Here’s hoping they’ll be more likely to understand the blunt political fact that landing presidential conventions (not to mention other mega-events) is by no means guaranteed to advance their political careers.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Tampa’s mayor at the time of the 2012 RNC. It was Bob Buckhorn, not Pam Iorio.

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