Mar 19, 2023
NYC, Chicago, Atlanta: Biden Faces Early Test on Convention Site
(Bloomberg) -- Even before he announces a run for a second term, President Joe Biden faces one of the most consequential decisions of his nascent campaign: Which city will host the 2024 Democratic National Convention.
Each of the three finalists — Atlanta, Chicago and New York — would send a different message about the kind of campaign Biden intends to run.
“It’s a close political call,” said David Axelrod who worked as a top strategist for former President Barack Obama. “They are not just looking for a great convention town. They are looking for a town that is also going to offer them the most political benefit.”
Chicago has strong labor support and a billionaire governor committed to backing Democrats. New York would put the convention on its largest possible metaphorical stage. And Atlanta — the only finalist in a battleground state —- offers a backdrop of civil rights movement history that could appeal to Black voters.
It’s high-stakes choice: The wrong venue could alienate key parts of Biden’s base, put the party in a financial hole or foment protests that could mar Democrats’ image.
Biden’s decision, which is expected as soon as this month, also could provide a platform for the next generation of Democratic leaders: Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock or New York Mayor Eric Adams.
And there’s money to consider. Putting on a convention can cost more than $80 million, which the party will have to raise.
New York offers the biggest local fundraising potential, with Chicago a close second, said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, chairman of the 2016 convention’s host committee in Philadelphia. Still, Atlanta also is a corporate capital and the party will find the requisite funding for whichever city it chooses, he said.
The competition has gotten cutthroat. At a Times Square rally in support of the New York bid on Saturday, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine cast the other cities as cultural backwaters.
“We know we have some competition to host the DNC. We’re not afraid to talk about that,” he said. “If you want to go out to dinner at a Cracker Barrel, you can go to one of the other host cities. If you want to enjoy the best restaurants on Earth, you come to New York City.”
Here are some pluses and minuses of each location:
Atlanta is the only one of the three finalist cities in a battleground state: Biden won Georgia by just 11,779 votes in 2020. The state also helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate, with victories by Jon Ossoff in 2020 and Warnock in 2020 and 2022.
“It makes the most sense politically. It makes the most sense for Joe Biden,” said former Senator Doug Jones of Alabama. “And the reason it makes the most sense is because of the message it sends to the South, the fact that Democrats are recognizing that the South is our growth grounds.”
An Atlanta convention would also provide a backdrop for Biden to signal the importance of Black voters who formed the bedrock of his 2020 coalition. The families of civil rights leaders John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. have thrown their support behind Atlanta’s bid.
But there’s opposition to the idea from labor unions, a particular problem for Biden, who has relied on their support and promised to be the most pro-union president in history.
Atlanta is in a “right-to-work” state without strong protections for collective bargaining, and the city has only two union hotels downtown. Chicago has about 45; New York has hundreds.
Labor groups, led by the AFL-CIO, say the lack of union hotel capacity in Atlanta is “disqualifying.”
Atlanta organizers say they already have $25 million in support of their bid, but Jones said fundraising shouldn’t drive the decision. “I do not believe for a second that the Democratic National Convention is for sale,” he said.
Chicago would offer the convention the largest possible venue: At more than 950,000 square feet, Chicago’s United Center is the biggest arena in the US.
And while Illinois is not in play — it’s gone to Democrats in the last eight presidential elections — the Chicago media market reaches neighboring Wisconsin, a state that went for Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. The Republican National Committee announced last year that its convention would be held in Milwaukee, 100 miles to the north.
Chicago’s secret weapon could be fundraising: Pritzker’s net worth is estimated at $3.7 billion, and he’s contributed millions to Democratic campaigns including his own. While he has not publicly committed a specific amount of his personal wealth toward the bid, he’s argued that the city’s corporate and union support makes it the best choice.
“It’s pretty clear that Governor Pritzker is willing to put his shoulder to the wheel here and that’s not inconsequential,” Axelrod said.
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Other supporters of the Chicago bid include Grosvenor Capital Management’s Michael Sacks.
Chicago has a complicated convention history: Protests at the 1968 convention helped to derail Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy.
With cities including Chicago increasingly contending with crime and policing issues, violence or protests in any of the three cities could feed into the Republican narrative that Democrats are soft of crime, Rendell said.
And then there’s the Obama factor. Biden’s former running mate remains popular among Democrats and would likely cast a long shadow over a Chicago convention that Biden might prefer to avoid.
Leah Daughtry is the only person to run two modern Democratic conventions, serving as CEO of the 2008 gathering in Denver that nominated Obama and the 2016 convention in Philadelphia that nominated Hillary Clinton.
The two most underrated factors in choosing a convention site, she said, are logistics and delegate experience.
“New York is the place where you can afford the president a turn-key, no-headache convention,” said Daughtry, a Brooklyn native. “If you want a world-class anything, where do you go? You go to New York.”
New York’s bid has money and star power behind it. The host committee includes New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, Knicks and Rangers owner James Dolan, Tishman Speyer’s Rob Speyer and actor Robert De Niro. Actress Whoopi Goldberg narrated an eight-minute video promoting the bid, focused largely on the availability of hotel rooms, cultural attractions and the food scene.
Cohen has supported mostly Republican candidates in the past but notably declined to support Trump in 2020. His decision to back the Democratic convention bid was driven by the economic impact for New York and not political considerations, according to a person familiar with his thinking. He hasn’t decided who to support for president in 2024, the person said.
Supporters of the New York bid are leaning into the city’s status as a Democratic haven. New York-based labor unions are a big part of the bid, and the city is touting its commitment to abortion rights and gun safety laws — a clear contrast to the Republican-led government of Georgia.
“You can message anything from anywhere,” Daughtry said. “This is a television event.”
--With assistance from Laura Nahmias and Margaret Newkirk.
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