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Campaign watch: Tracking the monies tied to conventions

democratic convention

Photo by Flickr user Kelly DeLay

Unless the Hurricane Isaac completely swamps the Republican national convention, the end of the summer is going to be marked by two Olympian events in the world of politics: The Democratic convention in Charlotte and the Republican convention in Tampa.

There was a time, decades ago, when these quadrennial events actually provided political drama and suspense. Delegates came to the conventions not knowing who the party’s Presidential nominee would be. Floor battles would ensue and, once the melee ended, a Presidential candidate would emerge. Over time, the conventions have evolved into gigantic political love-fests. The Presidential nominee has pretty much already been selected and the delegate vote is a mere formality.

As a result, the conventions have become a showcase for party unity and one giant, four-day, infomercial for the nation. For reporters covering campaign finance, the big story about the convention is the various ways that candidates, parties, corporations and cities can use the convention as a way to fatten their coffers, gain influence and unite the rich with the powerful.

For starters, civic-minded taxpayers are kicking in to help pay for these events. Remember the check off on your tax returns asking whether you wanted $3 of your tax return to go to the Presidential Election Fund? If you checked it yes, part of that money goes to pay for the convention.  As a result of post-Watergate campaign finance reforms, each party is given an equal amount – $18 million per party – to finance their convention. Each party’s convention committee may not spend more than that on the convention.

While most people would think $18 million might pay for a swell party, that’s just the beginning of the financial story of the conventions. Another $100 million comes in directly from Congress to pay for security, such things as metal detectors, security cameras and perimeter protection.

Like the Olympics, cities bargain hard to land conventions. With 30,000 delegates, media, fund-raisers and political insiders expected to show up, conventions are an economic boom. This comes in the form of spending for hotel rooms, restaurants, taxis, as well as all the recognition that comes from having a major international event in your home town. As a result, each city forms a host committee. These committees accept millions in donations to help fund promotional materials, salaries of convention workers, entertainment and any number of things that the $18 million in federal funds does not cover.

delegates

Delegates for the Democratic National Convention. Photo by Jaime Puente.

Sometimes corporations donate cash or services to the host committee out of civic pride, or just to get their corporate logo made visible to the world. In other cases, conventions provide another way for big-money interests to mingle with top politicians – fertile ground for reporters on the money-and-politics beat. Google, Wal-Mart, A.T.& T., Time Warner and Coca-Cola have all lined up to play a prominent role at one of the conventions, or both, according to the Washington Post.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Republicans raised $57 million for their 2008 convention – most of it from corporations — and say they want to raise that amount or more this year. In 2008, corporations donated about $40 million of the $60 million raised for the Denver convention. This year, Democrats say they can raise around $37 million without corporate money, and are relying on outside groups backed by corporations to make up the rest.

The website for the Democratic Host Committee in Charlotte offers prospective donors a chance to win a trip to the convention for as little as a $5 donation. It also boasts of a variety of events that include gospel brunches, a salsa flash mob, and a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The Host Committee website in Tampa Bay for the Republicans even features an online store where T-shirts, mugs and key chains with the RNC logo can be purchased.

Behind this frivolity is some deadly serious campaign finance business. Donors show up in abundance to be feted at lavish parties. Corporations spend freely to have access to decision makers from Congress and the White House on down. For campaign finance reporters, the challenge is to getting behind the doors to see which donors and which corporations are playing a big role. At the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, for instance, former House Speaker Tom Delay held court in a series of luxury train cars just outside the convention hall where he met with key donors and corporate chieftains.

The importance of this gathering of the political powerful is underscored by a recent online webinar from the public relations firm Fleishman Hilliard. It tells how clients can benefit from showing up in Charlotte or Tampa: “ As the 2012 presidential election approaches, this summer’s Democratic and Republican political conventions are expected to bring a bounty of the nation’s most influential leaders. The events are a powerful and rare opportunity for organizations to engage with leaders from government, business, NGOs and advocacy sectors.”

For reporters wanting to delve into money-and-politics stories, there is no greater “target rich” environment than the Tampa and Charlotte conventions.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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