Should Democrats Have Picked A Swing State For Their 2024 Convention?

By all accounts, the race for the 2024 Democratic National Convention was down to Atlanta versus Chicago. Electorally, it seemed like an obvious choice: Atlanta is in an emerging swing state, while Chicago is in a state that Democrats will almost certainly win in 2024.

But then, last week, the Democratic Party announced that Chicago would host next August’s confab. To some Democrats, it seemed to be a missed opportunity — especially since Republicans will hold their convention in Milwaukee, the biggest city in a classic battleground state. But here’s the thing: It probably won’t matter where either party holds its 2024 presidential nominating convention. Contrary to conventional wisdom, holding your convention in a swing state has little to no electoral benefit. 

Since 2000, the Democratic or Republican candidate for president won the state that hosted their convention just six out of 12 times.

Parties don’t always win the states that host their conventions

The site of each Democratic and Republican national convention since 2000 and whether the party won that state in that year’s presidential election

Year Party Convention Site Did Party Win State?
2000 D Los Angeles, California
2000 R Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2004 D Boston, Massachusetts
2004 R New York City, New York
2008 D Denver, Colorado
2008 R St. Paul, Minnesota
2012 D Charlotte, North Carolina
2012 R Tampa, Florida
2016 D Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2016 R Cleveland, Ohio
2020 D Milwaukee, Wisconsin
2020 R Charlotte, North Carolina

Portions of the 2020 conventions were conducted virtually from other locations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sources: American Presidency Project, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Some of those losses were predictable, like when Republicans held their 2004 convention in New York City and then lost the Empire State by 18 percentage points. But others were bitter disappointments, such as when Democrats hoped the 2012 DNC in Charlotte would help them gain a foothold in North Carolina or when Republicans hoped the 2012 RNC in Tampa would put them over the top in Florida. (The other party won each state.) And even some of the wins were probably just coincidences, like in 2020, when Democrats won Wisconsin and Republicans won North Carolina even though the conventions that year in Milwaukee and Charlotte, respectively, were mostly virtual.

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Of course, looking at binary wins and losses alone is a crude instrument; it’s possible that a convention helped a party in a state even if the party came up just short of winning. But even considering a party’s margin in that state, it seems conventions have little effect. On average, since 2000, parties have enjoyed just a 1.0-point boost in the state where they held their convention, according to my analysis.

Convention boosts are inconsistent

The simplified partisan lean* of each state (relative to the national popular vote) in the three presidential elections before, during and after the election cycle in which it hosted a Democratic or Republican national convention, since 2000

Year Party Convention Site That election Avg. of Prev. and Next Election Boost
2000 D Los Angeles, CA D+11 D+8 +2.9

2000 R Philadelphia, PA D+4 D+3 -0.8

2004 D Boston, MA D+28 D+23 +5.0

2004 R New York City, NY D+21 D+22 +1.3

2008 D Denver, CO D+2 EVEN +2.0

2008 R St. Paul, MN D+3 D+5 +1.9

2012 D Charlotte, NC R+6 R+6 +0.4

2012 R Tampa, FL R+3 R+4 -0.9

2016 D Philadelphia, PA R+3 R+1 -1.9

2016 R Cleveland, OH R+10 R+7 +3.5

2020 D Milwaukee, WI R+4 R+3 -1.0

2020 R Charlotte, NC R+6 R+6 +0.1

*Simplified partisan lean is the difference between a state’s popular-vote margin and the nation’s popular-vote margin in the same election.

“Average of previous and next election” for 2020 uses the states’ simplified partisan lean in only the 2016 election, since the 2024 election has not yet occurred. Portions of the 2020 conventions were conducted virtually from other locations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sources: American Presidency Project, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

And that’s probably overstating things. The most obvious convention boost in the table above is in Massachusetts in 2004, when Boston hosted the DNC. But the Democratic nominee that year was then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Democrats’ overperformance in the Bay State that year was probably due more to their nominee’s home-state advantage than their choice of convention site. It’s a good reminder that, even when there appears to be a convention boost, it could be due to a million other factors instead.

If you remove the 2004 DNC from the list, the average convention boost is just 0.7 points and only two states saw more than a 2-point boost (California in 2000 for Democrats and Ohio in 2016 for Republicans). Excluding the 2004 DNC, a convention boost has also occurred just seven out of 11 times. Four other times, the party actually did worse than expected in the state hosting its convention.

Given this track record, it’s less surprising that the 2024 DNC will be in Chicago. The Windy City has a lot of logistical and political points in its favor: tons of hotels, good public transit, a friendly government and a unionized workforce. By contrast, Georgia has enacted policies that the Democratic Party probably doesn’t want to be seen as tacitly supporting: It is a right-to-work state, and it has a new, restrictive voting law that even caused Major League Baseball to not hold its 2021 All-Star Game there. So while picking Atlanta would’ve made a strong statement about Democrats’ plans to compete in the Sun Belt, it would have been purely symbolic.

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