Dispatches from Denver, Day 3

At the Democratic National Convention, faculty are studying the dynamics of power by focusing on protesters, karaoke performers -- oh, and the delegates, too.
August 28, 2008

In a final scene of the prolonged Democratic presidential primary, the third-youngest delegate seconded the nomination for Senator Hillary Clinton shortly before Barack Obama was officially named the party’s presidential nominee Wednesday. Utah’s Jordan Apollo Pazell, 19, one of 631 youth delegates here at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, spoke in support of Clinton’s health care agenda before the vote for Obama. A recent Desert News profile described Pazell as hoping to attend either the University of Utah or Washington.

Later, in the evening's headline speech, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, cited a list of questions "as ordinary as they are profound" that Americans are asking. Among them: "How in God's name are we going to send the kids to college?"

Given its historic overtones, this year's convention has attracted no shortage of faculty interest. Professors in Denver for this week’s Democratic National Convention are interviewing convention insiders and outsiders, translating politics to the public via the media, and exploring the relationship between celebrity, politics and power -- in the latter case, in local karaoke bars (“alternative convention centers”).

Political Karaoke

At the Karaoke Convention, “People take the words of would-be leaders and pass them through their own mouths,” Daniel Peltz says.

Peltz, an assistant professor in the Rhode Island School of Design’s film, animation and video department, has created karaoke versions of political speeches from this year’s primary battles: Hillary Clinton’s victory address in New Hampshire and her dropout speech in D.C., Ron Paul’s concession in New Hampshire, Mike Huckabee's victory speech in Iowa. A number of Denver bars and restaurants have hosted the political karaoke sessions throughout convention week, the project falling under the umbrella of Dialog:City, a participatory arts and cultural event scheduled to coincide with the Democrats' landing in the city.

So what happens when Denver's divas step up to the microphone at Karaoke Convention events? Billed as providing a "platform for re-speaking," there’s no music, but the ambient sound from the space where the speech was delivered serves as background. The candidate’s voice is gone, but audience reaction remains. Just like in regular karaoke, the candidates’ words are projected on a screen and highlighted in white in the cadence in which they were spoken. The audio sounds mix with the sounds of the audience in the bar -- “that will perhaps be cheering for you, that will perhaps be silent, that will perhaps be booing," Peltz says.

(To prevent that last scenario, would-be performers can rehearse online first -- including in Japanese.)


Photo: Elizabeth Redden

Christine Sierra, a University of New Mexico political science professor, with her credentials in the press tent.

Christine Sierra is another faculty member fascinated by the dynamics of politics and power. A professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, Sierra serves as a principal investigator for the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project, which is based on a national survey of men and women of color in elected office, from local to federal levels.

“As a political scientist who specializes in race, ethnicity and gender, this is one heck of a convention,” says Sierra, who’s reporting and blogging for Albuquerque public radio and television from Denver. Her first time as a roving reporter, she's typically not the interviewer, but the interviewee -- as she was again Tuesday night when a Daily Show correspondent asked her thoughts on Hillary Clinton's speech (she was watching it on television in the Pepsi Center concourse). "Is this healing?" Sierra recalls being asked. "I said, 'There's nothing to heal. I like them both and I voted for Barack.'"

Sierra doesn’t have a specific research agenda at the convention, but is soaking up the scene and recording her experiences as a participant observer. “I’m not really a delegate, but I am a Democrat, and this is really fascinating. So I’m trying to take copious notes. At some future point I hope to do something with them,” she says. She imagines, for instance, she might write an essay that would appeal to political scientists and the greater public alike.

“I like my role in a sense as a translator of politics to the larger public.”

Cultural and Counter-Cultural Attitudes

Seth Masket, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, is interviewing protesters and delegates at the convention, researching how insiders and outsiders differ in their attitudes toward government and politics.

Masket, a Colorado delegate, planned to take advantage of his access to the convention, while hiring student researchers who could find delegates in their hotel lobbies and protesters wherever they are (protesters, Masket points out, are “easy to find”). Masket is working with faculty at the University of Florida (Michael Heaney) and University of Minnesota (Joanne Miller and Dara Strolovitch). The same study will be replicated at the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities next week.

Hometown Let-Down?

The Democratic National Convention is nearing its rousing finale tonight. By the time Barack Obama finishes his address at Invesco Field and the delegates, reporters and politicos board their planes back home, the convention is expected to have attracted 50,000 people and $160 million in economic impact. Yet, back in Massachusetts, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross has a word of caution.

“The basic story is the boosters and the people who run these events always claim huge economic impacts in the run-up to the event,” says Victor Matheson, an associate professor of economics at Holy Cross who, along with Robert Baumann, of Holy Cross, and Robert Baade, of Lake Forest College in Chicago, recently studied the economic impacts of political conventions from 1970 to 2004.

“You find that most cities are disappointed in the returns that come back,” Matheson says. Specifically, he found that economic activity for convention years in host cities has typically been flat. "You can’t tell whatsoever that these conventions have been in town when you look at most economic variables."

Part of that is attributable to the “crowding-out” factor – you’ll trip over convention goers in downtown Denver this week, but other tourists and even residents are staying away. Plus, Matheson continues, much of the money generated in inflated hotel rates, for instance, doesn’t stick in the city, but returns to corporate headquarters elsewhere.

Though, he acknowledged, with this many people in town, there are some likely winners. Among them: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the cab companies do very, very well.”


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