There's no debating it

Houston poised to win benefits from presidential primary debate exposure

Historic Texas Southern University will host the September 12 Democratic debate, and Houston is expected to be the real economic winner. Courtesy photo

If past presidential debates are an accurate barometer, Houston stands to reap millions of dollars worth of benefits from what's been called the "Super Bowl of politics." However, one economist isn't casting his vote for any sizeable economic surge from the upcoming presidential debate in Houston.

On September 12, Houston's Texas Southern University, one of the largest historically black universities in the country, will host the third debate of the Democratic presidential primary season. The Democratic National Committee and ABC picked the 150-acre TSU campus for this showdown, where 10 Democratic candidates are set to take the stage at the 8,100-seat H&PE Arena.

While the Greater Houston Partnership isn't able to provide an estimated economic impact of the Houston debate, it still sees the value of Houston basking in the national spotlight.

"Texas Southern University hosting the third Democratic presidential primary debate here in Houston will focus national attention on the city for several days in much the same way the Republican presidential debate did back in 2016," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, tells InnovationMap. "These events put Houston top of mind among people across the country — including the companies and talented individuals we're working to recruit to Houston."

The debate will help showcase Houston as a diverse city that's tackling presidential-level issues like education, infrastructure, and climate change, Harvey says. Climate change, in particular, hits close to home in Houston, as the city is "redefining its role" as the Energy Capital of the World through local initiatives taking on renewables, carbon emissions, and sustainability, according to Harvey.

Three years ago, the University of Houston hosted a Republican presidential debate featuring five candidates. For historical context, Houston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1928 and the Republican National Convention in 1992.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at UH who's an expert on the presidency, says nationally televised debates serve as a "massive platform" for host colleges and universities to recruit faculty and students beyond their normal regional or local confines. Furthermore, he says, presidential debates can elevate the status of these schools in the realm of "public discourse."

"These debates are also a way to connect to alumni networks flung far across the nation," Rottinghaus tells InnovationMap, "and give them some something to brag about that isn't sports-related."

No estimates were provided of the economic impact for the University of Houston debate, but other spots in the U.S. — communities and college campuses — that have hosted presidential debates tout millions of dollars in value from debate-related spending and free publicity.

In October 2012, the Boca Raton, Florida, area realized an immediate economic impact of $13.1 million from hosting the final debate ahead of that year's presidential election, as well as $63.7 million in free publicity from news coverage of the nationally televised event. Those figures come from a study commissioned by Lynn University, which hosted the debate. An accompanying survey found that after watching the debate, 4.7 million American adults definitely wanted to visit the Boca Raton area over the next five years.

Also in October 2012, the University of Denver hosted a general-election debate that generated an estimated $56 million in free publicity.

Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, dismisses those figures as inflated and irrelevant. And he says Houston shouldn't expect the city or TSU to receive any direct economic benefits from the September 12 debate.

For one thing, Matheson downplays the value assigned to free publicity surrounding a presidential debate. He complains that the methodology applied to tallying the benefits of so-called "earned media" coverage is flawed.

For another thing, Matheson notes that few people from outside the Houston area will be attending the debate at TSU, meaning little in the way of revenue from hotel stays, meals, and other visitor expenditures. "This isn't a Super Bowl," he says.

As a matter of fact, Houston hosted the 50th Super Bowl in February 2017 and fielded an economic impact of $347 million thanks to spending by 150,000 visitors, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.

While not on the scale of a Super Bowl, the upcoming debate will attract positive attention for TSU, Matheson points out.

"This sort of debate can really put a college on the map, especially one like Texas Southern, a fairly obscure university from a national standpoint," he tells InnovationMap.

Matheson cites Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, as an example. Few people outside New England would have heard of Saint Anselm without its frequent hosting of presidential debates since the 1980s, he says.

The college has been dubbed the "academic epicenter" of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. During the 2015-16 political season alone, Saint Anselm hosted one Republican and one Democratic presidential debate, leading to more than 8,100 mentions in the news media of the college or its New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

"So, the effect for colleges is real, but there is still a question about how big it is," Matheson says. "And let's not pretend that the debate is somehow going to put Houston on the map. If Houston isn't already on your map, you really need to get yourself a new map."

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