Among all the power brokers attending the Republican National Convention, one institution is noticeably underrepresented: the C-suite. The country’s chief executives and other top officials are largely staying home this year.
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They’re skipping Tampa because of anti-Wall Street sentiment, tough logistics, or simply fewer guarantees that the schlep will be rewarded with enough meetings to move the policy needle. The shadow convention that for years was where the real business was transacted, away from the klieg lights and balloon drops, is beginning to look a lot more like the main event—a messaging show.
A senior executive of a major business trade group (who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on its behalf) said he had planned to feature some of the group’s member-company CEOs at the 2012 national conventions but ditched the idea after realizing it was impossible to ensure them meetings with important policymakers.
“Clearly, the level of intimacy at these events is not what it used to be. And, as a result, the opportunity for those conversations that CEOs would have found meaningful and a good use of their time are fewer,” he said. “Conventions are no longer a Super Bowl. Conventions are an all-star game. In a Super Bowl, you actually win a championship—and that doesn’t happen at conventions.”
As the conventions have grown in size and spectacle, their status as the must-attend events of the season have diminished. In the age of the surround-sound advocacy campaigns, party conventions have become just another lobbying stop. Online news and social media also mean that business types no longer have to be on the ground to be in the loop.
“You only have so much time from the C-suite. Where are you going to use that resource, their time? There are opportunities and meetings that are much more effective than a political convention,” said another senior executive at a big-time Washington trade group who asked to speak on condition of anonymity for similar reasons.
Business Roundtable President John Engler said that the convention gives him the opportunity to talk about the issues his C-level executive members care about. It’s about flying the flag, not moving the ball. For instance, Engler did about a dozen events, speeches, and interviews between flying in on Sunday and leaving on Tuesday, the day the convention officially began.
Also increasing the Business Roundtable’s visibility was a fashionable party Engler cohosted at the Florida Aquarium that featured premium liquor, an ice bar, and mermaids. Congressional staffers, journalists, lobbyists, and other Washington insiders attended.
The president of the nation’s biggest business lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, isn’t expected to set foot in Tampa or Charlotte, another sign of the party conventions’ decreasing importance among business leaders.
“Tom Donohue is spending this week on the road, visiting chamber members where they live to update them on our political plans and to raise additional funds to spend on this critical election,” chamber Senior Vice President Tom Collamore said.
Also driving the disengagement is antibusiness rhetoric that has businesses nervous about tying their brands too closely to the political process. And Democrats’ decision to finance their convention without corporate money meant that some companies scaled back in Tampa as well.
“You want to try to play it even. But if one side isn’t letting you play, there isn’t any incentive to toe the line in Tampa,” a corporate trade association official said.