Presidential forum shows Winthrop’s growing political clout

A dozen years ago, there was no thought that Winthrop University could be a venue for a nationally televised, presidential primary debate.

In 2004, when South Carolina had a crowded Democratic field in its primary, Winthrop’s Rock Hill campus was never graced by a former governor, a sitting senator or a secretary of state. Instead, students and faculty listened to less grand figures speak.

“In ’04, we didn’t have any major party primary or general election candidates on campus,” said Karen Kedrowski, chair of the university’s political science department at the time. “I remember we had the Socialist Party’s vice-presidential nominee come to campus.”

In the years since, the university has moved up the ladder from the bottom half of a third-party ticket. The campus has played host to a number of presidential contenders from both parties in three presidential election years since, culminating this Friday when Winthrop hosts the three main Democratic presidential contenders – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley – in an on-campus forum broadcast on MSNBC.

At the same time, Winthrop and Rock Hill have burnished their reputation as a political hub, with strong local pundit credentials and a draw in not one, but two different states.

Candidates discover campus

By the 2008 election cycle, Winthrop attracted much bigger names to campus. Future president Barack Obama spoke on campus enroute to a victory in South Carolina’s primary. So did several contenders for the Republican nomination. In 2012, the campus attracted even more speakers as a large GOP field contended for a primary win.

“We had as small as a group of 50 for John Huntsman, and as many as 1,000 for Mitt Romney,” Kedrowski said, “all the candidates sought us out. Winthrop didn’t make any inquiries (about bringing them to campus).”

Being able to accommodate a wide-range of crowd sizes has helped Winthrop attract candidates. The school has venues for small gatherings in the 6,000-seat Winthrop Coliseum. So far this year, the campus has seen Republican candidate Carly Fiorina fill McBryde Hall with 750 people and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders pack 3,000 into Byrnes Auditorium, the location of Friday’s presidential forum.

But the structures on campus aren’t Winthrop’s only contribution to a campaign event. There are the professors themselves.

“We always have at least one of our faculty there to provide commentary for the media, and that’s an added value,” said Kedrowski, now the dean of arts and sciences at the school. “The additional experts can give it a local flavor, and both the candidate and the news media enjoy having that.”

Welcome to York County: the economic impact

Friday’s forum will bring a lot of attention to Rock Hill, with national media descending on the city to cover the event, putting the community in an unprecedented spotlight.

“I’m sure NBC will have a pretty big team coming down,” said Rick Whisonant, a political science professor at York Technical College. The university and the city will likely get more than a few shout outs and live shots throughout the day on the cable network leading up to the debate. “Even if we don’t get Morning Joe, I’m sure it will at least be mentioned.”

Prior to the 8 p.m. forum , MSNBC will air the show “Hardball with Chris Matthews” from the Winthrop campus at 5 p.m.

Can that attention and the visitors be a benefit for the wider community? David Swenson, executive director of the York County Economic Development Board, said he is glad to have any attention focused on the area he’s trying to recruit businesses to, but he doesn’t expect the one-day event to have a broader economic impact.

“I don’t think it’s going to be anything along the lines of the DNC,” when the 2012 Democratic National Convention brought delegates from around the country – and their spending money – to the Charlotte area for a week. “This is more along the lines of the candidates coming in to talk (individually).”

Rob Youngblood, president of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, agrees the direct economic benefit to the area will be limited to “overnight stays, the food and beverage industry, and the long-term marketing value.

“When Winthrop’s basketball team was playing Tennessee (in the NCAA tournament), and the commentators kept saying ‘Rock Hill, Rock Hill,’ people want to find out about the place,” Youngblood said.

Matt Moore, chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he believes the early primaries of both parties have a significant impact on the state’s economy. He wrote his thesis on the subject.

“An event like Winthrop’s will bring hundreds of thousands of dollars at least into the local economy,” Moore said, citing local jobs in the hospitality sector, audio/visual production for TV and food catering for all of the events around the forum itself.

Moore estimates South Carolina saw a $50 million economic impact from the 2012 Republican primary alone – $20 million in direct campaign spending and another $30 million of marketing value for the state and its localities.

At a November 2011 GOP debate at Wofford College, the school’s logo was prominently displayed behind the candidates on stage, appearing on screen for at least a quarter of the total hour-long broadcast on CBS. Using the $110,000 cost of a 30-second primetime network ad buy, Moore estimates the debate gave Wofford $3.3 million worth of free advertising.

“I doubt Wofford has a $3 million advertising budget for national TV in a year,” Moore said.

Hosting a televised event of that scale can pay dividends. Applications to Wofford increased in the year after the debate aired.

“When we see Winthrop logos on camera, on the backdrop behind the candidates, that’s going to be great marketing,” said Glenn McCall, a member of the Winthrop board of trustees and a vice chairman of the 2016 Republican National Convention.

While companies have other considerations in mind when they look to expand into a new market, Swenson says it helps if they’re already familiar with names such as “Rock Hill” and “Winthrop” previously.

“Good press is always a good thing.”

Building the foundations for a Winthrop forum

In addition to its reputation as a venue for political events, Winthrop has also increased its political expertise. The year before the 2004 campaign season, the school’s Social & Behavioral Research Lab started conducting polls, having students send out paper surveys and make local phone calls. By 2006, the Winthrop poll was conducting statewide surveys, and became the only organization to regularly take South Carolina’s pulse on a range of issues.

“It will be great to have that (forum) spotlight for Dr. (Scott) Huffmon and all his work,” McCall said. “That brings us a lot of exposure.”

The poll has since become a touchstone for local and national media covering the state.

“It’s the only regular poll providing timely, germane information about public feeling in South Carolina,” Kedrowski said. “We do horse-race polling at election time, plus public policy polling ... what people think about the Confederate flag, or food insecurity, or abortion.”

Plus, for the students who work on the poll, “they get a kick out of seeing the Winthrop poll mentioned on CNN.”

Since 2008, the school has also hosted the John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy, an institute focused on civic engagement and leadership that relocated to Rock Hill from the University of South Carolina. Named after the former South Carolina governor, West’s widow Lois Rhame West was a Winthrop graduate.

“Mama said ‘go to Winthrop,’ and we said ‘yes, ma’am,’” said Jack West, son of the former governor, who is proud of the things the forum has done for young people at the school. “Winthrop was very dear to both of my parents.”

The West Forum sponsors public-affairs internships in Columbia during the legislative session, a “New Leadership” initiative to train women in public service careers, and student-led voter registration drives. In election years, the forum invites candidates to speak on campus. It also underwrites the Winthrop poll.

“That poll is read by every politician in Columbia on both sides of the aisle as soon as it comes out,” West said. “You can go to the bank on (Huffmon’s) results.”

The West Forum has combined with the university’s other features to make Friday’s event possible.

“All those things come together to give Winthrop legitimacy. Our faculty is very knowledgeable, the Winthrop poll gives us notoriety, and we’ve successfully hosted candidates in the past,” Kedrowski said.

While the university’s reputation in political circles has grown, as real estate agents know, location also matters. The fact that Byrnes Auditorium is in the middle of a scenic campus doesn’t hurt its chances of attracting TV cameras to the acreage off Oakland Avenue.

“A beautiful campus gives them great eye candy, or what they call ‘optics,’” Kedrowski said.

The Democrats are also likely looking north of the border as North Carolina holds its primary March 1, just days after the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27.

That makes the Charlotte media market attractive to campaigns; they can reach two states for the price of one.

“York County is kind of the best kept secret,” Whisonant said. “We’re not Greenville, Columbia or Charleston, and this is a great opportunity for those coming in to really take a look at York County.”

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome