CHARLOTTE – First there was a call for best barbeque sauce. Then the contest for best convention poster.
Contests to build wide public excitement about the Democratic National Convention in September in Charlotte already have begun – part of an effort to generate buzz ahead of the blockbuster political event.
There’s no bruising primary battle like the Republican fray. And President Barack Obama is certain to be smoothly set on the path to his re-election bid at a convention that fellow Democrats will seek to script and package for maximum political advantage.
But the people helping to run the Democratic National Convention say there’s more to come in the way of contests and other hoopla to build momentum and maximum excitement as they seek to draw tens of thousands of delegates, journalists and supporters to North Carolina’s largest city for the late summer gathering.
“It’s a way to engage people in the excitement of the convention,” said Suzi Emmerling, spokeswoman for the convention’s host committee.
Never mind that the gathering is still months away. In February, the host committee put out a bid for the official convention barbeque sauce. The bid calls for three different types of sauces – mustard, vinegar and tomato – to represent and showcase styles from around the Carolinas. The sauces will be sold together as a gift pack on the 2012 DNC in Charlotte website.
And while the search for the perfect sauces has begun, there also was the search for the official poster, which drew more than 400 entries from around the nation
The winner: York Technical College digital design instructor Steve Ward.
Called “Urban Unity,” Ward’s poster shows a set of red and blue clasping hands with the skyline of Charlotte in the background. The words Charlotte 2012 Democratic National Convention are in the foreground.
“This is an excellent opportunity to put Charlotte on the world stage,” said Ward, who will receive $1 in royalties for every poster sold in the convention’s online store.
He said he entered the poster contest because he wanted to create something positive out of something often seen as negative and divisive: Politics.
“Politics and religion are used as divisive tools and people kind of break into their separate groups and it all ends in arguments, and there’s nothing that gets resolve,” Ward said. “The concept of unity brings people of different parties and cultural backgrounds and viewpoints together. They are all coming together and uniting for one cause in Charlotte.”
Meanwhile, the host committee’s Emmerling says that group has another ongoing contest of sorts: Register online to get convention updates, and you might win a trip to Charlotte for the convention, with airfare and hotel included.
Emmerling says there could be more contests to come.
“We have people signed up all over the country getting updates for the convention,” she said, adding organizers want this convention to be open and accessible – and more ideas are still being accepted along those lines.
“When you have a sitting president – when you know who we’re going to be re-nominating – it’s a way to engage everyone in the process,” Emmerling said.
J. Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College, called the approach smart and novel.
“If you can sponsor, particularly here in North Carolina, a barbeque contest, that will create a lot of chatter on the street,” Bitzer said.
The convention activities in the city of 760,000 will begin Sept. 3, when organizers hold a day to celebrate the Carolinas, Virginia and the South. The celebration will take place at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
No details have been released about the Labor Day event, except that it will involve families and will allow thousands of people to participate in the convention. The massive racetrack, which annually hosts the Coca-Cola 600, a major NASCAR race, has a permanent seating capacity is about 135,000 people.
The convention itself will be held at the Timer Warner Arena on Sept. 4 and 5 - before moving outdoors to 74,000-seat Bank of America stadium for the president’s acceptance speech on Sept. 6.
At one time, political conventions were far from tourist attractions. In the 1800s and through part of the 1900s, they were rough and tumble gatherings where cigar smoking politicians in backrooms would sometimes broker deals before deciding on a presidential candidate. They also have had moments of unrest, such as in 1968, when protesters tried to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Scenes of Chicago police clashing with protesters on the streets outside the convention played on TV screens in living rooms across America.
Today, conventions are mostly scripted, with little drama. And it’s not unusual to see celebrities mingling with politicians at convention parties and other events.
While there will be glitzy parties with Hollywood celebrities that usually accompany conventions, Bitzer said the Democrats have come up with a good marketing campaign to keep their brand in front of voters.
Bitzer said the contests and grassroots fundraising nicely fit the kind of populist theme that Obama’s campaign is running on.
“It is a people-oriented campaign and if anybody – from a York Technical artist to a local barbeque place – can become the official whatever of the Democratic National Convention, that kind of taps into a populist theme that the president and party wants to run on this year,” he said.