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Cities that host political conventions can rake in as much as a quarter-billion dollars or as little as nothing. It depends on who’s doing the math—and what’s in the forecast.

Denver reported that the 2008 Democratic convention, where Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination, contributed $266 million to the city’s metropolitan area. Included in the city’s math was an estimated $26 million from spending on lodging and accommodations. But the report didn’t account for rooms that would have been occupied anyway, economists say. “It’s not like all the hotels were going to be empty,” said Mac Clouse, a professor of finance at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. During conventions, local residents also go on vacation or work from home to avoid the chaos, thereby denying expected income to restaurants and other shops, Clouse said. And even the benefits from the influx of visitors can be overly concentrated in certain areas, rather than distributed across a city. “The impact is probably still significant,” Clouse said, “but maybe only a half to two-thirds.”