Conventions: a Bounce for the Candidates?

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – The bunting’s hung. The podiums are almost finished. As the two big parties that govern America ready for their quadrennial conventions, the question on the minds of many political pros is … well, OK, it’s who the vice presidential picks will be. But they’re also wondering something else: What’s happened to the bounce?

Historically the hoopla and media attention of conventions give nominees a boost in the polls. But in 2004, President Bush got an unimpressive 2 percent bounce following the GOP week-long party. The comparable figure for John Kerry was zero. Nada. A doughnut.

So, will Barack Obama and John McCain get bounces, or was 2004 the beginning of a trend? When it comes to conventions, the bounce is kind of the point of the thing,
after all. The gatherings are highly scripted media events designed to frame candidates in the minds of voters and provide them a head start in the race to November.

“Campaigns are a multistage process – but the convention is a key step,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

History should be some comfort to both the Obama and McCain campaigns. Almost all of the 22 national conventions held since 1964 produced an increase in voter support for their nominees, notes a just-released Gallup Poll analysis. The median increase has been five points. The only nominees to get no bounce, or fall backward, were Democrats: Senator Kerry in 2004 and George McGovern in 1972.

“This convention bounce is an important part of the presidential campaign narrative, and is one of the more highly anticipated events for poll watchers,” notes the Gallup analysis.

This boost sometimes is a slingshot that puts a trailing candidate ahead for good. According to Gallup numbers, in 1988 the conventions were the turning point for the GOP’s George H.W. Bush in his race against Democrat Michael Dukakis. Ditto for 1992, when the end of the Democratic convention coincided with independent Ross Perot dropping out of the race. Bill Clinton bounced up 16 points in Gallup surveys and never looked back.

In other years, the candidate bounces and then falls back to earth. In 1980 and 2000 Democrats Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, respectively, gained the lead in polls following convention season. Both lost after debates and other events sent their ratings down.

On average, the bounce for Democratic candidates is larger than it is for Republicans, according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. His figures show that the typical bounce for a Democratic nominee over that time has been 7.3 percent. The comparable figure for the GOP has been 6.4.

But bounces can fade quickly, Mr. Sabato notes in a recent report on post-convention polls. That’s true even for winners: In 1992, Bill Clinton was the choice of 59 percent of voters following the conventions, yet he won with only a 43 percent plurality. (After dropping out that year, Ross Perot reentered the race in October and ended up winning 19 percent of the vote.)

In terms of bounce, it doesn’t make much difference which party has the first convention, Sabato says. And in terms of foreshadowing the final outcome, the standings of both candidates after both conventions can be amazingly prophetic – or terribly misleading. Of the 24 conventions held from 1960 on, postconvention poll numbers were reasonably close to final vote percentages for 10 candidates. In the other 14 cases they were off the mark, according to the University of Virginia’s Sabato.

Conventions today are a kind of starting line for the fall campaign, geared towards framing a candidate for voters. Even for Senators Obama and McCain, the acceptance speech probably represents an opportunity to speak to more people – via the media – than they have ever addressed at a single point in their lives.

“That speech for both candidates constitutes a very important introduction to the nation,” says Mr. Zelizer.