The oft-cited “convention bounce,” a near double-digit rise in the polls after nominating conventions, may be a thing of the past, done in by a polarized electorate, the fading power of the broadcast networks and a message increasingly diffused by cable TV and the internet.
Whether or not Barack Obama and Mitt Romney get significant boosts in the polls following their national conventions in August and September, history shows these bounces fade fast and are not very good predictors of who will win in November.
According to Gallup polls of registered voters, in 2000, Al Gore and Bush each got an eight-point bounce, Mike Dukakis went up 7 in 1988, Walter Mondale by 9 in 1984, Jimmy Carter went up by 10 in 1980 while Ronald Reagan jumped by 8.
The numbers are practically astronomical compared to four years ago when Barack Obama got a four-point bounce and John McCain six. In 2004 John Kerry actually dropped a point after the conventions and George W. Bush only inched up by two.
Gallup Poll Managing Editor Jeffrey Jones took a look at convention bounces just before the 2008 conventions. Analyzing the numbers after all the 22 national conventions since 1964, he found the median increase has been 5 percentage points with little difference between parties or when conventions were held. The number was pretty much on target for Obama and McCain’s bounce.
He expects a bounce this year but doesn’t know whether it will be closer to 2008 or 2004, which he describes as “an unusual year.” In his analysis before the 2008 conventions, Jones wrote that one thing that distinguished 2004 from earlier elections was that voters were tuned in to the campaign well before the conventions took place while in other elections “the conventions may have been the first time that many voters began to pay attention to the presidential race, and thus their preferences were more subject to change.”
“In 2008 both conventions produced a bounce,” he told Newsmax. “It could be that 2004 did not because it was an incumbent election year so you were for or against Bush and really had all the information you needed to make that decision. But we did see bounces in other incumbent years. 2004 may have been a combination of two factors — an incumbent election year and more people tuned into the election before the conventions took place. We have seen a trend toward people being more engaged in the election earlier on the in 2004-2012 election years than in years prior. But hard to say based on one unusual year. 2012 will be telling.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato is looking for “low to mid-single digit swings” for Romney and Obama followed by a quick fade and a “return mainly to stasis.”
“Polarization means most people are locked into their choice, and the conventions aren’t going to make much difference,” he said. “The campaigns are very long, and by late summer, voters already have a fix on the candidates, for the most part. And audiences for the conventions have declined sharply, due to news coverage cutbacks and the proliferation of channels. When I was growing up, the three channels ‘roadblocked’ gavel-to-gavel coverage. It was the only thing on TV.”
Gerhard Peters, co-founder of The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a political science professor at Citrus College, agreed that polarization may be a factor in the more modest convention bounces in the last few cycles.
“With so many additional media outlets, many of which are devoted to promoting one ideology or another, the effect of the traditional media in shaping attitudes has undoubtedly been diminished,” he said.
He did note that other events can come into play in conventions bounces, as in 1992 when Clinton came out of the convention with a bounce of 16 points.
“One thing to keep in mind that sometimes other events or particulars have an effect,” he said. “For example, in 1992, one thing that contributed to Clinton's post-convention bounce was the withdrawal of Ross Perot from the race and his statement regarding Clinton having ‘revitalized’ the Democratic Party.”
Sabato, writing before the 2008 conventions, had some advice for looking at the bounce.
“The size of the bounces can be deceptive in predicting the November winner and loser,” he wrote. “Nixon’s big 1960 bounce led to a loss, while his nearly equal 1972 bounce resulted in a landslide. Similarly, Jimmy Carter’s 1976 bounce of 13 percent presaged his triumph, but his 12 percent gain in 1980 couldn’t stop a landslide defeat. Also, George Bush’s miniscule 2004 bounce of 2 percent didn’t prevent his victory.”
He also noted that “bounces can fade quickly.”
“Historically, this has been truer on the Democratic side. Jimmy Carter slid from 63 percent after his convention to 51 percent on Election Day 1976, Michael Dukakis from 54 percent to 46 percent in 1988; and Bill Clinton from 59 percent to 43 percent in 1992.”
Gallup’s Jones said its “hard to make a prediction based on history.”
“If 2012 does not produce a bounce for either side then we could be entering a new era in which we would not expect to see bounces when incumbents are running for re-election,” he added.
Sabato is keeping his eye on favorability ratings.
“This year, I’ll be watching to see how Romney’s convention changes his favorability ratings,” he said. “It may not push him up in the horserace very much, but a four-day infomercial might help Romney connect better with the electorate. We shall see. “
Sabato acknowledged that should Obama or Romney come out of the convention with something like a 10-point bounce it would be a “big deal.
“But will it last very long? Doubtful,” he added.
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