The GOP and Democratic political conventions are finally upon us. They will be scored by the media for tone and how well each side makes its case to Americans. No sooner will the gavel end these proceedings for campaign 2016, then those of us in the public opinion community will try to measure how the public reacted. But, beware the post-convention bounce. If history is any guide, there is no guarantee that there will be a significant change in the presidential contest as a result of the conventions, or that it will be long-lasting.
Relying upon public opinion polls to draw accurate conclusions about the relative success of each convention can be tricky. There is no one, proven formula to anticipate what is a “good,” post-convention bounce, and subsequently, what “good” or “bad” means for the future of each campaign.
In fact, there are many factors which give meaning to post-convention polls. First, both Trump and Clinton are well-known to the public even if neither one is particularly well-liked. The spectacles in Cleveland and Philadelphia are likely to have important and lasting moments, but the public is not likely to learn much new about either presidential candidate.
Second, history tells us that the underdog is more likely to receive a significant post-convention lift, but it is, more times than not, short-lived. Barry Goldwater and Walter Mondale are two examples that come to mind. But, with candidates at the top of each 2016 ticket that are already household names, in a campaign that has had its unprecedented share of surprises, who exactly is the underdog?
Third, the most recent and impactful convention was 1992. Bill Clinton rose to the occasion. But, there were other factors at work including the unexpected withdrawal of Ross Perot as the convention came to a close.
Fourth, like the last two quadrennial gatherings, these conventions are back-to-back. For political junkies, this may give the appearance of one two-week political fix and reduce the potential for a significant change in the contest.
This is not to say that the conventions will be irrelevant. Unforced errors, in what are increasingly well-scripted events, can still occur. Clint Eastwood’s chair comes to mind. Also, according to the latest McClatchy-Marist Poll, both Trump and Clinton have plenty of work to do. Trump needs to secure supporters of the other 16 candidates during the primaries. Right now, Trump has the support of only 60% of voters who said they backed someone else in a GOP primary. Clinton still needs to convince Sanders’ backers that she is the right choice. Clinton only attracts 57% of those who “felt the Bern” during the nomination fight.
Of course, the reaction of the national electorate to the conventions obscures how voters in each state (and therefore, the Electoral College totals) view the four nights of the political hoopla in Cleveland and Philadelphia. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll conducted pre-convention surveys in seven key battleground states. They show very competitive races in the Midwest states of Iowa and Ohio and a Clinton advantage in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Pre-convention, Trump and Clinton both have negatives that outpace their positives.
What should you look for post-convention? Have there been any changes in Americans’ impressions of the candidates? Has the political dialogue changed, and which candidate’s agenda is ruling the day? Does their respective selection for Vice President suggest leadership, consensus, or pandering? Does it reflect an appeal to their base supporters or an opportunity to reach out to undecided voters? Do the candidates score differently as tickets post-convention than they did pre-convention when matched one on one? The plan is to revisit these states after the shows move on to see whether voters have changed.
Whatever the result of the conventions, one thing we do know for sure. Most Americans believe this is an election that will truly make a difference depending upon who wins or loses. 73% of Americans express this opinion today compared with only 60% who shared this view just four years ago.
So, will there be a bounce? Will it be long-lasting? Or, just a blip. Stay tuned.