The bounce myth: Why conventions really matter (it's not the polls)

TAMPA, Fla.—Despite lamentations and wailing worthy of the Old Testament from the estimated 15,000 journalists covering the Republican convention, the fate of civilization does not depend on the weather here in Tampa this week. Come Election Day it will be very hard to find a voter anywhere who selected a presidential candidate based on the course of Tropical Storm Isaac.

Of course, the pre-emptive cancellation of the convention’s Monday night session has political consequences, but they’re not large repercussions. Before Isaac was even a tiny storm cloud, the broadcast networks had decreed that Monday night is for ratings, so there would have been no prime-time coverage in any case. While the Republicans will lose a few hours of free promotional time on the cable networks and public television, this is mostly a blow to the delicate egos of originally scheduled Monday night speakers like Nikki Haley, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee.

Perhaps because they are such artifacts of history, conventions cannot be reduced to the tweet-by-tweet microscopic analysis that has become standard in campaign coverage. Stretched over four … err … three days, conventions remain the one period on the campaign calendar when it is possible to take the long view and recognize that most voters react to political stimuli at a much slower pace than a cable-news segment producer trying to goose ratings. 

Sadly, the standard unit of political debate in America has been whittled down to the 30-second attack ad. Even presidential debates with their three-minute answers and their 90-second follow-ups play to the truncated attention spans of Hollywood agents. But conventions–despite being reduced to three days–allow the presidential nominees and their parties to present substantive arguments and protracted biographical sketches to an audience of tens of millions of voters.

Mitt Romney’s Thursday night acceptance speech may be the single most important moment of the campaign. Many undecided and loosely aligned voters have never seen Romney outside two-minute news snippets and 30-second commercials. While President Barack Obama has become a known quantity after nearly four years in the White House, Romney remains a bit of a blur. This will be his moment to define himself both in policy and in biographical terms–almost an hour of primetime uninterrupted by press questions, TV commercials or Democratic rapid response.

But the authenticity of convention speeches can be undermined by contrived moments such as the inappropriately intimate onstage kiss between Al and Tipper Gore in 2000 and the snappy salute with which John Kerry began his 2004 acceptance address. The cautious Romney is unlikely to err in those particular directions. His challenge is how to introduce himself to the American people without playing it so safe that his speech is merely a collection of conservative catchphrases and predictable paeans to his family and his faith.

Americans do vote with their TV clickers. In 2004, in the midst of an uninspiring battle between a shopworn George W. Bush and a wooden John Kerry, fewer than 28 million viewers watched the convention acceptance speech of either candidate. But fueled by the excitement of the 2008 campaign, the live audience for both Obama’s and John McCain’s acceptance speeches jumped to 38 million. If Romney gets anywhere close to that number, the loss of the first day of the convention will be irrelevant.

During convention season, there is a more intense discussion of bounces than at a tennis-ball factory. It seems obvious that after a week of concentrated and mostly positive media coverage of a convention, the poll ratings for the candidate should go up. That is what happened in 2008 when Obama took the lead at the start of the Democratic convention only to fall behind John McCain immediately after a successful GOP convention. (The polling data that I am using comes from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, a large sample campaign poll conducted for academics and political scientists.)

But to obsessively measure the polling bounce solely in horserace terms misses part of the point of conventions and their message to voters. A large part of the game is reshaping voter impressions of candidate attributes. In their scholarly study, “The Obama Victory,” Kate Kenski, Bruce Hardy and Kathleen Hall Jamieson use the Annenberg polling data to illustrate how the conventions burnished the images of both vice-presidential nominees, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. As they put it, “Biden’s speech indirectly affected vote preference by influencing his favorability ratings, which in turn increased our respondents’ disposition to vote for the Democratic ticket.”

That precedent underscores the potential importance of Paul Ryan’s address to the convention. Because his reputation was forged in conservative policy circles rather than in the congressional leadership, Ryan has never faced anything resembling the national audience that he will address on Wednesday night. Beyond adding substantive heft to the Republican case against Obama, Ryan in his speech should also make voters feel reassured by Romney’s judgment in selecting him.

Many of the momentarily over-hyped events at a convention are forgotten by the time the delegates and reporters head for the airport. In a sense, a convention is a mosaic that you study by looking at the overall impression rather than the individual tiles. Or to put it in terms that Ronald Reagan might appreciate, the question at the end of the week for Romney and the Republicans should be: “Are you better off than you were four days ago?”