One of the standing assumptions of most political pundits is that each party will emerge from its national convention these next two weeks with a “bump” in the poll numbers for their candidates. Gallup reports that the post convention fluctuations in its survey numbers give candidates a typical bounce of about five percentage points. Given the close nature of the current presidential contest and the fact that he has been trailing President Obama all year, Mitt Romney would certainly be happy with that kind of boost. It would be enough to put him into the lead at a time when he needs a momentum change.
But while pundits are also cautioning both the candidates and their supporters to remember that convention bounces tend to flatten out by the time the voters have their say in November, there are good reasons to believe the traditional bump may not be as strong in 2012 as it has been in the past.
The willingness of Democrats to junk tradition and step up their attacks during their opponents’ convention may be another indication of the administration’s determination to adopt any tactic or smear if it will help the president’s re-election. But it could be a stroke of strategic genius if it alters the monochromatic nature of the political conversation during a convention week and neuters Romney’s bounce. Hurricane Isaac, especially if it turns out to be worse than expected, could also divert the country from the Romney pep rally and diminish its significance. Just as important is the possibility that viewership for the scripted infomercials staged by both parties won’t generate as much interest as in the past and therefore mean a smaller impact on the polls.
Any bounce, no matter how small, that leaves Romney in the lead rather than trailing Obama, as he has all year, would be crucial. Though Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate energized Republicans and demonstrated a willingness to emphasize the differences between the parties, the last month was bookended by problems. The media-driven claim that his foreign trip was undermined by gaffes both real (the Olympics) and imaginary (Palestinian culture) didn’t help him. Even worse, the week before the convention was marred by the Todd Akin fiasco, a gift to the Democrats that may keep on giving all fall. If two weeks from now, Romney has evened the small gap between himself and the president or taken a tiny lead, it will have been a major achievement and could put him on track for a November victory.
But if the media spends the coming week devoting a lot of attention to Democratic guerilla warfare in Tampa, it could alter the traditional equation that produces convention bounces. Traditionally, the opposition stays quiet during their rivals’ convention week, allowing each side to portray their candidate and party without too much contradiction. But if the Democratic plan to trash courtesy succeeds, it cannot but help depress the bounce. Even if the GOP retaliates the following week in Charlotte — a trick that won’t be as easy without the cooperation of the mainstream media that the Democrats may receive in Tampa — the result will still be to Romney’s disadvantage.
The hurricane may be another piece of bad luck for the Republicans. The cancellation of the first night of the convention isn’t catastrophic but if Isaac inflicts terrible damage on Florida, it will be true disaster for the GOP since it will mean the party won’t have a monopoly on the media in the coming days.
But hovering above all of these factors is something that pundits and political junkies tend to forget: the conventions are no longer the greatest political show on earth and the public knows it. The party conventions were once great colorful dramas where real decisions were made both on the floor and in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms elsewhere. That changed a long time ago, but its impact on the public’s interest in them may be finally catching up to that reality because of the way the media has been transformed in the last two decades. The broadcast networks are limiting their coverage this year to three prime-time hours each and the parties should think themselves lucky to get that much. In 2008, the debut of Sarah Palin and the historical nature of Barack Obama’s acceptance of his party’s nomination riveted the nation but there will be no such drama this year.
As John noted on Friday, Romney’s acceptance speech will be more closely watched than Obama’s a week later, but the assumption that the whole nation will be riveted by it or any such address may not be justified anymore. All that may add up to a situation where the crucial question may not be how long the post convention bounce lasts but why it never happened. If so, it won’t be good news for Mitt Romney.