In a typical year, the Democratic National Convention likely would have had a significant impact on Joe Biden’s odds of winning the presidency. Political scientists studying the topic find that national conventions give parties a fairly considerable “bounce” in the polls, though often that bounce recedes after a few weeks. Occasionally, however, a bounce turns into a permanent “bump” in the polls, one that the party maintains through Election Day.
How do we know when a bounce will become a bump, particularly since both parties are likely to enjoy a bounce coming out of their conventions? The party with the net gain in post-convention polls can be said to have had the more successful convention and is likely to enjoy a bump in the polls that will carry through to Election Day.
As of this writing, the Republican National Convention had just concluded, so we don’t yet know which party will end up with the net polling advantage. We do know that polling after the Democrats’ convention indicated that, while former Vice President Biden’s favorability ratings improved, he didn’t add significantly to his lead over President Donald Trump.
Media critics, including many on Fox News, gave the Democrats good marks for pulling off a convention like no other in American history — namely, a virtual one. The event was well produced, with only minor technical glitches; the speeches were short and crisp; and the visuals, exemplified by the roll call of states, were far more interesting than the inside of a convention hall.
The party’s message was clear, and it struck a balance between critiquing the incumbent’s record and offering a positive vision of the future, a balance challengers often struggle to get right. Factional unity is one of the primary goals of any party’s convention, and the Democrats appear to have united the progressives and the centrists — thanks in large part to a full-throated endorsement of Biden by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Finally, the nominee’s acceptance speech was widely praised both for its delivery and its substance. Biden exceeded expectations while conveying the empathy and decency for which he is so well known and which offer a clear contrast with the current president.
Little room to expand lead
So why didn’t the Democrats enjoy a bigger bounce out of their convention? There are several factors at work here. One is that Biden’s lead was quite significant heading into the convention. Polling averages had him ahead by about 8 points, a fairly large lead against an incumbent, and his level of support was just over 50%, an important marker for any candidate. In other words, there wasn’t much room for Biden’s lead to expand.
Relatedly, the levels of negative partisanship and polarization we’re currently experiencing suggest that most of those who are likely to cast a vote this fall have already made up their minds. There are some undecided folks, and a few who think they’ve decided but who could still change their minds, but there aren’t many of either, especially among likely voters.
Finally, not many Americans tuned it to watch the Democrats’ convention this year. Viewership was down compared to 2016 by about 17%, on average, across all four nights. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll, only 30% of Americans said they watched at least some of the convention, either on television or online. It’s a good bet that few of those who watched are persuadable voters.
End of bounces and bumps?
Convention bounces, let alone bumps, may now be a thing of the past. Indeed, voter preferences appear increasingly baked in at the start of the campaign. As a result, campaign events and activity — conventions, debates, advertisements, gaffes — are likely to have less effect on voters’ decisions than they once did.
So what’s the point of spending all that energy on the campaign, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars, if negative partisanship and polarization mean very few voters will be influenced?
Besides the fact that those few voters will determine the outcome of the election in key battleground states like ours, there are also positive benefits to a robust campaign. Among other things, campaigns focus our collective attention on the critical issues facing the nation. Think of the campaign as a debate about the direction of the country among the roughly 240 million voting-eligible Americans. This year, that debate is especially vital.
We’re (still) in the midst of an awful pandemic that continues to kill close to 1,000 Americans per day. The resulting joblessness is as bad as it’s been in 70 years, and the economic distress caused by the pandemic is exacerbating an already extreme level of economic inequality in the United States.
Systemic racism and appalling acts of police violence against Black and Latino people have rightly ignited ongoing protests, which are forcing us to reckon with centuries-old injustices.
All of this is happening while the president of the United States lumbers toward authoritarianism. The list of democratic norms he violates grows by the day.
Trump tacitly, if not directly, embraces conspiracy theories and offers support for those who propagate them; he orders armed federal agents to suppress peaceful protests, at least once for no purpose other than an awkward photo opportunity in which he exploited religion; he misleads the public about virtually everything, from the state of the economy and the severity of the pandemic to the agenda of his opponents; he demands that public servants put their loyalty to him above their commitment to the country; and, most dangerous of all, he is subverting the electoral process by spreading disinformation about voting procedures, failing to deter foreign interference, and preemptively declaring the election “rigged” (but, conveniently, only if he ends up losing).
This fall, campaigns face a double challenge. Not only are there few voters who can still be influenced, but the coronavirus will make it harder than ever to engage them. Nevertheless, the stakes are so high that every effort must be made to do so.
As they try to mobilize their supporters and persuade the handful of voters still making up their minds, the campaigns will articulate visions of the future that differ starkly. To an extent not experienced in modern American history, the health, if not the very existence, of our democracy depends on which vision prevails.
Stephen K. Medvic is the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College.