The Convention Bounce
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Sep 10, 2008
First, let' s look at how polling works. According to Brody's Assessing the President, public opinion is a reaction of media coverage of elites. Since the public cannot spend the time to gather information on their own, they rely on the media to provide them the information they need to make decisions. However, the media does not make up news. Profesional principles say they must cover what others say and so reports reflect what the elites are saying. Thus, the public opinion is a function of what the elites tell the media. However, there is some selective perception as partisans see what they want to see. For independents though, the media can exert a larger influence.
In this way, positive media coverage of the Democratic convention led to a bounce for Obama because the public did not hear a competing narrative. When the Republican convention began, the public heard another positive narrative wthout hearing the other side. This led the public to think positively about McCain and increased his support. As the media returns to a more balanced coverage of the two candidates (i.e., saying good and bad things about both), people will hear differing stories and McCain's support will fall.
Now, let's see how this played out. Prior to the Democratic convention, McCain and Obama were neck and neck. Real Clear Politics has three polls from Aug 23- Aug 25 showing a tie or slight McCain advantage. Then the convention began. Each night you had Democrats singing the praises of Barack Obama. His wife the first night, Hillary Clinton the second, and Bill Clinton and Joe Biden the next. As custom dictates, the opposite party laid low allowing the party to have its time in the spotlight.
Moreover, the convention disproved the convention story line. Going into the convention, the media talked about division between Obama and the Clintons. Then the Clintons disproved it in dramatic ways. First, Hillary gave a good speech telling her supporters that her issues are Obama's issues. The next day, Hillary moved to make Obama the nominee by acclamation during the roll call. This and the historic nature of the nomination of the first African-American candidate for president are historical and received much positive press coverage. Third, on Wednesday night, Bill Clinton said that he knows what it takes to be president and that Obama has what it takes. And Joe Biden sang the praises of Obama while everyone took shots at McCain and the Republicans. Finally, Obama gave a good acceptance speech before 80,000 and 40 million viewers.
Consequently, the unfiltered media coverage of the speeches plus the excitement of Obama and a united Democratic party presented a positive image. Unsurprisingly, Obama got a bump as Real Clear Politics shows with a 8-9 point lead going into Labor Day.
Obama would have received a bigger boost but the Republican Party started its nomination the very next week changing media coverage from the Democratic Convention to the Republican Convention and thus a different message. Moreover, McCain smartly decided to announce his choice for VP the day after Obama's acceptance speech so the focus of the media for Friday and into the weekend would be McCain and not Obama.
Heading into the next week, the Republican Convention delayed the start due to Hurricane Gustav. This reinforced McCain's theme of "putting country first" and resulted in positive coverage. The next night, Fred Thompson told McCain's compelling life story and how he has been a maverick his entire life. This was followed by Joe Lieberman's speech which reinforced this by having the 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee endorse the Republican. On Wednesday, Sarah Palin gave a tremendous speech which quieted many of the her doubters. She also effectively attacked Obama with humor and excited the base. On Thursday, McCain told his story and how that relates to his politial career of change and how he will change Washiington.
With all of the positive press coverage while Democrats reciprocated by staying quiet led to a bump for McCain. Real Clear Politics now shows McCain up anywhere between 2 and 10 points. The USA Today poll which shows McCain up by 10 has really got the pundits talking.
However, we have to remember that the Democrat's self-imposed silence has ended. The media will now start to carry criticism of both candidate by both parties. This will reduce the positive coverage of McCain and remind people of some of the concerns that they have about him.
So expect the polls to be back to even by the end of this week or next. This means that the polls will be back to an even race or a slight Obama lead due to the anti-Republican political environment. And that is where I expect it will be for the next couple of months.