To bounce or not to bounce

By Stephen W. Stromberg
Published August 2, 2004 2:16PM (EDT)

Almost all the experts agreed that John Kerry would emerge from Boston with a sizeable bounce in the polls, as is usually the case after nominating conventions. But the first post-nomination surveys out challenge the conventional wisdom. Newsweek's latest poll, released in time for the Sunday-morning talk shows, shows Kerry getting an immediate mini-bounce of just four points and leading President Bush 52 to 44 percent. Gallup's post-convention poll has worse news for the Democratic challenger. It shows that Kerry actually lost ground during his nominating convention and remains statistically tied with Bush with 47 percent to Bush's 50 percent. And a new CBS News poll shows the Kerry-Edwards ticket maintaining a small lead over Bush-Cheney, 49 to 43 percent -- up only a point since the last CBS survey.

But other measures of John Kerry's appeal generally improved in the surveys. From Gallup's writeup: "Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday was rated as 'excellent' by 26 percent, a more positive response than Bush got four years ago at his convention. A 44 percent plurality said the Democrats were 'about right' in criticizing Bush; 30 percent said they went too far. Views of Kerry's personal characteristics and leadership improved across the board; views of Bush didn't change much. Bush's edge in handling terrorism was shaved to 12 points from 18 before the convention. In a switch, Kerry is trusted more to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief, 51 percent-46 percent. Kerry's military service in Vietnam, a theme of the convention, is seen as a plus. A 52 percent majority says that experience would help him be an effective president. More than one in four say it makes them more likely to vote for him."

Why the schizophrenic results? First, these polls aren't as far away from one another as they seem -- we're talking a few points up or down in either case, which is significant in a tight election, but a very small statistical difference. Second, they were taken quickly after the convention ended -- Newsweek on Thursday and Friday, Gallup on Friday and Saturday and CBS on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Historically, it takes longer than a few days for convention news to reverberate through public opinion and produce larger bounces. Third, it may well be that wavering Bush supporters just aren't yet sold on John Kerry.

The problem with all of this for the Kerry campaign is that if the initial convention bounce is much smaller than popular expectation -- inflated to unreasonable highs last month by Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster -- fewer voters may decide to hop on the Kerry bandwagon, killing the multiplying effect of the post-convention bounce. Wait for more polls out this week to make the size of Kerry's post-convention bounce -- or non-bounce -- clearer.

Stephen W. Stromberg

Stephen W. Stromberg is a former editorial fellow at Salon.

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