The GOP convention was a bust

The question is why. Here are 3 theories

Published September 3, 2012 1:49PM (EDT)

It’s possible, I guess, that a new poll or two will be released today showing significant movement in Mitt Romney’s direction. But barring that, it looks like his convention bounce was minimal, at best.

A new Rasmussen poll gives the GOP nominee a four-point lead over Barack Obama, but Gallup’s poll actually shows Obama ahead by one – an improvement on where he was before the Republican convention started. There’s also a new Reuters/Ipsos survey that shows the race tied, indicating a small bump for Romney, was trailed by four points in the same poll last week. Overall, the Real Clear Politics average shows Obama ahead by 0.1 points. Nate Silver estimates that Romney received a bounce of about two or three points.

This qualifies as a disappointment for Romney, who had an opportunity to open his first clear lead on Obama since emerging from the GOP primaries. It was especially important for Romney to do this because of the strong possibility that Obama will receive a bounce of his own from this week’s Democratic convention. If Obama benefits from a stronger bounce, he could enter next week with a sizable lead.

So what went wrong for Romney and the Republicans last week? Here are a few possibilities:

1) Nothing: There are plenty of examples in the modern era of nominees receiving massive post-convention polling bounces. Michael Dukakis famously walked away from Atlanta with a 17-point lead in 1988, and Bill Clinton literally doubled his support -- from 28 percent to 56 percent – in one national poll after his party’s gathering in 1992. But maybe we’re entering a new, more polarized and less fluid era of politics, one in which most voters know what side they’re on and aren’t as likely to shift back and forth between the parties as they used to be.

There’s a lot to be said for this, since both parties are more clearly defined ideologically, demographically and geographically than they were a generation or two ago. The liberal northern wing of the GOP is essentially extinct, and the conservative southern wing of the Democratic Party is heading that way. This seems to be filtering down to voters, who are increasingly unlikely to split their tickets on Election Day.

There were also extenuating circumstances for some of the more dramatic convention bounces of the recent past. In ’92, for instance, Ross Perot ended his independent candidacy on the day Clinton delivered his acceptance speech – perfect timing for an outsize bounce. Similarly, Jimmy Carter probably got an extra bump from his 1980 convention, at which Ted Kennedy finally ended his challenge; many (but not all) Kennedy voters who had been telling pollsters they wouldn’t vote for Carter over Ronald Reagan returned to the Democratic fold as soon as that convention ended.

If polarization is the reason for Romney’s feeble bounce, then we can expect a similar result this week in Charlotte – meaning that Obama will pick up two or three points and the race will be exactly where it was before the conventions.

2) Fact-checkers landed a real punch: It’s easy to dismiss the impact of fact-checkers on public opinion; it’s one of the reasons I initially expected that the GOP ticket wouldn’t pay much of a price for Paul Ryan’s epically dishonest speech last week. But that was premature. Fact-checkers came down hard on Ryan last Thursday and Friday, and it bled over into objective reporting on the race. The Romney campaign wasn’t expecting this. As I wrote last week, outrage from editorial boards, fact-checkers and ad watch columns is built into their formula; but when the dominant theme of major, down-the-middle news outlets becomes the factual corner-cutting at their convention, they have a problem.

That may be what happened last week – too much critical news coverage, not enough “Romney’s triumphant moment!” coverage. Ezra Klein says the role fact-checkers played in Tampa was a revelation:

They’re stiffening the media’s spine when presented with lies and deceptions. Previously, it was difficult for reporters to say that a politician said X, and that was a lie. That’s taking sides, even if it’s simply taking the side of the truth. But now they can say that a politician said X, and the fact checkers said it was a lie.

3) It just wasn’t a good convention: Or maybe Republicans just missed an opportunity to lay out a compelling vision and to build excitement among voters. Part of this wasn’t their fault; Hurricane Isaac forced the cancelation of the first day of the convention and commanded heavy news coverage, making it harder for the GOP to break through. But there was also Chris Christie’s keynote speech, which mainly attracted attention because of how much of it was about Christie – and how little was about Romney. There was also Thursday night’s Clint Eastwood debacle, when the 82-year-old actor ate up 15 minutes of the prime 10 p.m. hour with an incoherent colloquy with an empty chair. It was a truly bizarre spectacle that distracted from Romney’s big moment and stirred more water cooler talk on Friday than anything the candidate said.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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