Sabato's Crystal Ball

How the Convention Ball Bounces

Convention bounces in recent history

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics August 20th, 2008

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Forget the Olympics. Political junkies are in the convention pre-season. As we approach the Democratic National Convention on August 25 to 28 and the Republican National Convention on September 1 to 4, analysts just want to know one thing: How big are the bounces?

The “bounce”, of course, refers to the jump in the polls that a party experiences as a result of its week of media propaganda, broadcast free on all major news networks and in every news publication. Don’t get us wrong. We favor giving each party its chance to tell a story about its nominee and its principles; this is invaluable civic education for voters who don’t pay close attention normally.

Yet we shouldn’t see the conventions as more than they are. Ever since the 1972 GOP Convention that re-nominated President Richard Nixon, when the conclave literally followed a minute-by-minute script that detailed how long delegates should applaud in each instance, the parties have striven to follow the pure public relations model. Nary a discouraging word is spoken, every picture for the cameras is perfect, and “boring” becomes a religion.

Thus, at the end of the week, with the nominee having delivered a much practiced and poll-tested acceptance address and been accompanied by balloons, confetti, and family aplenty on stage, the candidate ought reasonably to be at his polling peak. The extra points added by the convention comprise the bounce, and size matters. The parties compare their bounces, and inevitably someone has a case of bounce envy.


Figure 1. REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION BOUNCES

In six of the 15 presidential elections since World War II, the overall third party vote has exceeded the Democratic or Republican margin of victory in the popular vote. Those half dozen elections are indicated below in BOLD. The number includes the trio of contests from 1992 through 2000, when none of the winners attained a majority of the popular vote.

REPUBLICAN CONVENTION BOUNCES
Year Convention Date Gallup Poll Before (date) Gallup Poll After (date) Bounce
1960 Jul. 25 – 28 33% (Jul. 16 – 21) 45% (Jul. 30 – Aug. 4) + 12
1964 Jul. 13 – 16 19% (Jun. 25 – 30) 26% (Jul. 23 – 28) + 7
1968 Aug. 5 – 8 37% (Jul. 18 – 23) 43% (Sep. 1 – 6) + 6
1972 Aug. 21 – 23 55% (Aug. 4 – 7) 66% (Aug. 25 – 28) + 11
1976 Aug. 16 – 19 27% (Aug. 6 – 9) 36% (Aug. 27 – 30) + 9
1980 Jul. 14 – 17 40% (Jul. 11 – 14) 46% (Jul. 30 – 31) + 6
1984 Aug. 20 – 23 48% (Aug. 10 – 13) 57% (Sep. 6 – 9) + 9
1988 Aug. 15 – 18 42% (Aug. 5 – 7) 48% (Aug. 19 – 21) + 6
1992 Aug. 17 – 20 32% (Aug. 13 – 14) 38% (Aug. 21 – 23) + 6
1996 Aug. 12 – 15 36% (Aug. 11) 41% (Aug. 16 – 18) + 5
2000 Jul. 31 – Aug. 3 46% (Jul. 25 – 26) 50% (Aug. 4 – 5) + 4
2004 Aug. 30 – Sep. 2 45% (Aug. 23 – 25) 47% (Sep. 3 – 5) + 2
Total Republican Bounces: 11 out of 12
DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION BOUNCES
Year Convention Date Gallup Poll Before (date) Gallup Poll After (date) Bounce
1960 Jul. 11-15 46% (Jun. 30 – Jul. 5) 51% (Jul. 16 – 21) + 5
1964 Aug. 24 – 27 63% (Aug. 6 – 11) 62% (Sep. unspecified) – 1
1968 Aug. 26 – 29 26% (Aug. 7 – 12) 30% (Sep. 1 – 6) + 4
1972 Jul. 10 – 13 32% (Jun. 16 – 19) 32% (Jul. 14 – 17) 0
1976 Jul. 12 – 15 50% (Jun. 25 – 28) 63% (Jul. 17 – 20) + 13
1980 Aug. 11-14 28% (Aug. 1 – 4) 40% (Aug. 15 – 18) + 12
1984 Jul. 16 – 19 35% (Jul. 13 – 16) 38% (Jul. 27 – 30) +3
1988 Jul. 18 – 21 47% (Jul. 8 – 10) 54% (Jul. 22 – 24) + 7
1992 Jul. 13-16 31% (Jul. 9-10) 59% (Jul. 17) +28*
1996 Aug. 26 – 29 46% (Aug. 23 – 25) 54% (Sep. 2 – 4) + 8
2000 Aug. 14 – 17 40% (Aug. 11 – 12) 48% (Aug. 18 – 19) + 8
2004 Jul. 26 – 29 48% (Jul. 19 – 21) 48% (Jul. 30 – Aug. 1) 0
Total Democratic Bounces: 9 out of 12

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates that Ross Perot dropped out of the ’92 race on on July 16, 1992. This impacted the polls following the Democratic National Convention which, ended on the same day, much more so than the GOP post-convention polls in August.

Source: Gallup polls from Roper Center‘s iPoll database.


Let’s look at the record from 1960 to 2004 in the table above. Several observations can be made from these twenty-four conventions.

The last point is by far the most important. Recent history suggests that there is a better than even chance we’ll be misled by the post-convention bounces in 2008. Yet forests will be lost to produce the newsprint for the stories about the overarching significance of 2008’s post-convention bounces. And the “tubes” that comprise the internet (in the immortal description of now-indicted Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens) will be clogged with breathless analysis of the same numbers.

The Crystal Ball‘s readers are hereby forewarned. Pretty propaganda shows can move polls temporarily, but it is the election fundamentals that determine the general election outcome.


Addendum: A little dab of history will prepare you properly for the upcoming conclaves in Denver and the Twin Cities. Our crack Crystal Ball staff has put together a marvelous resource listing all national political conventions for the major parties (Democrats, Republicans–and the GOP’s predecessor, the Whigs). The dates of the conventions, cities in which they were held, specific meeting sites, the number of ballots needed to nominate a presidential candidate, the first ballot leaders, and the ultimate nominees are all included. Enjoy!