Political analysts are paying close attention to
fluctuations in the popularity of the U.S. presidential candidates in the wake
of last week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, and this
week’s convention of the Republican Party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Some
observers expect the events to yield an increase in the popularity of both
nominees, Republican candidate John McCain, and his Democratic opponent, Barack
Obama. Professor of Political Science at Duke University John Aldrich told Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter, Darren Taylor
these boosts often don’t last very long, but can be a “useful guide” as to what
to expect in the near future.
American political commentators call it the “bounce” or
“bump,” and it usually happens after the two major parties hold their national
conventions. Simply put, they say, it’s a short-term surge in popularity
ratings for candidates following the glitz and glamour of the gatherings they
hold to consolidate ahead of a presidential election.
Candidates usually gain between five and eight points in
popular opinion polls immediately after the conventions, but these increases
usually taper off fairly rapidly as “normal” campaigning resumes ahead of the
U.S. political scientist John Aldrich says the
reasons behind the ‘bounce’ phenomenon aren’t difficult to understand.
“One of them is that the party has just had an entire
week, basically alone on television and other media, to make its case before
the public. And second, and very closely related of course, is that the
nominee…is able to make his case to the public for more or less the first time
when everybody’s paying attention and saying, ‘Okay, now it’s getting serious;
let’s pay attention to who these two (candidates) are going to be.”
Aldrich is professor of political
science at Duke University, a former co-editor of the American
Journal of Political Science and the winner of multiple awards for his writing,
which includes several books on U.S. elections.
He says “probably the most famous example” of the “bounce”
experience occurred in 1988, and concerned former Democratic presidential
candidate Michael Dukakis.
“He got a bounce after his nomination (at the convention
but) it went away and George H.W. Bush was able to win the election.”
After the Democratic convention in 1988, Dukakis was about
17 points ahead of the Republican George H.W. Bush. But the Bush campaign then
attacked him, accusing him of being weak with regard to fighting crime, and Dukakis’s
lead had faded by the time the Republicans held their convention. The event
provided Bush with a significant “bounce” and, unlike Dukakis, the Bush
campaign was able to sustain its momentum going into the polls.
In 1980, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan emerged from
his party’s national convention with a big lead of 16 percentage points over
the Democrats’ Jimmy Carter, but this “bounce” in Reagan’s popularity quickly
disappeared after the Democratic convention, which followed. Nevertheless, Reagan
still went on to win the 1980 election by a large margin. Four years later, the
Republican convention helped “bump” Reagan’s popularity up by as much as 25
points, and he held the advantage over Democratic candidate Walter Mondale
throughout the rest of the campaign.
Aldrich also refers to a more recent example of the
“bounce” phenomenon, in 1992, the year in which the Democrat’s Bill Clinton was
first nominated for president.
was behind (the Republican’s George H.W. Bush in terms of popularity) and got a
substantial boost after the convention, and it set him on course for his
successful election bid.”
But Aldrich emphasizes that “most of the time the bounce
goes away.” For example, former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s
popularity increased after his party’s convention in 2004, but he ended up
losing the election to President George W. Bush.
“The magnitude of the convention bump is not a great
predictor of an election outcome,” says Aldrich. Still, he maintains that the
phenomenon should provide a “useful guide” to what to expect during the
He’s convinced that the post-convention boost in
popularity provides the candidates with a great opportunity to build upon the
surge and to sustain it going into the polls. Aldrich says Bill Clinton in 1992
saw the value in his “bump” and exploited it to become president.
“He and (then-Democratic running mate and later U.S.
vice-president) Al Gore embarked on a nationwide bus tour that continued to
keep attention focused on their nomination and kept the convention bounce high
for a much longer period of time.”
say Clinton’s strategy after his convention triumph in 1992 still stands in
stark contrast to that of Dukakis, who seemed to stop campaigning after the
1988 convention and didn’t capitalize on his subsequent increase in popularity.
Dukakis thereby faded from public attention and allowed the Republicans to
reclaim the spotlight and win the White House.
says Aldrich, time is against Obama reaping reward from his post-convention
“Barack Obama this time won’t have the opportunity to take
advantage of that because we’ve turned immediately from the Democratic
convention into the Republican convention.”
The gap between the two conventions this year was just
three days -- much shorter than in past elections -- and also coincided with
the three-day national holiday weekend in observance of Labor Day. This,
analysts say, has made it very difficult for pollsters to gauge public opinion
to measure the impact that the Democratic convention has had on Obama’s
popularity. And the focus then shifted almost immediately to the Republicans,
with their national convention in Minneapolis.
The time factor, says Aldrich, has placed the Republicans
at an advantage. Following the Democratic Party’s convention in Denver last
week, opinion polls revealed no significant increase in Obama’s popularity.
They say there’s still little to separate him and Republican candidate John
McCain as the election approaches. Analysts also feel that McCain’s
announcement of the little-known governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, less than 12
hours after the Democratic showpiece event, slowed news coverage of Obama’s and
his party’s impressive performance and dented his prospects of getting a big ‘bounce.’
However, a CNN poll taken after the convention reveals
that people who watched the event – the most watched political convention in
history – were more likely to vote for Obama. CNN Polling Director Keating
Holland told the network, “Sixty-four percent rated Obama’s acceptance speech
as excellent or good, giving it significantly higher marks than any other
recent acceptance speech. The Democratic Party’s favorable ratings went up, and
the (Republican Party’s) favorable ratings went down. Historically speaking,
the convention was better than some and worse than others in the public’s mind
- not a home run, but a hit nonetheless.”
Aldrich maintains that the Democrats remain in a better
position this year to try to boost Obama’s popularity.
“This time, they (the Democrats) have the money and aren’t
bound by the financial rules (governing elections) because they’re
self-financing their campaign. They have the (means) to spend substantial
amounts of money to try to capitalize on their bounce.”