A poll of registered U.S. voters conducted shortly after the conclusion of last week's Democratic National Convention shows a statistical tie between President Bush and challenger John Kerry. Presidential candidates typically enjoy at least a temporary jump in popular support after their party's national convention, but this year appears to be different.
It was 12 years ago, in 1992, that polls showed then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton narrowly trailing the first President Bush going into the Democratic Party's national convention. He emerged days later with an astounding 29 point lead. That lead would shrink in the weeks thereafter but never disappear completely, and Bill Clinton went on to win the election.
Any hopes the current Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, might have had for a similar surge in support appear to have been dashed just days after the conclusion of his party's convention in Boston, Massachusetts. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Sunday shows registered voters favoring Senator Kerry over President Bush 50-to-47 percent. Among those deemed most likely to vote, the percentages reverse, with President Bush edging Senator Kerry 50-to-47 percent.
Given a margin of error of 3.5 percent, the polling numbers point to a statistical tie between the two candidates that roughly mirrors polling data collected prior to the convention.
Mr. Kerry has downplayed expectations surrounding what analysts describe as a convention-related "bounce" in popularity. Appearing on CNN's Late Edition program in an interview taped before the survey's release, the senator warned against placing too much importance on polling data.
"John [Edwards] and I do not put a lot of stock in polls," he said. "They are going to go up, they are going to go down. Polls are not what is important here. What is important here is what we want to do to put America back to work."
Officials with President Bush's reelection campaign also say they view polls with skepticism, although campaign chairman Marc Racicot did admit to some glee that the four-night Democratic gala in Boston appeared to have had so little immediate impact on the presidential race.
"It is heartening, quite frankly, for this moment," he said. "But by tomorrow, of course, we will realize that anything can change from day-to-day and that we have to continue to work hard virtually every day. The president has told us [his campaign staff] that we should run everyday as if we are behind, and that this is going to be a very close contest. He [President Bush] humbly believes that to be the case."
Political observer Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says, despite all the statements that polls are inconsequential and not to be trusted, there must be at least some consternation in the Kerry campaign that the Democratic National Convention appears to have yielded so little momentum for the presidential ticket.
"This is not a good sign for the Kerry people, although there is some other news in the polling that some of his other numbers are firming up in terms of people feeling he is a strong leader," commented Mr. Hess. "But I think they [the Kerry campaign] had to expect more of a bounce and I think they believe they deserved one given that they really did keep to their own playbook very carefully and successfully during the convention."
But Stephen Hess says it would be a mistake to infer from the polling data that Senator Kerry's nomination acceptance speech last Thursday was a dud, or that the Democratic National Convention as a whole was a failure. Mr. Hess, who served as a speechwriter for President Eisenhower and helped write the Republican Party's national platform in 1976, says that 2004 is shaping up to be an election year unlike any other in modern times.
He says for a candidate to enjoy a broad surge in support, there typically must be a large pool of undecided voters who suddenly swing in his or her favor. This year, all polls show the number of undecided voters to be minuscule by historical standards.
"I have never really seen at this stage of a presidential cycle so few people who say they are undecided," said Stephen Hess. "Some of these polls show undecided or 'swing' votes at as many as ten percent. Typically at this point it might be as much as 30 percent.
"But even that ten percent is probably an exaggeration because if you look behind that ten percent and get some snapshot of who these people are, an awful lot of them, you would have to conclude, are people who never vote anyway," he added.
Mr. Hess predicts little movement in polling data after the Republican National Convention four weeks from now, as well.
He says the small pool of swing voters points to a conundrum for both the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns: is it more advantageous to go aggressively after the tiny number of people who genuinely have not made up their minds? Or is it wiser to focus energy and resources to get a large turn-out of the parties' core constituencies? Republican and Democratic strategists say they are trying to do both at present, but Stephen Hess says that a shift emphasizing one strategy over the other may become apparent in the weeks ahead.