There was a lot of panic over a conflicting series of polls released this weekend, which had the helpful benefit for President Obama of pushing the latest grisly unemployment report off the front pages. Never mind hundreds of thousands of people dropping out of the workforce, or crashing job creation numbers — how about that polling ???horse race???? (And here I thought liberals were down on equestrian sports, after the contempt they heaped upon Ann Romney???s horse riding.)
Taken in total, with the static of distorted samples stripped away, these polls told a simple story, which the latest Washington Post / ABC News poll punctuates: both Obama and Romney received roughly equivalent ???bounces??? of 4-5 points from their conventions, and the race is pretty much back where it began, in a dead heat. The WaPo/ABC poll has it Obama 49 percent, Romney 48 among likely voters.
This is pretty much in line with the way conventions have generally worked in the mass-media era. The biggest ???bounce??? in recent memory was enjoyed by McCain-Palin in 2008, and look where that got them. Conventions may be the formal ???kickoff??? for the campaign, with both symbolic and practical significance, since candidates can???t access their full campaign funding until the nomination has been formally delivered??? but only some of the previously disinterested, persuadable electorate tunes in for the kickoff. A lot of them won???t check in until the debates at half time ??? and, sadly, some of them won???t really pay attention until the two-minute warning at the end of the campaign season.
Events that occur along the way will shape the decisions of even these late-breaking voters, so everything from the primary season through the final weeks of the campaign matters, but rarely is any of it decisive. The conventions are three-day infomercials, which both parties are fairly adept at staging. Perhaps the bizarre bungles of the Democrat convention made it more interesting to television viewers, increasing exposure for its big moments, particularly Bill Clinton???s speech. I wouldn???t plan circus acts like the ???God and Jerusalem??? floor vote on purpose to attract attention, but I???d be happy to take advantage of whatever attention they brought to my serious endeavors.
With everything pretty much back to a dead heat, analysts are down to sifting through tea leaves with a magnifying glass. Is it bad news for Obama that he seems incapable of sustaining more than 50 percent in these polls? Or is Romney in trouble because he can???t open a significant lead over an incumbent who presides over an economic disaster? If that???s true, does it mean a critical mass of voters has either tuned out the horrid economic news, or accepted Obama???s argument that none of it is his fault? Or do poll respondents harbor a greater desire to ???fire??? Obama than they???re willing to admit? Did Obama???s massive negative campaign pre-emptive strike on Romney succeed in defining him, in the minds of enough voters, to hold him under 50 percent? Was Obama???s convention bounce largely a result of Bill Clinton getting the base fired up, and if so, will that benefit fade swiftly?
One clue is that Obama generally does better among the broader sample of registered voters. The WaPo/ABC poll gives him a 50-44 lead among that sample. If registered voters get excited and turn out for Obama, it would obviously be a great advantage for him. That???s why the Democrat convention had such an aggressive, sometimes even shrill, tone. It was all about getting people fired up, and making them forget four years of double-digit unemployment. Even voters outside the Democrat base might sample the two conventions and think, ???Wow, the Republicans say Obama???s a nice guy who???s in over his head, but the Democrats say Mitt Romney is the devil ??? he wants to leave women to bleed to death in operating rooms!??? Some of the more cynical voters are mostly shopping for the candidate they want to vote against.
Such a ???passion gap??? can lead to temporary polling benefits, especially if the media plays along and exacts no price for the hysterical tone. (How are all you ???fact checkers??? doing? You???ve been awfully quiet lately. Still in shock after Bill Clinton???s mendacity bomb?) But it???s difficult to sustain all the way through an election, particularly when it relies heavily upon surrogates, rather than the candidate himself.
The internals of the WaPo/ABC poll illustrate this difficulty for the Democrats. The poll asked a series of questions about ???issues and attributes,??? some of which were painfully silly, such as which candidate the respondent would rather entertain as a dinner guest. (Obama wins that one by 20 points!) Obama ended up with a lead on eight of these sub-questions, including a 21-point edge on women???s issues and a 15-point lead on ???advancing the interests of the middle class.??? Romney didn???t lead on any of the ???issues and attributes.???
And yet, the overall poll result was a dead heat among likely voters, and the poll detected ???stubbornly unchanged negativity??? surrounding Obama???s job approval, particularly his handling of the economy. It doesn???t sound like voters have forgotten about the economy ??? and given the amount of effort the Democrat convention invested in changing the subject, that???s not good news for Team Obama. Barring some world-shaking developments in foreign policy, they won???t receive another such opportunity to change the subject, and Obama won???t be able to hide behind Bill Clinton on the debate stage.
The Republican convention was a careful outreach to disappointed Obama voters, gently reminding them it???s OK to dismiss a President who can???t get the job done, and re-introducing Mitt Romney after months of low blows from the Obama team. The Democrat convention was a revival meeting for their base, abandoning all that ???forward??? stuff to wallow in the nostalgia of Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Obama???s 2008 ???hope and change??? campaign. They had roughly equivalent effects on public opinion in the short run ??? perhaps just a little better for the Democrats, who were wise to shore up their flagging base. But which will prove to be the better long-term investment? A lot depends on how wide the gap between ???likely??? and ???registered??? voters turns out to be, and whether the American public is really interested in electing a Dinner Guest In Chief.