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Follow the Bouncing Politician
By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, July 24, 2000
Suppose they threw a political convention and nobody bounced?
Chances are reasonably good that we may find out this year, because the major networks are threatening to cut back on prime-time coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions.
And even if the network suits don't follow through on their threats to reduce coverage of the conventions, Americans may do the functional equivalent by simply not tuning in.
Network news coverage is believed to be a key component of the "bounce" -- that's political-speak for the bump up in support a presidential candidate typically gets following his party's convention. But what if nobody -- or significantly fewer Americans -- are exposed to all that giddy glamorizing of the party's respective nominees? The obvious consequence is: nothing -- that is, a limited or nonexistent bounce.
The networks may not be entirely to blame: Americans are simply losing interest in the political parties' Big Parties. A new survey by Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project suggests that a smaller proportion of Americans say they will be tuning into convention coverage this year than at any time in recent history, making up an audience nearly half the size of the audience just four years ago.
According to the most recent survey, more than four in 10 voters -- 43 percent -- said they do not plan to watch any of the Republican convention and 38 percent planned to just say no to broadcasts of the Democrats. In 1996, a Yankelovich Partners poll found that 23 percent said they would ignore the GOP convention and 21 percent expected to skip broadcasts of the Democratic convention.
"The large difference in the 1996 and 2000 polls, and other indicators of public interest in this year's campaign, point toward a smaller audience for this year's party conventions," says Tammy Buhr, research coordinator of the Vanishing Voter Project, in a summary of the ongoing project's latest survey results. (The complete release and results of earlier Vanishing Voter polls is available online at www.vanishingvoter.org.)
Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project and executive director of the Shorenstein Center's Washington, D.C., office, compares the projected dropoff in convention viewership to the declining public interest in watching serious broadcast news shows. In turn, "this is consistent with a growing and continuing disconnect between the people and democratic politics and process."
"It's getting harder and harder for any one program to draw a huge audience because there are so many choices available to the viewer," says Thomas Patterson, director of the Shorenstein Center poll and Bradlee Professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The effect is particularly pronounced in the realm of public affairs. In an earlier age, millions of Americans often came together at one time to watch a political event. Now it happens much less often."
Despite the drop in the relative size of the audience, the broadcasts still can be expected to draw quite a crowd. The Harvard researchers estimate that, in any given minute of convention coverage, there will probably be about 12 million households tuned in. "At least half of the adult population -- more than 100 million Americans -- will watch at least part of a party convention," they wrote -- an audience that may be every bit as large as for the Summer Olympic Games.
Any further reduction in the size of the convention audience may be bad news for the two parties, which already have calculated the size of the traditional post-election bounce into their strategies for the fall campaign.
Some political observers have dismissed the bounce as a distraction. After all, there are two conventions and two bounces that bounce in different directions, thus quickly canceling each other out.
Not true -- at least not always, writes Gary Langer, ABC's new director of polling, in a smart summary of the bounce effect. Bounces differ in size and longevity. Some even last until Election Day.
"So it was in 1992, the Year of the Big Bounce," Langer wrote to ABC newsies. "Bill Clinton went into the Democratic convention one point behind George Bush and left it 29 points ahead. Skeptics scoffed, calling it momentary. But it lasted, and from then to Election Day, Clinton never trailed."
Langer, a onetime Associated Press reporter, notes that Bush responded with a substantial bounce of his own. "He trailed by 21 points on the eve of his 1992 convention, then moved to within five after it. But what counts is not just the bounce's size, but its durability. In Bush's case it didn't hold: A week later he was back to a 19-point deficit." (Langer's analyses of ABC and Washington Post-ABC News polls are available online at www.abcnews.com sections/politics)
Four years ago, the bounce was far less dramatic. Republican Bob Dole cut a 19-point pre-convention deficit to a four-point deficit after it. "But that faded to a nine-point Dole deficit within a week, growing to 14 points after the Democratic convention."
And then there's the bounceless Democratic convention of 1972. Not only did George McGovern fail to cut into President Richard Nixon's 16-point lead, he left the Democratic convention with a 19-point deficit. And the rest is history.
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