Presidential nominees have averaged an almost 6-point jump in the polls after their respective conventions, according to Gallup.
And while there have been wild swings from cycle to cycle — in 2004, for example, the average convention bounce was just 2 percentage points, while, in 1992, it was 11 — Mitt Romney can expect to see some movement in the polls after Tampa.
President Obama holds his convention the week after Romney, but that might not have too much of a bearing. While conventional wisdom would indicate whoever went last would get the biggest bounce, Gallup points out “the particulars of the convention in terms of political party and incumbency/convention order” don’t have much of an effect.
So will Romney see a tiny, 2004-like bounce, or a gigantic 1992 bounce?
Here’s the case for each:
Will it be a 2004 convention?
Many have noted that the 2012 election bears some similarities to the 2004 campaign between then-President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
The electorate is polarized, the candidates have remained within a few percentage points of each other throughout the course of the campaign and there have been relatively few undecided voters since the general election effectively began in April.
For example, according to the 10 most recent opinion polls, an average of 92 percent of voters say they’ve already made up their minds about the election, and that number hasn’t shifted appreciably during the course of the campaign. In April, an average of 92 percent of the electorate had made up their minds about the November election. That’s just 0.2 percent lower than the average now.
Further, there’s evidence that that 92 percent really have decided, and that the race is as firm as polling indicates. During April, Obama averaged a 2.2 percent lead in a head-to-head match-up with Romney; four months later, his current lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls sits at 2.8 percent.
That means that, hundreds of millions of dollars later, a statistically meaningless 0.2 percent more voters have made up their minds about the election and the needle has moved a statistically meaningless 0.6 percent between one candidate and the other.
So what does this mean for the GOP convention?
Well, theoretically, conventions don’t change the minds of voters who’ve already decided. And this year, there aren’t nearly as many undecided voters; thus, the conventions are bound to have less of an impact.
2004 provides a perfect case in point as to how political environments with very few undecided voters tend to react to conventions.
According to Gallup, Bush gained only 2 percentage points after the 2004 Republican convention, while Kerry actually lost 1 point after his Democratic convention.
In other words, no one was swayed, and that electoral intransigence is predictable, considering the small number of undecided voters. Well, enter 2012, and its polarized, hardened electorate. If hundreds of millions of dollars and relentless attention from the media haven’t shifted numbers, why would a convention?
Will it be a 1992 convention?
The other possibility is that 2012 isn’t like 2004, but actually more like 1992.
In 1992, an unpopular incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, presided over a dismal economy and dour national mood. His opponent, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, had deep liabilities that were different in nature but no less severe than Romney’s own electoral limitations. Throughout the summer, Bush and Clinton were battling to a draw, but then two seminal events seemed to put Clinton over the top.
First, he picked Al Gore to be his running mate. Gore was young and fresh, and he reinforced Clinton’s change-based narrative. Then the convention came, and Clinton finally connected with the nation and never looked back. Gallup showed Clinton picking up a 16-point bounce after the convention — the biggest bounce of any nominee in the history of Gallup polling — and the Arkansas governor won the election in a landslide.
A few dynamics from 1992 bear uncanny resemblance to 2012. The national mood is dark and the economy darker still. Like Clinton, Romney has been battling Obama to a draw but has struggled to make the ultimate sell. But also like Clinton, he recently made a bold vice presidential pick that reinforced his core message and conferred new, vital energy onto the campaign.
If, indeed, 2012 is like 1992, Romney might be due for a convention that transforms the race for the presidency — one that finally convinces Americans that it’s OK to oust an incumbent they’re already not pleased with.
Over 50 percent of Americans routinely say that Obama doesn’t deserve reelection, but Romney hasn’t yet convinced them he’s any better. If he can do that at the convention, 2012 might look like 1992 again.