I’m willing to go out on a limb and assert that Obama will give an effective speech this evening. It probably won’t reshape the race or something, but the guy has the presidency because he can give a convincing speech, so let’s assume it’s good enough that the Democratic National Convention will be considered a success. So what type of a bounce should Obama expect? The answer depends, in part, on the meaning of Romney’s non-bounce. Was it because the RNC was a weak convention, or just proof that few voters are truly persuadable?
There’s a strong case for either possibility. Between decent but not-quite jaw dropping speeches, a bit of mixed messaging, and the disruption of Hurricane Isaac, it’s not hard to envision why Romney’s weak bounce might simply been a product of a weak convention. For good measure, Romney’s selection of Ryan just a few weeks prior to the convention might have soaked up a few of the easy gains that might have been realized had the pick come immediately prior to the RNC. If a weak RNC was responsible for Romney’s non-bounce, then Obama might be poised for larger gains after a better executed DNC. If hesitation to embrace Romney contributed to a disappointing bounce, then Obama’s bounce could be even larger.
But there’s another simple and defensible explanation: there are so few undecided and persuadable voters that conventions just can’t move the needle like they used to, at least in a race involving a well-known incumbent. Given the stability of the horserace over the summer and the stability of Obama’s approval ratings over the couple year, it’s not hard to see how that’s possible. Even during the partisan Bush years, perceptions of Bush weren’t nearly as static as they are now—his approval had been well above fifty percent less than a year earlier, and there were probably many voters who could have been persuaded by events or policy to turn to his side. If polarization is the root of Romney’s problem, then perhaps Obama shouldn’t be expected to get much of a bounce, either.
What’s assuredly true is that we just don’t know which explanation is right. After all, Kerry’s negligible bounce didn’t stop Bush from roaring back to take a 6 point lead after his own convention. But there was a long gap between the DNC and the RNC, during which the Bush campaign laid the groundwork for a devastating attack on Kerry’s ability to lead on national security issues. The month of August featured the swift boat advertisements, wind surfing, and solid economic numbers. Bush was already riding momentum when he arrived in New York, of all places, for the RNC, where Rudy Giuliani led “flip flopping” chants before Bush gave a solid speech of his own. Bush’s bounce wasn’t just the result of a convention—it was the culmination of a month of well-executed attacks that laid the foundation for Bush’s reelection.
Whatever you think of President Clinton or Michelle Obama’s speeches, they don’t come after a similarly orchestrated wave of good news for the president, especially since the primetime speeches have focused more on making the case for Obama’s reelection than attacking Romney. Perhaps Chicago has calculated that the damage to Romney is already done, and that now all that remains is the task of reminding voters why they liked Obama in the first place. There’s a sound case to be made on behalf of that logic, even if it’s unclear how much the convention can rejuvenate Obama’s standing at this stage.