In 1984, Walter Mondale famously asked, “Where’s the beef?” This year, Mitt Romney may be wondering, “Where’s the bounce?” A week after the Republican National Convention, Romney still hasn’t seen a significant bump in the polls.
Post-Tampa, Gallup’s daily tracking poll shows President Obama leading Romney by one point, 47 percent to 46 percent. That is, essentially, where the race stood before Republicans convened. It had a “minimal impact,” says Gallup’s Frank Newport.
Romney’s high command, however, isn’t sweating. Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, tells National Review Online that if Beltway politicos look beyond Gallup, they will see that the convention was successful in boosting Romney’s image.
“You can’t look only at Gallup,” Newhouse says. “You also have to remember that the convention bounce isn’t what it used to be. Things are really polarized today, and with the amount of television ads, it feels more like October 15 than September 4.”
Newhouse points to Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll as an example of tangible improvement. Rasmussen’s latest poll of likely voters, which was released on Tuesday, shows Romney up by two points, 47 percent to 45 percent.
But immediately after the convention, Romney’s lead in the Rasmussen poll was bigger, at four points, 48 percent to 44 percent. Before the convention, Romney was behind in that poll; the governor’s jump to 48 percent was a six-point swing.
A national Reuters/Ipsos poll of likely voters released Sunday also shows a slight gain for Romney. Before Tampa, Romney was four points behind the president and languishing in the low 40s. Now, he’s tied, with both candidates at 45 percent.
Polling experts acknowledge the various upward movements; they just don’t think they’re impressive. “We can say two things almost for certain,” Nate Silver, an elections analyst at the New York Times, wrote Tuesday. “First, Mr. Romney very probably got a bounce. And second, it’s a below-average bounce by historical standards.”
As of Tuesday, the Real Clear Politics average, a mean of major national polls, shows a dead heat. The president currently leads Romney by less than one percentage point. Still, outside of Rasmussen, Obama has often been ahead, albeit by a small margin.
A senior Romney adviser acknowledges that Romney’s numbers have been relatively static; their internal data mirror the public polls. Like Newhouse, the adviser emphasizes that the campaign’s priority is targeting undecided voters as they start paying attention in the coming weeks.
From Boston’s perspective, the convention’s goal wasn’t so much to storm out of Tampa with a big lead, though that would have been nice. More than anything, they wanted to woo the swing voters who know little about Romney’s character and his life story.
The videos about Romney’s family, the testimonials from fellow Mormons, the speeches from Romney’s sons, and remarks by former Bain Capital colleagues were all part of painting a fuller picture of Romney to push back against the Obama ad campaign.
“Save for maybe 8 or 10 percent of the electorate, many voters have locked in on a candidate,” the adviser says. “These [undecided] voters came away [from the convention] with a more favorable impression” and “increasingly” see Romney as a competent and friendly leader.
Public Policy Polling, which conducted post-convention polls in various swing states, reports that Romney’s image numbers are ticking up in select areas. In North Carolina, for example, the biography-heavy convention appears to have connected.
“Romney has seen some improvement in his image with North Carolinians,” PPP concluded. “47 percent rate him favorably now to 48 percent with an unfavorable opinion. That’s up a net seven points from our last poll, when he was at a minus-8 spread, with 42 percent of voters rating him positively and 50 percent negatively.”
Romney’s PPP numbers also look better in Michigan, where he bounced from being 14 points down before the convention to being seven points down now. He also cut his deficit in Colorado, and in North Carolina and Florida is either tied or a couple points behind.
But PPP’s picture isn’t all rosy for Romney, notably in Florida, where Republicans had hoped their convention’s location would pay off.
“The Republican convention being held in Tampa appears to have been a wash,” Tom Jensen, PPP’s director, wrote in a memo. “Thirty-three percent of [Florida] voters say it made them more likely to vote for Republicans, 33 percent said it made them less likely to vote for Republicans, and 34 percent said it didn’t make a difference to them either way.”
Romney’s allies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the polls. “I’m not sure state-by-state data is fully cooked on [the effect of a bounce] yet, and now we have the Democratic convention,” says Mike Murphy, a former Romney adviser. “So there may be bounces and down bounces. That’s why I’m basically uninterested in polling until about September 25, after both conventions, media coverage, and a few weeks of heavy ads by both sides.”
Jim McLaughlin, a New York–based pollster, tells NRO that Team Romney’s expectations should have always been low, due to the Tampa speeches’ taking place mere days before Democrats gathered in Charlotte. “Plus, Labor Day weekend isn’t a good time to be polling,” he says. “Usually, these things take days to gauge.”
A second Romney adviser, on background, tells NRO that the campaign’s senior circle isn’t worried. This week, Romney is preparing for the debates at his home in New Hampshire, and minor poll fluctuations are being watched but not obsessed over.
Romney World is mindful that viewership for the GOP convention was down from 2008, even though ratings were up for primary debates. Viewers are looking for fireworks, not scripted speeches, the consensus goes, so the conventions reached some undecided voters, but they were never going to thrill.
Tom Holbrooke, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, has recently explored the changing nature of the convention bounce. On his blog, Holbrooke points out that the biggest bumps often occur for candidates who are struggling.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater was lagging far behind Lyndon Johnson, only to see a big bounce after delivering his convention barnburner at the Cow Palace near San Francisco. The surge, Holbrooke says, simply brought the race closer to where it would end up.
“While all candidates may want to get a big bump from their convention, big bumps are not always a good thing,” Holbrooke writes. “They could signal that the campaign is not doing as well as expected.” Romney advisers agree, and argue that the race’s close nature reflects Romney’s strength.
“I just think all bets are off about any kind of past performance being a predictor of the future,” Stuart Stevens, a Romney strategist, said at a press conference last week. “I think it’s extraordinary we’re going to the [Democratic] convention tied or with the lead,” and “if the election were held tomorrow, we’d win and win pretty easily.”
Another example of how bumps rarely say anything about the outcome came four years ago, when Senator John McCain saw a five-point bounce in the Gallup tracking poll coming out of the GOP’s Minnesota convention. A cycle later, most Republican operatives attribute that bump to the buzz about his veep, Sarah Palin, which turned out to be fleeting.
Of course, as Nate Silver observes, there have been big bounces in the modern era, such as Bill Clinton’s in 1992, but Obama, who easily won the 2008 election, saw a bounce of only about two points, and John Kerry bounced by only two points in 2004, much less than the “average bounce for the challenger since 1968,” about eleven points.
Karl Rove says the convention bounce isn’t as important as the “Ryan bounce,” the bump in Romney’s numbers since he picked Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate in August.
“Before these back-to-back conventions, there used to be more time between the Gallup polls,” Rove says. “You’d have time to get a better idea of where things stood. There would be a few days for the nominee’s speech to be absorbed. Now, you’re stuck with a day or two to track things, and that is not enough time to do that well.”
The polls conducted after the Ryan pick are a better indicator than a Gallup poll that hardly budged, Rove argues. Before Ryan was picked, the Real Clear Politics average had Romney behind by approximately four points and stuck at 43 percent. “When you look at that average today, you see Romney tying the race and gaining,” Rove says.
“We weren’t looking for a big bounce,” Newhouse says. “That was never realistic. Instead, we’ve come out of the conventions as close as we went in, and in a better position in terms of Romney’s image, which is exactly what we always wanted.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.