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The Incredible Shrinking Election

The post-convention polls are in, and there isn’t much for John Kerry to crow about. His “bounce” is, at best, a modest 1-2 points, which is statistically irrelevant when you consider that the margin of error in most polls is 3-4 points. Indeed, the Gallup/USA Today poll actually had him losing ground to Bush after the convention. I am inclined to discount the Gallup result because it is so far askew from all of the other polls. Nevertheless, Kerry’s bounce shapes up to be the smallest of any challenger since the Democrats nominated George McGovern in the middle of the night in 1972.

Naturally, the two parties have contrasting views as to why this happened. Republicans say that the voters finally got a good look at John Kerry, and they don’t like what they see. Democrats say that most voters had already made up their minds, and they never expected a large bounce. Neither explanation is particularly convincing, although surely the Democrats hoped for a bounce greater than zero, which is about what they got.

An article in today’s USA Today gives eight possible reasons for the non-bounce, but concludes: “Check back in five weeks” — that is, after the Republican convention. Kerry’s convention performance can be compared to the top half of the first inning in baseball. The visiting team failed to score. Bush’s convention will be the bottom half of the inning. If most voters have already decided who they’re voting for, then Bush won’t get a bounce either. If Bush does get a bounce, he could head into the fall election season with a significant advantage, since the candidate ahead as of Labor Day has almost always won in November.

The New York Times noted this morning that Kerry had two clear shots to change the dynamics of the race during July. The selection of John Edwards as his running mate was the first, and his convention speech was the second. Neither has significantly helped him, and Bush figures to dominate the headlines during the month of August. Kerry will need to play defense until after Labor Day, when the debate season will offer his last chance at swaying that ever-shrinking segment of the electorate that has not already made up its mind.

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