Heading into Labor Day weekend, Democrats and Republicans both hoped for a substantial boost as the election entered the home stretch. Both parties held a virtual convention in late August. They aimed to appeal to undecided voters and create a bounce in the polls by energizing their political base.
What is a Convention Bounce?
The coveted post-convention bounce is heralded as a game-changer in electoral politics. It allows campaigns to set the narrative heading into the election.
In 1992, Bill Clinton benefited heavily from a convention bounce. George H.W. Bush, the incumbent president, was overseeing a stumbling economy. His approval rating dropped to a record low of 29% on the night when Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination. While Bush held either small leads or a tie with 3rd party candidate Ross Perot before the convention, Clinton’s increased exposure to a national audience allowed him to shore up voters. This, in turn, allowed him to capture the White House in November.
A Theorized Trump Bounce
More recently, the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have allowed pundits to weigh in. Some have posited President Donald Trump, a major underdog, would be able to claw back into winning by running on a law-and-order message. Among white voters, support for Black Lives Matter has gone down in net support after peaking following the George Floyd protests.
A recent poll found that support for BLM dropped from +10 to -6. In a fairly white state like Wisconsin, it could be assumed that Trump’s hardline stance against Black Lives Matter and against social justice could have helped with undecided white voters and energized Republicans even more.
The Convention Bounce in Reality
In today’s current polarizing environment, a convention bounce will either be extremely minuscule or nonexistent. Long gone are the days of presidential candidates with little national exposure and a non-negligible amount of undecided voters. Polls have shown a lot of statistical noise both favoring a tightening and widening in the presidential margin.
Take for example the state of Wisconsin before and after the convention. A Civiqs poll from August 13th-17th showed Joe Biden with a 51-45 margin over President Donald Trump. Notably, only 2% of the electorate was unsure of their presidential choice, which showed a decisive electorate. Democrats broke towards Biden by a 96-3 margin, while Republicans broke for Trump by a 91-6 margin. Independents broke for Vice President Joe Biden 51-43, with three percent undecided. Notably, college-educated voters split towards Joe Biden by a 60-38 margin while white non-college-educated voters split towards President Trump by a 51-46 margin.
Similarly, a YouGov poll from August 4th-7th showed Joe Biden with a 48-42 margin over President Donald Trump. Only 7% of voters are unsure before the convention, lower than the double-digit undecided marks of the 2016 election. Democrats broke towards Biden by a 93-2 margin, while Republicans broke towards President Trump by an 87-8 margin. This was similar to the other poll released before the convention. Independents gave Joe Biden a 43-38 margin with 11 percent undecided; this was a somewhat noticeable change with more undecided voters. While there was no analogous relationship with all race education splits, amongst white college-educated voters, Biden led by a 53-36 split. President Trump maintained a 51-41 lead among white non-college-educated voters.
After the conventions, we received a Fox News poll that showed a 50-42 lead for Biden in Wisconsin. While there was a 5% proportion of voters who were unsure of their presidential choice, this was not outside of the norm of pre-convention polling; much outside Wisconsin polling showed a proportion of between 2-8% of voters undecided. Biden led with Democrats in the Fox News poll by a 95-2 margin, while Trump led with Republicans by a 86-9 margin. While independents broke for Trump by a 37-35 margin, 20% of undecideds remained undecided, analogous to the previous YouGov poll. Biden maintained a 56-37 margin amongst all voters with a college degree, while voters with no degree slightly broke for Biden by a 47-45 margin.
These stabilities in polling observed before and after the conventions can detail that while there may be small, somewhat significant shifts in support in the crosstabs (of a 1-2 point margin in a certain demographic subset), the overall trajectory of polls in Wisconsin has shown that the state, as a whole, is largely consistent. The current 24/7 media cycle surrounding the polling environment allows for a select few polls to grab headlines and create a horse race dynamic in Wisconsin. However, the fundamentals of the race still bode strongly for Biden. The overall strategy of the Trump campaign might have to shift substantially if little can be done to mobilize voters.