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The State: of the (Non) Conventions

News / The State July 30, 2020

Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.

If you have a convention and no one shows up, do you get a polling bounce?

Like all the other curveballs the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our modern methods of electioneering, the Democratic and Republican national conventions will look a lot different as they convene in August in a scaled--down setting. The Democratic Convention will be mostly virtual, while the Republican event will be a shell of the boisterous gathering that was being planned until just recently. Americans will not be seeing arenas packed to the rafters the nights Joe Biden or Donald Trump accept their respective nominations, and the balloons and confetti are likely to stay in a box.

So, it begs the question: for events like conventions meant to provide a polling boost as the candidates head  toward the general election– does a virtual or scaled-down convention give Biden or Trump the momentum they desire heading into the fall?

The reality is that conventions are costly events that lead to a modest polling bounce, at best, which eventually returns to where the candidate was before. The University of California at Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project has a compilation of post-convention polling going back to the 1964 race that shows candidates have received an average of a five-point bounce. Since 2000, the post-convention average has decreased to a 3.3% bounce. By a month after the convention, the race is back to where it was, or a new polling leader has emerged due to a set of factors separate from the convention.

So, what purpose does a 21st century convention serve? They are supposed to be four-day informercials that go uninterrupted during primetime television hours. They feature star-studded surrogates ideally using their convention address to simultaneously bring the party faithful home, while convincing undecided voters why their nominee is the best person to lead the country. But in America’s current state of hyper-partisanship, most minds are already made up. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that there are just 13% of registered voters still up for grabs. There is also very little party crossover. A July poll from Fox News shows neither Biden nor Trump earning more than a few points from the opposite party.

So, in a global pandemic environment where the razzle dazzle is not an option, can anyone benefit from a virtual convention?

As it stands now, less than three weeks from the start of the Democratic Convention and a week later, the Republican counterpart, Biden has an 8.2% lead in the average of polls, according to FiveThirtyEight. If Biden wants to get a bounce or at least maintain his lead after the convention, he’ll likely need an event that appeals to the few undecided  voters, the suburban voters Democrats are hoping to capture, and the Rust Belt voters who flipped to Trump in 2016. Convention planners recently said the virtual event will include not just politicians, but average Americans who are speaking about why they support Biden. Additionally, it is expected that John Kasich, former Republican governor of Ohio, will be speaking, which could help Biden make his case in the Rust Belt.

For Trump, it would benefit him to de-emphasize the importance of the convention, especially now that he is unlikely to have a raucous acceptance speech. It remains to be seen how the Republican Convention will play out, but it would have to be a very well-produced convention to get a poll bounce higher than the 3.3% average of the last five elections, and significantly more to overtake Biden. Given the constraints of the pandemic, and barring a disastrous Democratic convention, this is a remote possibility.

For both campaigns, the more important events will be the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in the fall. The campaigns additionally need to focus on turning out their known supporters since early balloting will start in North Carolina just a week after the conventions end, followed closely by Pennsylvania and Michigan – all critical swing states. Finally, the data shows that if there is going to be any sustained momentum for either candidate, it’s not going to come out of the convention, but down the road when undecided voters are making up their minds in the final days and weeks of the election.

For more analysis on the 2020 Election click here.

Michael Sistak is AFBF’s director of grassroots program development.

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