Trump Got a Bounce From His Convention. Biden Didn’t. There’s a Lesson There.

Two new polls are in, and it looks like Donald Trump did get a measurable bounce from the GOP convention. Joe Biden, meanwhile, got a modest approval rating boost but no polling bounce from the Democratic convention. There’s probably a lesson there for Democrats.

A new Morning Consult poll today shows a 4-point shift from a pre-convention Biden lead of 10 points to a post-convention 6-point lead, shifting from 52%-42% to 50%-44% among likely voters. A new Yahoo/YouGov poll shows a 3-point post-convention shift to Trump from 9 to 6 points: from 49%-40% to 47%-41% among registered voters for Biden. While more more polling will help solidify the data, and the state of play in the swing states will be more immediately relevant than the national picture, it seems reasonable to speculate that the GOP had a moderately successful convention–however much it may have horrified those with liberal political sensibilities.

Of course, there is some question about how much it matters. Convention bounces tend to be ephemeral and ever-shrinking in the modern polarized era, and Trump’s self-destructive behavior is likely to combine with bad news about the pandemic and the economy to bring the race back to its pre-convention stable state. It’s also important to note that Biden’s 7-10 point average lead means he was already overperforming the partisan makeup of the nation and didn’t have a lot of room to grow his advantage. So perhaps the best Biden could have hoped for was improving his image among those least familiar with him, and perhaps doing no harm to his image with moderate and conservative crossover voters already leaning his way was the best the Democratic convention could have accomplished.

That said, it’s important to not to overlook the facts: Trump’s convention was oriented around his base, elevating speakers throwing red meat to extremists, horrifying the left and making no effort whatsoever to reach out to moderates–and the president was apparently rewarded for that with a convention bounce. Biden’s convention was oriented almost entirely around outreach to moderates and conservatives, elevating literal Republican voices and mostly silencing his left flank–and the Democratic nominee received no bounce at all.

It’s also disturbing when you consider other intangible factors ranging from audience to expectations. Three million more viewers tuned into the DNC Convention than the RNC Convention. And while Biden has long been in the public spotlight, he has also been four years out of the vice-presidency, while Trump has been drawing all the political oxygen in the country for years now. So in theory, Biden had more to gain from a re-introduction to the public eye, while most persuadable voters have largely tuned out the current president. Republicans also badly mismanaged the convention expectations by most standard political analyses, portraying Biden as a declining mental incompetent and Trump as a glorious God Emperor. So when Biden gave a commanding performance in his speech and Trump lolled through a boring teleprompter reading, that should in theory have redounded to Biden’s advantage.

So the fact that Trump got a polling bounce while Biden did not is deeply problematic. The best that could be said is that the DNC convention did Biden no harm in an environment where he is already overperforming base partisanship among likely voters. But Trump is also failing so profoundly as a president that it says something disturbing either about the electorate or the DNC’s messaging strategy that Team Biden could not capitalize on Trump’s disasters over the course of four days’s attention from 20 million viewers, to even shift the polling by a single percentage point. It was more forgivable when there was speculation that no convention bounces could be expected for either side. But Trump’s bounce disproves that theory.

The available evidence suggests that mobilizing a partisan base, appealing to core values, and making the strongest, most emotional possible case against an opponent to maximize negative partisanship is the best way to a run a national convention. Anyone whom Biden could reach with a cross-partisan outreach strategy had evidently already been reached. Meanwhile, there is clearly a section of the electorate that was either flirting with voting for Biden, thinking of skipping the election or even refusing to answer polls, who were inspired to come back into the fold as a result of the RNC convention.

That should be a lesson Democrats take to heart looking forward toward 2024 and beyond.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.