Psst, We Like You Better Now

Election '04

There's been much discussion of the fact that John Kerry didn't receive a significant "bounce" in the polls coming out of his convention. The consensus explanation is that since most people have already made up their minds, Kerry didn't have many people to persuade. Much of the traditional convention bounce comes from voters in the nominee's own party who finally get an extended look at him and in effect "come home" to where they're going to wind up eventually anyway. Since nearly all Democrats have already decided they're voting for Kerry (approaching 90%), and he already leads Bush among Independents by a substantial margin, there just wasn't anywhere to bounce to.

Nonetheless, most polls showed some modest gains. The ABC News/Washington Post poll, Newsweek poll, and CBS News/New York Times poll all showed Kerry picking up a few points, between 2 and 8.

The exception was the Gallup poll, which actually showed Bush gaining a few points on Kerry coming out of the Democratic convention. But here's a basic fact about survey sampling: Every survey is an extrapolation from a small number of people to a larger population; sometimes you're right, and sometimes you're off, even if your methodology is perfect. When four polls are taken at the same time, and three show the same results but one has something completely different, it's the lone outlier that's probably mistaken.

So let's say you're a conservative news channel confronted with this set of poll results. What do you do? Why you focus on the one poll that differs from all the others, of course! As they've documented over at Media Matters, Fox News was all over that Gallup poll like white on rice. Not only did they play it up again and again, they made sure to emphasize how super-awesome Gallup is, lest anyone be persuaded by any of the other numbers they might encounter in non-Fox news outlets. "The Gallup poll, the most respected survey that's tracked convention bounces the longest, says Kerry got nothing," said Carl Cameron. "Let's move on to the Gallup poll, which is a very respected poll," said anchor Brian Wilson.

Now, is Gallup respected? Sure it is. But the people who put together the other three polls in question know what they're doing, too. To repeat, the inherent nature of survey sampling is that results sometimes portray public opinion inaccurately. In this case, somebody's wrong and somebody's right, and chances are Gallup is the one that's off.

Breaking it down

Notwithstanding the still-tight horse race, there are other areas in which Kerry seems to have gained significantly on Bush. Let's look at the ABC/Post poll, which asked which candidate would better handle a series of issues. On every single issue, Kerry made significant gains. Let's break it down:

The economy
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 1
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 9
Pro-Kerry shift: 10 points

The situation in Iraq
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 12
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 2
Pro-Kerry shift: 14 points

Pre-convention: Kerry leads by 1
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 13
Pro-Kerry shift: 12 points

The campaign against terrorism
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 18
Post-convention: Bush leads by 3
Pro-Kerry shift: 15 points

Health care
Pre-convention: Kerry leads by 3
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 19
Pro-Kerry shift: 16 points

Pre-convention: Bush leads by 6
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 6
Pro-Kerry shift: 12 points

OK, so Kerry appears to have gained on all the major issues – in fact, the only one that Bush still leads on is terrorism, and that's within the poll's margin of error, making it essentially a tie. But what about personality traits? After all, people don't just vote on issues, and one of the goals of the Democratic convention was to make voters more comfortable with Kerry as a person. The poll also asked voters whether a series of traits better described Bush or Kerry:

He is honest and trustworthy
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 6
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 6
Pro-Kerry shift: 12 points

He understands the problems of people like you
Pre-convention: Kerry leads by 4
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 14
Pro-Kerry shift: 10 points

He is a strong leader
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 19
Post-convention: Bush leads by 6
Pro-Kerry shift: 13 points

He takes a position and sticks with it
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 40
Post-convention: Bush leads by 29
Pro-Kerry shift: 11 points

He will make the country safer and more secure
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 16
Post-convention: Bush leads by 3
Pro-Kerry shift: 13 points

He shares your values
Pre-convention: Bush leads by 6
Post-convention: Kerry leads by 6
Pro-Kerry shift: 12 points

Kerry leads on two other questions that were only asked after the convention: "He has a vision for the future" (13 points) and "He understands complex issues" (8 points). By 8 points, voters also said Kerry is better qualified to be commander in chief of the military.

Even the aforementioned Gallup poll showed gains for Kerry on almost every issue and personality trait (although there, in keeping with its overall result on the horse race, Kerry's gains were smaller in magnitude). So even though Kerry didn't emerge from Boston with a huge lead, it does appear that lots of Americans were pleased with what they saw.

Is Bush's convention likely to have the same effect? It would be surprising if four days of praise for Bush changes the opinions people have formed about him over the course of the last four years. Since impressions of Kerry are still fresh, tearing the Democrat down will likely be more fruitful ground for the Republicans. So we can expect a whole lot of Kerry-bashing in New York.

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