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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Understanding the convention 'bounce' not always simple

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- History can be like a pair of binoculars, enhancing images and making everything easy to see. Or, it can be like a smoky lens that promises clarity, but in the end only obscures our sight.

When it comes to understanding convention “bounces,” welcome to the world of the smoky lens.

The American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-area think tank, has gathered pre-convention and post-convention surveys from two major polls to try to determine how much a presidential nominating convention helps its party’s nominee.

The polls, conducted since 1980 by CBS/New York Times and since 1976 by Gallup (CNN and USA Today joined the poll in 1992), reveal an answer or two, but also raise plenty of questions.

Both of the polls show a major, double-digit bounce after the 1980 Democratic Convention and after the 1992 Democratic Convention. Both polls also show a negligible bounce by the president’s party after the 1984 GOP convention and the 1996 Democratic convention, as well as a small (low-to-mid single digit) bounce after the 1992 Republican convention.

Elsewhere, the polls show less consistency. Sometimes they suggest directly opposite conclusions.

After the 1996 GOP convention, for example, CBS/New York Times showed a substantial nine-point Republican bounce. But CNN/USA Today/Gallup put the bounce at a measly one point. The CBS/New York Times survey gave the Republicans a whopping 13-point bounce after the 1988 GOP convention, but CNN/USA Today/Gallup put the bounce at a more modest six points.

And after the 1980 Republican convention, Gallup showed Ronald Reagan with an eight-point bounce, while CBS/USA Today/Gallup showed Reagan losing two points.

Overall, the two sets of polls strongly suggest the nominees receive a bounce, but that it can range from statistically insignificant to the high single digits. Bounces larger than that have occurred, but they are relatively rare.

CNN Polling Director Keating Holland has conducted his own review of pre- and post-convention polls. But instead of relying on one or two companies, he has looked at the most timely poll each cycle (the one conducted as close to one week before the conventions and immediately after the conventions).

Holland found a bounce in the five- to seven-point range, with at least a couple (after the 1992 Democratic convention and the 1980 GOP convention) much larger.

Ronald Reagan’s big bounce in 1980 and Bill Clinton’s even bigger bounce in 1992 may, in fact, be related.

“This was the first opportunity for the public to take a good look at both of those candidates, and voters apparently liked what they saw,” he notes in explaining the size of the bounces.

In contrast, the small bounce for either Clinton or challenger Bob Dole in 1996 may reflect the public’s familiarity with the two highly visible political figures. There was simply nothing new for voters to learn about the two candidates or their parties.

This year, the public seems to have a pretty strong impression (and a negative one) of exactly who Al Gore is, and a somewhat fuzzier impression of Bush. If Gore is able to change (improve) his image through the convention, he could garner a very considerable bounce. Bush has already had a pre-convention bounce according to virtually every poll, but Holland expects that he will still get some bounce from the convention itself.

But changing TV coverage of the convention could affect convention bounces, since fewer people are actually watching extensive coverage of the convention.

In the end, the post-convention bounces are important because they will establish the relative showings of the candidates before Labor Day. But from them on, it’s the campaigns (and the debates) that will separate the winner from the loser.

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