Postconvention bounce: not your average trajectory

So after four days of wonderfully scripted peace, love, and Michael Moore media cavalcades, what exactly can we say about the Democratic Party in 2004? Well, they are united behind a "strong leader" who wants to make America "stronger" by "strengthening" the country's international ties.

In case you missed it, "strong" was our secret word here in Boston. The convention was not on message, it was relentlessly on-message. It was on every surrogates' lips here, and the answer to every question from "What is John Kerry's greatest asset in this campaign?" to "Where is the bathroom?" By Day 4 Thursday, some here were wondering if this entire show was being sponsored by Balco Labs.

For the delegates, however, the bigger message coming out of Boston is they want. They want to be excited. They want to believe. And, most important, they want to win. Desperately. You could feel that in the arena here. Not every speech at the Fleet Center was a winner, but the crowd was almost perpetually ready to erupt. There were points where the seats would have exploded over a throat clearing. They even mustered cheers for Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's not so stirring discussion of energy independence ... and of course how it would make America stronger.

All that wanting made for a lot of unity here, which may have meant a boring convention for the press, but great TV advertising, packaged tightly into three one-hour slots for the networks. The timing, particularly in the prime viewing hours, was uncannily on the mark, often running like an Oscar program more than a political convention.

Speakers stepped on their own lines and interrupted applause at times to make sure they didn't overrun their allotted time, usually 10 to 15 minutes - as though they were worried if they didn't finish up in time the Oscar orchestra would swell with the theme from the "Lord of the Rings."

If there was ever a question about whether the Democratic Party could run a disciplined, stopwatch convention, it's been answered.

But the question is: What does it all mean going forward?

Now the great bounce game begins. A series of polls will emerge in the next few days to tell us, stagecraft aside, whether the Democrats' Boston show was a hit, and both the Democrats and the Republicans will rush to frame the numbers in the most positive light, whatever those numbers are. Each side will almost certainly cite historical precedent for why the bounce is great or awful.

And we in the press will dutifully report on the numbers and spin and act as though it all means something.

It doesn't really. Not this year. Because despite what anyone says, no one is exactly sure what is going on in this election.

The average bounce coming out of a convention over the past 10 elections is about six points. So John Kerry and John Edwards need at least six points out of the convention for it to be considered a success, right? Perhaps. But at the same time in the past 50 years only three incumbent presidents have been trailing after their opponent's convention. They all lost. So if the two Johns are up at all in those early bounce polls, one could argue they are looking good.

Or not, because considering how divided and decided this electorate is already this year and the general uncertainty around the election, it's hard to know if those historical precedents mean anything at all.

Keep that in mind as everyone cites 1988 or 1996 or 1992 in coming days. As the two Johns embark on their postconvention bus ride Friday, hitting many of the critical states for the next three months - Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan - they will try to carry forward whatever momentum and energy they achieved in these four days. They are likely to get at least another week of coverage out of their Rust Belt Never Sleeps tour.

But whatever positive press they get in the next week won't be the real point. The only bounce that would mean something one way or the other would be a massive bounce that would put the Kerry-Edwards team way in front. And that is unlikely.

In the end, it is not the prepackaged precision of the show here in Boston that gives the Democrats hope heading out, it is the hunger that made all that unified boredom possible. They want this election badly. Do the Republicans want it as much? That's what we'll see in New York.

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