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Bouncy or brittle? Conventions near amid coronavirus uncertainty

The four-year fanfare of party conventions will be toned down due to COVID-19. Those alterations will likely make an unpredictable election even more so.

Leah Millis/Reuters
A general view at Gettysburg National Military Park, after it was reported that President Donald Trump is weighing delivering his Republican nomination acceptance speech later this month either at the White House or at the site of the Civil War battleground, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Aug. 11, 2020.

Dear reader:

No packed arenas cheering the nominee. No delegates dressed like Uncle Sam posing for photographers. No balloon drops.

The U.S. political nominating conventions, which begin next week, are going to be less of a spectacle than usual. Does this mean they won’t provide either nominee with a boost at the polls?

A little background if you’ve missed it: due to the pandemic, the traditional Democratic and Republican conventions have been transformed into virtual events. (Or mostly virtual, in the case of the GOP, as President Donald Trump has indicated he’s likely to accept his nomination in a speech at the White House or the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield.)

In the past, the political conventions have often been an inflection point in the presidential race, delivering a poll “bounce” to one candidate or another. Nobody really knows if they’ll play such a role in 2020.

From 1968 to 2016, presidential candidates received an average five percentage point bounce from their conventions, according to the University of California at Santa Barbara Presidency Project. Hypothetically, if President Trump got that kind of benefit, and Joe Biden didn’t, the race would turn into something close to a dead heat.

And bounces can be asymmetric. In 2016, Mr. Trump gained 3.4% in the polls following his convention, while Hillary Clinton got 1.8%, according to figures compiled by Thomas M. Holbrook, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Both 2020 nominees will still get four days of media coverage, including two hours of prime-time TV per night, notes Dr. Holbrook in an interesting analysis of “bounce” numbers.

This year the conventions are being held back-to-back, potentially stepping on each other’s build-up and subsequent bounce. They’re also relatively late, coming at a point when many voters may have already made up their minds. In general, bounces have been getting smaller, anyway: Since 2000 they’re about half what they were from 1984 to 1996.

Nor is bounce size correlated with November success.

“Just ask Presidents Goldwater, Mondale, Dole, or Gore, all of whom had bigger bumps than their competitors,” writes Dr. Holbrook.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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