Even before Tropical Storm Isaac forced GOP convention planners to upend their schedule, senior party strategists were already braced for the prospect that the gathering was unlikely to produce a major postconvention bounce for Mitt Romney.
Analysts in both parties nonetheless agree that the convention still represents a critical chance for Romney to reverse negative impressions about his priorities and personality—doubts deepened by an unrelenting ad barrage from President Obama’s reelection campaign.
But that opportunity could be enormously clouded by Isaac which, while veering away from Tampa, has attracted intense media attention as it threatens New Orleans. With so much focus diverted to the storm, this week’s Republican gathering seems destined to be remembered as the “split-screen convention.”
“The good news for Republicans is that people are looking for an alternative to President Obama,” says former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Romney just hasn’t been able to fill that void. This week, he has to fill in the dots. But the hurricane doesn’t help.”
With the electorate today deeply and rigidly polarized, saturated with information about the candidates, and subjected to a campaign that stretches toward two years, most recent conventions have produced smaller shifts in voter allegiance—a smaller “bounce”—than once were common.
From 1972 through 1992, at least one of the two nominees saw his support level rise by at least 7 percentage points in Gallup polling immediately after his own convention. The biggest bump came in 1992, when Bill Clinton successfully reintroduced himself as “the man from Hope” at his convention, benefited from independent candidate Ross Perot’s abrupt exit, and soared 16 points in Gallup polling en route to his win over George H.W. Bush.
But in the past four elections, no candidate has received a bounce as large as 7 points except in 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush each experienced an 8-point gain in Gallup polling.
This year, most analysts again expect modest movement. Romney and Obama have remained closely bunched since the former Massachusetts governor captured the GOP nomination last spring. “We go into the conventions tied, and there are very few undecideds out there,” says Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. “No way we’re going to get a big bump.”
Veteran Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who helped plan the party’s 2000 and 2004 conventions, agrees. “There just isn’t a lot of vote available for either of them to move,” he says. That doesn’t mean the convention period is irrelevant, though. For one thing, since 1952, the candidate leading in the first Gallup Poll at least two weeks after both conventions has won almost every time. (The clearest exception was 2000 when Gore lost despite a postconventions lead, though even he won the popular vote.)
The convention also represents the most uninterrupted opportunity Romney and Obama will receive to address the biggest doubts they face among voters. For Obama, those questions center on whether he has a clear plan to accelerate economic growth—and can revive enthusiasm among young people and minorities hit hard by the sustained slowdown.
Romney’s principal challenge is to improve his personal image amid polls showing him that the percentage of voters who view him unfavorably is unusually high, and the share who believe he cares about people like them is unusually low. Rolling back those perceptions may be more important for the buttoned-down candidate than generating a short-term movement in the ballot test. “For Romney, any movement on the personal dimension, which is really holding him back … would be the measure of success,” says Andy Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
But with the storm barreling toward the Gulf Coast, concern about the potential victims is already intruding on Romney’s own efforts to project empathy.