Last week's column tried to look beyond the bouncing horse race numbers at the "internal" measures of voter reactions to Barack Obama following the Democratic convention. This week, let's look at the immediate reactions to John McCain and consider one astute reader's suggestion to "avoid writing about public opinion during a convention period."
Many thousands of words have been written and broadcast about the "bounce" in vote preference polling for McCain and Sarah Palin, and the results of nearly every survey conducted so far this week -- national and statewide -- indicate some movement in McCain's direction, mostly among undecideds.
But given the volatility of post-convention "bounces," it is probably safest to go beyond the horse race and focus on the immediate, specific impressions that the Republican convention made on the voters.
• Sarah Palin made a strong and positive impression. In the USA Today/Gallup survey, 60 percent of registered voters rated her addition to the ticket as excellent or good, 38 percent as only fair or poor. In the CBS News poll, 48 percent of those who watched her said Palin's speech made them "think better of her," a better reaction than among those who said they watched Obama (39 percent) or McCain (36 percent). Most of the surveys reported favorable ratings for Palin hovering near or just above 50 percent of registered voters.
• The convention boosted enthusiasm among John McCain's supporters. The CBS survey found the percentage of McCain backers describing their support as "enthusiastic" growing from 24 percent to 42 percent. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported an increase from 12 percent to 34 percent in McCain backers who said they were "excited" about their choice. The other polls reported similar results. Obama continues to hold an advantage on these measures, but the margin has narrowed significantly.
• John McCain's favorable rating increased. While these results are slightly less consistent, McCain's favorable or positive rating increased among registered voters by 9 points in the USA Today/Gallup poll (from 54 percent to 63 percent), by 5 points in NBC/Wall Street Journal (from 45 percent to 50 percent), by 4 points in the Diageo/Hotline poll [PDF] (from 52 percent to 56 percent) and by 12 points in the CBS survey (from 34 percent to 46 percent).
Of course, not all was rosy for McCain in the internals. Both USA Today/Gallup and NBC/Wall Street Journal, for example, found little change in concerns about McCain's closeness to George W. Bush. Gallup found 63 percent very or somewhat concerned this week that McCain would be "too similar" to President Bush, roughly the same number as before the convention (64 percent). The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 74 percent saying that McCain "would follow and support George W. Bush's programs and policies" as president, down just slightly (from 77 percent) in mid-August.
All of these results come with an important caveat that a Democratic campaign pollster reminded me of last week. "Take care," he advised, "to avoid writing about the state of public opinion during a convention period." The conventions dominate the news while they're in progress and in the days that follow. Each party takes its turn benefiting from unusually positive coverage.
During the Republican convention, I had a chance conversation with Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center and arguably the dean of the political survey research profession. He reminded me that Pew, which is constantly conducting surveys on a wide variety of topics, did no polling on the presidential race during the conventions or (with the exception of its weekly News Interest Index) in the immediate aftermath of the Republican convention.
Why not, I asked? Post-convention bounces tend to be "transitory," Kohut said. There is "more fluidity in public opinion during convention periods" than at other times, he said, and he prefers to wait until they can conduct a survey with a "more stable shelf life." While the tracking polls provide a "nice record of immediate reactions," Kohut said, observers are still left asking, "where will they be next week?"
So while we have a good sense of what moved people most regarding the candidates over the last two weeks, those words of caution are worth emphasis.