How Much Do Presidential Conventions Matter?

By Johnathan Miller
Staff Writer

A week after the Democratic National Convention (DNC), the Republican Party launches its convention today, Aug. 24, signaling the fall campaign of the 2020 presidential election.

Conventions mark the start of the general election since they are held in the summer and bring a formal end to the primary process. Conventions also bring party unity and allow the candidates to make their pitch to the American people. 

What do the conventions mean so far for the 2020 presidential election? 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is currently up 9.2 points over President Donald Trump in FiveThirtyEight’s polling tracker, which accounts for the poll quality, sample size and recency, as of Aug. 23 at 12:18 p.m. That is a shift for former Vice President Biden when it was Biden +8.4 on Aug. 17, the start of the Democratic convention. Because of COVID-19 and the structure of the conventions this year, convention bounces may be even more limited. 

Still, even though conventions may not help in horse-race numbers, or polls of a certain election, it can still have some worth. A new CBS, YouGov poll released on Aug. 23 shows Biden up 52-42%, unchanged from its poll last week. Perhaps the most encouraging news for Biden is his favorability. One of the most conventional wisdoms in politics is that the majority of voters who are voting for Biden are doing so as a vote against Trump. The new CBS poll showed the percentage of Biden voters who are planning to vote for Biden, rather than against Trump, up 38% from 29% pre-convention.

Biden needs to do what he can to keep his lead over Trump in the next following months. The Democratic convention painted Biden in a positive light, and it may take a few more weeks to see if it helped. 

Trump, in his convention, needs to make up ground by just enough to be competitive in the election. Trump is underwater in his approval rating 54.1%  to 41.8% on FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker, which resonates with his horse-race numbers as well. 

What’s Expected During the RNC

The RNC will conclude on Aug. 27 with President Trump accepting his nomination speech at the White House, though he has vowed to speak every day, also a departure from previous convention norms.

There will be various speakers such as members of the Trump family, Congressman Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and Vice President Mike Pence. 

Other speakers include Nick Sandmann, a former student from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who went viral on social media in January after a video surfaced of him standing face to face with a Native American protester in Washington, D.C. Mark and Patricia McCloskey will also address the convention after a video posted on social media in June showed the couple bearing arms outside their home as Black Lives Matter protesters passed their home in St. Louis as the group marched toward the mayor’s residence. The couple say they were protecting their home.

The RNC was initially scheduled to take place in Charlotte, N.C., but moved to Jacksonville, Fla., after public-health restrictions were imposed by North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on events that would draw large crowds. Shortly after, President Trump announced that the convention in Florida would be cancelled and would be moved back to its original location. 

The convention comes just a week after the DNC, where Democrats formally nominated Biden for president and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) for vice president. The DNC held a mostly virtual convention that was split between pre-recorded and live speeches. Speakers included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama. 

A Historical Look at Conventions 

Typically, “conventional” wisdom shows that candidates receive a “convention bounce” after their convention ends. In past research, that has been correct. In 1988, Democratic Candidate Michael Dukakis (D-Mass.) was up 6 points against Vice President George H.W. Bush (R-Texas). Post-convention showed Dukakis opening up his lead to 17 points, an 11-point shift in Dukakis’s favor (Gallup). Former President Bill Clinton (D-Ark.) pulled ahead over Bush with a 22 point lead following his convention in 1992 (Gallup). 

However, this is the 21st century and times certainly have changed. The convention bounce after 2000 was minimal. Former Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Pres. Obama received a bounce of 6 and 4, respectively. Polls in 2016 showed Clinton and Trump getting a bounce between 2-3 points.

Geoffrey Skelley, a writer at FiveThirtyEight, pointed out that the average of the convention bounces since 1968 were around 5 points. There are reasons to believe that things might not shift dramatically for either candidate this year. Polarization has increased since the last decade, meaning people have become more partisan, which in turns make the polls more stable than previous years. 

Harry Esten, a data journalist for CNN, provided three simple explanations as to why convention bounces may not apply as much this year: bounces have decreased over the past few elections, this election has been incredibly stable, and it might not be as newsworthy as it once was. “Biden’s lead has almost consistently been within a few points of 6 points. It’s never gotten higher than 10 points in the average and never below 4 points,” Esten said. The convention will be mostly scaled back this year thus limiting the coverage on the news and the bump that comes from it.  

For example, in 1988, Dukakis lost his double-digit lead over Bush after the RNC occurred and never recovered. In 2000, former President W. Bush was up most of the campaign and it tightened significantly in the last few months. In 2004, polls were volatile, shifting between former President Bush,  and former Senator Kerry (D-MA). The 2016 election had volatile polls that had Clinton up 3 at one time and Clinton up 11 another time, but it was also stable in the sense that Clinton had somewhat of a lead after her convention that never went away. 

Watch the conventions, and don’t forget to vote. 

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Art by Amaya Morales.

The conventions commence.