The John Kerry bounce consensus is now official: small. This tells you exactly nothing about who will plunk their Yalie ass down in the Oval Office next January. However, it has not stopped the Bounce from assuming top-billing in all recent campaign stories. In fact, the null-set nature of the Bounce makes it perfect for carrying whatever point you want to make.
Think the Boston confab united Democrats into a purpose-built, Bush-clearing machine? Then the Bounce has helped Kerry "widen" his lead over Bush. Think John Kerry is a fabulously underwhelming candidate who'd need a Taser to electrify voters? Then the two-to-four point Bounce in national polls is below historical standards and evidence of Kerry's shortcomings.
Searching for some kind of public reaction to political conventions has other uses for political reporters. Major media outlets seem to get sucked into the bounce-hunt as a way to retroactively justify the huge effort spent covering the conventions. The Bounce makes the convention coverage relevant, never mind that without the coverage there'd be no bounce. And so we go, around and around. This weird Mobius strip justification, of course, hides the true reason the nets and the newspapers flock to political conventions: They're still fun.
There's the down-sized but still free food and booze, yes, but a political convention is such a target-rich environment that a story can be made out of anything. CNN's Joe Johns made a story out of the path Kerry would take on the convention floor on the way to the podium, treating it with all the solemnity of the Stations of the Cross. (For viewers, it was nearly as painful.)
For political operatives, managing the Bounce is tricky. Democrats tried to low-ball the Bounce coming into Boston, saying about five points should be expected. They should be happy that their predictions came true, correct? Well, much like corporate earnings, it depends how much they were really hoping for an upside-surprise.
Republicans did their best to saddle Kerry with high expectations, saying for months that it would not be a surprise for Kerry to have a double-digit lead coming out of Boston. Well, now that gap has not yet materialized; they should be happy, correct? No, they cannot let the reality of Kerry's small bounce build up expectations of a big bounce for George W. Bush coming out of New York City. The GOP will expect a small bounce too, even though that suggests that if both candidates get small bounces then Americans like the two guys about the same.
The bounce-talk begins to make some sense when it is applied to the effects it might have on individual states and the electoral map. For a bounce to be significant it must help turn a cerulean state sienna, or whatever that crayon-box analogy says. National snap-shot, post-convention polls of voters really do not tell us much about that. At best, they give us some idea of the general vibe a convention gave off to those folks—both of us—who tuned in to watch the speeches.
Meanwhile the battle of 2004 goes on in the "battleground states," a tired construction that should be retired in times of actual war. A better name might be "significant states" as it is only a bit of stretch to say that if you do not live in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida your vote for president really does not matter. Bounce-watching tells us nothing about such things, but it is too useful to be discarded.
The initial post-convention bounce sets up the see-saw, yin-yang narrative of the campaign for reporters and editors. Bush is now heading out to "block" and "blunt" Kerry's bounce in advance of his own attempt at bouncing, which Kerry will then try to "check" in late August.
By Labor Day bounce talk will be retired in favor of the tried-and-true horserace analogies—the stretch-run, the war horse. Familiar and trite, but somehow fitting, as it sure looks like this sucker will go down to the wire.