Behind The Numbers: A Hidden Bounce For Kerry

Undecided voters seem more impressed than ever with Kerry

First came the seamless convention, a Democratic pageant unblemished by doubt or discord. Now pundits are puzzling over a new phenomenon -- the bounceless convention.

In what looks like an anomaly, Democrat John Kerry, who delivered a well-received acceptance speech at his party conclave in Boston, seems to have reaped little gain. While post-convention jumps in opinion polls typically range from 10% to 15%, new surveys show the Massachusetts senator left Boston gaining at most 5% against President George W. Bush. One, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, even shows Bush pulling ahead 50% to 47%, leading critics to argue that Kerry missed his big chance to convince folks that he's got the right stuff.

But such interpretations miss the significance of an electorate where most voters have made up their minds. With just 7% still undecided, according to a July 30-Aug. 1 ABC News/Washington Post poll, tectonic shifts aren't likely. "There's a lot of ice in the river, and it's hard to get much movement," says ABC polling director Gary Langer. That means when the President decamps from New York City on Sept. 2 after the GOP convention, he may not move the dial much, either.

A better way to assess Kerry's performance is to look past the horse-race numbers and dig down into the public's answers. By that standard, he helped himself. In an ABC/Washington Post post-convention poll released on Aug. 2, Kerry holds a 49% to 47% edge among likely voters, a 6-point swing from a month earlier. The Democratic candidate fared much better on personal qualities, where he had suffered in comparison with Bush. On the crucial question of leadership, Kerry cut Bush's pre-convention lead of 19 points to just 6. On the question of which man would keep America more secure, he sliced a 16-point Bush margin to only 3.

How about "values," a word that kept ricocheting inside the FleetCenter? While Bush had a 6-point advantage before the Democratic gathering, Kerry now leads the President by 6. "The convention allowed voters to deepen their understanding of John Kerry's background, values, and plans for the nation," contends campaign pollster Mark Mellman. "From that point of view, it was completely successful."

Bush aides, of course, beg to differ. Senior strategist Matthew Dowd crows that Kerry received "the worst lift in the polls since [Democrat George] McGovern in '72," which was the biggest debacle in modern electoral politics. Indeed, polls show that Republicans reacted to the Democratic pageant in Boston by becoming even more ardent in their support for Bush -- an intensity factor that could play out in higher voter turnout.

Still, Republican strategists have a much harder time explaining why swing voters are more smitten than ever with Kerry. And while national polls appear little changed by the convention, the extravaganza may have solidified the Democrat's edge in the only count that matters: the state-by-state battle for the Electoral College. According to a Zogby International poll released on Aug. 3, Kerry holds a clear electoral vote lead over Bush, 291 to 215. That's 21 more votes than needed to win, with some 32 electoral votes left in states too close to call.

Of course, the tally is likely to change if the Republicans manage their convention as successfully as the Democrats ran theirs. And swing voters -- who are impressed with Kerry but not yet sold on him -- could easily shift back and forth a few more times before the election on Nov. 2.

In an era of ultrapolarized politics, the 30-point bounce received by victorious challenger Bill Clinton in 1992 or the 15-point spurt enjoyed by eventual loser Bob Dole in '96 is unlikely to be repeated. But that's not to say that a mini-bump should be dismissed out of hand. These days, a Presidential candidate should be grateful for any bounce that he can get.

By Lee Walczak and Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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