How to Judge the Democratic Convention

A guide to how political operatives measure success

I have been to nearly every convention this century. They are a quadrennial ritual of speeches, funny hats, mostly mediocre after parties and near universal frustration at the media coverage. Every convention I tell myself that I won’t let it bother me and every convention, I fail. This year I made it seven minutes before getting annoyed.

Historically, the media obsesses over the marginalia of optics, production value, and how and when speeches are delivered. Political punditry morphs into theater criticism. This was particularly true last night as the press was confronted with an entirely new format.

My frustration comes from the huge chasm between how reporters and political operatives measure success. The media tends to judge the convention through their own viewing experience — they are often bored, because they are trained to look for news even in an event designed not to make news.

Smart campaigns measure the success of a convention through polling data that tells them whether they achieved a set of strategic objectives that get their candidate closer to 270 electoral votes.

Here’s how I think the Biden campaign is likely looking at this convention.

They Don’t Expect a Bounce

On the Sunday before the Democratic Convention began, Trump Campaign Adviser Jason Miller went on the Sunday Shows to engage in an age-old and somewhat pointless political ritual: expectations setting.

Miller told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Biden would likely receive a convention bump of “eight to ten points.” Miller, a man with no credibility and limited political acumen, was trying set the measure of success by predicting a large polling “bounce” post-convention.

The convention “bounce” is a real thing that the pundits often use to judge whether a convention succeeded. In the past this made a lot of sense. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight:

Since 1968, candidates’ vote share in national polls have increased, on average, by 5 percentage points after conventions. 

However, that number is a little misleading. Convention bounces have gotten smaller in recent elections as the country has become more polarized. There are simply fewer voters sloshing around in the middle between the candidates. Since 2004, the average bounce is less than 3 points. Both Mitt Romney and John Kerry actually lost ground coming out of their convention.

I would be surprised to see a bounce coming out this convention, not because the convention wasn’t effective, but because Biden is already at or near his polling ceiling. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC poll, Biden was leading Trump 53-41. If Biden wins with 53 percent of the vote, he will have won with a larger vote share than any Presidential candidate since 1988 when George H.W. Bush won with 53.4 percent of the vote.

As a side note, it is highly likely that Trump will get a decent-sized bounce because his political position is currently so poor. At 41 percent support, Trump is underperforming his 2016 vote by six points. No losing Presidential candidate has received less than 41 percent of the vote since 1984. While on one hand it’s shocking that four in ten Americans want four more years of this shitshow, Trump will almost certainly end up with closer to 46 or 47 percent of the vote.

Tell the Biden Story

There were some complaints from the Lincoln Project types and others on Twitter on Monday night about the lack of criticism of Trump during most of the program. I understand the desire to see people be mean to Donald Trump — he deserves it and so much more, but driving a negative message about Trump is a secondary strategic objective at best.

Trump’s approval rating in that Washington Post/ABC poll is twelve points under water and 47 percent strongly disapprove of the job he is doing as President. The case against Trump has been largely made. We need to keep the pressure on, but the primary objective of the convention is not to convince people to vote against Trump, it’s to convince them to vote for Biden.

According to that same poll, 56 percent of Biden voters say their vote for Biden is mainly about opposing Trump and 41 percent say it is about supporting Biden. In some ways this finding is unsurprising. Trump is the worst President in American history and his combination of incompetence and malevolence has contributed to the death of 170,000 Americans in five months. However, I imagine the Biden campaign would like to get those numbers more in balance by Election Day to ensure higher turnout.

A well-run convention is one long biographical campaign ad. It is the best chance any campaign has to tell the candidate’s story to a mass audience. Nearly 29 million people tuned into the first night of the Democratic convention. Presuming that many people hang around for Thursday night, this will be the biggest audience to see a Biden speech in the campaign. Even though Biden has been on the national scene for a very long time and has nigh name ID, he remains largely undefined in the eyes of a lot of voters. They know he was Obama’s Vice President (a huge plus), but not much about his policy agenda or his personal story. This is why the video about Biden’s relationship with the Amtrak workers he met on his commutes back to Delaware and Bernie Sanders’ policy filled speech were so important.

At the end of this convention, success will be measured by whether voters know more about who Joe Biden is, what he stands for, and why they should vote him.

Upping the Enthusiasm

To be clear, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in a stronger position than any ticket in recent memory. They are winning by more in more places for a more sustained period of time than anyone imagined possible only a few months ago. But if we have learned one thing from 2016, it is that we can take nothing for granted.

Winning campaigns are a combination of organization and enthusiasm. This is even more true in a pandemic with a politicized post office where voting will be more difficult and dangerous. If you (like me) go looking for dark linings in silver clouds, I would point you to the enthusiasm numbers in that Post poll. Trump has a 15 point advantage among voters that are very enthusiastic. To be clear, enthusiasm isn’t everything, but it is important. I have no doubt upping the enthusiasm is high on the Biden campaign’s priority list.

The task of making voters more enthusiastic will primarily fall to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in their speeches on Wednesday and Thursday night, but others can help. Michelle Obama’s powerful speech on Monday was a great contribution to that cause. Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday night will also seek to raise the stakes for voters.

A successful convention (whether on Zoom or in person) leaves people “fired up and ready to go.” The “very enthusiastic” measure in polls will determine the success of this one.

Introduce Kamala

The tremendous success of the rollout of the Kamala Harris selection has flown a little under the radar. In that recent Washington Post/ABC poll, Kamala Harris has a favorability rating higher than Biden, Trump or Pence. A 52 percent favorability rating for someone relatively unknown to lots of voters only a few weeks ago is an incredible achievement. Harris’ presence on the ticket has also provided a boost of online enthusiasm. The Biden-Harris campaign raised $48 million in the 48 hours after Harris was added to the ticket. The selection has been well-received across the party and the broader electorate.

It’s clear that the Trump campaign is worried about Kamala Harris. They immediately tried to define her with their usual unsubtle racism and misogyny including resuscitating birtherism. The Trump campaign is running ads on Facebook trying to define Harris, before she and the Biden campaign can get the chance.

Harris’ speech will be one of the most watched of the convention and it will be her best opportunity to tell her story. The more voters that know her story, the less opportunity the Trump campaign will have to smear her next week at their convention.

Reaching People that Didn’t Tune In

Finally, it is an important reminder to all of us that live and breath politics that most people — including the voters that will decide the election — will not watch the convention. At most, they will see some headlines and clips on social media — by and large they do not watch cable news, read Twitter, or subscribe to political newsletters.

The test for the Biden campaign is whether they have a plan to take the best moments from this convention and put them in from of the voters that need to see them. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign took parts of the nomination speech and turned them into television and digital ads.

This is where we can all help by sharing the best moments with the people in our personal networks.

  • Do you have people in your life that believe some of the nasty things Trump says about Biden? Show them the Amtrak video.

  • Do you know some frustrated progressives skeptical of Biden’s agenda? Share snippets of Bernie Sanders’ speech.

  • Are some of your friends considering sitting out the election? Text them a link to Michelle Obama’s speech.

  • Is your Trump-supporting uncle thinking of crossing over to vote for Biden? Make sure he see’s John Kasich’s endorsement.

You see what I am saying. The success of this convention does not depend on the tweets of cynical reporters and frustrated pundits filled with FOMO. It’s about whether the right information gets to the right people. We can all make that happen.