US election: What's behind the Obama polling bounce?

  • 11 September 2012
  • From the section US & Canada
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Democratic delegates in Charlotte
Democratic delegates were frenzied with excitement despite Mr Obama's 'workmanlike' speech - but Republicans were only polite for Mr Romney

I find political conferences an enthralling spectator sport, and I had courtside seats at both the Republican and Democratic conventions the last two weeks.

Still, they could have been more dramatic: Mitt Romney didn't drop the ball, while President Barack Obama, an enthusiastic basketball player, didn't score a slam dunk.

But there's been a bit of a bounce, and that's all it takes.

The opinion polls indicate that as the US election campaign really gets going after the convention season, the likelihood of Mr Obama winning in November is increasing.

Don't get too excited, or too depressed.

The Obama team shouldn't be high-fiving too enthusiastically. Much of the bounce is within the margin of error. In other words, it could just be a statistical illusion.

Still, some polls show a bigger bounce, and the direction - up for Mr Obama - has been consistent.

But importantly, if you only include those certain to vote, a bounce looks like a mere blip.

As I have said all along, this election is about turnout, and the big job for the Obama campaign is to push people to the polling booths.

The candidates are still neck and neck, but Mr Obama is out front by a head and could be pulling away.

The good news for the Obama campaign is that people ended up preferring Mr Obama despite the fact that the conventions were not spectacular, and were not filled with thrilling highs and lows. That suggests the bounce is about fundamentals, not flim-flam.

The bounce comes despite gloomy economic figures that are not as gloomy as some would have it - they show tiny improvement rather than any reversal.

Grits 'n' gravy

No-one bombed, except for Clint Eastwood, and no-one had a major triumph, except perhaps former President Bill Clinton.

Neither of the candidates made memorable, knock-out speeches. Policy took a holiday, and the "vision thing" had a nap.

Remember, this is an election where many would like to vote "none of the above". But they can't. It is, as Mr Obama insisted, a choice.

Critics who say the Republican convention fell flat miss the point. It was meant to be flat. That was part of its job.

The last thing strategists wanted was over-excited delegates fulminating about abortion and gay marriage from the podium and laying into the president in florid language.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to write a speech bringing them to fever pitch. But that would have played straight into the hands of the Democrats who want to brand them as the nasty party.

The other part of the Republican convention was to sell Mr Romney as a likeable man.

He spoke about what love meant to him, a parade of speakers talked of his compassion, and he was less stiff than usual.

The delegates still don't love him, but maybe they feel a little more affection for him.

It is not certain if that got through to the 30 million or so Americans who watched on television.

Mr Romney may be a warm, funny guy in private. But he's not charismatic, not inspirational, and all the packaging in the world won't make grits taste like gravy.

'Workmanlike' president

The Democrats, on the other hand, did want to excite their delegates.

Particularly on the first night, they drove themselves into a state of high passion warning what a Romney victory would mean for women and gay people. The phrase "the right to love who you want" was repeated dozens of times by different speakers.

Ethnic diversity was emphasised, with Hispanics given a particularly warm hug.

Mr Obama could have done better. He can be a great speaker, but this wasn't one of his best.

I wasn't the only correspondent to use the word "workmanlike" and I notice someone else used the phrase "greyer and grimmer" as well.

By his own very high standards the speech was dull, lacking in personality. But it did convey a certain dogged passion, a sense he was straining to work for a better America and that to sack him now would be to take a dangerous path.

If he is, as one recent writer asserted, "a cold fish with high hands," this was not on display.

If some swing voters, and reluctant Obama supporters, emerge from the convention season believing Mr Romney is a dangerous risk and that Mr Obama is doing the best he can, then "workmanlike" will have done a job of work.