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Conventions Still Matter, Poll Finds

By Margaret W. Ho, Crimson Staff Writer

Most Americans think political conventions play a vital role in presidential campaigns, according to a poll released last week by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

The poll, conducted last month during the week of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Boston, found that 63 percent of respondents saw party conventions as “still important because they give Americans an in-depth opportunity to know the candidates better.” Thirty-seven percent thought otherwise, believing that primary elections already determined presidential nominees “months in advance.”

The poll surveyed about 1,300 adults and had a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press Thomas E. Patterson said the results could be attributed to the concentrated coverage that the convention provides in a short period of time.

“[Americans] live in a campaign that is 18 months long, and no sane person would pay close attention to the campaign for a year and a half,” Patterson said. “That may make sense for pundits and for people like me. There’s always those campaign junkies out there—they’re like Red Sox fans. For most citizens, we overtax them. Our campaigns just last too long.”

Instead, key moments in the campaign tend to attract the general public’s interest, Patterson said, listing January’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries—and the summer conventions.

“I think Americans understand it’s a different look at the candidates, it’s a deeper look at the candidates and in that sense, it’s a special opportunity,” he said of conventions.

Harvard College Democrats President Andrew J. Frank ’05 singled out other reasons for the poll results, pointing to the convention as an opportunity for a “positive portrayal of politics.”

“I think it’s the only time during a campaign where each side is able to frame themselves in their own way without being compared or attacked,” he said. “It’s a time for the country to get to really know the presidential nominee and to get to know the party on its own terms.”

But Jonathan S. Chavez ’05, chair of the Institute of Politics (IOP) student survey committee, also pointed to expectations as a factor that could have played into the poll results.

“Part of this response could be the fact that it is the response people feel they are supposed to give,” he wrote in an e-mail. “People don’t like admitting they don’t care about politics. There is a stigma attached to being apathetic.”

The survey also indicated that party conventions contributed to election interest. Forty-six percent of those polled said that they had discussed the campaign in the past 24 hours, a figure that had risen substantially from the 28 percent of respondents in the mid-July poll.

These results, Patterson said, were not surprising, considering that the poll took place at the time of convention.

Of those who caught a televised segment of the DNC, 23 percent claimed to have not learned “not much at all” about nominee Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., compared to 40 percent who said that they had learned a “great deal” or “quite a bit” about him.

Regardless, Kerry did not experience a significant increase in poll standings following the convention. According to a post-convention CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted between July 30 and August 1, 57 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Massachusetts senator, a 2 percent spike from his standings prior to the convention.

“Kerry’s post convention polling numbers are a bit of an anomaly. Usually a candidate sees a huge bounce following a national convention,” Chavez said. “That didn’t happen this time. A large part of that is due to the fact that the country is already so divided: only somewhere around 7 [percent] of people are still unsure of who they will vote for [according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll].”

But Patterson credited the small bounce not only to the smaller number of undecided voters this year, but also to the cutback in convention coverage on broadcast networks.

According to the Shorenstein poll, the viewing audience this year would have surpassed that of the 2000 election if ABC, CBS and NBC had not reduced coverage from five hours in 2000 to three hours this year.

Still, in spite of the small bounce in the polls, Kerry managed to generate a positive impression, with seven times as many respondents indicating that they thought “better” of him than they thought “worse” of him.

“What’s happening now is what needed to happen, where people are now voting for John Kerry and not voting against George W. Bush,” Frank said.

The poll also found that around half of the convention audience consisted of viewers who stumbled upon the convention while watching television. Identifying the broadcast networks as essential to attracting a convention’s “inadvertent viewers,” the poll found that viewers are more likely to come across convention coverage and watch it if televised on broadcast networks.

More than 60 percent of DNC viewers on broadcast networks stumbled upon the coverage inadvertently, whereas less than 40 percent of such viewers tuned into the convention via a cable network in spite of its more extensive coverage.

Younger adults, in particular, were affected by the reduced broadcast coverage. Sixty-three percent of adults 30 years of age or younger identified themselves as inadvertent convention viewers, compared to 47 percent of older adults.

Older adults, Patterson said, are “more plugged in to the daily news or have a history with the convention” and were thus more likely to turn on the convention to watch it.

As younger adults were more likely to come across the convention by accident, the reduced coverage on the broadcast networks “implicitly roadblocks” their access, Patterson said.

But some pointed out that convention coverage was still effective.

“I thought it was interesting that such a high percentage of the respondents though that the convention gave them an opportunity to know the candidates better,” said Harvard Republican Club Secretary Lauren K. Truesdell ’05. “I guess it shows that this sort of four-day-long commercial really is working. Despite this reduced news coverage, their message still comes across.”

Still, IOP Student Advisory Committee President Ilan T. Graff ’05 said the reduced coverage had its setbacks.

“The fact that younger and older Americans don’t have access to both party conventions to the degree they have in the past makes it likely that when people do cast their vote, they will do so with less information at their disposal than when they might otherwise have had,” Graff said.

Given the higher level of public interest in this year’s campaign, Patterson said that broadcast networks need to expand their coverage.

“This election process provides an opportunity to bring young people back into the process,” Patterson said. “It ought to be seen that way. Players like the broadcast network need to do their part. They’re not meeting their public service responsibility.”

—Staff writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at mwho@fas.harvard.edu.

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