Thursday, 23 October 2008

The difference that Sarah Palin makes

Sarah Palin has been one of the political phenomena of 2008. On the one hand, she energised the Republican base, for a time. Someone had to do it. On the other, liberals - my side of politics – initially did not know how to respond to the youthful “hockey mom” with kooky views about global warming and much else. Some of the commentaries, from both sides of the Atlantic, were simply embarrassing.

What the voters think matters more. Today, syndicated columnist Froma Harrop explains the impact that Sarah Palin has had on her. Ms Harrop is an “independent” -- that’s a non-aligned or floating voter, for those in Westminster-type countries. She supported Hillary Clinton, had doubts about Barack Obama and, over the summer, considered voting for John McCain. Now she’s backing Obama.

"What happened [?] Sarah Palin happened.

"Independents like me wanted two things out of a McCain running mate. (1) A capable leader who could step into the top job should something happen to the not-very-young No. 1. (2) Someone who would temper McCain's recent efforts to woo social conservatives. They got neither in the Alaska governor.

"Sure, Palin gave him a bump in the polls right after the Republican convention. She gave a rousing speech, written by a crack speechwriter. But once on her own, she quickly displayed a shocking ignorance of world affairs and a general inability to talk coherently on policy matters. Her habit of dividing America -- even individual states -- into good and not-as-good sectors comes off as downright weird."

Froma Harrop uses Real Clear Politics poll averages to show that she’s not atypical of voters like herself. The drop in McCain’s ratings started in September, straight after he named Governor Palin as his choice for Veep and before the sharemarket crashed. Ms Harrop says:

"Independents tend to be fiscally conservative, socially liberal and strong on defense. They were McCain's natural constituency and in mid-September gave him a 13-point margin. That lead has since flipped over to Obama, and Palin is a big reason."

Ms Harrop is correct in identifying the Alaska governor as a Republican liability, though the full Palin effect may have taken a little longer than she suggests. According to MSNBC yesterday, fifty-five percent of respondents say Governor Palin is not qualified to serve as president if the need arises, up five points from the previous poll. For the first time, more voters have a negative opinion of her than a positive one, by a nine point margin. In September, she held a 47 to 27 percent positive rating.

The Palin effect may be more about competence and credibility than issues. ABC News polling analyst Gary Langer says that, in a survey taken on Monday, 52 percent of likely voters said McCain's pick of Palin has made them less confident in the kind of decisions he'd make as president. That’s up 13 points since just after she was picked. Public doubts about Palin's qualifications (well-expressed by former secretary of state Colin Powell on Sunday) have grown. Just 38 percent say it makes them more confident in McCain's judgment, down 12 points.

MSNBC found that Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be president rank as voters’ top concern about McCain’s candidacy - ahead of continuing President Bush’s policies, enacting economic policies that only benefit the rich and keeping too high of a troop presence in Iraq!

And having Sarah Palin on his ticket has clearly not helped McCain to win support from women. Yesterday, ABC’s Langer reported that 50 per cent of male voters support Obama, compared with 46 per cent for McCain. But women favour Obama by a 57-41 per cent margin.

What a choice John McCain made.

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