Sarah Palin: Just Not That Popular

Continetti's unpersuasive pitch for a Palin comeback

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page takes a break from running Sarah Palin-authored op-eds today and instead runs a piece by one of her biggest journalistic supporters, Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard. It is, as Brendan Nyhan has already noted, not very persuasive.

Continetti, whose book The Persecution of Sarah Palin comes out this week, attempts to prove that Palin’s polling suggests she could be a plausible presidential candidate in 2012. To his credit, he doesn’t play nearly as many games with numbers as did Ross Douthat in a July column that tried to make the same point. Still, Continetti’s effort falls flat, for one simple reason: Sarah Palin’s poll numbers kind of stink.

Continetti actually admits this, writing:

Ms. Palin’s unpopularity—the result of horrendous media coverage and her role as the McCain campaign’s pitbull—is a major political obstacle. Her unfavorable rating hovers around 50%, the point at which most politicians would reach for the Valium.

An October Gallup poll put Ms. Palin’s favorable number at 40%, her lowest rating to date. In a November Gallup survey, 63% of all voters said they wouldn’t seriously consider supporting her for the presidency.

But, he writes, all is not lost! After all, Republicans like Palin, Democrats don’t, and

Independents are a different story. These are the folks who decide presidential elections, and they are divided on Ms. Palin. In last month’s Gallup poll, Ms. Palin had a 48% unfavorable and 41% favorable rating among independents. Not good, but not insurmountable. Flip those percentages, and they could be serving moose burgers in the White House in 2013.

That’s pretty weak tea. Palin is not exactly a low-profile figure, so independents have had plenty of opportunities to make up their mind about her. “Flipping those percentages” won’t come easily. Hillary Clinton managed to do it, as Continetti notes. But she did it by becoming a low-key workhorse in the Senate (and her acumen, if not her appeal, was never really in question). That doesn’t seem to be the route Palin has chosen.

And in truth, Palin’s situation is even worse than Continetti acknowledges. While her appeal to the GOP base is taken as an article of faith, that November Gallup survey Continetti mentions finds that only 58 percent of Republicans (and 28 percent of independents) thought she was qualified for the White House, putting her well behind Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and even Newt Gingrich. (It also found, curiously, that 65 percent of Republicans would consider supporting her for president—but Romney did just as well on that score, and Huckabee surpassed them both.)

That is not exactly a vote of confidence in her competence. But at least Palin is popular among her base, right? Well, yes, but not in an extraordinary way. Continetti boasts of her 69 percent favorability among the GOP. But an October poll by Gallup found that Barack Obama’s favorability among Democrats was 87 percent. His job approval rating among Democrats is currently above 82 percent. And this is at a time when “liberal disillusionment with Obama” is one of the prevailing political themes! (Meanwhile, he holds ratings among independents that meet or exceed what Palin would have if she reversed her current numbers.)

The weakness of Continetti’s argument about Palin’s polling support is rivaled by the implausibility of his vision for her path forward. To remake her public image, Continetti says, Palin “need[s] to return to her 2006 playbook.”

In Alaska, Ms. Palin didn’t run as a culture warrior. She focused on issues with overwhelming public support: ethics reform, a revised oil tax, and more competition and transparency in the effort to build a natural gas pipeline. She took the conservative vote for granted and focused on winning independents and even some Democrats.

A similar model recently worked for Bob McDonnell in Virginia, Continetti writes, and it could work for Palin on the national stage. And who knows? If the economy remains bad enough for long enough, maybe it could. But evidence that Palin will actually choose this approach is… scarce. Bob McDonnell may have written a controversial graduate thesis a couple decades ago, but he didn’t write a campaign biography called Going Rogue. And if Palin were going to recast herself as Continetti suggests, it’s hard to imagine she would have, either.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.