The Palin-for-President Fixation

WaPo op-ed fails to convince

We’ve probably devoted too many pixels already to arguing that the national political media is paying more attention to Sarah Palin than is warranted. But the press can’t break its Palin fixation, and since the latest argument that we need to take the former VP nominee seriously as a presidential candidate in 2012—Matthew Dowd’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post—is currently the most-viewed story on the Post’s site, I’m about to beat this horse once more. I’ll try keep it short, I promise.

Dowd’s argument runs like this: a key factor in determining presidential election outcomes is the incumbent’s approval rating (which, in turn, rests upon voters’ perceptions of the economy). Barack Obama’s approval ratings are now entering an area at which he would be vulnerable to a Republican challenger. And Palin is poised to be that challenger:

Polls show that Palin’s favorability numbers are a mirror image of those of Obama. She is respected and loved by the Republican base, while Democrats despise her. Granted, independent voters have significant reservations about her capability to be president, and this would be a hurdle in the general election. But to win the Republican nomination, Palin needs only to get enough support from the base to win early key states. Already, in nearly every poll today, she has a level of support that makes her a viable primary candidate. Just look at the crowds and the buzz her book tour is drawing.

Everything Dowd says about Obama and the presidency in general makes sense. But he veers off the rails in that paragraph about Palin, which concludes with a sentence that reads like a parody of a lazy argument—Did you see the crowds? Just look how many people love her!

In fact, polls do show that Palin is a highly polarizing figure, and that support for her is overwhelmingly concentrated among the conservative base, where she has a sizable contingent of very enthusiastic fans. But even among Republicans, support for Palin is not quite as widely held as much political reporting would indicate. David Frum just demonstrated this point yesterday, via some cross-tabs from a CNN/Opinion Research poll that are not publicly available (emphasis added):

While 33% of men deem Palin qualified, only 24% of women do. 66% of men deem her unqualified – and 74% of women.

Now look just at Republicans: Republican men deem Palin “qualified” by a margin of 60-38. But Republican women? Not even half think she is qualified: only 49%. 50% of Republican women say Palin is unqualified for the job.

If you like Palin – well go ahead. It’s a free country. But quit saying that “the people” love Sarah Palin.

Clearly, Frum doesn’t like Palin. But his data help rebut Dowd’s claim that Palin’s support among Republicans is as deep as Obama’s among Democrats. And for a potential candidate whose entire claim to the national spotlight rests on her purported popularity, that’s a problem.

The balance of Dowd’s op-ed, meanwhile, consists of suggestions for ways that Palin might remake her public image to win over independent voters. It’s fairly mundane stuff—focus on serious speeches over a steady stream of tweets; travel widely to connect to people; tone down the Reagan worship a tad; try not to feud publicly with the father of your grandson—and it would probably help her chances. But, as others have noted, Palin seems to have charted her course, and it’s not this one.

To be fair to Dowd, his argument comes with plenty of caveats—near the top of his op-ed, he says, “I agree that her success is not probable.” And it may be possible to imagine a President Palin: All the other GOP candidates are compromised in some way that’s not now apparent, or the current tensions over the future of the conservative movement break into open warfare, and she squeaks through a divided field on the strength of a small, fervent base. Then, some earth-shaking Obama-related scandal or an economy that has never recovered depresses Democrats and persuades independents to swallow their dislike of Palin. All the while, her campaign keeps it together, despite her apparent disinterest in building a sustainable political operation. Stranger things have happened, if not in modern presidential elections. At the very least, her chances are probably better than this guy’s.

But we could spin out that sort of story line about plenty of other people, if we were so inclined. And if Sarah Palin actually begins to do any of the things that people are suggesting would broaden her appeal—or if she shows signs of assembling a capable team around her—there will be plenty of time to take stock and see if she has remade herself as a viable presidential candidate. Until then, let’s put this story line to bed, once and for all.

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