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McCain's Palin Problem

After a rough two weeks, Barack Obama seems to be edging his way back into the lead in several battleground states. In addition to having a renewed focus on the economy and a few gifts from John McCain and some of his surrogates, he has someone else to thank for his recent political fortunes: Sarah Palin, the very person who gave his campaign heartburn earlier this month.

The Obama vs. Palin debate over experience turned out to be a draw in that a consensus will never be reached. However, Obama does have one significant advantage over Palin in this regard: Exposure. And this is what is working against Sarah Palin right now.

Obama has been tested on the national stage numerous times over the course of the campaign season in about 20 high profile debates and several candidate forums. He has won millions of votes and competed in more than 50 primaries and caucuses. He may be an inexperienced candidate, but the voters are the ones who acquitted him. Reporters and his political opponents have spent months examining Obama, his biography, and his record. Some of what has surfaced has not been kind to the junior senator from Illinois (e.g., Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, "typical White person," "clinging to guns and religion"), and he has had to confront these stories directly and publicly.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was (and is) largely unknown to voters. After a successful debut in which she energized the Republican base and was assisted by anti-media sentiment in the days thereafter, the McCain campaign inadequately prepared itself for the inevitable scrutiny that would follow. By keeping Palin away from the cameras, they were essentially giving free license for the media to uncover anything they could about her on their own. McCain essentially left an unknown candidate to be defined by an investigative media without allowing this unknown candidate to confront the media directly and shoot these media stories down. As a result, the media's portrayal of Sarah Palin is different and potentially more salient than the McCain campaign's portrayal of Sarah Palin, but the McCain campaign is what allowed this to happen.

While the media were investigating Palin's records and controversies in Alaska, the public's views about her were beginning to change. She clearly had the nation's attention, but did not take advantage of it. Instead, she stuck to her script and didn't take questions from anyone, be they the media or regular voters at her campaign events. But likability and flair alone cannot sustain a candidate in this political climate. (Even Karl Rove acknowledged that the excitement surrounding her couldn't last forever.) As Palin continued to avoid taking questions while her surrogates inadvertently diminished her (e.g., "Sarah Palin can see Russia from Alaska. She is not qualified to run a company."), the same doubts they had about Obama began to surface about her. Voters who were looking for some measure of depth to match her style began to grow impatient.

Now the risk for McCain is that Palin may be exposed as a gimmick. At a recent joint town hall event, Palin took questions from the audience for the first time. One woman asked her to identify which specific foreign policy qualifications she had. Palin answered the question by not answering it:

"I have that readiness and if you want specifics with specific policy or countries, go ahead. You can ask. You can play 'stump the candidate' if you want to. But we are ready to serve."
This response is at the very heart of why the Palin bounce is no more. Yes, there are other reasons, such as the renewed focus on the economy. However, her inability to clearly articulate the case for her candidacy in a friendly environment is giving many voters pause. It is worth noting that the audience at that town hall event was screened and the person who asked the question about foreign policy credentials was a woman, so blaming an overzealous and biased media or complaining about sexism will not work. And they shouldn't work because this is a legitimate question that any responsible voter or media organization should ask.

Palin has certainly been a short term success for John McCain. But her long term prospects look considerably less promising. After her strong convention speech, Palin has avoided the media, been lampooned on Saturday Night Live, sat for an interview with Charlie Gibson which had mixed reviews, and sat for another interview with conservative ally Sean Hannity. And now she is equating asking legitimate questions with playing "stump the candidate." That's exactly what the moderator will attempt to do at the debate next month, so she will need to find a better response.

During the primaries, it was okay for Obama to not have to display his grasp of the issues as quickly because there was lots of time left in the campaign season and fewer voters were paying attention. But now it's the middle of September. Summer vacation is over, the economy is in trouble, and everyone is tuning into the race. To voters who are not solidly in McCain's camp, Palin is coming across as trying to fake her way to the vice presidency.

Several prominent conservatives have already expressed their reservations about Palin. Chuck Hagel is the latest one to give her a thumbs down. Base voters may still be excited about her, but it would seem that her appeal among soft Republicans, Democrats, and independents is weakening because she is not closing the sale with them. And the longer Palin stays away from giving interviews, the fewer chances she will have to make new impressions with voters. The McCain campaign had better take her upcoming debate against Joe Biden seriously because that will be her last and best chance to erase these doubts.

Palin recently quipped that Barack Obama probably regretted not choosing Hillary Clinton as his running mate. But in light of her inability to assuage voters about her experience and her capacity to lead at a time when the stock market is falling and the economy is the main issue in this race, perhaps John McCain is now having second thoughts about not choosing Mitt Romney.

9 comment(s):

Khaki Elephant said...

Some excellent points on Palin. As you know, I am a supporter of the Governors and have been since before McCain tagged her. So for me, the McCain camp has done a terrible job to date of allowing Sarah Palin to be Sarah Palin.

She is an intellegent woman who knows how to debate an issue and work a crowd -- it's been the key to her rapid success in politics. Unfortunately, team McCain has been so afraid of potential gaffes that they have yet to fully loosen the reigns. Gaffes will happen as the more seasoned Biden and McCain have both shown us. And unless the GOP ticket allows her the freedom to be herself, they risk defeat for fear of her failure.

S.W. Anderson said...

Palin is bright, IMO, and if allowed to learn on the job as governor, maybe serve a couple of terms in Congress, she might in a few years be a reasonably good prospect for V.P., as Republicans go.

Right now, she is clearly not prepared to step into the presidency. If, God forbid, that comes to pass in the next four years, the country will see a rebirth of the Bush presidency, with most of his team brought on board to be her handlers. Then, we will all get a lesson in the dangers of electing the ill-prepared and incompetent that could eclipse our experience with George W. Bush. That is a really frightening prospect.

Re: AP's comment about McCain choosing Romney as his No. 2.

The best thing for the country and his party would've been for McCain to make the ultimate maverick selection: Chuck Hagel. Then, have the two of them set about bringing the GOP back toward the center for the first time in 40 years.

Hagel has character and principles, which sets him apart from most Republicans, McCain included. It would be hail-Mary pass of a strategy, but strange things sometimes work.

Silence Dogood said...

Women swung from Obama to McCain by about 20 points (overall change). Maybe you have your thumb on the pulse better than most, but I am not a Palin supporter and think she is a small time, small town politico that is a manufactured candidate who has successfully, and will cotinue to fool the rest of the nation for at least 40 days more.

Brett said...

Interesting note on this: the New York Times has an article that points out that McCain is doing the same type of standoffish, although instead of avoiding the media he's simply being repetitive and saying nothing but brief talking points.

This whole "media sequestration" thing that McCain's campaign is trying is one reason why I am eagerly looking forward to the Vice Presidential debate. There'll be no audience-screening, no question-avoiding there, assuming they actually pick a moderator with some balls.

I'm especially hoping that Joe Biden is on top of his form; if he defeats her solidly in that debate, then McCain will be faced with a choice. He could either let the debate stand, and keep with the current strategy; or he could try to really change tack and expose her to the media in a desperate attempt to change the perception created by the debate. Either way, Obama profits.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

man i told ya its gone come back to bite his dumb, taking economic advice from phil gramm self in the azz. have a great wekend jones

Thomas said...

Anthony, you know my position on Mitt Romney. Picking him would have guaranteed a loss for McCain. Romney, to many people, comes off as a phony. (My Mormon aunt says that in so many words.)

That said, I think Republicans are going to lose with Palin anyway too. But it won't be as close. I wonder if all this "Palin backlash" is part of the plan to ramp down expectations for the Biden-Palin debate.

Politicians all go through cycles. Obama has seen some really high points and a few disappointing lows. I think there is more to Palin than many people give her credit for. I think she will surprise us in her debate.

This was never going to be Palin's year. What I think will happen is that McCain introduced to the country the next great conservative leader. By "great" I don't mean that universally, I mean McCain handed the conservative movement their next Ronald Reagan.

DB said...

Simply put, Palin is the reason I cannot support McCain. I constantly try to give her a fair shake (even watching the Hannity interview as I type), but she consistently dissappoints me. I think she could be a contender in the future, but as of right now she is a major dissappointment. Only the most die-hard, ardent conservatives are excited about her now. As of right now, the euphoria that surrounded her announcement is wearing off and she has quickly become a joke. I for one am looking forward to the debate. This will make or break Palin (unfortunately, I expect it to make her).

Political Realm said...

I agree with Thomas, Romney would have failed. He has no real constituency, partially because there have been so many different versions of Mitt Romney.

While can point to his time as an exec as economic experience, the fact that he's a mega millionaire would have made an easy "out of touch" argument even easier for Obama. Also, I'm not sure an industry executive relates all that well to middle class workers anyway.

It seems to me, the more people got to know Romney, the less they liked of him.

Thomas said...

My sister and I had a little fun with Sarah Palin on my blog: http://americansweatpants.blogspot.com/2008/09/top-10-things-you-will-or-wont-hear.html

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