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.