Articles and Analysis


Palin's Base

Topics: 2012 , Barack Obama , Sarah Palin

In the wake of Sarah Palin's now well covered announcement last Friday that she will soon step down as Governor of Alaska, more than a few commentators have declared her political career over. While I'm not about to agree that her bizarre resignation represents a "shrewd move" -- it wasn't -- I do think proclamations of her political death are a bit premature.

To those of you already rolling your eyes, try to suspend disbelief for a moment and take a good long look at this table reported a week ago by the Pew Research Center. Just before her resignation announcement, among Republicans, Palin was by far the most popular potential candidate for president in 2012:

2009-07-06_GOP favorables.png

Yes, again, the Pew Center took this measurement before the political earthquake this past weekend. Palin also had the highest negatives among all adults (44% in June, compared to 28% for Romney and 38% for Gingrich). Her rating among independents was 46% favorable, 43% unfavorable.** So Palin's image among voters in the middle was already very different than her image among Republicans.

And yes, when other pollsters asked Republicans their preference for the Republican nomination, Palin's name has not rocketed to the top. She started in a virtual three-way tie (with 21%) against Mike Huckabee (22%) and Mitt Romney (21%) as the candidate Republican identifiers said they would be "most likely to support" on a May survey by CNN/ORC. She did worse on a poll by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics. They showed Palin with just 13%, running behind Huckabee (20%) and Romney (18%) when they asked Republicans who they would like to see as their 2012 nominee. So clearly, many Republicans that like Palin were not ready to support her as a future presidential nominee, even before the events of this past weekend.

But let's go back to those Pew Research favorable ratings among Republicans. Her numbers were especially strong, according to the Pew report, among conservative Republicans (80% favorable) and white evangelical Republicans (84%). These ratings also have depth: Twenty-eight percent (28%) of Republicans, 31% of white evangelical Republicans and 32% of conservative Republicans report "very favorable" impression of Palin (thanks to the Pew Research Center for sharing those additional results).

Looking at those numbers, I would argue that -- as of last week, at least -- Sarah Palin was the Republican best positioned to emulate the tactical model employed by Barack Obama in seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008. Remember that Obama did not begin as the first choice of party insiders or as a "front runner" in horse-race polls. Our trend estimate of vote preference results showed him as the choice of less than 20% of Democrats in late 2006. But Obama started with a real base, a core of true believers that showed up in big numbers whenever Obama gave a speech.

During 2007, the nascent Obama campaign discovered a new model for fundraising and field organizing. They learned they could mine Obama's big crowds for small donations (by selling tickets), In so doing, they obtained the email addresses of their most ardent supporters who they could re-solicit at low cost and channel into a grassroots organization. Thus, although Obama was never a "front runner" in national polls during 2007, his campaign was able to raise $129 million that year, remaining competitive with Clinton and building a small donor/grassroots army that ultimately overwhelmed Clinton in 2008 in dollars and (what turned out to be) all-important efforts to turn out supporters in caucus states.   

So the point is this: The Pew numbers show that Palin's base as of June 2009 was as strong as Obama's on the eve of the 2008 campaign. Consider two numbers: Palin's "very favorable" rating last month on the Pew Research survey among all adults was 15%. Obama's very favorable score among all adults on a Pew Research survey in August 2007 was 14%.

As such, it is not completely crazy for Palin want to free herself from the time and travel constraints imposed by her gubernatorial commitments in Alaska. A month ago, Chris Cillizza outlined the logistical reasons why Palin would want to "take a pass" on a second term (resigning now is another story, of course). She has a big base and time is a resource. With more time to travel and speak, she would be able to build a grassroots army as Obama did.   

Now...go ahead and un-suspend your disbelief. The parallels between Palin and Obama end there.

Palin and Obama are very different in many ways, but the most important are about political judgment and their approach to their biggest perceived weakness. Whether you think that Obama intended to seek the presidency from the beginning of his Senate term or decided for certain, as Obama claims, in the first week of 2007, there is no question that Obama aimed from the beginning to use his Senate seat broaden his perceived experience, especially in foreign affairs. Palin's resignation takes her in an opposite direction.

Also, while Obama made the most of his base, his campaign always focused on the much larger electorate they knew they needed to convert to win. Moreover, while "change" was clearly the central overarching theme, the Obama campaign worked at key moments to indirectly reassure voters about his readiness for presidency. These efforts included a constant drumbeat of testimonials at key inflection points in Obama's standing during the campaign: Law professors and Illinois legislators in early Iowa ads, everyone from Carolyn Kennedy to Kent Conrad just before Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton in June 2008 and both Clintons at the August convention, Warren Buffett and Colin Powell in the fall.

In contrast, by resigning, Sarah Palin is likely digging herself into a much deeper hole. In late October 2008, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 55% of registered voters considered Palin "not qualified" to be president (only 40% considered her qualified). Now, Palin faces a new perceived negative. As George Will put it yesterday, "in her own words, she now is a quitter."


This latest incident is consistent with the picture that emerges from Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair profile of Palin and the McCain campaign emails between Palin and manager Steve Schmidt reported by CBS News last week. She eschews good advice from advisors who warn her that her own tactical instincts threaten to get her deeper trouble. Barack Obama did not suffer from the same flaw in his campaign. Neither, as the National Review's Jonah Goldberg points out, did Ronald Reagan:

Reagan had fantastic political instincts. He also had some of the savviest and most sophisticated political advisors in modern political history. Good politicians know how to take serious advice.

Unless Palin learns to seek out and listen to good advice, her base alone will be insufficient to win the big prize. Nonetheless, we need to keep an eye on Palin's base among conservative and evangelical Republicans in future polling. Without it, Palin is nowhere. With it she has the necessary precondition that will allow her to continue to be a force in Republican politics, particularly in the 2012 nomination battle.  

**Correction:  The original version of this post erred in reporting Palin's June favorable rating among independents as 39% favorable, 46% unfavorable.

RelatedJohn Sides and Jennifer Agiesta critique Ross Douthat's use of the same Pew data to argue that "Palin's popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology."  Late update:  Sides passes along a reader's charts.  

UpdateMore here, including something I should have noticed about the Pew data -- they did not include Mike Huckabee on their favorable rating list last month. 



Would you agree that Gov. Palin's resignation most helps Governor Mike Huckabee in 2012? Should she decide not to run for the GOP nomination, I would hope that her supporters move toward Gov. Huckabee due to their close alignment on most issues.



USA/Gallup poll also shows 7 of 10 Repubs would vote for her.There is a related post at http://iamsoannoyed.com/?p=2098


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