16 09 2008

When John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate late last month, the Alaska governor quickly became a media phenomenon. Largely unknown, she existed at first in something of an information vacuum, and due to the shock of her selection–everyone loves a surprise–the press rushed to fill the void with whatever data was easily available. Mostly this consisted of human interest material; Palin had plenty to go around. Mooseburgers. Float planes. Ice Fishing. Beauty pageants. Teen pregnancy. Et cetera. By the end of her first 15 minutes in the spotlight–which included her speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul–Palin existed mostly as an idea: a frontier supermom who’d triumphed over adversity (the Ol’ Boys Club, the “liberal media”). Palin spent her first week reading from a teleprompter and avoiding questions from the press–and the public–so as not to sully this positive first impression.

The polls reflected the early success of her strategy. In the three days after Palin joined Team McCain–Aug. 29-31–32 percent of voters told the pollsters at Diageo/Hotline that they had a favorable opinion of her; most (48 percent) didn’t know enough to say. (The Diageo/Hotline poll is conducted by Financial Dynamics opinion research; it’s the only daily tracking poll to regularly publish approval ratings.) By Sept. 4, however, 43 percent of Diageo/Hotline respondents approved of Palin with only 25 percent disapproving–an 18-point split. Apparently, voters were liking what they were hearing. Four days later, Palin’s approval rating had climbed to 47 percent (+17), and by Sept. 13 it had hit 52 percent. The gap at that point between her favorable and unfavorable numbers–22 percent–was larger than either McCain’s (+20) or Obama’s (+13)

But then a funny thing happened: Palin seems to have lost some of her luster. Since Sept. 13, Palin’s unfavorables have climbed from 30 percent to 36 percent. Meanwhile, her favorables have slipped from 52 percent to 48 percent. That’s a three-day net swing of -10 points, and it leaves her in the Sept. 15 Diageo/Hotline tracking poll tied for the smallest favorability split (+12)** of any of the Final Four. Over the course of a single weekend, in other words, Palin went from being the most popular White House hopeful to the least.

What happened? *First, it’s important to note that Palin’s approval rating hasn’t tanked. Far from it. And we should hold off on drawing any hard and fast conclusions until more polling comes out.* That said, I suspect that we’re starting to see Palin’s considerable novelty wear off. In part it’s the result of a steady stream of controversial stories: her apparent unfamiliarity with the Bush Doctrine during last Thursday’s interview with Charles Gibson (video above); her refusal to cooperate with the Troopergate investigation; her repeated stretching of the truth on everything from earmarks to the “Bridge to Nowhere” to the amount of energy her state produces. That stuff has a way of inspiring disapproval and eroding one’s support. (Interestingly, Palin’s preparedness numbers–about 50 percent yes, 45 percent no–haven’t budged.) But I’d argue that it’s the start of an inevitable process. Between now and Nov. 4, voters will stop seeing Palin as a fascinating story and starting taking her measure as an actual candidate for office. Some will approve; some won’t. It remains to be seen whether Palin’s recent slide will continue, or hurt John McCain in the polls. But it’s hard to argue that the journey from intriguing new superstar to earthbound politician–a necessary part of the process–doesn’t involve a loss of altitude.

Just ask Barack Obama. 🙂



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