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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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On the "Palin Effect"

A reader writes in with a question:

A few of my friends have said almost in the same words, "I was thinking of voting for McCain until he chose Palin. After that, I'm voting for Obama." Packer's article in the New Yorker on Ohio also quotes someone saying the same thing.

So I was wondering if you have any insight into the Palin Effect. Any polls out that are getting to this issue somehow?

This is a good question.

One thing we can say is that the electorate's reaction to Palin has been polarized. Rasmussen finds that 35% of voters have a very favorable view of Palin, compared to 33% with a very unfavorable view. For Biden, those numbers are 25% and 21%, respectively. LA Times/Bloomberg finds that Republicans overwhelmingly like her, Democrats overwhelmingly don't, and Independents are split evenly, 41-41. This ambivalence among Independents might be due to perceptions that she is not prepared to take on the responsibilities of the presidency. The Diageo/Hotline poll finds that by a 44-53 margin, voters don't think she'd be ready for that role.

LA Times/Bloomberg also finds the following:

Last month's poll showed that slightly more voters were more likely to vote for McCain because of Sarah Palin's presence on the ticket. This poll shows that the Palin rock star status has waned (except with the Republican's core base). More voters are less likely to vote for McCain because of her presence on the ticket. Independents have flipped their allegiance. In September 38% said they were more likely to vote for McCain because of Palin - now just 19% say that. Women were split last month, but now lean toward less likely, as do men.

The polls show movement consistent with what the reader hypothesizes, but we have to be careful. Media polls have a habit of oversimplifying public opinion - and the write-ups of the news outlets who commission them only exacerbate this tendency. Frankly, I don't think these "more likely, less likely, no difference" questions have much value. The reason is that it matters who you are likely to support to begin with. Suppose you're a solid Obama supporter, and you say Palin makes you less likely to vote for McCain. That isn't really accurate. You're likelihood of voting McCain was already 0%. You can't go any lower. So it goes for McCain supporters, too. That means that these results don't reflect voter sentiment on the precise question, but something slightly different.

So, if enhanced anxiety about the economy has pushed you from leaning McCain to undecided, or from undecided to leaning Obama, how will you answer this question about Palin? If you're feeling more negative about the McCain-Palin ticket these days, you might say "less likely" even if she is only an ancillary factor in your decision-making. If that's the case, and the analyst is not careful, he will draw your causal arrow in the wrong direction. It's not that your aversion to Palin makes you less likely to vote for McCain. It's that you're less likely to vote for McCain so you're more averse to Palin.

I'm not saying this is what's really going on. I think this is a reasonable alternative hypothesis to the reader's "Palin Effect" theory. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Some voters might be moving from McCain because of Palin. Other voters might be moving away from McCain because of the economy, and that's eroding Palin's numbers. There might be other explanations, too - so overall we have a tricky situation on our hands.

With that in mind, let's look at the LA Times/Bloomberg breakdown:

Palin Effect.gif

The LA Times was right to note that Palin's "less likely" number among Independents has increased by 13%, but they fail to note that the overall number of Independents who are unmoved either way has increased by 9%. Democrats also see her as less relevant to their vote choices, while she has become slightly more so to Republicans.

This might be a problem for the Palin Effect theory. If she's a major factor in McCain's drop-off, why is she becoming less salient? It seems to me that if she's pushing some voters away from McCain, she'd be more relevant to the thinking of voters generally, and we'd see a decrease in the number who say "No Difference."

Another issue - in most cycles, voters don't make a choice based on the veep selection. The veeps have a big, splashy rollout - but afterwards they become part of the backdrop. Should we really expect, with everything else that is happening this cycle, Palin's effect will be substantially different?

Unfortunately, media polling does not probe deep enough to give us final answers. So, I'll offer my guess about what is going on. I think there might be a Palin Effect among some Independent voters, consistent with what the emailer is finding among his friends. Some group of Independents might still be with McCain had he picked Pawlenty, but Palin has turned them off.

However, I'd wager this effect is pretty marginal. Above all, I think there is something bigger going on this cycle, influencing voters in ways that the personalities and events of the day don't. This is the alternative hypothesis I offered above. A rising tide lifts all boats, but a falling tide lowers them - and Palin's numbers have slid as the GOP ticket has run into bigger trouble. I'd note that LA Times/Bloomberg shows McCain has suffered a broad erosion in his support among Independents. In September, McCain led Independents 49-34. Today Obama leads 44-39. That's a 20-point swing, a sign that something more dramatic is happening in this race.

I'd note also that when we talk about a Palin Effect, we should remember that what matters is the net effect. Even if Palin has hurt McCain a bit among Independents, I think she is keeping morale up among Republicans. In the LA Times/Bloomberg poll, 49% of Republicans had a very positive view of McCain while 35% had a somewhat positive view of him. For Palin, 61% of Republicans had a very positive view compared to 23% with a somewhat positive view. This squares with the evidence we've seen from the McCain-Palin rallies. It also squares with the RNC's fundraising in the wake of the Palin pick. These are benefits to be counted against any Independent voters who have peeled away from McCain because of her.

Given the situation the GOP currently finds itself in, the fact that she rallies the base might help the party on Election Day. McCain's poll position has slipped, and most people now believe that Obama will win. If this belief persists through Election Day, Republicans might be less likely to come to the polls, thereby damaging down-ballot candidates. If Sarah Palin can give Republicans a reason to come out and vote, that might make her presence a net benefit even if she is driving away a few Independents from the GOP ticket.

-Jay Cost