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Palin's Problem Outside the Base

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Mark's must read post on Gov. Sarah Palin's support among Republicans tells one crucial side of the Palin story. Regardless of views among the entire electorate, her strength rests powerfully among those in the party who continued to support her after the election and through the spring. Go read his post now if you missed it.

But let me focus on the negative-- Palin's problem outside the base. Of all the dimensions on which Palin can be viewed, the one that is most crucial for any national ambitions she may hold is the most fundamental: is she qualified to be president? One might focus on her issue positions, her personality, her policy knowledge but the most basic question voters could and did ask in 2008 was "is she qualified to take over as president if that became necessary?" That's what all the other details boil down to. So let's take a quick look at how the 2008 campaign affected that view among voters.

From the announcement of her pick as VP through the convention and before her first national news interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, Palin had a small plurality seeing her as qualified to be president rather than not qualified. For an essentially unknown governor from a remote state, this reflected a mix of partisanship, trust in McCain's judgement, a well received convention performance and a bit of benefit of the doubt.

Confidence in Palin's qualifications declined following the ABC interview, though this also coincides with the financial crisis and the suspension and then resumption of the McCain campaign. That period also represents a shift of support which had briefly trended in McCain's direction following the GOP convention. So we should be reluctant to attribute all the change in views of Palin to her ABC interview alone and other events undoubtedly affected perceptions. Nonetheless, by mid-September a significant plurality of voters had come to see Gov. Palin as not qualified to be president.

In late September Palin appeared on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, first on September 24 and 25, then again the next week on the 29th and 30th. Two polls taken after the first two interviews and simultaneous with the second two, suggest some further negative impact of these appearances. And of course, reaction among political professionals was that the interviews were disasters.

These interviews were followed almost immediately on October 2 by the Vice-Presidential debate, which was generally seen as a success for Palin, certainly in comparison to the expectations set by the Gibson and Couric interviews.

The flurry of polling following the VP debate clearly shows more movement in public opinion. While the percentage seeing Palin as qualified held steady at about 40%, those seeing her as not qualified rose from just under 50% before the Couric interviews to about 53% after the debate.

But the ultimate problem Palin faced with the electorate at large is not about individual events of the campaign, but about the overall trend. From the beginning to the end of the campaign, Palin steadily lost ground with the electorate. Each week more voters perceived her as unqualified to be president. Her base of support was about 40%. Those seeing her as qualified declined from the high 40s to a stable 40% through the last 2/3rds of the campaign,  with one final poll falling a bit below that.

The "not qualified" trend rose, from the low 40s in early September, to nearly 60% by election day.

Of all the things about Palin that might be relevant to her future, this is the most important. During a campaign in which she had her best chance to present herself to voters, and in which she chose her message to a considerable extent especially after the VP debate, Palin failed to convince voters she was qualified for the presidency. In fact, she did the opposite.

The enthusiasm and size of her crowds late in the campaign is testimony to her appeal to the base that Mark highlights in his post. But to be a contender for the presidency requires her to dramatically lower that 60% that thought her unqualified by November 4.

For all the commentary about Sarah Palin, this is the fundamental perception she must change. I doubt that Friday's announcement has done anything to improve those perceptions outside her base.