Gov. Sarah Palin will need to appeal to independents and moderates if she hopes to pull off a win for Republicans in four years.
As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin looks to 2012, she’ll have plenty to learn from 2008.
If Palin hopes to pull off a victory in four years, she will need to live up to her reputation as a popular, galvanizing political figure.
The Republican Party base had high hopes for the Alaska governor when she was tapped by Sen. John McCain to be his running mate. After her rousing speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September, many Republicans believed they had found their silver bullet to defeat the Democrats in November. They asserted that she would have a “Palin effect” — rallying the base, particularly evangelical voters, as well as disaffected women, many of whom had supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic Party primary.
Now that the exit polls are in, the ballots are counted and the election is over, it’s clear that the Palin effect did not come to fruition. She did not bring out the base in high enough numbers to defeat Sen Barack Obama. In fact, more Republicans stayed home this year than in 2004 in critical battleground states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana. Religious voters swung more heavily Democratic this year, despite hopes that Palin’s evangelical background would resonate with them. Women voters, meanwhile, flocked to Obama. Only a small percentage of disgruntled Clinton supporters went Republican, even in states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans hoped to peel off sizable numbers of Democrats.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin
This is not a recipe for success in 2012.
If Republicans bank on Palin four years, she will need to inspire the groups that showed her lackluster support at the polls last week. She will need the base to come out for her in force. A win will require regaining lost ground with swing voters, including suburbanites, who strayed from the GOP. Palin will also need to shore up support among independent voters, who leaned Democratic this year.
“The two biggest groups she needs to improve her respectability with are independent voters and suburban voters,” said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm. “Those are the two biggest groups Republicans lost the most ground with since 2004.”
Palin’s views on abortion — which she opposes in almost all cases, including rape and incest — made her an instant hit with social conservatives. McCain had not appealed to the group as President George W. Bush had in the last two elections. Palin assured these voters their views would be represented in the White House.
Despite her conservative appeal, though, fewer Republicans came out to vote in key states this cycle.
Jensen, whose polling firm is based in North Carolina, said that Obama’s win in the state hinged on increased turnout in urban centers, particularly among black voters.
Jensen said the McCain campaign could have won the state had Palin’s events been more strategically planned. Obama made some inroads with rural voters, but Palin proved more appealing overall with rural residents.
One problem for McCain was that fewer Republicans turned out to vote in rural areas of North Carolina.
“They needed to exclusively send [Palin] out to the rural parts of the state where Republicans under-performed this year,” Jensen said, noting that Palin was in Richmond the last week of the campaign. “She certainly could have done more for the ticket in those parts of the state.”
Her appeal to women didn’t pan out either. Overall, the McCain-Palin ticket only picked up 43 percent of the female vote, compared to the 48 percent that went for Bush in 2004.
Two days before Election Day, CNN released a national survey showing that Palin was a two-point drag on the GOP ticket overall. A New York Times survey reached a similar conclusion.
“The end effect [of Palin running] was to make it impossible for McCain to win,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. “The choice reflected poorly on McCain’s decision-making abilities. I think it made it impossible for him to attract the Democrats and the independents that he needed.”
Among independent voters, Democrats did better this year than in the last two presidential elections. The Republican ticket trailed Obama by 8 points among independents. Obama picked up 52 percent of independent voters, while McCain only took 44 percent, according to CNN exit poll numbers.
In both 2000 and 2004, Bush did better among independents than McCain this year. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry edged out Bush among the independent voters by one point. In 2000, Bush picked up 47 percent of independents, compared to Gore’s 45 percent.
Palin will need to win back these swing voters in a 2012 run.
Republican strategist Mark Corallo, who worked on the Fred Thompson primary campaign, said that his party is in desperate need of a new direction and a clear vision.
If Palin can help rebuild the party on substance, the votes will follow.
“You can’t tie your principles to the polls,” Corallo said. “You can’t tailor your vision for so-called independents. You have to present a clear vision.”
Corallo explained that the Republican losses this year were a reflection of the party giving up on principle. “The fact is,” he said, “Republicans stopped acting like Republicans.”
Corallo said that Americans want choices. In 2012, the principle will be the same.
“You have to show why you are different and why you are better,” he said. “Any politician who seeks the national stage, they have to decide where lies their political soul.”
This year, Palin wasn’t expected to appeal to swing voters so much as the conservative base.
Initially, it appeared she had. She drew sizable crowds following the GOP convention. A week after the convention, for example, Palin and McCain attracted 15,000 fans in Fairfax, Va., while just before the convention McCain’s events were only attended by a few hundred people.
But by the final weeks of the campaign, when Obama was drawing tens of thousands of fans in battleground states like Ohio and Virginia, Palin’s events were regularly attended by fewer than a few thousand.
In a column for The Wall Street Journal that ran the Friday before Election Day, Kimberly Strassel wondered if “the whole state hadn’t shown up” for a Cape Girardeau event in Missouri. According to local press reports, though, there were about 7,000 attendees. Another 1,800 supporters were turned away.
Reports about the raucous crowds helped Palin maintain the reputation of being wildly popular.
But on Nov. 4, the conservative base actually swung toward Obama in key states.
According to a New York Times exit poll analysis, Obama picked up 20 percent more self-described conservatives this year than Kerry did in 2004. An additional 8 percent of conservatives in Virginia also went for Obama.
Obama won several traditionally red states, including Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana.
“I can tell you flat out,” Corallo said, “had Palin not been on the ticket, “it would have been worse.” In response to polls that showed Palin hurt McCain’s ticket he said, “I just disagree.”
Part of Obama’s success with these red states included new support from religious voters.
Palin, an evangelical, was expected to appeal to her fellow Christian conservative voters, observers predicted when she was tapped.
But it was actually Obama who benefited from increased support from religious voters. Obama increased his support amongst Protestants by 5 percent over Kerry, according to an analysis from MSNBC. McCain dropped 6 points from 2004.
Among religious voters who attend religious services more than once per week, Obama got an 8-point boost over Kerry. McCain lost 3 points.
Palin’s hard sell to the working class didn’t seem to play well either.
“I know what Americans are going through,” Palin said on the trail in late September. “Todd and I, heck, we’re going through that right now even as we speak,” Palin said during a campaign speech in early October, “which may put me again kind of on the outs of those Washington elite, who don’t like the idea of just an everyday, working-class American running for such an office.”
Obama won Pennsylvania handily, by nearly a 10-point margin, though Palin campaigned heavily in the state.
For Palin to win in 2012, she’s facing an uphill climb. “She really would need to improve with just about everybody but rural Republican voters,” Jensen said.
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