Pundits and Viewers Give Palin a Pass
| October 3, 2008
Governor Sarah Palin’s strategy of avoiding tough questions and talking into the camera will strengthen her connection with the GOP base. Independent voters are another matter.
Sarah Palin debated the image of Sarah Palin last night and came out a winner.
A CNN insta-poll showed 84 percent of viewers said she did better than expected. Pundits went further. This was not a demolition derby. She walked away, survived for another day, went far in recovering her footing after disastrous Katie Couric interviews and shed the deer-in-the-headlights vulnerability.
She might not have retrieved the GOP convention magical moment of an Alaskan novice taking the Republican conservatives by storm. But she staunched the bleeding caused by two weeks of stumbling performances.
She showed an appetite for combat, for the “thrust and parry” of a debate. “Her syntax did not hold but her magnetism did,” said GOP analyst Peggy Noonan. She noted that Palin succeeded in her strategy of ignoring both Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and moderator Gwen Ifill. “Sarah and the camera were there. This was classic ‘talk over the heads of the media straight to the people’ and it is a long time since I’ve seen it done so well, though so transparently,” Noonan said.
Viewer polls and most pundits said Biden won the debate. CNN viewers were surprised he kept on-message and targeted, with no gaffes: 64 percent said he exceeded expectations. FOX viewers gave the win to Biden, 57-43. Pundits said he scored by relentlessly tying GOP presidential nominee John McCain to President Bush, warning that a McCain-Palin team would be four more years of Bush-Cheney.
Biden also scored the emotional moment of the vice presidential debate against the younger mother-of-five Palin.
“Look, I understand what it’s like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died [in a 1972 car crash] and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it is like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if you kid’s going to make it.”
Palin not only didn’t react to that or give even a glance toward Biden. She changed the subject and talked directly into the camera.
The CNN poll gave the night to Biden, 51-36, with uncommitted voters favouring him by a 46-21 margin.
Biden clearly was more conversant with the facts, from foreign policy to the financial meltdown to health care. Palin rarely tried to refute him directly—she kept on with the GOP mantra that the Democrats would raise taxes, which she repeated at every chance, forcing Biden to play defensive.
But the debate was far less about issues than about whether Palin could stop being an embarrassment to McCain. She did that, by a combination of folksy, direct-talk with a smile, by showing an admirable grasp of many policy-wonk issues. And by reverting to the subject of energy when she couldn’t handle other inconvenient topics.
The issue wasn’t so much whether she could prevail on the facts but whether she could remain standing, politically, after a 90-minute debate. She did—and seemed to enjoy every minute of it. When she wasn’t flashing that big smile, she had a tight-lips look of triumph after surviving another question.
She was cheerful and confident. She didn’t condescend to Biden or use any of the taunting “community organizer” sneers she used in her convention night speech against Barack Obama. Biden didn’t condescend either—he referred to her throughout as “the governor” rather than by either name—and he didn’t hold back on some very focused, tough accusations against McCain on Iraq exit policies (or lack of), on health care, and especially on being a maverick, which he said McCain was not.
Palin avoided direct engagement on those issues.
That didn’t matter to GOP conservatives, who were ebullient at her performance, according to network interviews. Huge crowds are predicted for her when she takes to the trail again.
It may matter a lot, however, to swing voters, given the gravity of the financial meltdown and the new premium on competence.
And Palin had a lot of turf to recoup. An election-eve Washington Post/ABC poll showed that public opinion had swing sharply against her, with six in 10 voters now seeing her as lacking the experience to be an effective president. As a result of that, one third of these voters were less likely to vote for McCain—and that was far higher for the many voters who already were nervous about McCain taking the White House at the age of 72.
Independents had been sceptical even at the outset, about 2-1 against Palin on the experience test. By last week’s poll, that had risen to scepticism by two-thirds of the independents.
And women independents were even less likely to support McCain because of his choice of Palin. Only 8 percent said they were more likely now to vote for McCain, 34 percent said they were less likely to back him.