Going Rouge: Palin, Polling and the 2012 Presidential Race

As Sarah Palin hits the media circuit to plug her new book, Going Rogue (she was just on Oprah this afternoon which will undoubtedly push sales for a book that is already on the NY Times best seller list even higher), three new polls have been released assessing her popularity and perceived qualifications for president. Interestingly, they come to somewhat different conclusions. The reason for the polling disparity is a useful reminder why I constantly urge you to read the fine print in any poll.

To begin, CNN released results indicating that among those surveyed, a significant number of Americans (by 70-28%) don’t believe Palin is qualified to be president.  That puts her behind the two people frequently mentioned as her Republican rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.  The CNN survey finds that nearly half of all Americans think Romney is qualified to be president, with 43 percent feeling the same way about Huckabee. (Interestingly, the most qualified among those listed on the survey by far was…Hillary Clinton!)  There is a steep partisan divide regarding Palin, however, with most Republicans (54-44%) thinking she is qualified, while most independents (68%) and Democrats (90%) say she is NOT qualified.

The CNN poll is consistent with the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted at almost the same time.  It also found that a majority of those surveyed, by 60-38%, think Palin is not qualified to be president. When asked whether they would vote for her as president in 2012, 53% said they definitely would not, while only 9% said they definitely would, with another 37% saying they would consider voting for her.   When asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of Palin, only 20% had strongly favorable views toward her, while 34% had strongly unfavorable views.  (23% had somewhat favorable views and 18% had somewhat unfavorable views.)

Based on the latest polling data, then, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Palin is a viable presidential candidate in 2012.  Or would they?  A third poll, taken at the exact time as the CNN and ABC polls, presents a slightly different, more favorable picture of Palin’s chances. Rasmussen finds that 21% of Americans they surveyed had strongly favorable views toward Palin, with another 30% looking at her somewhat favorably.  14% viewed her somewhat unfavorably, and 29% had strongly unfavorable views.

What is the difference between the ABC and CNN polls versus the Rasmussen poll? How can Rasmussen find 51% with favorable or strongly favorable views at the precise time ABC finds only 43% with favorable views toward Palin?  One might be tempted to argue that one or the other polling outfit, for partisan reasons, put their finger on the scale just enough to tilt the results in their preferred direction.  And this is frequently what partisan blogs will claim. One way to do so, of course, is to utilize a biased survey that oversamples from respondents who shares the pollster’s political leanings.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here.  All three polling outfits are quite reputable.  Rather than pollster bias, the difference has to do with their survey methodology. Both CNN and ABC surveyed all Americans, and they used live person to person interviews.  Rasmussen, in contrast, used automated polling, and only surveyed likely voters.  By now, you know from my election year posts that surveys of likely voters tend to favor Republican candidates a bit more, because Republicans tend to turnout in higher numbers than non-Republicans.  Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that automated surveys, in which respondents press a button to answer an automated polling question, may allow respondents to be a bit more candid in expressing opinions – like saying they like Sarah Palin! – that they may think are socially less acceptable.

In general, which survey approach is to be preferred? It depends on one’s objective. If you want to know how a representative cross section of all Americans feels about Palin, the ABC and CNN method is probably the way to go.  But if you are trying to forecast the 2012 election, Rasmussen’s methodology is probably to be preferred, for reasons that I have discussed at length in several previous posts.  The short explanation is that we know almost half of all Americans aren’t likely to vote in 2012 – and the number of nonvoters is even greater in the primaries.  So Rasmussen is likely providing the more accurate snapshot of the election outcome. (Note that they were the most accurate pollster in last Tuesday’s elections as well).

Of course, a lot can happen in two years. Palin is likely to get a positive boost from her book tour, but even at the height of her popularity during the 2008 campaign she was a very polarizing figure.  As this Pollster.com composite poll of the polls indicates, she is viewed unfavorably by  about half  of Americans, and her unfavorables have climbed more than 5% since she stepped down as Alaskan governor.

On the other hand, she continues to poll very well among those Republicans most likely to participate in the 2012 Republican primary in head to head matchups with Huckabee and Romney.

In the end, and realizing it is too early to come to any definitive judgment, I think Palin is, to date, simply too polarizing to win her party’s nomination.  In this respect, the candidate she most closely resembles is Howard Dean. Like Palin, Dean was a little-known governor from a small, mostly rural and white state, who suddenly achieved national prominence in part due to his “mavericky” ways. As with Palin, Dean’s support was strongest among the more ideological extreme wing of his party, in part because of his stance on the Iraq war. And yet, as my presidency students can attest, I never believed he had a viable shot at the party nomination, even without his celebrated “I have a scream” speech after losing the Iowa caucus.

The reason for my skepticism is that at the height of the Dean “boomlet” beginning in December 2003 through  January 2004, when Dean vaulted to the head of the polls among all Democratic contenders, he still never attracted more than 31% support in any poll.

Palin, at least so far, is the Dean of the Republican party. Without a moderation of her views and a corresponding rise in her favorables, I don’t see how she can break the roughly 40% ceiling of support among Republicans that she consistently attracts now.   Having said that, however, it is clear from viewing the Oprah interview that she has gained media savvy. Moreover, she is doing exactly what she must do to position herself for a run in 2012: increase her favorable ratings, raise heaps of money, and work to soften her edges so as to broaden her political appeal.  My guess is that she doesn’t know yet if she will run and that her decision will turn in large part on her polling and fundraising during the next year.  An early sign that she’s considering a run comes from her willingness to interject herself into the special NY election in the 23rd congressional district.  If she follows this up and begins campaigning in the 2010 midterms on behalf of Republicans, then you’ll be able to answer the question “Is Sarah Running?” in two and a half words: “You betcha!”


  1. Matt, are you really comparing Dean, a policy wonk, with Palin, a policy ignoramus? That’s a stretch.


  2. Jack – Assuming one buys your characterization of both candidates – and I’m not saying I do – it still strikes me that when we think of the two in terms of political viability as presidential candidates, they are remarkably similar. Sure, they differ in other important respects (Dean doesn’t wear rouge, for instance), but on those factors that doomed Dean – his more extreme policy views relative to other candidates, the sense that he lacked experience on the national level, the passion that Democratic base felt for him, and the equal skepticism among moderates toward his candidacy, and questions about his temperament (even before the post-Iowa speech), I don’t think the comparison with Palin as we look toward 2012 is that much of a stretch. We also tend to forget that while some in Vermont view him as a “policy wonk”, he was not viewed that way by everyone at the national level.

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