Game Change? Alas, Not So Much

Amid much anticipation, and not a little controversy, the HBO docudrama Game Change aired last night. Based loosely on the book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book), the movie focuses on Sarah Palin’s role in John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Like Palin herself, the movie has provoked a rather polarized reaction, based in part on advance screenings.  Critics (including Palin although it’s not clear to me she has watched it) trashed the movie as another liberal smear job on the former mayor and Alaskan governor. Some of Palin’s harshest critics, on the other hand, believe Julianne Moore portrays Palin far too sympathetically.  For what it is worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much) I thought that rather than smearing or favoring Palin, the movie’s dominant frame is one of soft sexism that one still finds permeating national media coverage of women politicians more generally. That’s because the primary emotion most nonpartisan viewers will feel after seeing Game Change, I think, is pity toward the Palin character.  She comes across as a well-meaning but unprepared politician thrown into the consultant-infested deep waters of national politics. At one point it is suggested that Palin is on the verge of an emotional (hysterical?) breakdown, but she is rescued by the sympathetic support offered by McCain campaign strategist Steven Schmidt (portrayed by Woody Harrelson) who cuts back her workload and simplifies her strategy leading up to her much anticipated debate with Joe “O’biden” Biden.  Never mind that the strategy Palin used in debating Biden – a key moment in the film – almost exactly reprised the filibuster/stay on message/ignore-the-question debate tactics she employed in previous campaigns in Alaska. The Game Change audience is led to believe that Schmidt rescued poor Palin from certain disaster.

I will leave it to others to parse the meaning of Game Change, and what it reveals – or doesn’t – about Palin the politician and the person.  (Full disclosure: I watched much of the movie while reading a dull political science book, so I may have missed its true import.)  Rather than rely on Hollywood, I think better insights into Palin as politician come from reading some of the 25,000 heavily redacted emails covering her time as Alaska governor from December 2006 through Sept. 30, 2008, a period ending shortly after she accepted McCain’s offer to run as Vice President.  I’ve read only a smattering of these, but the ones I have scanned reveal that rather than someone to be pitied, Palin is instead a savvy politician who actively sought to shape media coverage and her relationship with other politicians in ways that boosted her political standing and her policy goals. In short, she comes across like a lot of politicians.

Perhaps her most controversial act as Governor was to work with Democrats to push through legislation increasing taxes on oil companies, a delicate legislative balancing act that often put her at odds with not just the oil companies but also her own Republican Party members. To give you a flavor of Palin at work, here she is  emailing aides regarding mediation efforts with stakeholders in the gas line revenue  controversy.

from: Gov. Sarah Palin
to: Balash, Joseph, Irwin, Tom E (DNR) [], Joseph R Batash (GOV), Marty Rutherford , Pat Galvin
cc: Gov. Sarah Palin

“Sheeesh- I heard her comment tonight also. I met with Exxon the other day, then with CP, we all (naturally) agree that everyone will come to the table with TC-Ak AFTER TC is licensed. Everyone agrees BP will be there too. Mulva said he looks forward to me “bringing them all together” – he pointed to my conf table and we agreed we’d all be around that table at the appropriate time (I said that would be after the legislature votes for AGIA/TC). So… there you have the “mediation” vehicle. Lesil need not call for it – we’re on it. We don’t need to be told what to do on that front.

Sent from my BlackBerry device from Cellular One”

In the midst of these negotiations, however, she also accepts her aides’ advice to forward positive press coverage of her gas line deal mediation efforts to the McCain campaign organization, as part of an active effort to get her considered as a potential running mate.  This and other emails are hardly the picture of a political neophyte cast into the den of political consultants and left to fend for herself.  Hate her or love her, the evidence from emails suggest that Palin was an ambitious and adroit political operator.  The Moore portrayal only begins to hint at this dimension of Palin’s character near the end of the movie.

Portrayals of Palin aside, probably the most misleading aspect of Game Change is the movie’s title, which implies that Palin’s selection had a significant impact on the outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign. Longtime readers will recall that I started this blog during the 2008 presidential campaign, and I posted more than one comment regarding Palin’s extraordinary capacity to draw boisterous, supportive crowds during the waning days of that process. But, contrary to what the movie implies, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of her candidacy on the 2008 race. Consider, as evidence, the 2008 presidential exit poll. As the table below indicates, only 7% of voters surveyed in the presidential exit poll said that Palin’s selection was the “most important factor” in their vote for President, and they went for Obama by 52% to 47% for McCain. Note that this split is almost identical to the overall split in the popular vote between the two candidates; Obama beat McCain by about 52.9%-45.6%.

However, McCain actually won a majority of those 33% of voters who said the Palin pick was an “important factor.”  On the other hand, fully 33% of respondents said Palin’s pick was not a factor at all – and they went much more strongly for Obama, at 65%-33%, over McCain.

Palin’s Pick Was…. Voted for Obama For McCain Other/Didn’t Answer
Most Important Factor (7%) 52% 47% 1%
Important Factor (33%) 47% 52% 1%
Minor Factor (20%) 33% 66% 1%
Not A Factor (33%) 65% 33% 2%

Put another way, of the 60% of voters who said the Palin pick influenced their vote in any degree, from “most important” to playing a “minor” role, McCain easily beat Obama, 56%-43%.   In short, if exit polls are to be believed, the Palin pick may have helped McCain at the margins.

Of course, exit polls don’t allow us to evaluate the Palin pick while controlling for other factors, such as voters’ ideological and partisan predispositions. Political scientists who have sought to estimate the impact of the Palin pick while controlling for these and other factors, and using other data such as the American National Election Studies, have generally found that her selection had a slight negative influence on McCain’s support. Thus, Elis, Hillygus and Nie suggest the Palin choice cost McCain 1.6% in his overall popular support. Jonathan Knuckey comes to a similar conclusion, finding that “the effect of evaluations of Palin on vote choice was heavily conditioned by party identification”, with Palin helping to mobilize the Republican base for McCain, but probably costing him support among independents and swing voters.

Whether the impact on McCain’s chances was positive or negative, Palin’s selection was, and remains, controversial.  But while it was not inconsequential in the 2008 race (particularly compared to the lack of impact of most V.P. picks on previous presidential elections), given Obama’s final margin of victory Palin’s selection can hardly be characterized as a “game changer.”

But then, why let the facts get in the way of a great story?  It’s Hollywood, after all. When it comes to understanding Palin as politician, however, that’s more the pity


  1. Matt, one comment and one question. Comment: The name of the movie is based on the name of the book. I understand that a preliminary script was focused on Obama versus Clinton. Question: Are there any polls measuring Palin’s polarizing impact on the American electorate, not vote changing.

    Marty Lapidus

  2. Marty,

    I understand that the name of the movie came from the book, and it probably makes good marketing sense to retain the book name. But in terms of what the movie is actually about, I don’t think it’s a very accurate title.

    There are lots of polls that show Americans are very polarized in their views toward Palin. When Palin was contemplating running for president, used to keep track of every Palin poll and they would show her aggregate favorable/unfavorable ratings in the form of a trend line. As I recall, in the last two years her aggregate numbers were typically showing that more Americans viewed her unfavorably than favorably, at something like a 40-45/55-60 favorable to unfavorable ratio. But, as you might expect, the numbers were not uniform across parties – in most polls, more Republicans viewed her favorably than not, while very few if any Democrats did. A plurality of independents usually viewed her unfavorably. I’m not quite sure if these polls get at what you mean, but clearly Americans are divided in their views toward Palin. Btw, even most Republicans did not want her to run for President. If you want to view some of the polling data, go to and search under Palin. It will bring up all the Palin poll data.

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