How Palin, McCain’s Kryptonite, Could Still Take the Debate

By
Omar Minaya and Brian Cashman. Photo: Getty Images

Amid all the chaos of the financial crisis, it’s been easy to overlook a simple, stark trend: Sarah Palin is killing the Republican ticket. Beyond becoming a national joke, Palin has been driving independent and moderate voters in key battleground states away from John McCain, and that fact is going to frame how she debates Joe Biden tonight.

From late August, when Barack Obama and McCain named their running mates, through mid-September, when the Wall Street meltdowns began, the national polls hardly changed. But the composition of each candidate’s support shifted. McCain increased his standing among Republicans, white men, and voters over the age of 65, according to CBS News/New York Times poll data. But he lost votes among moderates, independents, and women, particularly women under the age of 45. Even before Palin’s Titanic interview with Katie Couric, she was alienating non-right-wingers and the Tina Fey vote.

Palin’s polarizing numbers gave McCain a boost in some states that were already deep red — he’s now up by 30 points in Oklahoma. But for about three weeks now, Palin’s numbers have been skidding in sync with her not-ready-for-prime-time media appearances, leading to serious erosion in Republican support in a slew of swing states. Colorado, for example, had been neck and neck all year. But as Palin’s net favorability dropped twelve points in September, Obama also surged among independents, and now he’s at 50 percent with an average lead of five points in recent polls.

In Virginia, 57 percent of moderate voters told the most recent Rasmussen survey they would be “not at all comfortable” with Palin as vice-president. That’s an extraordinary number; just 21 percent said the same thing about Biden. Obama has hit 50 percent there, too, with an average lead of three points. Palin’s favorability ratings have also cratered in North Carolina and Florida, turning those states into toss-ups as Obama has improved dramatically among women, particularly independent women.

All of these states have a few things in common. Economically, they are high-growth. Demographically, they are filled with moderates and young families. And politically, Obama outperformed his poll numbers during the primaries in all of them except for Florida, and now has massive ground operations in each one, meaning he is well positioned to take advantage of voters who are in flux this year. Indeed, these Bush-but-purple states are at the core of Obama’s attempt to put together a successful coalition without having to win Ohio.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign’s single consistent inspiration has been to drive up Obama’s negatives with an eye toward winning the Rust Belt. For all the inroads he is making elsewhere, Obama is still lagging his national numbers in places like Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. On Thursday night, you can expect Palin to get back on message with the strategy of scaring the hell out of older white voters. She won’t spend much time defending herself. She may lob a grenade or three at the media. But mostly Palin will spend as many of the 90 minutes as she can gleefully and relentlessly attacking Obama, and hoping something will stick.

In other words, anyone who thinks Palin can’t win her debate with Biden is crazy. There’s a model for the performance she has to deliver: the 1992 vice-presidential debate, a hugely entertaining donnybrook where the point spread between Al Gore and Dan Quayle was fully as large as that between Biden and Palin. That ’92 debate is remembered for Admiral James Stockdale asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” But it was Quayle who stole the show. Fully aware of his inadequacies, real and alleged, he disregarded them, acted as though he had utterly nothing to lose, and had a great time jabbing his opponents again and again. In a battle of experience versus change that in many ways foreshadowed this year’s contest, the Republicans in 1992 realized their best shot was to destabilize public confidence in the young Democratic nominee. So Quayle looked straight into the camera and asked, “Can you really trust Bill Clinton?” Gore was more composed, even serene, and Stockdale was comically and sadly inept, but neither one could stop Quayle from smacking Clinton.

This is the biggest beauty contest Sarah Palin will ever be in, and going negative is the only talent she has left that can help McCain. Call it putting lipstick on Spiro Agnew. Just remember, Agnew won.

UPDATE
: It turns out that Michigan is another state where voters are turning on Palin. A new Quinnipiac poll finds her net favorability rating has dropped 14 points there since the Republican convention, contributing to a 51-41 percent lead for Obama. And now McCain is pulling his campaign out of Michigan, ending TV ads and direct mail, and shifting staff to Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.