Beyond the Spin: Palin Hurt the GOP, According to the Numbers

Sarah Palin’s abrupt decision to resign as governor has raised a flurry of speculation across the political spectrum about her current political prospects, and her viability as a national candidate in 2012. Few pundits, however, have focused on what polls actually reveal about Palin’s appeal as a national political figure.

The numbers paint a grim picture for the once-rising star of the GOP.

At home in Alaska, the number of people saying they have a positive view of Palin has fallen precipitously from 89% in May 2008 to just 54% in May 2009 (Hays Research Group). By comparison, in the same May 2009 poll, 76% of Alaskans reported having a positive view of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who recently slammed Palin for deciding to “abandon the state and her constituents.”

A look at other national data reveals that on balance, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin hurt him more than it helped across most segments of the American electorate. The data also reveals a lesson that is often forgotten among political operatives: voters want more than a candidate who holds certain positions or values; the character, tone, and competency of candidates also matter. Voters can and do distinguish between someone who shares their values and someone who would serve the public well.

According to a national post-election survey conducted by Public Religion Research [the authors were the principal researchers at PRR on the survey —ed.], the voting public was evenly split about whether Sarah Palin shared their values (49% agreeing vs. 45% disagreeing). Despite higher numbers identifying with Palin at the level of values, only 18% of American voters said Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate made them more likely to vote for the Republican ticket. On the other hand, nearly one-quarter (24%) reported that her selection made them less likely to support the GOP ticket, and a majority (56%) report her selection made no difference.**


Among white evangelicals, the religious core of the GOP base, three-quarters (75%) agreed that Palin shares their values. But even among this group, only 3-in-10 said her selection made them more likely to support the McCain ticket. In contrast, a majority (54%) of white evangelicals say her selection made no difference for their support for McCain, and an additional 14% say her selection made them less likely to support McCain. But the real evidence against a successful Palin national campaign appears when we look into the electoral middle, at the attitudes of two important swing groups, white Catholics and political independents.

Among white Catholics, Palin was a clear drag on the ticket. White Catholics supported McCain over Obama (52% to 47%), and nearly 6-in-10 (58%) white Catholic voters reported that Sarah Palin shares their values. However, only 16% of white Catholic voters said McCain’s decision to tap Palin made them more likely to vote for him. In contrast, more than 1-in-4 (27%) reported that Palin’s selection made them less likely to support the GOP ticket, and a majority (55%) of white Catholics said it made no difference.

Political independents were more evenly divided about whether Sarah Palin shares their values (45% agree vs. 49% disagree). But twice as many political independents reported that the choice of Sarah Palin made them less likely to support the Republican ticket than to support it (32% to 16%). Half of all independents said her addition to the ticket made no difference in their support.

So what explains the large gap for many between identifying with Palin’s values and supporting her as a candidate? Part of the explanation certainly has to be her many now-famous stumbles, public gaffes, and lack of knowledge about key policies. But there is another important explanation. There is mounting evidence that the American electorate is turning away from so-called “values voter” wedge politics that Palin represented (recall that Palin launched her career by using an anti-abortion rights hit piece against her opponent in the Wasilla mayoral race, an historically non-partisan position).

In our post-election survey, an overwhelming majority (73%) of American voters agreed that “people of faith should advocate for policies that protect the interests of all and promote the common good” compared to only 22% who preferred pursuing “policies that protect their values and way of life.” By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, those favoring a common good politics said Palin’s addition made them less likely to support the GOP ticket (27% less likely vs. 15% more likely).

The avalanche of coverage since Palin’s resignation indicates that pundits are likely to continue their conjectures about Palin’s motives and political future. But the numbers reveal her limitations as a national political figure, and her serious liabilities among virtually every religious and demographic group outside of the GOP base. Moreover, the numbers reveal that voters across the political spectrum are looking not only for candidates who share their values, but for candidates who can ably serve the common good.

**Note: The post-election survey cited above was conducted November 5-7, 2008, among 1,277 voters by Public Religion Research for Faith in Public Life in partnership with Sojourners and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.