Soon after the selection of Sarah Palin, it quickly became clear to almost everyone that McCain and his campaign team knew hardly anything about her and had not vetted her carefully before selecting her. This was extraordinary considering that McCain had sewn up the Republican nomination by early March, giving him about six months to carefully think about whom he wanted to be vice president. To wait until the last minute and impulsively do something so important seemed evidence of a lackadaisical approach to governing.
On election night, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the reported four finalists to be McCain’s running mate, was interviewed just after Obama had become elected. I knew the others in the running (Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) and I could see why the campaign might not be excited about them, since they both seemed kind of dull and stodgy, not adding much to McCain’s appeal. But I had never seen Pawlenty before and he seemed to me to have many of Palin’s positives (youth and energy and ideology) without all of her obvious negatives.
Pawlenty spoke fluently and well about the issues that drove the campaign, and graciously about Obama. Furthermore he is an evangelical Christian and is solidly in step with their anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, although in the early 1990s he was not quite as hard-line. As he spoke, I became increasingly mystified as to why McCain had overlooked him for Palin. Did McCain simply have one of those failures in logical thinking that often afflicts men when in the presence of an attractive woman?
I think that the Palin selection was the tipping point, the moment when news media and mainstream commentators began to question their earlier infatuation with McCain and started wondering about both his judgment and his temperament and his much vaunted experience. As doubts about Palin grew, sentiment shifted to viewing Obama, not McCain, as the reassuring person voters were seeking.
All told, 59 percent of voters surveyed said Ms. Palin was not prepared for the job, up nine percentage points since the beginning of the month. Nearly a third of voters polled said the vice-presidential selection would be a major factor influencing their vote for president, and those voters broadly favor Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee.
And in a possible indication that the choice of Ms. Palin has hurt Mr. McCain’s image, voters said they had much more confidence in Mr. Obama to pick qualified people for his administration than they did in Mr. McCain.
While a majority viewed Ms. Palin as unqualified for the vice presidency, roughly three-quarters of voters saw Mr. Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, as qualified for the job. The increase in the number of voters who said Ms. Palin was not prepared was driven almost entirely by Republicans and independents.
The campaign’s attempts to suggest that she actually was highly experienced and capable were also not selling well. Despite their earnest attempts, most voters were simply not buying the idea that being the mayor of a small town in Alaska and governor of that state for two years counted as serious experience. While it could be plausibly argued that Obama did not have much experience either, he had at least been campaigning and constantly in the public eye for almost two years, debating other candidates in the hard-fought primary elections about two dozen times, and fielding numerous press conferences and other encounters with the public.
Over time, this high level of extended exposure had given the public a sense of familiarity with him that enabled them to form their own judgments of him, and they seemed to be reassured by his knowledge of the issues and his calm temperament. He also had the time to recover from unfortunate off-hand comments, such as his statement that some ‘bitter’ voters cling to ‘guns and religion’.
One of the interesting lessons about the Obama candidacy is that it may actually be easier for another non-traditional candidate of the future (say a Hispanic or other ethnic minority or woman or gay or Muslim or atheist) to run for president than for vice president, because for the former you first have to spend a lot of time in the public eye during the primaries and people are able to size you up for themselves, while for the latter you are suddenly thrust onto the national stage and people do not have the time to become comfortable with the novelty features you bring. When running for president you have the time to try and overcome people’s first impressions of you. When 30,000 voters were polled back in 2006 as to whom they would vote for in a then-hypothetical McCain-Obama contest, the only contests Obama won were in Illinois, Hawaii, and Washington, DC giving him a grand total of 28 electoral votes compared to McCain’s 510, showing how much impressions of Obama have changed as a result of being constantly in the public eye.
So the electoral map went from this in 2006 to this on election day.
The voters had no such alternative means of sizing up Palin and so her early missteps were image-defining events for her that seemed to indicate incompetence and ignorance, and she simply did not have time to repair the damage.
POST SCRIPT: Are people ready for the new sheriff?