Un­ex­pected bonus: Sarah Palin’s ‘skirt tails’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Pick­ing Sarah Palin as the vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee en­er­gized John McCain’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign like a Cari­bou Cof­fee jolt of caf­feine. She pro­duced a bump in the polls and a burst of ex­cite­ment. The Ari­zona se­na­tor trailed Barack Obama by sev­eral points head­ing into the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion but emerged from St. Paul ei­ther even or slightly ahead, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent sur­veys. More­over, be­fore the con­ven­tions, Democrats were more “en­thu­si­as­tic” about the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign by a 57 per­cent to 39 per­cent mar­gin. Fol­low­ing the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, that gap had shrunk to seven points (67 per­cent to 60 per­cent).

Yet be­yond the pres­i­den­tial bounce, Mrs. Palin’s espres­so­like en­thu­si­asm could pro­duce broader elec­toral con­se­quences. The zeal she adds might do more than elect Mr. McCain pres­i­dent. The re­form-minded Alaska gov­er­nor could also help down ticket with Repub­li­can con­gres­sional candidates. As for­mer Repub­li­can House lead­er­ship aide Billy Pitts told me, “This is the first time con­gres­sional candidates may ride ‘skirt tails’ to victory.”

Sev­eral re­cent pieces of ev­i­dence un­der­score the pull of the Palin po­lit­i­cal hem­line. First, Wash­ing­ton buzzed two weeks ago about re­cent changes re­ported in Gallup’s “generic bal­lot.” This sur­vey ques­tion, “If the elec­tion for Congress were be­ing held to­day, which party would you vote for in your con­gres­sional district (the Demo­cratic Party’s can­di­date or the Repub­li­can Party’s can­di­date)?” is cor­re­lated with party for­tunes in con­gres­sional elec­tions. For ex­am­ple, Democrats ex­panded their lead on this ques­tion be­fore cap­tur­ing the House in the 2006 elec­tion. Sim­i­larly, Repub­li­cans were strong on the generic bal­lot prior to tak­ing over the House in 1994. For the past two years, Repub­li­cans have lagged on the generic bal­lot ques­tion by dou­ble dig­its. But a Gallup poll re­leased last week found Democrats’ lead among reg­is­tered vot­ers down to only three points (48 per­cent to 45 per­cent) — and among likely vot­ers, the Repub­li­can Party ac­tu­ally now leads by five points (50 per­cent to 45 per­cent). That is a re­mark­able re­ver­sal of for­tune in the past month.

Gallup’s Ly­dia Saad agrees. Th­ese new re­sults cast “some doubt on the pre­vi­ously as­sumed in­evitabil­ity of the Democrats’ main­tain­ing con­trol of Congress,” she wrote two weeks ago. But im­prove­ment in the generic bal­lot wasn’t the only change in the post-con­ven­tion opin­ion cli­mate.

Gallup also re­ported a boost in Repub­li­cans’ over­all fa­vor­a­bil­ity rat­ing. In late 2006, Demo­cratic fa­vor­a­bil­ity stood at 57 per­cent, while the Repub­li­cans’ lagged at 35 per­cent (a 22-point dif­fer­ence). Fol­low­ing the con­ven­tion, the gap has closed to only four points (51 per­cent to 47 per­cent). The Repub­li­can Party now re­ceives its high­est fa­vor­a­bil­ity rat­ing since early 2005, ac­cord­ing to Gallup.

The same sur­vey also showed an eight-point post-con­ven­tion jump in the num­ber of Amer­i­cans iden­ti­fy­ing with (or lean­ing to­ward) the GOP and a five-point dip in the num­ber self-iden­ti­fy­ing with (or lean­ing to­ward) the Demo­cratic Party. The Repub­li­can post-St. Paul surge is the largest Gallup has found in the past five pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, and the Demo­cratic dip in party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is a first in Gallup’s his­tory, based on ev­ery cy­cle since 1992.

Did the Palin pick ac­count for this dra­matic turn around? We may never know for sure. Yet I do be­lieve the sym­bol­ism of the choice res­onated with weaker par­ti­sans, those who had drifted away from the party in the last cou­ple of years and were telling poll­sters they were “in­de­pen­dents.” Th­ese dis­af­fected Repub­li­cans saw some­thing new, fresh and bold in the Palin pick. She is not pol­i­tics as usual. She was not a tra­di­tional “safe” choice, a Wash­ing­ton in­sider stuck in the swamp of Belt­way bick­er­ing. In­stead, they saw Mrs. Palin as some­one who might ac­tu­ally drain that swamp. For women, she was a re­fresh­ing change. Not a pro­fes­sional “women’s ad­vo­cate” who talks the talk on ca­ble news, but an ac­com­plished work­ing mom not afraid to chal­lenge the fem­i­nist ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mony so preva­lent in the me­dia to­day.

As the at­tacks from the left per­sist, Mrs. Palin’s num­bers and the Repub­li­can brand con­tinue to im­prove. A new si­lent ma­jor­ity storm is churn­ing; it’s cre­at­ing a ris­ing tide, bol­ster­ing both the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and the down-ticket num­bers. Democrats keep try­ing to find a rip in her skirt tails, but right now Mrs. Palin’s fab­ric looks strong. Down-ticket Repub­li­cans should reach out to her — and not let go.

Gary An­dres is vice chair­man of Dutko World­wide.

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