Unexpected bonus: Sarah Palin’s ‘skirt tails’
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.