Yes, She Can? ON Sarah Palin and 2012

Bush pollster Matthew Dowd looks at why he thinks it’s possible – not likely, mind you, but possible – for Sarah Palin to win the White House in 2012. (H/T) Along the way he reminds us that John Kerry was one of the few challengers in memory to lose a race against an incumbent that may actually have been winnable:

Gallup polls over the past 60 years show that no president with an approval rating under 47 percent has won reelection, and no president with an approval rating above 51 percent has lost reelection. (George W. Bush’s approval rating in the weeks before the 2004 election hovered around 50 percent.) The 2012 election will be primarily about our current president and whether voters are satisfied with the country’s direction.

Who the Republican candidate is, and his or her qualifications and abilities, will matter only if Obama’s approval rating is between 47 and 51 percent going into the fall of 2012. Interestingly, in the latest Gallup poll Obama’s approval rating was at a precarious 49 percent.

As an aside, historically, the single biggest factor suppressing a president’s approval rating is a high unemployment rate. That’s bad news for the Democrats in the short run, as most economists expect double-digit unemployment to persist through Election Day 2010 (economists are not always right about these things, but that’s what they’re seeing now). Some natural improvement in the economy is already underway (even with some downward revisions, GDP grew by 2.8% last quarter) by natural operation of the business cycle, but it’s unlikely that Obama will be able to resist doing more to interfere with that, like jacking up taxes. My guess is that he’s going to end up just openly adding a lot of people to the federal payroll to try to reduce unemployment.

Dowd also notes that Obama is already the most partisanly polarizing president in recent years, an astounding accomplishment given the rancor that surrounded his precedessors:

The gap between Obama’s approval rating among Democrats and among Republicans is nearly 70 percentage points — a higher partisan divide than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush experienced. Obama’s agenda and actions this year, and some mistakes, have solidified this divide.

Anyway, getting back to Palin, I’m not sure Dowd really put much effort into making the case that she can win over independents in a general election beyond the obvious observation that if Obama’s in enough trouble, he can be beaten (there are counterexamples to this in lower-level races: I recall Gray Davis’ approval rating was around 24% when he was re-elected in 2002). It seems to me that if you think that Obama will mostly win or lose the election himself, you either (1) pick the person you’d most like to see be president regardless of electability (that would argue for somebody like Mitch Daniels or Haley Barbour) and/or (2) pick the lowest-risk candidate (that may be Tim Pawlenty). It would not counsel picking the most electrifying, polarizing, controversial, high-risk candidate in the field.

Dowd’s suggestions for Palin’s path to follow are a mixed bag. It’s strange for him to criticize her for too many public appearances after she spent months doing little in public view but updating her Facebook page – and contradicts his next point about getting out more – but I agree that at some point she has to start doing serious, substantive appearances to sell people on her grasp of the issues. Like it or not, even if voters don’t understand complex issues themselves, they do want to know that the president does, and they will need reassurance if Palin runs that she genuinely knows what she’s getting into. That may be doubly true if the impression continues to solidify that Obama has screwed up as a result of his inexperience. I’d add to his list that if she wants to run, or even to have an ongoing role in national poilitics, she’s sooner or later going to need to find people outside Alaska that she can trust – policy advisers, people to help her organize and communicate, etc. My advice, at least, is one of the lessons I took from watching Bush: pick people who are loyal to the conservative movement and its goals, not people who are mostly personally loyal. In the long run, loyalty to ideas is more enduring and a better guarantee of quality work.

Personally, I haven’t picked a horse to back yet (I’m probably more enthused about Daniels than anyone right now, and I use “enthused” advisedly), and continue to caution against others choosing up teams before November 2010. I still go back and forth on the two related key questions: do you try to beat Obama with a candidate who comes at him from above (i.e., a more sober, experienced and modest leader), or below (i.e., a fiery populist who rebels against his desire to use government to change America rather than the other way around)? The former would be likely if the election’s mainly about foreign affairs, the latter if it’s a rebellion against Big Government. Palin is obviously in the latter camp. Do you confront his pop celebrity status with a candidate who exudes some glamor or excitement of his/her own (again: Palin), or do you try to counter-program with a candidate who is deliberately dull and stolid and promises less drama and fewer grand ambitions? The available personnel will probably be the biggest driver in the decision anyway, but how people want to answer those questions will go along way towards deciding whether Palin, if she runs, has a chance of being the nominee.

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