Palin, Pundits and the People

Before the clamor of the second presidential debate tonight, let's re-examine the conventional wisdom that Republican Sarah Palin performed well in the Oct. 2 vice-presidential debate.

Before the clamor of the second presidential debate tonight, let's re-examine the conventional wisdom that Republican Sarah Palin performed well in the Oct. 2 vice-presidential debate. In fact, post-debate polls show Palin made a poor impression, which helps explain the growing lead held by the Democratic ticket, particularly in key states.

After Palin's public gaffes and disastrous CBS interview with Katie Couric had depressed expectations, pundits across the spectrum proclaimed that she redeemed herself in the debate against Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden. "Palin did just fine," wrote the Washington Post's David Broder. "Palin held up her end," proclaimed David Brooks of the New York Times.

Yet the public reaction to Palin's unresponsive answers, factual errors, and increasingly mangled syntax was much less charitable. Four separate national surveys all found that Biden had won. The narrowest margin was 5:4 in the Rasmussen poll. The Democrat prevailed by 51% to 36% in the CNN survey. CBS found that he won by more than two-to-one among swing voters, 46% to 21%. The same was true among Independents surveyed by Media Curves, who gave the decision to Biden by 69% to 31%.

Critically, Palin failed to persuade viewers that she was qualified for the presidency in case she succeeded to the office. The majority of voters felt that way before and after the debate in both the CNN and CBS polls. The share who thought her unqualified dropped by just one point between the pre- and post-debate CNN surveys, to 53%, and by only six in the CBS polls, where it remained an even higher 56%.

Though the vice-presidential candidate usually isn't thought to sway votes, the evidence suggests that Palin's poor debate performance has cost the Republican ticket votes. Beforehand, one-third of voters polled by Rasmussen said the debate would influence their votes. After the debate, CBS found that 18% of the uncommitteds had moved behind the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Biden, while just 10% supported the Republican duo of John McCain and Palin.

Moreover, since the debate, Obama has moved up in several swing states. In the debate's aftermath, the poll of polls by Pollster.Com show Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Nevada flipping to Obama leads between Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, along with Obama gains in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

While the worrying economic news no doubt also played a role, the Palin factor appears to be a key in the change, as a close look at two Florida polls by Rasmussen shows. State-wide, Obama moved up five points, to a 52% - 45% lead in an Oct. 6 poll, compared to a 47%-47% tie in a survey released Sep. 28.

Obama support grew among groups that lost confidence in Palin after the VP debate - and vice versa. The proportion of men comfortable with Palin as Veep fell by 8%, and Obama's male support rose by 10 points. The share of college-educated Floridians comfortable with Palin as VP fell by 9 points after the debate - while Obama's voter share rose by 8% in this group. Among moderates, the proportion uncomfortable with Palin rose by 8 point; so did Obama's vote.

On the other hand, women and non-college voters - Palin's base - became more comfortable with a Palin vice-presidency after the debate, and the Republican vote share rose in these groups. But these gains were more than cancelled out by the losses in groups that lost confidence in Palin.

Moreover, the economy cannot explain all these shifts. For instance, moderates' confidence in Obama on the economy declined by 6 points between the two polls, even though his vote share among them rose. This underlines the potency of the Palin effect.

It is true that Palin was rated by voters in the surveys as having "exceeded expectations," as more knowledgeable than they had thought, and as more likeable than Biden. Yet these pale before her failures in the debate. She was perceived to have lost, was seen as unfit for the presidency, and has cost her ticket votes.

Instant analysis always has its perils - especially in an era where the punditocracy talks mostly to itself. It seems the media mavens thought Palin's folksiness, winks, and cutesy mannerisms would matter more to the masses than the incoherence and irrelevance of much of what she said. However, the polls underline that the public understood what happened in the vice-presidential debate better than many so-called experts.

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, a New York polling firm.