The Public, the Press, and Palin

Visiting Scholar
Lawrence B. Lindsey
Television viewers would have been hard pressed to find media commentary in the last few days that was, on balance, favorable to Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. It ranged from the appallingly biased on MSNBC which ran a "Breaking News" subheading as McCain was about to introduce her: "How Many Houses Does Palin Bring to the Republican Ticket?" through the obvious references to the Religious Right liking her "extreme anti-abortion" views to the universal observation that her pick "Destroys the key argument that Republicans have made about Barack Obama: experience." This last point is reiterated by nearly everyone who has served a long time in Washington, media, pundit, or former office holder.

Despite this, the poll numbers show a modestly positive initial response by the public at large. Gallup found her favorable to unfavorable score as 39-33 (billed on MSNBC as "only 39 percent support for Palin"). Rasmussen found that the public thought McCain had made the right choice, not the wrong choice by 40-32. Aside from her own speech at the announcement of her candidacy, the public got all of its information about her from the media, having no idea about her before the announcement. How can negative media coincide with positive public reaction?

For McCain to win, Palin is going to have to do well when the media is not in total control--principally at the vice presidential debate against Joe Biden.

First, the public is generally not moved by the Experience argument. Recall that experience was not primarily used by Republicans this year. (Their narrative is that Obama is an elitist out of touch with real America and possibly somewhat of a megalomaniac). The Experience argument was actually the main argument made by Hillary Clinton--remember "Ready to Be President on Day One" and the famous "Phone Call at 3 a.m." advertisements? It didn't work. And given that it didn't work, Bill Clinton reminded everyone at the Democratic convention that they said he lacked experience too, and that his Presidency turned out well. The Experience argument doesn't work because the public thinks that experience making real life decisions is more important than knowing the difference between Saakashvili and Shalikashvili, or similar trivia. (Hint: the former is the President of Georgia, the latter Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Clinton and a critic of the Iraq War.)

Second, the public doesn't really buy into the media and establishment view of ideology. Sarah Palin is clearly pro-life. She was so pro-life that she carried a Down Syndrome fetus to term despite the usual medical pressure to have him aborted. To the pro-choice media and establishment this only proves she is an extremist on the abortion issue. To most people who fall in the middle, this says "here is a woman who is true to her convictions." But, nowhere does the standard media narrative about America break down more than on her "feminist" posture. The standard media and establishment argument is that she really can't be a feminist because she is pro-life. But, the public saw a rather rugged husband who gave up his 20-year stint as an oil worker for BP to become the primary care giver for their five children when she became Governor. To real people making real life decisions, that is a powerful statement about gender issues. In the Rasmussen data, Palin did quite well among middle income middle educated people while losing folks at the top.

Despite this initial reaction, the odds are against a candidate who bucks the media and the establishment, since they control the narrative going to the public. For McCain to win, Palin is going to have to do well when the media is not in total control--principally at the October 2 vice presidential debate against Joe Biden, which will be a substantial challenge for her. She has one other asset. The polls show that the public thinks that media bias in the election is far more dangerous than the influence of money in an election, and by margins ranging from three to one to five to one identify the media as being pro-Obama. That may also be why Palin is doing okay with the public while losing the media.

Lawrence B. Lindsey is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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