Independents like myself who support Barack Obama and Democrats are busy trying to tear down John McCain’s surprise pick for Vice President. They say she is less qualified than many other potential candidates that McCain could have selected. I would tend to agree. But, that’s neither here nor there. The question is whether she can help McCain win the presidency. And on that score she looks like a good gamble. Let me explain why?
Personality and confirmation bias
Before I go into why Palin is a good pick, I would like to admit that I am no fan of George Bush or his Republican party. In fact, I support Barack Obama — so this puts me into the anti-Palin camp. Yet, as a contrarian, I often like to argue the other side just to highlight the deficits in my own argument and to keep myself from falling into a confirmation bias trap. We need to think about the strategic implications of the Palin pick strictly on the merits, not based on our own biased preconceptions.
A large part of my argument actually has to do with confirmation bias in American politics — most people decide fairly quickly whether they like a national political candidate, based not on issues and agenda, but mostly on personality and cultural appeal. We tend to come to an assessment very quickly — within several television ‘encounters’ and then we filter new facts in or out based on that assessment, hardening our initial impression with time. The crux of my argument is that most people will make a choice about Sarah Palin based on her first few television appearances and then will filter all subsequent encounters with her using confirmation bias. This is the single most important reason that she must make an immediate positive first impression in her speech tonight and why the GOP must define her early — well before the debates. Democrats, who are already biased against the Republican party cannot look at this pick with any objectivity.
Sarah Palin is not Dan Quayle. She is photogenic, looks good on television, is a good public speaker and is very personable in person by all accounts. I’m not expecting any Potatoe gaffes. As a result, you have to ask: How many Hillary supporters will support her? My answer: potentially, a lot more than one might think. Are the issues Hillary was advocating of the greatest importance to her supporters or the person she represents? This is unclear. But, John McCain has certainly put these voters up for grabs by selecting a well-spoken and telegenic female running mate. And remember, George W. Bush is famous for not even knowing the names of key world leaders in 1999, but he later ‘outperformed’ Gore in the debates. I reckon he did not actually outperform Gore on substance; rather, he had already been framed as a ‘good guy’ and a man of the people. This contrasted well with Gore stylistically. Substance matters less than we think.
That was style; now for substance.
Winning the battleground states
The United States is a country, which has been fairly evenly divided over the last generation between Democrats and Republicans, especially in the last two Presidential elections. Because of the electoral college system, this even division has made a few key swing states exceedingly important in presidential politics. States like Colorado, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida will decide this election. So, the question any national politician must ask is: how do I get enough votes in these states to beat my opponent?
The first key to the battleground states is stealing the limelight. After a very good showing by the Democrats in Denver, John McCain has taken the spotlight off of the Dems and Barack Obama, preventing a significant post-convention bounce.
Conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan says:
McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his co-pilot was the biggest gamble in presidential history. As of now, it is paying off, big-time.
The sensational selection in Dayton, Ohio, stepped all over the big story from Denver — Barack Obama’s powerful address to 85,000 cheering folks in Mile High Stadium, and 35 million nationally, a speech that vaulted him from a 2-point deficit early in the week to an 8-point margin. Barack had never before reached 49 percent against McCain.
As the Democrats were being rudely stepped on, however, Palin ignited an explosion of enthusiasm among conservatives, Evangelicals, traditional Catholics, gun owners and Right to Lifers not seen in decades.
By passing over his friends Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, and picking Palin, McCain has given himself a fighting chance of winning the White House that, before Friday morning, seemed to be slipping away. Indeed, the bristling reaction on the left testifies to Democratic fears that the choice of Palin could indeed be a game-changer in 2008.
–Johnny’s Got A New Girl, Patrick Buchanan
The second key is to play to the battleground states way of seeing the world. There are three things to worry about here: social issues, money issues, and foreign policy. All of the battleground states tilt toward a moderate-conservative frame of social and foreign policy issues, while the western states like Nevada and Colorado are more progressive socially. In picking Sarah Palin, John McCain has made a calculation that he can bring out the base — galvanize more conservatives than the moderates and independents he loses. To be sure, this is a risky bet because in winning conservatives, he gets one vote (they are likely to stay at home and NOT vote for Obama), while in losing an independent he likely loses two votes (he loses their vote and Obama would gain a vote). However, if you remember the Kentucky Democratic primary, many of those voters would never vote for Obama, but would be willing to vote for a conservative woman. In states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, personality, race and Palin’s gender may matter more than the issues.
The third key is to control the agenda. McCain was easily seen as another George W. Bush in disguise, something sure to lose him the election. The Economist makes had a damning assessment of McCain here in last week’s issue:
Two months remain before the election, more than enough time for Mr McCain to allay some of these worries. He needs to spend less time reassuring evangelicals that he agrees with them about abortion and gay marriage, and more time having another look at his tax plans. The old John McCain attacked Mr Bush for his tax cuts, which he said were unaffordable. The new John McCain not only wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, but wants to add to them by virtually eliminating estate tax (something that would benefit a tiny number of very rich families, like his own). He also proposes to slash corporation tax. People on middle incomes would see little benefit. Independent analysts agree that Mr McCain’s plans would increase an already huge deficit.
Hawkish foreign policy, irresponsible tax cuts, more talk about religion and abortion: all this sounds too much like Bush Three, the label the Democrats are trying to hang around the Republican’s neck. We preferred McCain One.
By stirring things up with the media frenzy over his VP pick and satisfying the conservatives in the Republican party, McCain has time to himself move to the center and pick up support amongst independents. The Obama campaign has become distracted by attacking Sarah Palin. They could end up looking petty and mean-spirited Moreover, they are focusing on the wrong target
and risk losing if they continue to do so.
Downsides to Palin
There are many downsides to this risky choice by McCain. However, I am going to gloss over these fairly quickly as this is meant to be a provocative pro-Palin story.
- The Palin pick highlights McCain age instead of detracting from it. After all, had he picked Mitt Romney, most people would have felt fairly comfortable that the Vice President was up to the task, if he were to die in office, even if they did not like Romney. The same cannot be said with Palin.
- Palin was obviously not vetted well. There are a number of stories coming out that demonstrate that McCain made his selection in haste. This says more about McCain’s style of decision-making than Palin. She could be great. But, McCain’s rush decision cannot leave one feeling he is a thorough and thoughtful individual. And she could be Thomas Eagleton in drag.
Democrats are calling Sarah Palin the next Tom Eagleton. Call McCain’s decision risky, cynical, or reckless — call it whatever you want. The fact remains that there are many positives to his pick of Sarah Palin — it could send him straight to the White House. This is something the Democrats would be advised to keep in mind if they want to beat McCain in November.