Polling Palin: An Unknown Known; UPDATED

This piece is so good that I wish I could take credit for it. The narrative pushed by Palin’s opponents is that her numbers cannot improve because too many people have formed an opinion about her. “Poll Insider” does an excellent job explaining why that narrative is wrong.

The most difficult polls to read into this early are those associated with Sarah Palin. While supporters will claim bias in polls, non-supporters will be overly-excited about the supposed dislike of Sarah Palin.

The key thing to remember about polling is information changes minds quickly. Reality is, of all potential candidates for 2012, Palin has the greatest opportunity to greatly improve her standings, especially given that expectations for her have been set so low.

Sarah Palin is what I like to call “An Unknown Known.” While everyone knows who she is, opinions of her are mostly derived from media accounts of her, rather than by her own actions and words. If you poll 1,000 people about Sarah Palin, you have a built in percentage who follow her closely and like her, you have a percentage who may or may not follow her closely and loathe her, and then you have “the 70%” the vast majority of people polled will be those who pay attention to politics 2 weeks a year and all other information comes from soundbites and brief media reports, not by a regular interest in politics (non political junkies).

The 70%: Most people polled about politics are not politically active or interested. When their information is derived from the media and soundbites, their opinion is skewed by the media. Most media reports about Palin reflect a common theme that she is “divisive” and “controversial” and “fringe” and “unelectable.” Therefore, the end result is that is what people know about Sarah Palin, and it negatively effects polling outcomes. This is not to say that the polls are inaccurate when they show Palin with low favor-ability and election poll numbers. Indeed, they are accurate because it takes a snapshot of the public’s perception at that time (even if that perception is crafted by the media). But that is what creates the opening for people to change their minds about her.

While I will discuss polling data on Sarah Palin on this site, it should be noted that she will likely have the biggest upside in long-term polling data, should she run for President in 2012. Where she currently sits poll-wise should be considered the bottom. People who like her or support her now (with all the negative media reports out there) are unlikely to be deterred. The question is, how moved people are when (and if) they see Palin run and actually see her.

Data Points:

Post 2008 Convention Speech: After Sarah Palin gave her VP acceptance speech, a time when she would be seen by the greatest number of people at the same time, her favorables were quite impressive. Unfiltered, she came off as competent, a great speaker, and confident. Polling reflected this.

Palin Poll Numbers Post 2008 Convention Speech:

Newsweek: +30 (58-28) Favorable following her convention speech.

NBC News: +20 (47-27)

CNN/Opinion RSR: +30 (57-27)

USA Today/Gallup: +25 (53-28)

This was after Palin had been around for several weeks, and after she gave a “controversial” speech knocking Obama’s columns, but before the media unleashed on her. All of the polls bumped upwards from the weeks prior.

An interesting comparison is to then-nominee Obama. A week after his 2008 convention speech, his favorables were as follows:

Newsweek +20 (57-37)

NBC News/WSJ +21 (53-32)

CNN/Opinion Research +26 (60-34)

USA Today/Gallup +27 (62-35)

Obama Post Convention Speech Favorables +23.5%

Palin Post Convention Speech Favorables: +26.25%

After each respective speech, both Palin and Obama shared very high positives, and Palin was actually seen even more favorably than Obama.

Needless to say, it’s amazing to see what a friendly press can do for you and what a hostile press can do to destroy you, as each candidate was the recipient of one or the other (I’ll let you guess which way that went).

In the few weeks between the conventions and the VP Debate between Palin and Joe Biden, Sarah Palin was heavily attacked by the media, and was constantly being questioned about her qualifications. Thus, when the debate actually happened, people were surprised she wasn’t an idiot. A CNN Poll after the VP Debate found that 84% of people thought Sarah Palin did better than they expected. (And who were expectations set by?)

Palin’s big advantage is that campaigns are when people start paying attention. Palin’s favorables did not begin to drop drastically until after she was out of the public eye and the media targetedwent after her. The Question is, and what we will be looking for, is how much of a bounce she gets when she begins running TV ads (test ads from her PAC were received positively) and is seen unfiltered through Primary debates. My money is that you will definitely see a big bounce and will close in on Obama greatly.

Takeaway: Polling is most accurate when the subject/person has had major, unfiltered visibility by the public. While Sarah Palin has been everywhere over the past two years, and in just about every major story, her persona has been defined by the media. Polling will remain volatile until Sarah Palin begins her expected run for the White House. At which point, her poll numbers will likely rise as the 70% of the population (non-political independents, non-political junkies, and “moderates”) see her in a more favorable light and she is able to present herself to a broader audience.

Update by Doug: This is an excellent piece. Back in the 1980s a political science professor (who shall remain nameless) hammered home the first law of politics:

Politics is not salient to most people most of the time.

This is exactly the point of the above piece, and why I have consistently argued that all these hypothetical polls we’re seeing, whether good or bad, mean absolutely nothing. Most people are way too busy with their families, paying bills, raising their kids, and generally living their lives to care about politics.  It’s only us political junkies who are paying attention to these sorts of things this far from en election.  When and if Governor Palin enters the race, her numbers will only go in one direction: up.  This has to be known by her political enemies, whether on the left or within the GOP establishment, and explains the hysterical measures to which they’ve resorted in their effort to dissuade her from running.   They know she can win, and they keep paying for these meaningless polls in order to demoralize her and her supporters.  Nothing else explains the enormous amount of financial resources being used to finance these silly polls on a citizen who currently holds no political office.

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