Dustin Hawkins: No, Sarah Palin Did Not Cost McCain the Presidency

Anyone paying attention back in 2008 knows this, of course, but that hasn’t stopped the Establishment in both parties from repeating this false meme ad infinitum. With the 2012 campaign upon us, there has been a recent surge in this nonsense, most notably from Mandate Mitt and his croniesDustin Hawkins has therefore taken a fresh look at the easily debunked narrative that Governor Palin had anything to do with McCain’s loss in 2008:

To the point of redundancy, every discussion of Romney’s eventual vice-presidential pick always leads to a snarky comment about “avoiding a Palin” or how Palin lost the election for John McCain. The argument is old and tired. But more importantly, the argument is false. To believe that Palin “cost” McCain anything you would have to ignore all poll data before and after Palin was selected, the enormous cash advantage of Obama, the historical obsession with Obama, the ad-war landslide in favor of Obama, McCain’s odd campaign suspension, and the fact that before Palin, McCain could barely fill a high school gymnasium. So, let’s examine reality and put the Palin-bashing to bed.

If you look at the 60 polls prior to Palin being selected as McCain’s running-mate taken from June 1st through August 29th this is what you would find:

John McCain and Obama tied in 2 polls John McCain led Obama in 5 Polls Barack Obama led John McCain in 53 polls.

Yes, for every one poll that showed a McCain lead, Obama held a lead in 10 polls. In that span, Obama’s lead in the polls was close to 6 points, fairly similar to the final outcome. I’m not sure how it was Palin’s fault that McCain was getting throttled before anyone knew who she was.

A week after the selection of Palin, the Republicans would hold their nominating convention and Palin delivered a speech for the ages. Her favorable numbers immediately soared. In fact, her favorable numbers at that point were greater than those of Barack Obama. A CNN Poll had Palin’s favorable ratings at +30 (Obama was +26), Newsweek had Palin at +30 (Obama at +20), and NBC News had Palin at +20 (Obama +21).  The McCain-Palin ticket suddenly led Obama-Biden in 7 polls, tied in 3, and trailed in just 2. Palin’s highlight-reel speech was a big factor, but a bit of those leads had a lot to do with the traditional “post-convention bounce,” too.

In addition, I would also not that the only empirical data relevant to Governor Palin’s impact on the 2008 general election was CNN’s 2008 national exit poll in which voters were asked if Governor Palin was a factor in their decision. Of those who responded in the affirmative, 56% voted for McCain, 43% for Obama. The data clearly indicate Governor Palin’s presence on the ticket was a net plus. What, Hawkins wonders, did result in McCain’s loss?

First, the real turning point was when McCain ridiculously and bizarrely “suspended” his campaign on September 24, 2008 due to the financial crisis. He led in one of a dozen polls before the announcement (by 1 point), and would go on to trail in every one of the 100+ polls taken and included in the RCP average following that move.

I would note that it was McCain’s woefully inept campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, who advised McCain to make that move. That would be the same Steve Schmidt who now carries Obama’s water on MSBNC and who has spent the past four years blaming Governor Palin for his own incompetence. I digress. Hawkins concludes his piece thusly:

It was his destiny to lose. He trailed in 53 of 60 polls before the convention, and after a small convention bounce, he trailed in every poll following. Palin was McCain’s last-ditch effort to save his faltering campaign. Yes, McCain was losing before he picked Palin and he lost even with Palin, but not because of Palin. Obama had “history” on his side. Obama had money on his side and he outspent McCain by 2-1 margins. It doesn’t matter who you are, that is almost impossible to overcome. Obama was buying 1 hour Prime-time TV weep-fests and McCain was just flat-out broke.

While it’s likely statements like “avoid the Palin mistake” and “scared of picking the next Palin” will forever remain, the facts simply don’t make the case that Palin cost McCain the election. McCain was never going to win for many, many reasons. And no vice-presidential pick was ever going to save him.

That may well be true. But I continue to believe that if McCain had run a good campaign and allowed Governor Palin to be Governor Palin, the outcome would have been much closer. And had the race become closer, it’s not inconceivable that a nervous Obama, looking over his shoulder, could have self-destructed down the stretch. Obviously this is pure speculation on my part, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

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