Sunday, 7 September 2008

Jury still out on Palin

I described the choice of Sarah Palin as VP nominee as capping a good week for Obama last weekend. Despite her over-rated speech and the performance of the media/ bloggers who played right into the Republicans' hands in exactly the way I suggested that the Democrats had to avoid (and they did at least), on balance I still feel that Sarah Palin is a choice that will benefit the Obama/Biden ticket.

The reporting here has focused on the method of the choice and there is little doubt that it was an impulsive choice. By adopting an outsider candidate, McCain has been able to seize the reform mantle. His grip on it is slight. There is still a couple of months to go in the campaign so there is only so much longer that asserting McCain as a 'maverick' and Sarah Palin as the outsider who is coming to shake up Washington can last. There is a strong sense of tactics driving strategy in the McCain campaign. They couldn't concede the change argument in a year of change so they tried to seize the argument themselves.

While necessity may be the mother of all invention, the invention is incomplete in this case. McCain's platform is woefully thin. Its depth is simply the biography of the man at the head of the ticket with a bit of pizazz added by his running mate.

The polling responses to the Palin selection are instructive. By a margin of 2 to 1 voters 'approve' of McCain's selection of Palin and there is a plus 6% likelihood of voting McCain as a result of the pick according to an ABC News poll. By contrast, Biden has a +12% impact on the likelihood of voting Obama. Underlying these data Palin has a -8% score on the experience question while Biden has a whopping +45% score on this measure!

So McCain/ Palin still have a huge job to do to build confidence in Palin. As her novelty wears off, these underlying issues will start to rise to the surface. Unless McCain/ Palin can substantiate their change argument and unless Palin can render her lack of experience irrelevant through strong performances in TV interviews and the Vice Presidential debate on October 2nd, eventually the ticket will start to look brittle. Both these challenges are considerable but any sort of slip up or evasion will have a damaging impact on the ticket. The riskiness of allowing tactics to drive strategy remains. It may come off but there are a series of tests that have to be passed.

The Democrats, rather than those who purport to speak for them, have been playing the Palin challenge well. Joe Biden stuck strictly to the issues this morning on Meet the Press. That is exactly the right approach as it will keep pressure on Palin. At some point she is going to have to move off script and that is where, unless she's very good, things could start to get interesting.

Of course, all these issues are far less important than the men at the top of the ticket and their policies. Palin is an issue in that regard. If she continues her good start then that will say something substantive and beneficial about John McCain's judgement. If she falters, it will have the opposite impact.

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