Partisanship Appears to Sway Opinions on Palin

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 6, 2008

Republicans and Democrats have deeply contrasting first impressions of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, suggesting partisanship, not gender, is paramount in the initial public reviews.

Overall, Palin, the governor of Alaska and the first woman to run on a Republican presidential ticket, gets positive marks in a new ABC News national poll, despite broad skepticism that she has the necessary experience to serve as president. Most Americans approve of her selection, and six in 10 of those polled said she made the right call to join the contest.

"I think it's great that we finally have a woman candidate that can be vice president," Margaret Brown, a 22-year-old Texan, said in a telephone interview. "She's likable, and she's not like a Washington insider."

Half of all those polled view Palin favorably and 37 percent hold negative opinions. Men are somewhat more apt to view her favorably, but that is mainly because women are far more likely to be Democrats.

"I think she's a likable person and says a good speech," said Gale Roy from Knoxville, Tenn., who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. "But I can't think of anything in favor of [Palin]. I'm just of the opposite party."

In the new poll, it is underlying political attitudes that appear to dominate, just as they do in ratings of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Eighty-five percent of Republicans view Palin favorably, and nearly nine in 10 approve of her selection as Sen. John McCain's running mate. Among Democrats, 24 percent view her favorably and 57 percent disapprove of her selection.

For Elizabeth Seaburg, 23, another Clinton voter from Albuquerque, there's interest in Palin as a woman but little chance of supporting McCain on Election Day: "I'm not really aligned with her values. I'm not going to vote for McCain just because he picked a woman. Her values are polar opposite of mine.

"Her rhetoric sounded very, very much like what I'm used to hearing from Republicans," said Seaburg, who, like others interviewed for this article, participated in a previous Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Palin's ratings are highest among the groups already likely to be in the Republican camp, limiting the potential impact of the choice. Among conservative Republicans, 89 percent view her favorably, as do 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants. In both groups, large majorities hold "strongly favorable" opinions.

The poll, conducted the night after Palin accepted the second slot on the GOP ticket at the party's national convention in St. Paul, Minn., finds that 55 percent of all Americans said her selection makes no difference in their support for McCain. Even more -- 67 percent -- said so of Democratic nominee Barack Obama's choice of Biden. In both cases, those who said the vice presidential choices would increase the odds of supporting one of the newly minted presidential nominees are those who were already predisposed to supporting that candidate.

Among independents, 53 percent have favorable views of Palin, and about two-thirds approve of McCain's choice. However, independents are only evenly divided, as are all Americans, as to whether the surprise pick makes them more or less confident -- 44 to 37 percent -- about the decisions McCain would make as president.

Partisan lenses also color views of whether Palin has the necessary experience to serve as president if that became necessary and whether the news media have treated her fairly in her first week in the spotlight. Forty-two percent of all Americans think she is sufficiently prepared. Among Republicans, however, 74 percent believe she is, a figure that is more than three times higher than among Democrats.

For Susan Chambers, 65, of Phoenix, the difference is stark: "I just wasn't real impressed with her. If anything happened to McCain, I don't think this woman would be able to take over as president of the United States. On the other hand, we have Joe Biden, who would be able to step into that position. That's important for the whole country, whether you're a Republican, Democrat or independent."

Biden's qualifications are in little doubt in the poll, as majorities across party lines said he has the necessary experience to be an effective president, if need be. His favorability rating stands at 54 percent in the new poll.

But some questioned whether the vice president needs

extensive experience, particularly with regard to foreign policy. "The vice president doesn't really have to have a lot of that," said Carol Kirk, 65, of Buckeye, Ariz. "A lot of that can be learned on the job."

Kirk said that someone with atypical experience could be beneficial to the country. "I think that she would think more about women's issues than would a man," she said. "It's about time that the women had someone looking after their issues."

The new poll indicates that Palin's positions on hot-button issues may sway more voters than details of her family life. In particular, her stances on abortion and gun control, along with her role in securing federal funds when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, all appear to have a greater impact on public opinion than her decision to have a fifth child while in office or her 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy.

Americans are divided about whether the media, which have focused early coverage on personal matters, have treated Palin fairly or unfairly. Half called the coverage fair, while 41 percent said it has been slanted. Most Republicans said it has been biased; two-thirds of Democrats disagree. Among those who fault the coverage, more see political bias, not sexism, as the root cause.

A gender difference emerges on this question, although the partisan divide remains far more prominent: Men are more likely than women to think Palin has been treated fairly, and women who find the media coverage problematic are somewhat more likely than men to highlight sexism as the main cause, but more still point the finger at political bias.

With the swirling coverage of Palin's family, six in 10 of those polled said she made the right decision to join the ticket, given what they know of her personal life, with men and women saying so in similar proportions. Nearly nine in 10 Republicans said she made the right call, a view shared by just over a third of Democrats. Two-thirds of independents, including 68 percent of independent women, said she made a good decision.

"As a new mother, I think that's kind of unfair," Lynnette Liston, 34, of Marshalltown, Iowa, said responding to criticism of Palin. "She can balance anything she wants. If you plan it out and juggle it well, everything can work just fine."

To Juanita Moody, 67, of Paulding County, Ga., it was simply Palin's choice to make: "I don't think she would've accepted it if she didn't think she could handle it. She seems like a pretty strong person, and I think she thought she could do the job, and that's why she accepted."

In all, the ABC poll included telephone interviews with a random national sample of 505 adults. Interviews were completed before McCain's speech started, and the results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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