By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 2, 2008
With the vice presidential candidates set to square off today in their only scheduled debate, public assessments of Sarah Palin's readiness have plummeted, and she may now be a drag on the Republican ticket among key voter groups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Tonight's heavily anticipated debate comes just five weeks after the popular Alaska governor entered the national spotlight as Sen. John McCain's surprise pick to be his running mate. Though she initially transformed the race with her energizing presence and a fiery convention speech, Palin is now a much less positive force: Six in 10 voters see her as lacking the experience to be an effective president, and a third are now less likely to vote for McCain because of her.
A month ago, voters rated Palin as highly as they did McCain or his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, but after weeks of intensive coverage and several perceived missteps, the shine has diminished.
Nearly a third of adults in a new poll from the Pew Research Center said they paid a lot of attention to Palin's interviews with CBS News's Katie Couric, a series that prompted grumbling among some conservative commentators about Palin's competency to be the GOP's vice presidential standard-bearer. The Pew poll showed views of Palin slipping over the past few days alone.
In the new Post-ABC poll, Palin matches the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., on empathy, one of McCain's clear deficits against Obama, while fewer than half of voters think she understands "complex issues."
But it is the experience question that may prove her highest hurdle, particularly when paired with widespread public concern about McCain's age. About half of all voters said they were uncomfortable with the idea of McCain taking office at age 72, and 85 percent of those voters said Palin does not have the requisite experience to be president.
The 60 percent who now see Palin as insufficiently experienced to step into the presidency is steeply higher than in a Post-ABC poll after her nomination early last month. Democrats and Republicans alike are now more apt to doubt her qualifications, but the biggest shift has come among independents.
In early September, independents offered a divided verdict on Palin's experience; now they take the negative view by about 2 to 1. Nearly two-thirds of both independent men and women in the new poll said Palin has insufficient experience to run the White House.
Obama was able for the first time to crack the 50 percent mark, albeit barely, on whether he has the experience to be president following Friday's presidential debate, and the question is one of Palin's central challenges as she prepares to face Biden in prime time before a national television audience.
More than two-thirds of voters in the Pew poll said they plan to watch the debate, far more than said they were going to turn on the vice presidential debate four years ago. The expectations are that Biden, a six-term senator, will win: Voters by a 19-point margin think he will prove to be the better debater.
In the new Post-ABC poll, majorities of conservatives and Republicans maintain that Palin has the necessary experience to step in as president, though those numbers are also down somewhat from early last month.
But a third of independent voters now indicate they are less likely to support McCain because of Palin, compared with 20 percent who said so in an ABC poll a month ago. Palin now repels more independents than she attracts to McCain. The share of independent women less apt to support McCain because of the Palin pick has more than doubled to 34 percent, while the percentage more inclined to support him is down eight points.
White Catholics, another important group of swing voters, also are now more likely to say that Palin dampens their support for McCain.
Still, nearly half of both white Catholics and independents said she does not affect their votes. Even more, about six in 10, said Obama's pick of Biden did not change their chances of voting Democratic.
The history of vice presidential picks suggests they are rarely consequential, and in a July Post-ABC poll, the nominees' choice for No. 2 was last on a list of 17 items voters said might sway their decisions.
The reaction to Palin, however, has been uncharacteristically strong.
Nearly three in 10 independent women have intensely unfavorable opinions of her, more than twice the proportion holding such views of Biden. And a majority of Democratic women now have "strongly unfavorable" views of Palin, up sharply from just after she accepted the nomination.
Among all voters, 29 percent have "strongly favorable" views, and an exactly offsetting number hold intensely negative ones. Attitudes toward Biden are more subdued.
Overall, 51 percent of voters view Palin favorably; for Biden, that number is a bit higher at 57 percent.
The vice presidential hopefuls run about evenly among all voters and among independents on the question of whether they "understand the problems of people like you." That is an important factor for the GOP ticket, as McCain continues to trail Obama as the candidate more in tune with the financial problems Americans face.
White married women are particularly likely to see Palin as in touch, as three-quarters said she understands their concerns. At the same time, a majority of such women do not think Palin has enough experience to be a good president. (White married women support the GOP ticket by a 20-point margin.)
Palin runs far behind Biden on another important attribute: About three-quarters of those surveyed said he understands complex issues, compared with 46 percent who said so of her.
On the eve of the presidential election in 2000, 76 percent said Al Gore had a solid grasp of hard issues; 60 percent said so of George W. Bush.
Despite Palin's slip in public assessments, the boost she has provided among some core segments of the GOP base has not faded. Enthusiasm for McCain's candidacy among Republicans, conservatives and white evangelical Protestants climbed sharply after the party's convention in St. Paul, Minn., where Palin made her debut, and it has held relatively steady since.
But even within these Republican strongholds, questions about Palin's experience are fairly common. About four in 10 conservatives and white evangelical Protestants, three in 10 Republicans and a quarter of GOP women said she does not have the necessary experience.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 27 to 29 among a random sample of adults nationally, including interviews with 1,070 registered voters. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins for subgroups are higher.