By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 25, 2008
While top-of-the-ticket rivals John McCain and Barack Obama both remain broadly popular heading into Election Day, public perceptions of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have fallen dramatically since she emerged on the national political scene at the GOP convention.
A majority of likely voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News national poll now have unfavorable views of the Alaska governor, most still doubt her presidential qualifications and there is an even split on whether she "gets it," a perception that had been a key component of her initial appeal.
Palin's addition to the GOP ticket initially helped McCain narrow the gap with Obama on the question of which presidential hopeful "better understands the problems of people like you," but at 18 percentage points, the Democrat's margin on that question is now as big as it has been all fall. Nor has Palin attracted female voters to McCain, as his campaign had hoped.
Obama is up by a large margin among women, 57 to 41 percent in the new Post-ABC tracking poll. The senator from Illinois just about ties McCain among white women -- 48 percent back Obama, 49 percent McCain -- a group that President Bush won by 11 points four years ago and one that had shifted significantly toward the GOP this year after the Palin pick.
In polling conducted Wednesday and Thursday evenings, after the disclosure that the Republican National Committee used political funds to help Palin assemble a wardrobe for the campaign, 51 percent said they have a negative impression of her. Fewer, 46 percent, said they have a favorable view. That marks a stark turnaround from early September, when 59 percent of likely voters held positive opinions.
The declines in Palin's ratings have been even more substantial among the very voters Republicans aimed to woo. The percentage of white women viewing her favorably dropped 21 points since early September; among independent women, it fell 24 points.
More broadly, the intensity of negative feelings about Palin is also notable: Forty percent of voters have "strongly unfavorable" views, more than double the post-convention number. Nearly half of independent women now see her in a very negative light, a nearly threefold increase.
The shift in Palin's ratings come with a pronounced spike in the percentage of voters who see her as lacking the experience it takes to be a good president. Voters were about evenly divided on that question a month and a half ago, but toward the end of September a clear majority said she was not qualified. In the new poll, 58 percent said she is insufficiently experienced.
Among a recent spate of conservative defections from McCain, one leading Republican was particularly pointed about the impact of Palin's professional background on his decision. Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School and former solicitor general under Ronald Reagan, asked that the McCain-Palin campaign remove his name from several committees in large part because of "the choice of Sarah Palin at a time of deep national crisis."
A Post-ABC poll earlier this week reported that the Palin pick deeply damaged voters' confidence in the types of decisions McCain would make as president.
Perhaps more fundamentally for Palin's national political future, though, is that voters in the new poll are evenly divided about whether she understands their problems. Three weeks ago, 60 percent said she did; now it is 50 percent yes, 47 percent no.
Both Democratic and independent women are half as likely as they were in late September to see Palin as empathetic. Among independent women, the percentage who view Palin as in tune with people like themselves slipped from 73 to 50 percent.
Palin's struggle to connect deepens McCain's own deficit on the issue. On the question of who is more empathetic, 55 percent of voters said Obama, 37 percent McCain. And McCain picks up few of those who view Palin as disconnected.
But the gap is smaller on overall favorability, one of the factors that buoys the GOP ticket as Election Day approaches, despite generally negative poll numbers: 63 percent of likely voters have favorable impressions of Obama, 55 percent of McCain. Among the crucial segment of independent voters, the two rivals have identical 58 percent favorable ratings.
Taking the tickets together, 53 percent of likely voters express favorable views of both Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., 41 percent of both McCain and Palin. Those numbers are very close to current vote preferences in the latest Post-ABC tracking poll: Fifty-three percent said they would vote Democratic if the election were held today; 44 percent would opt for the GOP.
Assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.