By Jon Cohen and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 24, 2009
As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin prepares for the next stage of her political career, a majority of Americans hold an unfavorable view of her, and there is broad public doubt about her leadership skills and understanding of complex issues, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Last year's Republican vice presidential nominee remains a deeply polarizing figure, and there are warning signs for her as she emerges as a possible contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. While she is still widely popular among those in her party, she has lost ground among Republicans generally and among the white evangelicals who are so critical in the early presidential primaries.
Overall, the new poll found that 53 percent of Americans view Palin negatively and 40 percent see her in positive terms, her lowest level in Post-ABC polling since she first appeared on the national stage last summer as Sen. John McCain's running mate.
The dip in Palin's favorability comes as she gets ready to leave office Sunday with about 18 months remaining in her term and plans to turn her attention to national politics. Palin, 45, has said she intends to campaign for other like-minded candidates, and speculation has been rampant that she may seek the GOP nomination to oppose President Obama.
She debuted at last year's Republican National Convention as a popular figure, with nearly six in 10 Americans holding a favorable opinion of her. But public confidence in her dropped as the November election neared, and it has slipped even further in the months since.
Republicans and GOP-leaning independents continue to rank Palin among the top three contenders in the run-up to 2012, however, with 70 percent of Republicans viewing her in a positive light in the new poll. But her support within the GOP has deteriorated from its pre-election levels, including a sharp drop in the number holding "strongly favorable" impressions of her.
And while Palin's most avid following is still among white evangelical Protestants, a core GOP constituency, and conservatives, far fewer in these groups have "strongly favorable" opinions of her than did so last fall.
Democrats, meanwhile, continue to express deeply negative opinions of Palin, with more than three-quarters expressing unfavorable views, including 56 percent who feel that way intensely. Among independents, 40 percent view her favorably and 51 percent unfavorably, the survey shows.
Perhaps more vexing for Palin's national political aspirations, however, is that 57 percent of Americans say she does not understand complex issues, while 37 percent think she does, a nine-percentage-point drop from a poll conducted in September just before her debate with now-Vice President Biden. The biggest decline on the question came among Republicans, nearly four in 10 of whom now say she does not understand complex issues. That figure is 70 percent among Democrats and 58 percent among independents.
"She just, to me, lacks substance and dedication," poll respondent Barbara Jamison, 59, a data-entry worker at a publishing company, said in a follow-up interview. Jamison, an independent from Killingworth, Conn., added that Palin "strikes me as being more interested in celebrity than in actually doing political work."
Palin will resign on Sunday at a picnic in Fairbanks and hand over power to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell (R). As she departs, Americans' views of her are deeply divided across a range of questions, even in areas that are considered her chief political attributes.
As a vice presidential candidate, Palin was seen as an empathetic figure, but the new poll shows Americans split on whether she understands the problems of people like themselves. By contrast, nearly two-thirds think Obama is in touch with the problems they face.
Another respondent, Christopher Carr, 30, a sales consultant from New Mexico, spoke of Palin in glowing terms: "Even though she is a woman of tremendous power, I feel personally like she comes from a level that is more like my level," he said. "Personally, I feel like she sees things more from where the common people are coming from, not the wealthier ones."
Americans also are split on the question of whether Palin shares their values: Forty-eight percent say she does, while 47 percent think she does not, according to the poll. Among those identifying themselves as conservative Republicans, 83 percent say she shares their values.
Fifty-four percent say Palin is not a strong leader; 40 percent say she is. Obama, meanwhile, is viewed as a strong leader by 71 percent in the poll. GOP women are more apt than GOP men to see Palin as a strong leader, and a slim majority of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy.
Rick Buila, 38, of Sharonville, Ohio, who works in finance and voted for the McCain-Palin ticket in November, said his opinion of the governor has changed. "I don't think that she is cut out to be on the national stage," he said. "I look at her education and her background and the way she carries herself and her [resignation] speech, and when you have someone who's out there saying 'You betcha' about 50 times, I don't think that's the person we want to have negotiating with other countries."
As the shadowboxing for the GOP nomination begins, Palin's eroding favorability among Republicans and white evangelicals could be a hurdle. The poll showed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee leading a pack of potential contenders.
Huckabee, who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, recorded the support of 26 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, followed closely by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at 21 percent and Palin at 19 percent. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) ranked fourth with 10 percent. Among white evangelicals, Huckabee outpaces Palin and the others by better than 2 to 1.
The poll of 1,001 randomly selected adults on conventional and cellular phones was conducted July 15-18. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. The question about the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has an error margin of five points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.