The Fix: Why McCain is right that Palin is like Reagan

By Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez
Monday, November 29, 2010; 7:52 AM

1. Sen. John McCain was asked for the umpteenth time on Sunday about his former running mate, Sarah Palin. And while his previous responses elicited plenty of headlines, his latest might take the cake.

The Arizona Republican, responding to a question from CNN's Candy Crowley about Palin being "divisive," noted that Ronald Reagan was often seen as divisive as well.

It wasn't a direct comparison to Reagan (McCain never said Palin is similar to Reagan), but it was a comparison nonetheless. And the reaction was swift, as it often is when it comes to Palin.

So the big question follows: Is it a valid comparison? The answer: In many ways, yes.

The fact is that Reagan has benefited tremendously from the years since his presidency, and people look back on him in a much favorable light than they did during his presidency.

According to Gallup polling data, Reagan's average approval rating during his presidency was 53 percent -- lower than John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

As for the operative word here -- "divisiveness" -- Reagan had a claim to it. Many more Republicans approved of him than Democrats, and even at his peak, just 68 percent of Americans approved of him, a number lower than everyone but Richard Nixon over the last 65 years.

The reason Reagan couldn't get higher than that was because there was a segment of the population, about one-third, that was dead-set against him. Reagan is often listed in polls of people's favorite presidents, but because of that one-third, he's also among the leaders for people's least favorite presidents. His detractors often feel just as strongly as his supporters about Reagan's legacy.

Recent polling shows Palin is on par with all of that. According to Quinnipiac University, nearly three quarters of Republicans view her favorably, while just 8 percent of Democrats do. And a recent AP-Gfk poll showed 34 percent of people viewed Palin "very unfavorably." Those are people that will be difficult for Palin to satisfy under any circumstances, much like the one-third of people who refused to support Reagan even after he was shot in 1981 and the economy improved in 1986.

Where Reagan differs from Palin, though, is the so-called "Reagan Democrats." Even in his darkest days, about 20 percent of Democrats supported the former president.

Palin hasn't gotten anywhere close to that; there are basically no Palin Democrats. And given the passions she evokes, it's hard to see how such a group would form. Right now, she has plenty of work to do just to woo independents, who oppose her more than they support her right now.

No comparison is perfect, because unlike Reagan, Palin has never been president. But if you're asking whether Reagan was divisive, the answer is yes.

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