In the end, will McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin help or hurt the G.O.P. ticket?
Her favorability ratings have declined by ten or fifteen points in the span of a week. She’ll play well among “Perot independents” out West, and she obviously took Alaska out of play, but in a lot of places her résumé may seem thin. McCain had to take a risk because he was so far behind, but it was a big risk. It violated the first rule of picking a vice presidential candidate, which is “Do no harm”"she’ll turn off a lot of voters. Vice presidential nominees are usually very likable. People forget now, but even Cheney had high favorability scores when he was picked in 2000.
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.
We all know Sarah Palin is going to beat all expectations in the vice-presidential debate tomorrow night, because when you are trying to clear a bar that's already on the ground, it's really hard to not jump high enough. But still, many (including staunch conservatives) are beginning to discuss the possibility of eliminating her from the McCain ticket. Though it has long been argued that this would be political suicide, McCain strategist Steve Schmidt has already proven that he's able to take the sourest lemons and make them into fabulous, audacious lemonade. He's actually a short-term polling genius, and depending on timing, a stunt like dropping Palin could give the McCain camp another giant boost. We know you think we're crazy, but let us give you some potential scenarios in which a Palin departure could be turned by the McCain campaign into a plus. Behold, a top-ten list!
9. She could fall on her own sword and claim that 5-month-old Trig is her daughter Bristol's baby. Let's be clear " this wild Internet theory has been discarded by the Times and other reputable sources. But feigning its truth would thrill liberal bloggers, who might give McCain a pass in their glee over being correct on a widely held, secretly fervent belief. It would be the ultimate contrarian surrender " and Andrew Sullivan would basically die. Also, back in Alaska, she might just get another pass for trying to protect her daughter. If she used to be starring in a Disney movie, she'd now be starring in a Lifetime movie!
2. She could decide McCain isn't conservative enough for her. Sarah Palin is so hard right that to her, neither evolution nor the morning-after pill even exist. It would be completely legitimate for her to explain that, after studying up on the positions of McCain, he is not conservative enough to her tastes, and she would not want to be a part of his administration. Sure, this would rattle the base, who flocked to McCain after her appointment, but it would give him an opportunity to endlessly rattle off his conservative credentials again. And it would reassure independents that he truly is a maverick, and allies with no strict ideology. You can just imagine the key moment, during which McCain asks her to sign a statement with him opposing ANWR drilling. Palin shouts, "That's a negative, Ghost Rider, those oil fields are full," and then moments later he issues the statement anyway, forcing her to yelp and spill coffee on herself.
7. God could tell her it's not her time. Seriously, who is she to argue with God? And who are you? (No, seriously, who are you " do we need to get a witch doctor in here?)
The Women's Vote Revisited
That's why they call them swing voters.
When I wrote about the women's vote in dead-tree TIME a few weeks back, in the days after the GOP convention, our polling was showing that there was indeed a decided "Palin effect." John McCain and Barack Obama were running dead-even among women voters overall, and among older, non-college-educated white women--who are classic swing voters, and a key demographic that both parties are watching closely this year--McCain enjoyed a commanding 18-point advantage.
But no longer. In the latest TIME poll, which is part of our "How America Decides" series (it is featured in the upcoming dead-tree issue, though I don't think there's a link on TIME.com yet), Obama has opened up a 19-point lead (56-37%) over McCain among likely female voters. He even leads narrowly (48-45%) among white women--a group that George Bush won by 11 points in 2004. Among married women, whom Bush won 57-42% over John Kerry, Obama is ahead 51-42%. Our pollster Mark Schulman notes that no Democratic presidential candidate in recent history has had numbers that strong with married women and white women.