Underestimating Palin

There seems to be a general sense among liberals, and even among some conservatives since the Couric interview, that Gov. Palin is "out of her league." (Btw, that article by former Palin supporter Kathleen Parker is currently the top Google result for the phrase [out of her league].)

In some circles, that's accompanied by a sense that Palin is hurting her party's chances to gain the White House (I've seen that from both sides), and/or a kind of shocked outrage that some people still like her (I've seen that mostly or entirely from the Left).

And there's a widespread belief that she won't do well in tonight's Vice-Presidential debate--though that's tempered by (a) the idea that expectations are so low by now that she can't help but beat them, and (b) the strong possibility that Biden will make himself look bad in any number of possible ways.

But I think it's possible that Palin will actually do quite well in the debate (and not just by our newly lowered standards); and I think that regardless of how she does in the debate, a lot of people will continue to like her.

I'm gonna jump right to my strongest piece of evidence: An article by Andrew Halcro, who ran for Alaska governor in 2006 and debated Palin over two dozen times, titled "What It's Like to Debate Sarah Palin." He notes that Palin is a master of the crowd-pleasing nonanswer. When asked to name a specific [whatever], she ignores the question and tells folksy stories or reiterates her talking points.

So from that perspective, one possible explanation for Palin's weak performance in the Couric interview (this is my idea, not something Halcro says) is that she's not used to being backed into a corner, to being asked the same question about specific details repeatedly. When she's giving a speech or involved in a debate, she can just ignore the question or answer in (to use Halcro's phrase) "glittering generalities"; that's not so easy to do in a one-on-one interview when the interviewer pushes for specifics.

And the key thing that I think a lot of us liberal intellectuals don't get (at least, it's easy for me to forget this) is that, in a debate setting, if she gives a glib nonanswer in a way that plays to her crowd, then she gets their approval. She doesn't have to give actual answers to the specific questions posed. Her goal isn't to demonstrate her command of facts and details; her goal is to get people to vote for her. And one of the main reasons she's on the ticket is to appeal to certain parts of the Republican base, not to bring in centrist undecideds.

People like me tend to be impressed by (perceived) erudition, by nuance, by knowledge and information and cleverness. But there are a lot of people out there who are more impressed by (perceived) friendliness, by self-identification ("she's like me!"), by connection with an audience. (And for that matter, it's not like I'm immune to charisma; I'm more attracted to Obama's charisma than to his erudition.)

People like me tend to get annoyed at politicians who make a lot of verbal fumbles; I tend to feel a little outraged, like "how could anyone possibly think that person is worth electing?" But anyone in the public eye is going to have embarrassing moments--hell, someone in a comments thread on some Palin article recently linked to YouTube videos of Obama stumbling during speeches. Biden is known for gaffes when speaking; mocking Dan Quayle's problem moments didn't stop him from getting elected; for that matter, George W. Bush's syntactic manglings don't seem to have really hurt his political career, just made him an easier target for mocking. It pains me to say this, but having a weak grasp of how to put a coherent sentence or argument together doesn't, in itself, seem to significantly hurt a politician's chances of getting elected.

Another aspect of all this is the idea that Palin's fumbling attempts in the Couric interview to explain why proximity to Russia gives her foreign policy experience, or her failure to name a single Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade, or her vague generalities when asked where she gets her news, are typical of her speaking ability. But I think she's a pretty good speaker in other contexts. We've seen Palin be an effective and crowd-pleasing public speaker at least twice now: once at the Republican convention (and a significant chunk of that speech is specific to her, so it can't all have been written before she joined the ticket), once in Florida last week. She apparently draws big crowds (and big donations) wherever she goes.

Also, mocking her seems to help cement her fandom's adoration of her. "Look at those liberal elites, mocking our down-home candidate!"

In the abovelinked article, Halcro talks about Palin's skill in getting crowds to like her in debates, but that's not all there is to it; if you want to see for yourself, take a look at a video of one of her gubernatorial debates, from November, 2006. (She first appears around 1:15, but you may need to watch the earlier part for context.) There are various other videos floating around the web that show other clips from that set of debates. The Sarah Palin shown in those videos seems to me to be largely well-spoken, sharp and on-topic, in command of the facts. She even sometimes gives actual answers to questions. If that's how she debates tonight, then I think a lot of people whose expectations have been set by the Couric interview will be surprised.

(I should also add that although the Couric segments that have been getting the most play have been the ones in which Palin looks really inept, I've seen a couple of segments, focused on domestic issues, in which she seemed much more on top of things. Not brilliant, but not nearly as bad as the bad ones.)

Apparently it's traditional for candidates to praise their opponents' debating skills prior to debates, in order to raise expectations for the opponent. One CNN article quotes Biden spokesman David Wade as saying "He's going in here to debate a leviathan of forensics, who has debated five times, and she's undefeated." I can't tell whether that's a tongue-in-cheek attempt to damn with faint praise (five times! she's debated five whole times!) or an actual attempt to raise expectations about her debating abilities. But I love the phrase "a leviathan of forensics."

But in fact she's debated many more than five times, on the gubernatorial campaign trail, and apparently did a pretty good job at it. So don't count her out yet.

One last thing that I think is worth keeping in mind: while it's certainly quite possible that tonight's debate will give us some sound bites, some fuel for ridicule of one candidate or another, and some interesting moments, we should remember that "vice presidential debates [...] tend not be decisive," as the International Herald Tribune's Adam Nagourney puts it. Others have said that more strongly: as I understand it, vice-presidential debates usually don't affect polling numbers significantly.

Okay, one really last thing: I suspect the above comes across as me being somehow in favor of Palin, or admiring of her. That's not my intent at all. I absolutely do not want her to be Vice President, and I don't think there's anything about her that I admire. My points here are that (a) she's not as inept as she looks in the Couric interview, and (b) to the people she appeals most to, eptitude with that kind of interview isn't really the point anyway.

5 Responses to “Underestimating Palin”

  1. cj

    Every sentence write supports my worst fears concerning Palin and McCain. Neither appears to have much substance, but most people could not care less about that. I don’t really care about experience, but it has made me extremely uneasy how much most people want a role model they can identify with, instead of one they can aspire to. Charisma and cute seem to win debates, not knowledge and wit.

  2. Vardibidian

    Her goal isn’t to demonstrate her command of facts and details; her goal is to get people to vote for her.

    Or, more accurately, to get people to vote for John McCain, or at least not to vote for Barack Obama. The purpose of the V.P. debates is absolutely not to convince the other side’s supporters to change their minds based on argumentation and moral suasion. It is to (a) allay the fears of your side’s supporters about your candidate’s judgement and (the Divine forbid) your ability to step in and continue that candidate’s policies, and (2) to mock, attack and otherwise destroy the other side’s candidate.

    Each candidate should have half-a-dozen prepared bits about the Presidential candidates, and some practice at working them in to various question. The question of who ‘wins’ will largely depend on how effective those bits are. I suspect that Sarah Palin will do just fine at that.


  3. crinklequirk

    Good warning. And no, your post doesn’t sound like you like Palin – more that you think there are blind spots, in voters who are like you (and me), which could be weaknesses if we aren’t aware of them. Your points are excellent.

    Also, perceived charisma can outweigh years of evidence to the contrary, particularly when some form of sex appeal is involved (“I can’t stand her politics, but whoa, is she Hot!”). I think that’s another reason they picked her – men find her attractive, and whether or not they intellectually agree with her, they’ll be more tolerant, more forgiving, and less critical overall when dealing with someone they find attractive.

  4. Cheryl Myfanwy Morgan

    Thank you, Jed. I’m relieved to see that some people understand this. The election isn’t about the opinions of left wing intellectuals. Every knows who they are going to vote for. If Palin is popular in the key demographics that are needed to switch swing states from Obama to McCain, then she’s doing her job, and doing it well (Goddess help us all).

  5. Daniel Buisson

    I just left a comment on one of the thousands of youtube videos. I was clear that I was by no means a McCain/Palin supporter.
    I did not have as much space to elaborate as I do here- warning those that mock Ms Palin to research more and maybe consider looking at her 2006 debates.
    This is not the same Sara Palin that acted the “Ohhmygaash, I’ll get back t’ya” stupid blond for Catie Couric. Im beginning to suspect that this is a show or stunt.
    She apparently was in broadcast journalism in Alaska. Now, this raises a bit of concern…. if this is the case, and I think it is, then I would imagine that she would have responded -when asked about where she gets information- quite differently if this was not an act. Considering that she was in broadcasting-at least a few journals should come to mind….even local ones for that matter. Perhaps CBC (canadian). I have my suspicions on the authenticity of the feigned confusion and answer she gave.

    Thanks for your wonderful and well infomed article. It is a shame there are not more like you around. I’m liberal for the most part, but I appreciate any well informed appraisals of situations instead of the “herd mentality” of right and left politics. This country is (as Stanley Kubric wrote for the character in Full Metal Jacket) “in a world of shit” and I’m afraid the world of nit picky vapid journalism could spell the demise of what used to be a great place-the US (and the world even liked us!)


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