Jonathan Chait

Did Palin Hurt McCain?

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The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti, author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin," takes to the Washington Post to expose the "myth" that Sarah Palin cost John McCain the election:

She didn't. CNN's 2008 national exit poll, for example, asked voters whether Palin was a factor when they stepped into the voting booth. Those who said yes broke for McCain 56 percent to 43 percent.

Before Palin's selection, remember, McCain suffered from an enthusiasm gap. Republicans were reluctant to vote for the senator from Arizona because of his reputation as a maverick who'd countered his party on taxes, immigration, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and "cap and trade" climate legislation. But Palin's conservative record in Alaska and antiabortion advocacy changed the Republican mood. With her by his side, McCain's fundraising and support from conservatives improved. It wasn't enough to beat Barack Obama -- but McCain probably would have lost the presidency by a greater margin if he had, say, selected independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, further alienating the GOP base.

Yes, it's possible that Palin's conservatism and uneven performance on the campaign trail shifted some voters to Obama's column. But even if Obama picked up some anti-Palin votes, he surely didn't need them: The economy was in recession, Wall Street was in meltdown, and the incumbent Republican president was incredibly unpopular. Of course, in the end, it's impossible to know how McCain would have performed if he hadn't selected Palin -- politics does not allow for control experiments.

Note that Continetti begins by flatly asserting that Palin didn't cost McCain the election, proceeds to imply that she helped him, than finally winds up with the conclusion that her effect was unknowable.

Is the impact of Palin unknowable? Well, you can't prove anything. But political scientists have tried to measure it and found that she had an extraordinarily large, and negative, impact. Political scientists Richard Johnston and Emily Thorson wrote a paper concluding:

Judgment on her was incontestably important. The correspondence between dynamics in her ratings and dynamics in McCain vote intentions is astonishingly exact. Her marginal impact in vote-intention estimation models dwarfs that for any Vice-Presidential we are aware of, certainly for her predecessors in 2000 and 2004. And the range traversed by her favorability ratings is truly impressive. But why? We are unaware of any theory that opens the door to serious impact from the bottom half of the ticket.

GWU's John Sides broke down the data:

Graph #1 is the poll standing of the two candidates. The two vertical lines demarcate important moments where McCain's poll standing dropped.

Graph #2 is the average assessment of the economy. Assessments of the economy were always negative and became more negative as the campaign wore on. But the drops in economic assessments don't really correspond to the drops in McCain's poll standing. The first drop in poll standing pre-dates the drop in economic assessments by a few days. The second drop in poll standing comes 8 days after another drop in economic assessments.

Graph #3 is the average favorability toward the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The trends in feelings toward Palin match McCain's poll standing almost exactly. The "drops" occur at the same time. It's eerie.

And yet another paper estimated the impact of Palin as minus two points, which, again, is extraordinarily large for a vice-presidential nominee.

Now, again, this doesn't prove anything, although it's pretty suggestive. And, as Continetti notes at the end, it's not the same as saying Palin alone cost McCain the election, since he lost by 7 points. But his point that Palin is probably the most politically damaging vice-Presidential nominee in American history, but McCain was bound to lose anyway, is not really much of a defense.

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