Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The "Palin Effect" in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The "Palin Effect" in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

Article excerpt


Using data from the American National Election Studies, this article addresses whether the Sarah Palin affected vote choice in 2008. Findings indicate not only that evaluations of Palin were a strong predictor of vote choice-even when controlling for confounding variables-but also that Palin's effect on vote choice was the largest of any vice presidential candidate in elections examined dating back to 1980. Theoretically, the article offers support for the proposition that a running mate is an important short-term force affecting voting behavior. Substantively, the article suggests that Palin may have contributed to a loss of support among "swing voters."


elections, voting behavior, running mate

The selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee for the 2008 election was widely viewed as a stunning surprise in an election year where the last rites had already long since be given to what passed for "conventional wisdom" in a presidential campaign. Few pundits had considered Palin, who had served less than two years as governor of Alaska, to be on John McCain's short list for the vice presidency. Instead, McCain's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, as well as Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge were generally considered to be the most likely choices. If McCain had felt a bold move was in order, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal was one option. Alternatively, reaching over the partisan divide and putting Democrat turned Independent Senator Joe Lieberman on the ticket was also a possibility. The fact that few pundits had seriously considered Palin in the GOP's vice presidential sweepstakes was evidenced in the hours after her official announcement on August 29 as McCain's running mate, as many pundits on the cable news channels compared notes as to the correct pronunciation of the Alaska governor's surname.

In retrospect, the appeal of Palin for the McCain campaign made sense in several ways. First, it stole the thunder from the Democrats just one day after Barack Obama's historic acceptance speech as the first African American nominated by a major party. The story of the epic Democratic nomination battle had largely been framed as one of historic firsts; the party was going to nominate a candidate who was not a white man. The Republican Party now had its historic moment, the selection of its first woman candidate for the vice presidency, and-following Geraldine Ferraro in 1984-only the second occasion that a woman had been placed on a major party ticket. Second, Palin's selection may have been an attempt to capitalize on any lingering resentment that supporters of Hillary Clinton felt having seen their candidate lose the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. Indeed, Palin alluded to this in her first public speech noting, "It turns out the women of America are not finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all." Third, Palin augmented McCain's general election pitch as the "reform" candidate. In introducing Palin, McCain noted that the Alaska governor had "fought oil companies and party bosses and do-nothing bureaucrats and anyone who puts their interests before the interests of the people she swore an oath to serve." Again, the theme of two "mavericks" heading the GOP ticket could be viewed as a direct counter to Obama's message of "change" in an election year where representing the status quo was a liability. Finally, Palin's selection can be viewed as an attempt by McCain to solidify the Republican base, particularly social conservatives, with whom McCain had often had an uneasy relationship. One story that was featured prominently highlighted Palin's decision not to have an abortion when she discovered her baby had Down's syndrome. The message was simple: Palin was prolife not just in rhetoric but in her actual decision to bring the baby to term. Furthermore, Palin's own small-town roots may also have served as a means to connect the GOP ticket to those voters who may have felt slighted by the comments made by Obama in the Democratic primaries when he referred to smalltown Americans as "bitter" people who cling to their guns and religion. …

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