Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

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

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

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

Article excerpt


"The 'Palin Effect' in the U.S. 2008 Presidential Election" analyzes the effect of Sarah Palin on presidential vote choice. Two of the substantive conclusions are (1) Palin cost McCain votes among independents and moderates, and (2) Palin had the largest effect on vote choice of any recent vice-presidential nominee. Our analysis shows that the data do not support these findings. We find that respondent evaluations of Palin have a positive effect on McCain vote choice, even among independents and moderates, and Palin's effect on the election outcome is comparable with ten of the last fifteen vice-presidential nominees.


2008, presidential elections, vice-presidential nominees, elections


In a recent issue of this journal, "The 'Palin Effect' in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election" by Jonathan Knuckey (2012) addressed a substantively interesting question: Did the selection of Sarah Palin negatively affect John McCain's share of the vote? In line with the conventional postelection narrative and other research on the "Palin Effect" (see Elis, Hillygus, and Nie 2010), the article con- cludes that Palin hurt McCain among key moderate and independent voters.1 Specifically, the article makes three claims. First, Palin had a measurable, independent effect on the presidential popular vote in 2008. Second, she hurt the McCain campaign by driving away independent and moderate voters. Third, Palin is a uniquely divisive figure and her effect on the presidential vote was larger than any recent vice-presidential nominee.

We see great value in this research question, in terms of understanding the dynamics of the 2008 election and for the broader question of the effect of running mate choice on presidential elections (Holbrook 1991, 1994). However, our reading of the article suggests that the evidence presented does not support two of the conclu- sions reached. In this research note, we will argue the following:

1. The finding that Palin hurt McCain among mod- erate and independent voters is based on a flawed interpretation of the empirical analyses of the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES) data used in the article. When the results are cor- rectly interpreted using marginal effects in place of the predicted probabilities reported in the article, the data do not support this finding. Furthermore, the results in Table 1 of the original paper show that the coefficient for the Palin feel- ing thermometer variable is positive, and there- fore the appropriate interpretation of the original model is that attitudes toward Palin are positively correlated with McCain vote choice. This rela- tionship does not support the conclusion that Palin hurt McCain among the electorate as a whole or, as we will show, among independents (and moderates) in particular.

2. The finding that Palin's effect on the 2008 race was larger than that of any recent vice-presiden- tial nominee cannot be stated with confidence. Estimates of the effects of a variable within a model are inherently uncertain. When 95 percent confidence intervals are included, the results show that Palin's effect overlaps many other vice- presidential nominees and may not have been the largest in recent history.

3. A simpler, re-specified model with greater predic- tive power than the original allows for easier interpretation and shows high evaluations of Palin had a positive effect on McCain vote choice. The model specification in the original paper, where ideology is treated as three separate dichotomous variables with "don't know/no opinion" as the excluded category, is difficult to interpret. Furthermore, the creation of "Candidate Image" variables using factor analysis is not, we argue, the best way to address the issue of multicol- linearity among candidate feeling thermometers. Our re-specified model shows that Palin had a conditionally positive effect on independent voters.

Like many readers, we find the analysis intriguing and topical and we appreciate the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the author explaining our critique in detail. …

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