As Sarah Palin ramps up her Presidential bid, and her nomination seems increasingly likely, look for the media narrative to shift to her unelectability. This is designed not so much to deny her the nomination as it is to dispirit and to demoralize her voters in the coming general election matchup with President Obama. Yet, for a number of reasons, principally the Democrats' dismal performance among white voters in the recent midterms, it is not Palin's supporters who should be demoralized, but Obama's.
Let's start with President Obama's performance among white voters in 2008. In 2008, Obama got the highest percentage of white votes--43%--of any Democrat candidate since Bill Clinton managed to get 44% in 1996. John Kerry (2004)and Al Gore (2000) managed just 41% and 42% respectively. Many pundits discounted Obama's lead in the polls in the run up to the 2008 election, because of the so-called Bradley effect, which holds that white voters, in order not to appear bigoted, will tell pollsters they intend to vote for a minority candidate and then proceed to vote against him. Not only did this so-called Bradley effect fail to materialize in 2008, in many states, such as Pennsylvania, Obama's over performance among white voters was the key to his victory.
Fast forward to the 2010 midterms. In the midterms, the Democrats registered their worst performance among the white vote in recorded history. Not only did the white share of the electorate rise from 75% to 77%, the GOP candidates crushed the Democrats among white voters 60%-37%, twice the margin by which the insipid John McCain had bested Obama in that demographic.
There is a belt of states stretching from the mid-Atlantic across the Midwest (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa) in which the electorate, with exception of Illinois is approximately 85% white. Obama carried every one of them in 2008, in most cases over performing among white voters compared to his national average of 43%. In 2010, the Democrats decisively lost the white vote, both college educated and non-college educated in every one of them, as the graphic linked below demonstrates!
In 2012, if the Democrats' 60-37 pasting in 2010, and the slight uptick in white share of the electorate from 75% to 77%, hold true, Obama is going to have to have to kick it up not one notch but several.
Pennsylvania is an example. A state without which he cannot be re-elected, Obama won Pennsylvania fairly comfortably by about 620,000 votes out of six million cast, a margin of about 10%. The white share of the electorate remained fairly stable between 2004 and 2008, at about 82%, with white voters casting about 4.8 million of 6 million total votes. Obama's 620,000 vote margin was directly traceable to the fact that he split the white vote down the middle with McCain, with each man notching approximately 50%. In so doing, Obama had to over perform his national white vote of 43% by only a net of about 6% in Pennsylvania to secure his 2008 victory there. But what if the national vote in 2012 mirrors that of 2010, with white voters casting ballots against him by 60-37? In that scenario, in order to maintain his 2008 margin, Obama would have to over perform his "national white vote" in Pennsylvania by a net of 12% in order to replicate his 2008 victory margin. If he over performs among whites in Pennsylvania only as well as he did in 2008--that is, by about 6%--he would lose the white vote there by 55%-43%. His raw white vote would, by my calculations be reduced from approximately 2.4 million to 2.064 million, a loss of about 335,000 votes. Adding these 335,000 votes to the GOP candidate's total creates a net shift of 670,000 votes, enough to produce a 50,000 vote GOP margin, assuming Obama's share of the black and Hispanic votes stay the same. If Obama is in deep trouble in reliably blue Pennsylvania, he is in deeper trouble in less reliably blue states such as Iowa and Wisconsin and in usually reliable red ones like Ohio and Indiana.
Back to my original thesis, however. Why are the polls showing Obama far ahead of Palin? Let us put aside the well worn observations about the unreliability of early polls and the fact that many (such as PPP and NBC) are skewed, both of which are true to a great extent. I would suggest that there are at least two other factors that are depressing Governor Palin's showings in these polls. One of them, which I call the "Reverse Bradley Effect" has to do with President Obama. The other, which I refer to as the "Palin Effect", has to do with Governor Palin, principally the media's full bore assault on her.
First, the Reverse Bradley effect. The media and the pundits were wrong about the Bradley effect in 2008, as Obama garnered a higher share of the white vote than the two previous (white) Democrats. It is true that the white vote in 2008 was depressed because of the lackluster campaign run by McCain. But there was no Bradley effect at all and Obama got the highest percentage of the white vote of any non-incumbent Democrat nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2012, however, I believe there will be a "reverse Bradley effect", that is: white voters who--when contacted by pollsters decline to state a preference or state that they prefer Obama when they do not, because of the stigma associated with voting to unseat the first black President. This effect will be intensified by the fear, whether rational or not, among some white voters of reprisals since Obama is now President and, as such, controls the levers of power.
Closely related to this reverse Bradley effect is the "Palin Effect", which holds that it is politically incorrect to state a preference for Sarah Palin for President and that only rubes and hicks will actually support her. Both these dynamics will, I predict continue to depress her performance in the polls, perhaps right up until the election. These dynamics cannot alter the salient facts of this election, all of which favor Palin's election, perhaps overwhelmingly: First, the white vote will be pivotal in this election as it was in the 2010 midterms. Second, with the GOP poised to nominate a candidate in Sarah Palin who will not bend to political correctness, as has every GOP candidate since Reagan, the GOP share of the white vote can again approach the levels it reached in the 1980s when it was 60-65%, numbers which Obama simply cannot overcome even in erstwhile strongholds like Pennsylvania.
Third, and finally, the battleground states in which the white vote will be pivotal (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, to name only four) are all states located in the upper Midwest. McCain lost them all of course but, of the four, George W. Bush only won Ohio twice and Iowa once. I attribute his lack of success in the region to his southern accent. Here Palin has a built in advantage. Palin's upper Midwestern accent will play much better there among white voters than Bush's drawl and her accent will not be a liability in the south at all. In states like Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, she will sound like a native, and this will enhance her chances in all of them.The bottom line is to prepare for a flurry of polls which will tell us all that Palin can't win, and these polls will likely persist right up until the election, as they did in 1980. Just remember that the overriding dynamic is not the polls but the demographics of the electorate and turnout and Palin's impending nomination, all of which bode well for us based upon the 2010 results, especially in the battleground states. In these crucial respects, Sarah Palin is in the catbird's seat, while it is Obama's Presidency that is the fluttering canary in the coal mine.