PAY NO ATTENTION TO THOSE ACTUAL VOTERS BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Before it was published, I considered making a prediction about today's Maureen Dowd column -- would she be back to a posture of evident admiration for Sarah Palin's girly gumption, or would she still be a skeptic, as she clearly was in her last column?
The new column's available now and the answer is "Both" -- but the important thing to notice is that Dowd doesn't doubt for a second that Palin is as earth-shaking and transformative to our politics as the McCain spinmeisters keep telling us she is. And, as I'll note below, she's not alone -- never mind the fact that it probably isn't true.
Dowd predicts that in 2012 Palin will be the GOP nominee,
still riding high from her 2008 field-dressing of Obama (who's now back in the Senate convening his subcommittee on Afghanistan).
(Um, who was it last week who was telling me that Dowd likes Obama? And later, Dowd quotes Hillary Clinton, in an imagined 2012 Clinton-Palin presidential debate, calling Obama "all cage, no bird.")
With mixed horror and admiration, Dowd says Palin will have worn down President McCain by 2012:
"How would you like this pit bull grandma to clean your grandfather clock?" she'll tell President McCain in her flat "Fargo" accent. He'll confide in his pal Joe that being a P.O.W. was nothing compared with being trapped in the White House with "that woman."
In Dowd's imagining, Palin takes the country by storm, wins the election, controls the agenda and style of the McCain-Palin administration, and looks like a winner in 2012 (except that Hillary Clinton -- whom Dowd, all of a sudden, admires --is her opponent and has "been tougher longer").
The suggestion that Palin is the big game-changer in this race is the message of this front-page story in The New York Times:
Fresh from the Republican convention, Senator John McCain's campaign sees evidence that his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is energizing conservatives in the battleground of Ohio while improving its chances in Pennsylvania and some Western states that Senator Barack Obama has been counting on....
Strategists say that Mr. McCain can now count on a more motivated social conservative base to help him in areas like southern Ohio, where the 2004 race was settled....
Some McCain campaign officials hoped that Ms. Palin, an Alaskan, can broaden the ticket's appeal in the Northwest, possibly gaining traction in states like Oregon and Washington, as well as shore up Mr. McCain’s standing with social conservatives who had, up to now, been lukewarm at best about his candidacy....
There isn't the slightest indication that maybe the Palin pick has downsides as well as upsides, that some voters may actually be turned off by her inexperience, by her rhetorical nastiness, or by her theocrat-right positions. (Dowd has Hillary, in that imagined 2012 debate, bringing up the McCain-Palin administration's sharp tack to the right -- "You put Medicare on eBay. You cut funding for special-needs children. The Dobson Supreme Court has outlawed abortion, evolution and gun control. With sex education banned, baby bumps in high schools are rampant" -- but she doesn't seem to imagine that this will have slowed down Palin's ascent.)
The problem with all this is that it doesn't jibe with reality.
The ABC poll released a couple of days ago makes clear that Palin's favorable rating is about the same as Joe Biden's, that she doesn't make voters any more likely to vote for McCain than Biden does to make them vote for Obama, and that only 42% of the country thinks she's experienced enough to become president if necessary. And the voters she's impressed are Republicans -- and weren't we already hearing that McCain had his party's voters sewn up?
Meanwhile, the polls don't seem to be showing a huge McCain bounce. Rasmussen says the race is a tie -- and if that's as high as the post-convention bounce gets, it's very bad news for McCain. (Obama got up to a 5-point lead after the Democratic convention.) Gallup still has Obama up by 2; his lead got to 8 earlier this week. In a true seesaw race, McCain would be swinging out to leads as big as Obama's were.
More important, in a race transformed by Palin, McCain's bump might be utterly huge.
In fact, Nate Silver, trying to discern day-by-day tends in the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking poll numbers, suggests that McCain's speech help McCain, but Obama's numbers "held up relatively well on Thursday following Sarah Palin's speech."
Message: She's not really helping. Perhaps she's turning McCain voters (including, yes, some conservative Democrats-for-Hillary) into more enthusiastic McCain voters. But she doesn't seem to be transforming the race at all.
But I worry that she might transform the race if the press keeps telling us she's transforming the race. That's what we have to watch for. Maybe she'll eventually change poll numbers -- but if she doesn't, don't let the media lie to you about her impact.