As Sarah Palin leaves office today, some are speculating she’ll run for president in 2012 as an independent. There’s just one problem, writes John Avlon. Independents don’t like Palin. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
Today is the last day of Sarah Palin’s governorship; tomorrow is the first day of the rest of her political life.
In her rambling resignation remarks, she quoted Gen. MacArthur: "We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction." In a subsequent interview with The Washington Times, she spoke of using her time out of office to campaign for conservative Democrats as well as Republicans, saying, “People are so tired of the partisan stuff—even my own son is not a Republican.” Those comments caused some—like potential presidential competitor Mike Huckabee—to speculate that she is considering an Independent run for president in 2012.
If Palin wants to run in 2012, her natural base is not Independents, it is Republicans—in a refection of her status as one of the most polarizing figures in American politics.
There’s just one problem with that plan: Independent voters don’t like Sarah Palin.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Alaska is one of seven states where Independents outnumber Democrats or Republicans. When she ran for governor in 2006, Palin benefited from strong support among Independents for courageously running against the corrupt Alaska Republican machine. Her credentials as a political reformer and fiscal conservative—along with her youth and gender—were supposed to help McCain connect with the Independent voters nominees ultimately need to win the White House.
But it turned out Palin’s real talents lay in playing the partisan attack dog role with more gusto than anyone since Spiro Agnew. That, combined with a strident social conservatism—such as opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest (a position not known by senior McCain campaign staff at the time of the announcement)—made her beloved by the conservative base but political kryptonite to Independents.
Post-election surveys showed that 32 percent of Independents said Palin’s selection made them less likely to vote for John McCain. Immediately after the election, 53 percent of Independents said they did not want to see Sarah Palin be “a major political figure for many years to come.”
Recent polls have shown these perceptions have hardened into political reality. While Independents now make up an unprecedented 41 percent of the entire electorate, Palin is deeply, almost uniquely, unpopular among their ranks.
A new Gallup poll showed that 39 percent of independents said they would be “not at all likely” to vote for her as president, compared to 19 percent who said they would be very likely. A new Washington Post/ABC poll found that 58 percent of Independents said she does not understand “complex issues.”
"She just, to me, lacks substance and dedication," Connecticut Independent Barbara Jamison told The Washington Post, saying that Palin "strikes me as being more interested in celebrity than in actually doing political work." In this snapshot statement there is evidence of the danger that Palin’s inevitable book tour and media appearances, made so soon after her abandonment of the responsibilities of elected office, will make her the political equivalent of Paris Hilton, famous for being famous rather than for any substantive accomplishments of her own.
Independents often are in between polarized Democrats and Republicans on issues and consequently they more accurately reflect centrist national attitudes. As she leaves office, Sarah Palin’s national favorability numbers are the lowest on record. Democrats despise her, Independents have an overall 51 percent disapproval and 40 percent approval ratings for Palin—but among conservative Republicans, Palin remains a political star.
Seventy percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Palin—40 percent strongly—and 83 percent of conservative Republicans say that she shares their values, according to the Washington Post/ABC poll. Seventy-two percent of Republicans say they are either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to vote for Palin for president.
This gap between Republicans and Independents on the subject of Sarah Palin is evidence of the party’s rightward drift and estrangement from centrist national opinion. This gap grows the more that Palin becomes a symbol of the unfair treatment that conservatives suffer at the hands of mainstream media, which ends up only empowering further isolation. If Palin wants to run in 2012, her natural base is not Independents, it is Republicans—in a refection of her status as one of the most polarizing figures in American politics.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. He served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.