The Real Palin Effect

Well, she did not crash and burn as many had expected. In a debate built up as a test of her qualifications and her capacity to serve as president should tragedy strike, Sarah Palin had to show she has a grasp of the issues and the ability to serve in the highest office in the land at a moment’s notice. It is obvious from listening to her answers and her exchanges that Governor Palin still has a long way to go. However, compared with the appalling interviews she did with Katie Couric last week, Palin did show the charm and likeability that got her supporters enthused about her candidacy in the first place.

Her opponent, Senator Joe Biden, went into this debate with a decided advantage. His experience and knowledge were beyond question, and if there was any doubt about his chances to win the debate, it had to do with attitude. Would he be condescending and patronizing, and consequently ramp up sympathy for Governor Palin? By all accounts, Biden had the best debate of his life. He looked presidential in stature and was reassuring should he have to act as president. When we compare the candidates, the “what if” factor undoubtedly favours Biden. In this regard — and the overnight polls seem to support it — Biden won the debate. Still, there was no knockout blow.

In the past month, articles and blogs have been weighing in on the Palin effect. Her choice at the Republican convention saved an event that had all the makings of a catastrophe. She energized the base by changing the channel and raising the volume. For a brief two weeks, the Palin effect transformed the presidential race in ways that had the McCain camp hoping it might be able to keep the presidency in the hands of a Republican. However, since those heady days, Palin has been literally shielded from the media. And when she has given interviews to respected journalists, her performance has been, quite frankly, pathetic. The kindest assessment is that her answers to journalists’ questions on key issues, such as the McCain record and the Supreme Court, were pure gibberish. Even respected conservative columnists and commentators like George Will and David Frum have questioned the decision to put her on the ticket. 

Now we come to the real Palin effect. The financial crisis has hit the United States’ economy in an alarming and disconcerting manner. Both McCain and Obama have failed to completely reassure the voting public. The bailout plan may be a viable option among the political class and much of the financial markets, but mainstream America remains skeptical. If the top of the ticket is losing ground, then one would hope that the running mate could make up some of those losses. Last night, we saw that while Sarah Palin did not fail in her performance, she still came across as a student who had crammed the night before the final exam and showed no depth of knowledge on some of the crucial issues. She did well on style, but clearly failed the test on content. As a result, we are now seeing the real Palin effect: She has failed to give the American public the reassurance it needs should McCain be elected as president.

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