Q-Poll: Is Sarah Palin unelectable?

If you took the latest Quinnipiac University poll at face value, you might think so:

However, there is ample reason to not take this poll at face value.

As political scientist John Sides has noted (with little effect on the establishment media, much to his chagrin) about 90% of the public is partisan and about 80-90% of those voters vote for their party’s candidate. Thus, presidential elections tend to turn on the difference in turnout between Republicans and Democrats and the distribution of the so-called Independent vote. On the latter factor, it is important to note that pollsters often treat Independents synonymously with swing voters, when only 7-10% of Independents are truly indepenedent. The rest are weak partisans who overwhelmingly vote their partisan sympathies. Incidentally, the folks at Quinnipiac know this and have been known to separate leaners out from true Indies — but it does not appear that they did so in this poll.

Accordingly, when turning back to the Q-Poll, it’s a good bet that some or most of the 24% of Republicans who told Quinnipiac they would never vote for Palin are fooling themselves. Conversely, 50% of Democrats may say they would consider voting for Mitt Romney, but the real answer is probably closer to the 91% who say they would never vote for Palin.

Palin also scores badly with so-called Indies in the Q-Poll: 58% say they would never vote for her. However, we don’t know how many of the true independents are in that group, as opposed to Democrat leaners. Indeed, with Democratic Party ID hitting a 22-year low at the same time as a high for Independent ID, it is a fair bet that the number of Democrat leaners has been on the rise.

Nevertheless, the Q-Poll does hold some basic lessons about a prospective Palin candidacy. Because partisan turnout is a key factor to winning, Sarah’s supporters often claim that she energizes the GOP base in a way that her potential rivals do not. The Q-Poll (and most polls about hypothetical 2012 fields) suggest Palinistas are overstating their case. The number of voters — both in general and among Republicans — who say they are enthusiastic about voting for Palin are not significantly higher than those for Romney or Mike Huckabee. Moreover, some GOPers who say they would never vote for Palin may be fooling themselves, but that 24% suggests a lack of enthusiasm for Palin as a standard-bearer (dismiss such folks as RINOs, but they also affect turnout).

Similarly, while Palin’s problems with Indies may be overstated, her showing with them remains at least a caution flag. Based on the Q-Poll, we simply don’t know to what extent Palin has turned off true Independents, which is crucial in her case because she (unlike all of her potential rivals) is near-universally known. If she has lost that 7-10% of the electorate, it would take a much bigger shift in the overall political environment to win them over, relative to other possible GOP nominees. Furthermore, her poor score with so-called Independents — even if we acknowledge that many are Democrat leaners — may also speak to enthusiasm and turnout. Palin certainly excites a segment of the GOP base, but she may also boost Democratic enthusiasm.

Reading the Q-Poll against the fairly strong trends in presidential elections discussed here, I would hypothesize that Palin’s actual profile probably resembles that of another candidate tested in the poll: Newt Gingrich. He is well-known. Roughly 12% of Republicans say they will not vote for him. He scores poorly with Independents and worse with Democrats. If this hypothesis is correct, we would expect the percentage of voters who would never vote for Palin to be somewhere in the high-30s to low-40s (Republicans would be more enthused about Palin than Gingrich). Is such a candidate electable? You betcha — but if you imagine trying to elect Newt, you can imagine that it might not be easy.

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