Sarah Palin is never going to be president of the United States, so we all ought to stop paying attention to her high-profile, campaign-style book tour. Then again, maybe she is headed for the White House, so we would all do well to pay attention.
There has been a depressing amount of back-and-forth along these lines in the American media over the last few weeks. Some of this is a function of Palin herself — a figure who supporters and opponents alike seem to find equally compelling. Much of it, however, is driven by a media establishment that clearly finds covering the boxing match of a political campaign far more interesting than covering the actual (and, let's face it, often rather dull) work of government.
Thus has the news been filled with comparisons of Palin's poll numbers with those of President Barack Obama. Much has been made of a recent poll giving Palin a ‘favourability rating' of 43 per cent (i.e. 43 per cent of people polled said ‘yes' when asked if they viewed her favourably). It has now become a cliché to compare this with Obama's current job-approval rating of 49 per cent, noting that those two numbers are (for Obama) ominously close to one another.
Here's the problem with that: it's meaningless.
First, in political terms those numbers are not at all close together. A politician who loses an election 51-49 is judged to have lost by a hair. Someone on the losing end of a 57-43 split has been very soundly beaten.
Second, ‘favourability' and ‘job-approval' are not the same thing: one measures likability while the other is about performance. The world is full of likable people who are bad at their jobs and high-performers who are jerks. This is as true of politicians as it is of the person in the cubicle next to yours. It is wrong to assume that just because someone likes or admires the former Alaska governor that they want to see her win the presidency. Some, obviously, do; but it is also true that many people have favourable impressions of politicians who they would never remotely consider presidential timber.
At the most basic level, however, talk of Palin's poll numbers versus Obama's is meaningless because the 2012 presidential election is still a very long way off. Polls about it may excite people who work in politics, but in the real world they count for nothing. At a comparable point in the Clinton presidency George W. Bush was mulling his first run for the Texas governorship. At a comparable point in Bush's presidency Barack Obama was an obscure Illinois state senator who had recently been clobbered in his first attempt to run for Congress. Even if we look at one-term presidents the pattern holds: a year into George H.W. Bush's time in the White House Arkansas Governor Clinton was regarded as, at best, a marginal second-tier Democrat in the looming 1992 presidential race.
If Obama's Democrats take a pounding in next year's mid-term elections many will be quick to pronounce those results the effective end of the Obama presidency. But even that, if it happens, will offer only an uncertain guide to 2012. Ronald Reagan in 1982 saw his party lose a, historically-speaking, normal number of seats in Congress and then went on to win a historically huge re-election victory two years later. Bill Clinton's Democrats were pummelled in the 1994 midterms, but that did not keep Clinton from comfortably winning a second term in 1996.
When watching American politics from afar it is always useful to remember that most of the people who write about the political process do so for a living and follow every twist and turn obsessively — and that these people and their equally obsessive readers make up, maybe, 10 per cent of the American electorate. The vast majority of Americans — including those who take politics seriously — do not obsess about it to that extent. Most people pay a lot of attention to campaigns in the two months or so preceding the election and very little the rest of the time.
For proof of this one need only look at last year's presidential race. Though the 2008 campaign began almost immediately after the 2004 presidential vote was counted, what really decided it were the events of its final 60 days.
In early September 2008 the race was a toss-up that seemed, in many ways, to be leaning very slightly in John McCain's favour. Then the economy plunged over a cliff. In that moment of crisis Obama emerged as a more calming, leader-like figure than McCain and, in doing so, assured his victory. America's endless campaign can be quite enjoyable political theatre. Do not, however, mistake it for the stuff that will actually decide a presidential election still three years in the future.
- Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.