Palin Energized Ohio and New Hampshire Voters, Both For and Against
By Alec MacGillis
Talking to voters in Ohio and New Hampshire over the past two weeks, it was hard not to concluded that a race that for most of its duration was about Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton wound up, during its final leg, being to a great degree about Sarah Palin.
It is hard to overstate how much voters' opinions of Palin have shaped their views on the presidential contest, pushing voters in both directions. In Warren County, Ohio, a growing exurb between Cincinnati and Dayton where Obama is trying to cut into the huge margins Republican racked up in past elections, John Frame described her impact on his thinking during an interview at a Bob Evans restaurant.
Frame, 45, is pretty much the epitome of the swing voter. He's voted for, among others: Reagan, Clinton (the first time), Dole and Gore. He is a native of Georgia and worked for Northwest Airlines in Detroit before being laid off and going to law school. He moved to Ohio with his wife, a teacher, for a job as a researcher at Lexis-Nexis while he studies for the bar.
As Frame sees it, he is exactly the kind of independent-minded voter that John McCain should have a good chance of winning over. "Ideally, we should be the middle of the road audience McCain should be fighting for. The real question is, what happened to that?" he said.
Frame had been intrigued by Obama since reading "The Audacity of Hope" last year, holding out hope that Obama might be "a different kind of Democrat." He saw in Obama's grassroots insurgency against Clinton echoes of the insurrections of his Scots-Irish ancestors against the British. "It's like the battle of Bannockburn. It's a bottom up thing. The tribes got their power from uniting with the next tribe rather than giving allegiance to some king," he said.
But for all his interest in Obama, Frame was not sure how vigorously he'd be able to support him once it became clear that McCain would be the GOP nominee. That is, until McCain picked Palin.
To Frame and his wife, that selection represented everything that had come to bother him about the Republican Party. "When the party told him, you gotta pick Palin, both of us said, we gotta get out and work," he said. "It's not that she's a novice, it's that she doesn't know what she doesn't know. The problem with the Republican brand is that it's got people running the show [who] don't know what they don't know. I'm an educated American and I've made it part of my duty to stay informed, and they haven't."
He added: "I don't know everything about the Bush Doctrine. But I'm not running for vice president. I would hope that when Charlie Gibson asks about it, someone who's a conservative could say, 'You know, I don't believe in preemptive strikes because of A, B, C.' It's not that she's a novice, because so is Barack Obama. But at least he's got the wherewithal that if he doesn't know exactly what he needs to, he'll tell you, 'I'm going to take a step back and get some input from people and go forward.' It's that she doesn't know what she doesn't know and that's scary."
Since the Palin pick, Frame and his wife have been volunteering as much as they can for Obama, even as they still plan to vote for their Republican congressman. Polls taken in the past few weeks suggest their reaction to Palin is not unrepresentative, as her standing has dropped sharply among independent voters.
But here's the thing. While the Palin pick appears to have hurt McCain with swing voters, in Ohio it was also unclear just who would have been working for his campaign if he had picked one of the more moderate Republicans he was also considering.
Go into a McCain campaign office in southern or western Ohio and you are likely to find far more effusive praise for Palin than McCain from volunteers. Many of the Palin backers are evangelical Christians and antiabortion activists, and they make clear that they might not have been as devoted to campaign work -- or even done any at all -- were Palin not on the ticket.
Take Carol Myers, 65, who moved three years ago from Alabama to Chillicothe, an hour south of Columbus, to care for her grandchildren. She is ambivalent about McCain. Asked for her thoughts on the senator from Arizona, she said, "How much time do I have to think about that?"
But she sees Palin as someone who could "help put God back in our country" and as someone who worked her way from the very bottom rung of politics: "She was a mother who said, 'Something is going on in my city and I don't like it and I'm going to take a stand,'" she said. "I think she can make a contribution to our country if we let her. She's smart and not easily intimidated. She's someone who is willing to take chances on what they know is right. There are people like her who have seen the light and walked toward and it, while others saw it later. That's a gift -- instead of just making a speech and making people want something and not being able to deliver."
When Myers saw Palin being scrutinized by the national media and the opposition after her selection -- "the Democrats sent all those attorneys up there" -- she decided to get involved, and is now the most active volunteer in the Chillicothe McCain-Palin office. "I talked to a friend about how nothing was being done to protect her, and we had to take a stand," she said.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, where the evangelical community is smaller than in Ohio, whatever advantage McCain gained from the Palin selection has failed to balance out the loss of independent support she helped spur.
The McCain campaign had hoped that Palin could connect in states like New Hampshire with other "hockey moms," of which the Granite State has plenty. But Robert Lang, a political demographer at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, has a provocative theory for why Palin has not gone over as well as the McCain camp had hoped in places like New Hampshire.
Lang suggests that McCain and his strategists made a key miscalculation: confusing the American heartland with the frontier. They had hoped that Palin would connect with suburban moms everywhere, from Missouri to Minnesota to Virginia. But what they didn't take into account, Lang argues, is that as strong as America's frontier mythology is, there is a big difference these days between Palin's Alaska, which retains far more of a true frontier mentality, and, say, suburban Denver or Phoenix. Even with its Walmart and Lowe's, Wasilla is "culturally alien" to the experience of most suburban voters, Lang argues. "If she was some mom who came out of Phoenix and wasn't opposed to guns, that would be one thing -- as long as she didn't fire them so often herself," he said. "There's a difference between a place like Phoenix and a place called the Last Frontier. It's a cataclysmic mistake."
The most effective 527 ad of the 2008 cycle, he said, was one linking Palin to the aerial hunting of wolves, "wolves that look like cute Huskies." An ad like that was very disconcerting for many swing voters, Lang said. "These voters are people who take their dogs to the dog park, and love them more than their own children," Lang said.
Consider: when Palin campaigned in New Hampshire late last month, she tried to bond with a crowd in Dover by declaring, "I know that we can count on the good people of New Hampshire because you're a lot like the people of Alaska. We all love good moose hunting, I know that."
But New Hampshire has turned increasingly into a suburban and exurban outpost of the Boston megalopolis, and almost no one hunts moose there. Indeed, the state gives out only about 500 moose-hunting permits each year. Polls suggest the Palin pick has exacted a particularly big price in the Granite State, where McCain has slipped considerably since August.
Or, as 63-year-old Lois Andrews -- a political independent and former teacher turned corporate trainer from the state's Seacoast region, who is planning to vote for Obama -- put it, "When Palin came on the scene, I thought McCain had lost his mind."
Posted at 7:12 PM ET on Nov 3, 2008
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