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Kara Watt: The Sarah Palin factor

Kara_watt Kara Watt lives and works in London. She previously held positions at the Heritage Foundation and interned at the White House during the 2004 re-election campaign.  ConHome apologises to Kara for not posting this piece until today.  It was submitted a few days ago.

Nearly 70 million Americans watched the showdown between Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden and the contenders did not disappoint. The debate after the debate –  you know, the one where political pundits go back and forth over who “won” and who “lost” – in this case has proven to be one of the largest wastes of time in the history of political reasoning.

As much as the Commission on Presidential Debates would like to see a more Prime Ministers Questions style of back-and-forth, US debates have never played out this way. Instead, you see a candidate present their policy objectives directly to the nation, being held to account by their competitor and the debate moderator.  US debates are not a winner takes all contest as in PMQs and British-style debates. Rather, with each debate, participants attempt to gather more support from the undecided voters through a combination of moving stories of the main street people they’ve met on the campaign trail and other folksy anecdotes.

The sole debate between Vice Presidential candidates is not meant to be about the actual VP candidates themselves, but about the principals on their respective tickets. You can poll win/loss perceptions all you want, but what matters in the end is how the voter perceives McCain and Obama – particularly the undecided voters in swing states like mine, the Badger State of Wisconsin.

When voting for President, many Americans – for better or for worse – fail to differentiate between the policies of the Republican and Democratic candidates. And when your information arrives in sound bites, your decision is inevitably based not on careful policy analysis, but on who you like and who you can trust. In this area, the debates serve a purpose as the best opportunity voters have to get to know their potential president.

Above all, Americans want to like their presidential ticket. Sarah Palin is one of the sole likeable politicians in this race, largely because Midwestern Americans from small towns like mine can identify with her. This is why her debate performance – full of the colloquialisms of my personal upbringing like “Say it ain’t so Joe” and “now doggone it lets focus on the future” – was so effective.  Governor Palin is the epitome of the American voter, the “hockey mom” who is going to pit bull attack that US Congress 75 percent of Americans disapprove of into working for the American voter once again.

Sarah Palin embraced the accent, main street lingo and lapel pin to great effect on Thursday. This, along with the rolling out of her imperfect family, made her more endearing – and likeable – to the Midwestern, small town voter.

In comparison to Joe Biden’s weak attempts at connecting with Middle America, Sarah Palin made quite a contrast. The “Katie’s Restaurant on Union Street, Wilmington” Biden so lovingly referred to has been closed for 15 years – so much for being authentic. Next to Palin – with her red high heels and even higher hair style, and her baby, BlackBerry and Bible in hand – Biden simply cannot compete in winning the hearts and votes of Middle America.

CNN post debate polls showed that Palin was more likable, scoring 54 percent to Biden's 36 percent. Seventy percent of the CNN respondents said Biden was more of a typical politician. When 75 percent of the electorate disapproves of the US Congress Biden spent 35 years of his career with, being identified as a “typical politician” could very well be considered an insult.

Do not be surprised if we see McCain trend upwards in swing state polling post debate (in particular, keep a close eye on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio). When the state-wide polls come back with a bounce for McCain, we’ll then know who truly “won” the Vice Presidential debate.


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