Palin Fatigue?

As Nate of FiveThirtyEight points out, there are early indicators that public opinion on Sarah Palin is beginning to turn a little sour, thus giving me the opportunitiy to expound upon the hypotheses I began to build in my last post.

Not to sound elitist, but I simply don’t have all that much faith in the average voter’s judgement.  This is not something that I say intending to be demeaning, it’s simply a reality of contemporary politics; people don’t pay that much attention.

When you have voters who don’t even start their research until a few days before voting day, that’s an indicator that there are an awful lot of low information voters out there.  Again, I’m not intending to disparage here; most of these people are intelligent, hard working, law abiding, tax paying citizens, but a plethora of factors have led to a culture where political apathy is not the exception, but the norm.

As I theorized in my previous post linked above, I think one of the things about Sarah Palin is that the specific nature of her rise to Republican running mate has altered the physics of expectation setting and voter interest.

Expectation setting is an interesting aspect of the political process; it’s a high wire act.  When it works, the concept is to have people going in with a negative view of the candidate but have that view only embedded enough to where it can be changed.  Thus, you set expectations low, and then let the candidate soar over them.

This mechanic is not strictly kept to politics, either, but can be found just about anywhere in daily life.  When I had my wisdom teeth pulled, I heard nothing but horror stories (the worst of which involving a young man who had been permanently debilitated because the procedure was botched resulting in him being prescribed highly addictive pain medication which not only changed the chemistry of his brain, but forced him into drug rehabilitation).  When I actually went in for the procedure, though, I was in and out of the dentist’s chair in a half an hour, and though I was given a bottle of Vicodin, I never actually needed any.

I’m not exactly sure how my experience compares to the average experience shared by people who have had their wisdom teeth pulled, but for me the expectations were set so low that I look back at the experience with fond memories.  What’s important, though, was that my opinion of the experience was neither objective, nor was it formed in a vacuum.

Indeed, given my phobia of dentists in general, had the expectations not been set so low, the same exact experience would probably not have been so well received.

This happens all the time.  You go to the DMV and manage to get what you need taken care of promptly and without issue, and you walk out feeling great because no one has good stories about the DMV.  Same thing with waiting on the cable guy, going to the bank, or just about anything.

The key thing here, in relation to Palin, is that there was no preestablished template which created, I believe, a different situation.  Rarely do we find ourselves confronted with something that is completely and totally void of previously established opinion.  When we do, though, the process by which we determine if said item is good or bad actually does occur in a vacuum.  Our opinions are uninfluenced by a library of previously registered experiences.

Depending on our configuration with the item in question, we may develop a quickie first impression, or rather, create a network of contrived previous opinions.  For example, let’s say you like chocolate, and you are confronted for the very first time with white chocolate without ever hearing an opinion about it.

Your thought process may go something like this: I like chocolate–in fact I’ve never had something chocolate before in my life.  As a result, I’ll probably like this strange “white chocolate” because it must be some variation of this stuff that I’ve loved my entire life.

Or, if you just don’t have a taste for chocolate, you may think: Well, I don’t like chocolate, but this white chocolate stuff looks different enough that I may enjoy it, but I probably won’t.

Then you eat the white chocolate and discover you either like it or hate it (and if you are sane, you probably can’t stand the nausea inducing stuff).

Thus, when confronted with the pure unknown, we attempt to link it to the known and draw an initial set of conclusions based off of the similar knowns.  This would ostensibly account for the immediate draw of opinions, particularly in the blogosphere: Democrats hated her, Republicans loved her.

But here’s the key thing–contrived preconceived opinion can’t replace a history of aquired knowledge.  Whatever opinion you develop as you attempt to consume the blank slate will not likely be as strong as, say, all the horror stories you have heard about dentist chairs, or how awesome the new ride at the local theme park is.

As a result, you will tend to be more objective to a completely new experience, and far less subjective to the setting of expectations.  In the case of Sarah Palin, what happened was that she was greeted as an almost perfect unknown; initial opinions were expressed, and a very quick but loose patchwork of expectations were initially established for mass consumptions, for good or for bad.

In this setting, Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was hailed by some as a clearing of expectations because the media and the left immediately launched into an all out assault on Palin.

But there simply wasn’t the background around Palin to actually establish a true dynamic for low expectation setting, and the public remains scrutinous as to her abilities as a running mate.  It’s not going to be “Okay, everyone says she was terrible, but she didn’t turn out that bad,” but instead, “Okay, she did alright in her first go, but I really need to see more before I make up her opinion.”

Which leads to the first real mistake that the McCain campaign made; placing an embargo on access to Palin.  For better or for worse, McCain missed I think a key window of opportunity to really let the public be introduced to her.

If the embargo is intended to keep her from harm while the campaign gets her up to scratch to run on the national stage, what they have actually managed to do is continue to deny the public the ability to form a more stable network of expectations that would therefore establish a real situation in which lowered expectations could be formed.

In this situation, it wouldn’t matter if Palin performed well or poorly, but only that she performed.  A flurry of press availabilities, interviews, and town halls may have not painted Palin in a positive light, but it would have at the very least established a real bar of expectations for her to overcome.  By contrast, the public’s desire to measure her up by their own observations have been stifled, and as time continues, their willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt will likely only decrease.

To make things worse, Palin is doing herself no favors at all.  While the window for expectation setting passes by, the candidate’s own comments (Not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is, being able to see Russia from Alaska, etc.) is being coupled with the growing narrative that she is complicit as a serial liar with McCain to establish not a situation of lowering expectations, but instead an overriding narrative that will likely cling regardless of latter performances.

While it doesn’t lower expectations, it’s important to understand that increasingly what the public has to go on is that Palin is supposed to be a crusader against wasteful spending, but most evidence seems to point to the contrary.  The one positive image of her right now that speaks to more than just the base is turning out to be an out and out lie.

There are three more dynamics I think are at work here.

The first is one that I don’t think Palin can get away from–people like the shiny and new, but the shiny and new eventually always falls.  People grow bored, they grow disenchanted.  The newest video game system may seem awesome, but after a bit, it becomes just another video game system.

The second is that at some point Palin has real, objective standards that she must meet.  Given our current president, those objective standards aren’t necessarily high, but if she can’t even manage to meet those, there’s simply no hope that she’ll be seen by a majority of voters as a wise running mate selection.

Finally, the coverage of Palin has been almost tabloid-like–not unlike the coverage of certain major celebrities that don’t make the wisest decisions.  The thing about coverage like this is that people may stay interested, but they don’t stay enamoured, at least not for long.  Eventually, people just shake their head, and wonder how that person went wrong.

Are we on the verge of experiencing major Palin fatigue?  I think it’s more than plausible.  Will it have a significant negative impact on McCain’s presidential aspirations?  That’s a trickier question.  It’s true, Palin’s selection should reflect poorly on McCain’s judgement and become part of the greater narrative that McCain is unfit to make the kinds of decisions that a president must make from the Oval Office.

And it’s also true that in McCain’s case, for whom age and (previous) cancer are largely undiscussed issues, people may take a harder look at the running mate where the top of the ticket may succumb to age during his term as president.

But as has been said over and over again, people don’t vote for the vice president, they vote for the president.  In order for Palin to have a significant negative impact on the presidential race for McCain, her favorability ratings have to really hit an unusual low.

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