Maybe there's just something about Sarah. Among the broad American electorate, Alaskan governor and recent Republican nominee for vice president Sarah Palin certainly seems to be damaged merchandise.
In a Nov. 7-9 Gallup Poll of 1,010 adults (margin of error +/- 3 percent), 45 percent of Americans agreed they would "personally like to see Sarah Palin be a major national political figure for many years to come" -- but 52 percent said they would not like to see that happen. In the pre-Election Day Gallup poll testing Palin, she had a 42 percent favorable rating but a 49 percent unfavorable. In the newer, post-election study, her favorable was 48 percent and unfavorable 47 percent among all Americans.
But, and there is usually a but to such things, 76 percent of Republicans would like to see her a major figure in the future, and she had a whopping 83 percent favorable among them, compared with just a 13 percent unfavorable rating. Among independent voters, Palin had a 44 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable rating, and among Democrats, predictably, she had just a 21 percent favorable and 75 percent unfavorable rating.
In combined Gallup surveys of 799 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents conducted between Nov. 5 and 16, 67 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners said they would like to see Palin run in 2012, 30 percent said they would not. Palin exceeded former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (62 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (61 percent) (both contenders this year), four star Army Gen. David Petraeus (49 percent), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (48 percent), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (34 percent), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (31 percent), current Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (23 percent) and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (21 percent).
Among Republicans who self-identified as conservatives, 73 percent wanted to see Palin run; among moderate and liberal Republicans, the reception was considerably cooler, 48 percent. Sixty-four percent of conservatives wanted to see Romney run, and 59 percent of moderates, suggesting that his strength is broader. For Huckabee, 65 percent wanted him to run, second only to Palin, but just 46 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans would like to see the former Arkansas governor and current Fox News show host take another plunge into the presidential waters.
The numbers that are causing some head-scratching are those for Jindal, the 37-year-old wunderkind governor of Louisiana who is widely considered by the punditocracy as the brightest rising star in the GOP constellation. Twenty-six percent of Republicans and GOP-leaners would like to see the former Rhodes Scholar run, 41 percent do not.
There might be several explanations for this. First, many who are not familiar with a name just automatically choose the "would not like to see run" option, and that is the most likely explanation. Second, at 37, almost a decade younger than even the youthful President-elect Barack Obama, there could be some "he's too young" reasoning involved here. Third, and probably insignificant in number, are Louisianans who think he is badly needed in the state, hoping that he can reverse the, say, six or seven decades of lousy public policy choices that have put the state in the terrible shape it's in. (Disclosure alert: I was born and raised in Louisiana and care deeply for the state.) But that probably doesn't amount to much in a national poll and might be offset by those proud that Louisiana could offer up a contender who, uncharacteristically for the state's governors, is both smart and honest.
The final explanation, held till last for a reason, is race. The son of two immigrants from India, he would look different from any previous GOP nominee or president, just as Obama was unique among serious Democratic contenders and past occupants of the White House. During Jindal's first (and unsuccessful) run for governor, he preformed no worse in urban, heavily Democratic areas than any other Republican. In the suburbs, traditionally Republican-leaning if not strongholds, Jindal did very well. It was in the small towns and rural parts of the state in 2003 that Jindal underperformed what a Republican should be expected to win, and that was undoubtedly racially driven. Those voters were likely to be those with the least familiarity with Indian-Americans and least open to change. By the time Jindal ran again, successfully in 2007, he won them over.
The catch for Jindal in 2012 is that the contraction in the size and shape of the Republican Party has made those least open to his candidacy more influential than before. Younger, upscale, college and graduate-schooled white suburban voters abandoned the GOP en masse, and those are precisely the ones that might be most open or excited by a Jindal candidacy. Thus the question, Could Jindal draw them back?
But the Palin question is a different one. Even since some of these surveys were conducted, the Alaskan chief executive has begun a concerted effort to repair image problems from the campaign. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but Republicans have to wonder whether they are going to start off with a frontrunner for the GOP nomination who, at least at first blush, looks unbeatable for the nomination and unelectable in a general election.
It should be emphasized that it is far, far, far, far too early to make such pronouncements, but the gap between how Palin is perceived within and outside the Republican Party is substantial. With the GOP having lost so much ground, if the party doesn't close the gap, the GOP nominee in 2012 is going to have to do extraordinarily well among independents if they are to win.
Of course in the end, the contours of what the 2012 presidential election will look like is determined far more by how a President Obama performs than what Republicans do, what the party looks like or even who they nominate. But to the extent that the party is defined by its most visible figures, and ultimately by its nominee, nominees and frontrunners do matter.