February 11 is Sarah Palin's birthday. She turns 46 today. For a gift, she can look at this Gallup poll, which shows her in second place next to Mitt Romney, and within the margin of error, for GOP voters' choice to be the 2012 Republican nominee.
A note about the poll: The sample was small -- 490 "Republicans and Republican-leaning independents" -- and included registered voters, not likely voters. Also important: The real winner was "None / No Opinion," which earned 42 percent support. And former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came in fifth place, behind John McCain (!) and Scott Brown (!!), which lends the impression that the survey isn't the most revealing indicator of Republican preferences.
Still, it's probably the best news Palin has today. Because the new Washington Post / ABC News poll contains some lousy numbers for the former Alaska governor. Her unfavorable rating among all voters is up to 55 percent. More than 70 percent say she is unqualified to hold the office of the presidency. Less than a majority of Republicans say she is qualified. Most important, the number of independents who say she is qualified has fallen to 29 percent.
Palin draws passionate support from her loyalists and receives vitriolic enmity from liberals. What this poll shows, however, is that the majority of Americans may see her as separate from actual politics. In this view, Palin is a totem, someone whom you can support on a personal level, and agree with on a policy level, without necessarily believing she should become president.
Perceptions of public figures change over time. The unfortunate fact, however, is that since she first appeared on the national stage, perceptions of Palin have all changed for the worse. This is a trend she must arrest if she is serious about a presidential campaign. Question is, is it too late?
Showing once more that they are a lagging indicator, the mainstream media finally have decided to take Palin seriously -- at the precise moment when the broader public seems to be checking out. Memo to aspiring presidential candidates: You do not want to have the media proclaim you the frontrunner! John Kerry's campaign floundered in 2003, and when the media declared Howard Dean inevitable, the governor's campaign imploded, leaving a battered Kerry with the nomination.
Frontrunner McCain's campaign capsized in 2007, but when the media (yes, including me) declared Rudy Giuliani the frontrunner instead, the mayor's campaign imploded, too, leaving a battered McCain with the nomination. Everyone assumed that Hillary Clinton would not only win the Democratic nomination; she was also likely to be the forty-fourth president of the United States. Look at how that worked out for her.
Sarah Palin remains one of the most fascinating political figures in America. When the spotlight is on her, as it was during her Tea Party convention speech last weekend, she outshines the competition. Her off-the-cuff-responses to current events are fresh, charming, and influential. She connects with many conservatives on a gut level. But when it comes to the presidency, public opinion data show she has her work cut out for her.