Snakebites on the Campaign Trail

Post by Julie E. Phelan, research analyst, Langer Research Associates

Here’s one thing Barack Obama, his wife Michelle and Sarah Palin have in common: All three run the risk of scaring off swing voters in this year’s midterm elections.

That warning to campaign tacticians comes from the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, sharpening the choice faced by Democratic candidates considering whether to distance themselves from Obama, and equally among Republicans pondering the Tea Party express.

It’s not a home-crowd problem: Among Democrats who are registered to vote, 38 percent say that if Obama campaigned for a candidate for Congress in their district they’d be more likely to support that candidate, vs. only 6 percent less likely.

So far so good – except that motivating the base could alienate the center. Among independent registered voters, the quintessential swing voters in many races, Obama’s endorsement yields more inclination to oppose than to support his choice, by nearly 3-1, 28 percent to 11 percent.

That reflects Obama’s job approval rating, still high among Democrats at 79 percent, but just 43 percent among independents. Among independent registered voters who approve of Obama, more say they’d be more apt to support than oppose his choice by a 17-point margin. But among disapprovers, 46 percent say Obama’s endorsement would increase their opposition; hardly any (2 percent) say it’d make them more apt to support a candidate.

Michelle Obama could be a better choice, but not a slam-dunk. Among Democrats she has a more positive than negative potential impact by a 33-point margin. But independent registered voters are a bit more apt to say her endorsement would increase their opposition, rather than their support, for a chosen candidate, by 23 percent vs. 16 percent.

Moreover, specifically among independents who disapprove of her husband’s job performance, only 4 percent say Michelle Obama’s appearance at a campaign event would make them more likely to support a candidate, vs. 41 percent less likely.

As for Palin, her endorsement was seen as a factor in several key primary elections, and indeed Republican registered voters say she’d influence their choice favorably rather than negatively by 38 percent to 13 percent – a better showing than Obama’s effect on Democrats. Nonetheless, among independents who are registered to vote, it’s back to a 2-1 negative effect: Thirty percent say a campaign appearance by Palin would make them less apt to support a candidate, vs. 16 percent more likely.

That may be due to ambivalence about the Tea Party among independents; roughly equal numbers see it favorably and unfavorably, 44 percent vs. 40 percent. For those who have favorable views of the Tea Party, Palin’s endorsement carries positive weight by 2-1. For those who see the Tea Party unfavorably, however, 51 percent say her endorsement would increase their opposition to a candidate – and only 7 percent say it would increase their support.

There’s good reason to suspect that endorsements and campaign appearances don’t change minds as much as they reinforce voters’ predispositions. The challenge in these results is that while such appearances may motivate some voters, they run the risk of turning off even more.

Click here for the question and overall results.

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