Matt Lewis

Did Palin send McCain’s campaign ‘into a deadly political tailspin’?

As the political press obsesses over horse race politics, the hot topic these days involves Mitt Romney’s running mate. Sadly, I am seeing a trend of revisionist history emerge. The trouble with this, of course, is that when things are written over and over as fact, they eventually become accepted as fact (whether or not they are true.)

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is the latest example of someone pushing a questionable theory regarding the 2008 campaign.

He writes,

While McCain almost certainly couldn’t have won under any circumstances, his picking of Palin, who went on to prove herself woefully unprepared for the job, sent the campaign into a deadly political tailspin — not to mention undermining McCain’s core argument that Barack Obama was not experienced enough to be president.

(Emphasis mine.)

But while Palin’s selection certainly raised eyebrows — the media rapidly latched onto narratives suggesting she was a risky political gamble, perhaps even a “Game Change” candidate, picked solely for the fact that she was a woman– did that really spell doom for his campaign?

In fact, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin did not send the campaign “into a deadly political tailspin.” Governor Palin had an 88 percent approval rating in Alaska when McCain selected her as his running mate. Upon her selection, McCain surged in the polls, and as late as September 22, the Gallup Daily tracking poll had the two campaigns tied.

Sarah Palin gave a terrific introductory speech the day her selection was announced. She gave a terrific speech at the RNC Convention in Minneapolis. And she performed very well in a debate with then-Sen. Joe Biden. (Palin also stumbled during an interview with Charlie Gibson, and had a disastrous interview with CBS News’ Katie Couric.)

Then came September 24 — the day McCain suspended his campaign in the midst of an economic meltdown. Gallup shows a precipitous decline after that date. McCain never held the lead again.

Immediately after the election, 69 percent of Republican voters said Palin helped McCain.

It’s important to put things in context. Based on the data, it seems clear that Sarah Palin did not hurt John McCain.

The truth is that a lot of the damage to Palin’s reputation, as far as the media is concerned, occurred after the race ended. Many questioned the wisdom of quitting her job as governor of Alaska. Many resented the way she toyed with the press and flirted with running for president. There was the unfortunate “blood libel” comment. There was “refudiate.” You might think all of these things made her look bad — and maybe they did — but it is impossible to believe that any of these things harmed John McCain’s chances, inasmuch as they happened after he lost.

The notion that Palin hurt McCain seems to be revisionist history. Having said that, perception is reality, and the perception — the retroactive perception — is that Palin was a net negative.

So while I strongly disagree with Cillizza and the other pundits who argue that Palin cost McCain votes, I generally agree with their conclusion regarding how Palin’s selection might impact the 2012 race. Because of the backlash against Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney — not known for taking risks – will be much more likely to make a safe pick.

And, though it may not be fair, he will no doubt avoid picking a woman.

Note: An earlier version of this post implied that the book and HBO film “Game Change” portrayed Palin as a net negative for McCain’s campaign. While it certainly didn’t paint her in a flattering light, that particular assertion was not made.