Cognitive Dissonance

Virtually all of the conservative commentariat, and a greater-than-would-care-to-admit-it share of the liberal commentariat think that Sarah Palin hit a home run tonight. I guess I’m just going to have to stick my neck out (along with Josh Marshall) and disagree.

You can tar-and-feather me with this later if I’m wrong. I will make this disclaimer: I’m not necessarily offering a prediction about how the polls are going to move over the next several days. Almost all conventions produce bounces, and this one probably will too (though whether it comes from Palin’s speech rather than McCain’s, or Fred Thompson’s or Rudy Giuliani’s, we probably won’t be able to tell). But I don’t think the speech will be effective beyond the very near term (the next 3-7 days) at moving votes in McCain’s direction, if it moves them at all. And here’s why:

I think some of you are underestimating the percentage of voters for whom Sarah Palin lacks the standing to make this critique of Barack Obama. To many voters, she is either entirely unknown, or is known as an US Weekly caricature of a woman who eats mooseburgers and has a pregnant daughter. To change someone’s opinion, you have to do one of two things. Either, you have to be a trusted voice of authority, or you have to persuade them. Palin is not a trusted voice of authority — she’s much too new. But neither was this a persuasive speech. It was staccato, insistent, a little corny. It preached to the proverbial choir. It was also, as one of my commentors astutely noted, a speech written by a man and for a man, but delivered by a woman, which produces a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

In exceedingly plain English, I think there’s a pretty big who the fuck does she think she is? factor. And not just among us Daily Kos reading, merlot-drinking liberals. I think Palin’s speech will be instinctively unappealing to other whole demographics of voters, including particuarly working-class men (among whom there may be a misogyny factor) and professional post-menopausal women. As another of my commentors put it:

Not only does Palin’s inexperience trump Obama’s… her “otherness” also trumps his. Where she comes from, the way she talks, her bio, lifestyle, and all the moose and caribou stuff… it makes her seem more exotic than Obama, who after all lives in the middle of America and has a life that people can readily understand.

Palin may be just as American as anybody, but she still seems to come from Somewhere Else.

This would be fine… even interesting and appealing… if she weren’t attacking. But we have a deep, instinctive aversion to people who are part of us (even if we don’t really like them much) being attacked by people we perceive as outsiders. Our instinct is to stiffen up, to protect.

This point may be a little bit overstated, but the fact remains that Barack Obama is extremely well known and Palin is largely unknown, and when that is the case, your perception of the known commodity is more likely to influence your perception of the unknown commodity than the other way around. If there’s a certain Italian restaurant that you’ve been going to for years, and some stranger stops you on the street and tells you that they don’t know how to cook their pasta, you’re going to think that the stranger is a kook — not that the restaurant is poor.

And not only is Barack Obama exceptionally well known, but perceptions of him are exceptionally well entrenched. In today’s Rasmussen numbers, 63 percent of voters had either a very favorable or a very unfavorable perception of Obama. This is an extremely high figure. I looked up the Rasmussen numbers for other prominent politicians, and this number was the highest I could find … actually tied with Bill Clinton for the highest:

Percentage viewing as Very FavorableOR Very UnfavorableObama         63B. Clinton    63Gore          61H. Clinton    60Bush          60Cheney        59Pelosi        51T. Kennedy    48Palin         45Kerry         45McCain        43Romney        38Biden         33

This is why folks like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (and Hillary Clinton, for that matter) are Teflon politicians. It’s not that they have some magical quality that keeps them out of trouble … it’s just that a very high percentage of voters have already made up their minds one way or the other about them, and can’t possibly be persuaded otherwise. With John Kerry, the swiftboating worked because voters didn’t have particuarly strong feelings about him. With Obama, the Republicans spent tens of millions of dollars in an effort to brand him negatively, and moved his favorables by … a point or two at the margins.

Ultimately, it’s not that I don’t think there aren’t people who will find Palin’s performance effective — I just don’t think there’s much overlap between those people and the universe of persuadable voters.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Filed under ,