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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Wow. Judging by the amount of traffic and commentary on the couple of Sarah Palin threads I posted earlier, people are absolutely fascinated by this story. I don’t think we can pass this off with the usual excuse about a VP choice not mattering. This is another fascinating element in a fascinating election — I just don’t think we have any real idea of how it’s going to play out.

One thing we do have to give McCain credit for is taking a risk. Being behind in the election — and I think McCain probably will wind up being a couple of points behind once the respective convention bumps play out — necessitates taking a risk. Suppose, for instance, that McCain is 2 points down in the election. Suppose furthermore than there is a 50 percent chance that Palin boosts his standing by 3 points, and a 50 percent chance that she makes a major gaffe that costs McCain 10 points. That’s actually a pretty good gamble for McCain to take, since he’d wind up winning the election 50 percent of the time (by one point) and getting blown out the other 50 percent of the time (by 12 points) — better than losing the election by 2 points 100 percent of the time.

Obviously, that is an idealized rendering of an exceptionally complicated dynamic, but the whole reason to make a game-changing pick is because you’re losing the game. And that McCain apparently made this pick on Thursday, after having seen that Bill and Hillary Clinton had exceeded all possible expectations in rallying their supporters behind Barack Obama, showed a certain awareness of the political landscape.

Then again, I think there was a better risk for McCain to take, which would have been picking a pro-choice candidate and calling out the religious right’s bluff. You want a really terrific pick? How about Olympia Snowe, who has held down a senate seat in a blue state for 14 years, and who has a formidable resume.

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But ultimately, we are in completely uncharted territory here. Palin is the most manifestly ordinary person ever to be nominated for a major party ticket. In this year of bittergate and Britney-gate and McCain-has-seven-houses-gate, that could conceivably be a virtue; it’s certainly less tone-deaf than a selection like Mitt Romney would have been.

But Palin isn’t merely playing at being ordinary, the way that Bill Clinton (Rhodes Scholar) or George W. Bush (son of a president) or Hillary Clinton (wife of a president) might. She really, really comes across that way — like someone who had won a sweepstakes or an essay contest. Her authenticity factor is off-the-charts good; her biography sings. But do Americans really want their next-door-neighbor running for Vice President, or rather someone who seems like one?

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