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Dems Must Give Voters Explicit Permission To Like Palin

Because they already do. That ship has sailed. When facts are used to discredit Sarah Palin, emotion trumps facts. The instinct is to defend against the facts. Consider: you meet someone and like him or her on a gut level. A stranger – someone who doesn’t have built-up personal credibility with you – gives you a list of reasons not to like that person. How do you react?

On an emotional level, you want them to be wrong, and you will take every possible favorable inference on the likable person’s behalf. Using facts is pushing a big rock uphill. You might get it to the top with a few voters, but you’re going to expend a lot of energy for only a little return.

There’s a giant disconnect between all the gleeful Democratic claims of this or that magic bullet and the genuine, instant “Blink”-style emotional connection Palin has made with so many voters who see themselves in her. The Sarah Palin Phenomenon is not about facts – it’s about an emotional gut reaction to someone who has charisma and reflects something essentially common and real about themselves.

Emotion is something Republicans have understood for many cycles. George Bush’s Ohio 2004 closing “argument” Ashley ad, which simply featured Bush hugging a teenage girl who’d lost her mom on 9/11, underscored this expertise in emotional messaging. Re-watch that ad and notice the line toward the end: “I saw what I want to see.” You can’t talk people out of emotional certainty.

To defuse the Sarah Palin Phenomenon, Democrats need to explicitly give voters permission to both like her as a person and then also not vote for her. If I were scripting the pivot, based on my conversations out in the field and away from the bubble of cable news and online analysis, I’d try something like the following (edit: in Biden’s debate, in stump speeches or voter-to-voter persuasion and possibly in ads):

“Sarah Palin is very likable. There’s nothing wrong with liking her. But this isn’t a zany sitcom where a friendly, plucky Everywoman with dangerous ignorance on foreign policy gets to be vice president. Americans don’t deserve someone too scared to do a press conference. Fun for a TV show, but running the country doesn’t permit second and third takes when you mess up the scene.”

“The way they sell you her story makes her appealing as a person – and she does seem like a person you’d like to have a beer with – but we’ve already tried that, and this isn’t a game show, where a game show contestant’s knowledge of the world will cut it.”

“Barack Obama will meet John McCain any time, anywhere to have a foreign policy discussion about any area of the globe and any challenge to America. The person John McCain chose to be a heartbeat away from the presidency – Sarah Palin – won’t even have a press conference to answer questions on foreign policy. It’s a fun story about a gutsy, likeable woman that, if it were made into a wacky movie script, we’d all go buy a ticket, but in the real America we can’t play games with people who won’t answer questions about foreign policy. That’s unheard of, and a slap in the face to voters.”

The key is the pivot, and making it as difficult as possible (from a media messaging standpoint) to permit a defensible claim of sexism. Right now the argument is “you shouldn’t like her because she’s a liar/terrible on issues you value” vs. Reality, where people already do like her and know why they do.

For example, a man at Palin’s rally in Carson City heatedly told an Obama volunteer in response to his anti-Palin argument, “I don’t trust the facts!” Some people hear that and think: “I cannot relate to someone who would say that.” I hear it and think: “Defended around emotion and feels under attack.” People under attack can’t be persuaded. And persuasion is the goal, remember? You can’t reason someone out of his or her feelings. But you can validate those feelings, buy their willingness to listen, and then calmly make your logical case.