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Palin’s Popularity Declines Among Republicans

On Thursday, a poll was released asking voters whether they’d rather elect Sarah Palin or … the actor Charlie Sheen.

Although the polling firm in question, Public Policy Polling, has a pretty good track record (the firm conducts polling for Democratic candidates and for Daily Kos in addition to surveys it puts out under its own name), asking a question like this one amounts to a gimmick. How many of their respondents took the question literally, much less seriously?

The punchline, I suppose, is that 29 percent of people punched the button for Mr. Sheen, instead of for Ms. Palin. But 24 percent also selected Mr. Sheen when he was tested against Barack Obama.

Depending on how much overlap there was between the two groups, that may mean that at least half of the respondents were willing to support Mr. Sheen against one of these two candidates. Perhaps that is troubling if you take the result literally — but in a case like this one, it may reflect as much on the pollster as it does the people they’re getting on the phone.

That notwithstanding, there is some evidence that Ms. Palin’s popularity is slipping further. And the decline seems to be concentrated among one subgroup: Republicans.

The following table provides a list of pollsters that have tested Ms. Palin’s favorability numbers both at some point in 2011 as well as late last year. All six of the pollsters have shown Ms. Palin’s favorability numbers declining, and all but one have show her unfavorable numbers increasing.

The magnitude of the decline is not huge — her favorable ratings have dropped by 2 or 3 points on average since late last year, while her unfavorables have increased by 3 or 4 points — although it is probably statistically significant given that, collectively, these polling organizations surveyed thousands of people.

Perhaps more importantly, Ms. Palin was not the sort of candidate who could afford to lose any popularity. Her ratings are now in the range of Al Sharpton and Pat Buchanan in the years before they ran for president, rather than those who were considered viable candidates.

Comparisons are sometimes made between Ms. Palin and Hillary Clinton, who was also a relatively polarizing figure. But even at the nadir of her popularity, Ms. Clinton had about as many people liking her as disliking her, which is not true of Ms. Palin.

Likewise, comparisons are sometimes made between Ms. Palin and Ronald Reagan, who was quite well-known at this point in 1979, the year before he was elected president. Mr. Reagan, at the time, polled at about 40 percent favorable and 40 percent unfavorable. That is a ways removed, however, from Ms. Palin’s unfavorable rating, which was already above 50 percent and which is now tracking closer to 55 percent.

And if Mr. Reagan grew on Republicans, Ms. Palin’s numbers have been moving in the opposite direction. I identified three pollsters that tested Ms. Palin’s numbers solely among Republican voters both this year and late last year. On average, they have shown her favorability rating among Republican voters declining by 7 points, and her unfavorable rating increasing by 8 points:

Since Republicans constitute somewhere in the range of 30 percent of the United States electorate, that is enough to explain most of the decline in Ms. Palin’s approval. For instance, if Ms. Palin’s unfavorability rating rose by 8 points among Republicans, that would translate to a 2 or 3-point increase among all voters, which is about what we see.

Ominously for Ms. Palin, Republican voters in Iowa, who will cast the first ballots in the 2012 primary, are not exempt from the trend. Recent polling for the Des Moines Register found a 7-point increase in Ms. Palin’s unfavorable ratings among likely Iowa caucus-goers.

Again, I don’t think much is accomplished by comparing Ms. Palin to Charlie Sheen, but it seems entirely fair to compare Ms. Palin to someone like Pat Buchanan, a factional candidate who had his impact on the Republican primaries but ultimately had limited upside.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.