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Sarah Palin: Compassionate Conservative?

The essential appeal of Sarah Palin can be summarized in two words: compassionate conservative. She is perhaps as socially conservative as any politician ever placed onto a major-party ticket — something which the right very much notices, and appreciates. But she does not necessarily come across that way to voters who might be turned off by such positions. Perhaps it is her unassuming style, and perhaps it is her strong biography; people see Palin as a compassionate person, and therefore they probably see her as a compassionate politician.

Pulling off this “trick” is hardly the exclusive domain of conservatives; I was an advocate for Kathleen Sebelius as Barack Obama’s VP in large part because Sebelius’s presentation and demeanor make her seem more moderate than she really is. Nevertheless, it is something the left needs to counteract if they want to turn Palin into a liability for McCain.

But is wanting to teach creation in public schools (in addition to evolution) really that far outside of the mainstream? How about something like swapping sex-education programs with abstinence-only initiatives? Below are five somewhat controversial positions that Palin holds, and their standing in the American electorate at large.

The Issue: Evolution

Palin’s Position: Although Palin’s personal views on evolution are ambiguous, she favors teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools (source).

America’s Position: A USA Today/Gallup poll in June 2007 reported that 53 percent of Americans believe that evolution is definitely or probably true, as opposed to 44 percent who think it’s definitely or probably false. More relevant to Palin’s position, however, a Pew Research poll in July 2006 showed that Americans favor teaching creationism along with evolution in schools by a 58-35 margin (source).

Conclusion: Although this fact will annoy many liberals – including yours truly – Palin’s views are squarely within the American mainstream.

The Issue: Global Warming

Palin’s Position: She does not believe that global warming is manmade (source). In addition, in an interview in May with Fox’s Neil Cavuto, Palin expressed skepticism that climate change is occurring at all:

We don`t believe that this speculation, again unprecedented, on computer modeling could forecast the effects of climate change, to the degree that leaves us in a comfortable position. It`s just too far out into the future, this speculative modeling (source).

America’s Position: An ABC News study in July showed that an 80-18 majority of Americans believe that global temperatures have been rising. A CNN poll in June broke responses down into three categories: 54 percent believe that global warming is real and manmade, 22 percent believe it is real but not manmade, and 23 percent describe global warming as a “theory that has not yet been proven” (source).

Conclusion: If Palin believes in global warming but does not attribute it to manmade causes, her views are at most somewhat out of the mainstream. If she does not believe in global warming at all, her views are strongly out of the mainstream.

The Issue: Hate Crimes

Palin’s Position: Opposes proposals to expand hate-crimes statutes to cover sexual orientation, and seems to imply that hate-crimes statutes are superfluous, period (“No [I do not believe in expanding hate-crimes statutes], as I believe all heinous crime is based on hate”). (source).

America’s Position: In a May 2007 Gallup poll, Americans favor hate crimes statutes by a 78-18 margin. When the definition of hate crimes is expanded to include sexual orientation, support diminishes slightly, but such statues are still favored by a 68-27 majority (source).

Conclusion: Palin’s position is well outside of the mainstream. Note: McCain also opposes expanding hate-crimes statutes to cover sexual orientation.

The Issue: Abortion

Palin’s Position: Believes abortion should be illegal “With the exception of a doctor’s determination that the mother’s life would end if the pregnancy continued” (source). Palin also said that she’d be opposed to abortion even if her daughter had been sexually assaulted (source).

America’s Position: Although most polling shows that Americans are pro-choice by only narrow pluralities or majorities, tolerance for abortion increases substantially in cases where there are mitigating factors. In particular, an October 2007 FOX/Opinion Dynamics poll says that by a 70-21 margin, Americans believe that abortion should be legal if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. A CBS News poll, also conducted in October 2007, revealed similar numbers: just 16 percent of Americans share Palin’s position that abortion should be legal only in order to save the mother’s life, while another 4 percent believed that abortion should be illegal in all cases (source).

Conclusion: Palin’s position is far outside of the mainstream.

The Issue: Sex Education

Palin’s Position: Would replace sex-ed programs with abstinence-only programs (source).

America’s Position: A broad consensus around the teaching of sex education has existed for decades, with 85 percent of Americans favoring sex-ed in schools as early as 1985 (source). The numbers appear to have increased since, as a 2004 poll conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Kennedy School of Government showed that 90 percent of Americans believe that sex education is a “very important” or “somewhat important” part of the school curriculum, whereas only 7 percent believe that sex education should not be taught at all. In the same survey, just 15 percent of Americans supported abstinence-only programs (source).

Conclusion: Palin’s position is far outside of the mainstream.


Liberals have often been reluctant to try and play offense on cultural issues. But Palin holds a number of positions that are in opposition to 70/30, 80/20 or even 90/10 majorities of the American public. Consider, by comparison, that about 34 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana (source), a position which seems to be completely untenable in candidates for national office, but which is far more “mainstream” than many of Palin’s positions. To fail to go after these things would be political malpractice.


UPDATE: More fodder for Palinophobes: CNN polling says she’d lose 54-41 in a head-to-head matchup against Joe Biden.

More fodder for Palinophiles: Check out this debate footage from 2006. She’s pretty good!

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