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Gauging the Palin pull in Michigan

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appears to be a new phenomenon, a vice presidential candidate who at least temporarily overshadows her running mate and who may have more than regional appeal.
Image: Sarah Palin and John McCain
John McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin take the stage during a campaign event at the Freedom Hill Ampitheatre in Sterling Heights, Mich. last Friday.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images
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At first glance, there’s no resemblance between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is Sen. John McCain’s running mate, and Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader who was John Kennedy’s vice presidential running mate in 1960.

When Kennedy put Johnson on the 1960 ticket, the Texan was “The Master of the Senate,” a domineering legislative wizard who could manipulate the rules (and his colleagues) as no one else could.

Palin is a governor and former mayor, not a career legislator.

But here is one similarity: Johnson probably was the last vice presidential candidate to help elect a president.

As Robert Kennedy explained to one Texas Democratic activist during the 1960 campaign, “We put that son of a bitch on the ticket to carry Texas and if you can’t carry Texas, that’s your problem.”

Texas had gone for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and in 1952.

But with Johnson on the ticket, the Democrats were able to win Texas in 1960 by two percentage points.

Without the electoral votes of Texas, and those of Illinois, which Kennedy won by a whisker, he would have lost the White House.

VP candidates do not matter — or do they?
The conventional wisdom, repeated by pundits in the hours after McCain revealed his choice of Palin, was that in the end voters' decisions are not influenced by the vice presidential candidate.

But Palin is unprecedented. She is the first woman on a Republican ticket and the first Alaskan on either party’s ticket. And she is a candidate who has as much mass media visibility at the supermarket checkout counter as Angelina Jolie.

When Kennedy put Johnson on the ticket in 1960, he was practicing old-fashioned geographical ticket-balancing to help carry the South. But Palin appears to be a new phenomenon: a vice presidential candidate who at least temporarily overshadows her running mate and who may have more than regional appeal.

While Republicans are excited by Palin, the unknown is whether or not her role as vice presidential candidate will increase GOP voter turnout.

Let's focus on the one state Sen. John Kerry won in 2004 which McCain has a shot at winning this time around: Michigan.

The crucial question is whether or not Palin can lift the Republican share of the vote in such battlegrounds as Oakland County, which casts the second highest number of votes in the state. Wayne County, in which Detroit is located, casts the highest number of votes in Michigan but is a Democratic stronghold.

Why Obama needs Michigan
It is possible to come up with a scenario in which Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama can win the White House if he fails to carry Michigan. But it would surely be a tough assignment.

If he were to carry all of the states that Kerry won in 2004, but were to lose Michigan, then Obama would have to add to his column five closely watched states that President Bush won in 2004: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, and Virginia.

Veteran Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said that Palin “is still a work in progress,” but said it was noteworthy that “they took her into Sterling Heights the first day.”

Sterling Heights is in Macomb County, north of Detroit. The county cast the third-highest number of votes in Michigan and is a place Bush carried with 50 percent and a margin of 6,000 votes in 2004. The McCain-Palin team campaigned there the day after the GOP convention ended.


Sarah Palin

View images of her rise from governor of Alaska to a potential presidential contender.

Macomb County has a lot of conservative blue-collar voters and “starter homes with young people, particularly in the northern part of the county,” Ballenger said.

Ballenger said Palin’s appeal might be somewhat less of a good fit for Oakland County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. Republicans there tend to be affluent, economic conservative “Eisenhower Republicans,” the type you might might have found in the 1950s. But these are not the social conservatives who’d be highly motivated by abortion, gay marriage, and other similar issues.

In 2004, Kerry barely won Oakland County; his margin was 2,754 votes, or one-half of one percent. If McCain, with Palin’s assistance, can boost the Republican vote in the county by a few percentage points, it would give him a good chance of carrying the state.

Ballenger said Palin’s hunting-fishing persona should have appeal to the parts of Michigan north of the line formed by Muskegon on the west and Bay City on the east: a vast rural region, but with relatively few voters at stake.

First polling data: favorable
In a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, 47 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Palin, compared with 40 percent who voiced a favorable view of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden.

But running mates sometimes fail to pull in the region or demographic group that their party’s strategists hoped they would.

Texan Lloyd Bentsen as vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 1988 did not help carry any Southern states for his party.

And when Palin’s precedent-shattering predecessor, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, ran with Walter Mondale in 1984, the Democratic ticket won only an estimated 38 percent of white women voters, according to exit poll interviews.

This performance among white women voters was slightly worse than the Jimmy Carter-Walter Mondale ticket had done among white women voters in the 1980 election.

In the last nine presidential elections, the majority of white women voters have voted for the winning candidate eight out of nine times.