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Ed Ross | Monday, August 29, 2011

How many times have you heard someone say, “I like Sarah Palin, but I could never vote for her for president”? If Gov. Palin jumps into the presidential race next month as most now expect, how can she change the minds of enough people who think this way to win the Republican Party’s nomination and, if so, the general election?

Her critics on the left and the right believe she can’t overcome her negatives and won’t change many minds. She won’t win the Republican nomination, and if by some chance she did, she wouldn’t win the general election.

Palin’s supporters say that no one should underestimate Palin. She is a masterful retail politician; and once she starts campaigning and people listen to her, side by side with her with her Republican rivals, many will change their minds. They argue that she can win the nomination and defeat Barack Obama.

Most of these predictions, however, are based on wishful thinking; and hope is not a strategy. If “candidate” Palin is going to change the minds of those whose minds may be changeable, she and her supporters have to focus on specific groups with targeted appeals.

As I see it, there are four principal groups of people whose minds are more or less changeable.

First, there are those that, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, likely wouldn’t vote for a women for President of the United States. They may have voted for a female for a lesser office, but they’re not ready to vote for a woman for president. People in this group are the most difficult to sway.

If Palin is to change any of their minds, she must reach out to them on the specific issues they care about. Many, for example, are older Americans on Social Security and Medicare. Palin must convince them that voting for her would be beneficial to their personal interests, giving them a reason that counterbalances their prejudice. She has to convince them that she’s an exceptional woman candidate—one that can play in the men’s presidential-politics league and win, as no woman ever has.

The second group is composed of Independents and Republicans that have bought into the liberal-media portrayal of Palin. They mostly tuned out after the 2008 election and get almost all their information about her second or third hand. They don’t read her Facebook notes, listen to her when she appears on Fox News, or watch YouTube videos of her speeches. Almost everything they hear and see about Palin is filtered and reinforces their negative impression of her.

It is people in this group Palin supporters have in mind when they predict that Palin will do well once she throws her hat in the ring and begins to campaign. It’s the group that’s the principal target of the recent documentary The Undefeated about Palin’s time as governor.

The difficulty in swaying people in this category is that a large number of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008 thinking he was more centrist than he turned out to be. They took a chance on the charismatic young politician from Chicago and were disappointed. They’re looking for a centrist candidate they can be surer of this time around, and they see Palin as too conservative.

To change these voter’s minds Palin must do well in debates, on the stump, and especially in interviews with the mainstream media. Palin has to demonstrate to them that she has the gravitas to be president, that she isn’t a “Tea Party extremist,” and that she’s a winner. She will have to convince these voters that she would govern more from the center as she did in Alaska.

Then there are committed Republicans and conservatives that very much want to defeat Barack Obama in 2012, have been paying attention to Palin, and believe one of the other Republican candidates or potential candidates are better equipped and more likely to do that. They don’t dislike Palin, the just don’t believe that she can defeat Barack Obama because so many people won’t vote for her.

These voters are problematic because they will tend to stick with their preferred candidate through the primaries or until they drop out of the race, depriving Palin of critical early support she needs to build momentum. They're swayable if Palin can eliminate the candidates they support early on as Michele Bachmann did with Tim Pawlenty. 

A subset of this group consists of members of the Republican establishment that may be as fearful of Palin winning as they are of her losing. They know well what she did to the entrenched Republican establishment in Alaska and they are concerned about how there interests will suffer if Palin wins the nomination and the presidency. Karl Rove is perhaps the best representative of this group.

They are difficult to sway, but not impossible. Most have respect for Palin. If she runs a good primary campaign, outperforms her Republican rivals, and her poll numbers rise substantially this will force them to reevaluate their position. They’ll be among the last to board the Palin bus, but they’ll board it rather than get left at the station if Palin lets them know there will be a seat for them, albeit not the one they might have preferred.

Finally there are the Tea Party Republicans who currently support Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry. Voters in this group are the easiest to sway. Some will move to Palin’s camp as soon as she declares her candidacy. Others will follow if Palin can convince them she’s their best bet to carry the Tea Party torch.

Of course, these groups aren’t mutually exclusive, and appeals that work with voters in one group may alienate voters in another. While it’s clear that many minds can be changed, whether they will or not depends how Palin and her campaign go about it.

Many factors will determine the outcome of a Palin presidential campaign. Nevertheless, I believe there are enough people out there whose minds are swayable about Palin for her to win the nomination and the general election; but there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for doing that. Like all presidential campaigns, Palin will have to navigate the electorate skillfully. The sooner she sets about doing that the more successful she is likely to be.


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