Did Women Like Sarah?

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From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:

Last night in Colorado (one of the key swing states we have our eyes on), the Democratic polling group Greenberg Quinlan Rosner brought together 40 undecided women voters to watch the vice-presidential debate. In pre-interviews before the festivities started, most of the women admitted that they didn’t know much about either of the running mates. They’d heard plenty about Sarah Palin in particular, but they didn’t know who she was, didn’t know what she thought.

By the time the debate was over, the voters had a better sense of who the candidates were. But they still didn’t know what Palin thought on any major issue other than energy. Even women who found her personally likeable and confident complained that she seemed “coached” and stuck so closely to “talking points and sound bytes” that they weren’t sure what kind of vice-president (or, for that matter, president) she would be.
As with the St. Louis focus group that watched the first presidential debate, however, generally favorable reactions to the Democratic team didn’t translate into a significant shift of support from undecided voters. All forty women came into the undecided and after listening to the two running mates debate for 90 minutes, 8 had moved to the Obama camp, another 8 to McCain, and the remaining 24 were still uncommitted.

In a discussion that took place after the debate, some of the women who became Obama supporters said that they had been concerned about Obama’s relatively brief political career but found themselves reassured by Biden. “If I vote for Barack Obama, it will be because of Joe Biden,” said one unmarried women. A handful of women thought that Biden sounded too much like a Washington insider or an old-fashioned pol, a conclusion that probably wasn’t helped by his use of Senate-speak and references to legislative procedures. But several had teared up when the Delaware senator talked about losing his first wife and daughter, and felt more favorably about him as a result. “He got emotional there in the end,” said another unmarried women. “I didn’t know his wife and child died. That touched me.”

Overall, the women warmed up to both candidates throughout the evening—both Biden and Palin’s favorability ratings rose 9 points from pre- to post-debate. They liked Palin’s strength and confidence, and the married women particularly responded to her “folksiness” and “down-to-earth” personality. That personal regard, however, didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to see her in the White House. “I’d like to have lunch with Sarah,” said one married woman, “but have Joe running my country.” Another agreed: “I think Sarah Palin is cute as a button and is good in sound bytes, but she just is not ready.” Before the debate, only 10 of the women believed Palin was not ready to be vice-president or president; by the end of the evening more than half of them (21) shared that concern.

The economy has been the number-one issue for women voters—particularly unmarried women—throughout the campaign season, and that held true for this focus group as well. And on that point, they were much more impressed by Biden’s ability to talk about the economy and relate to the concerns of middle-class voters. Before the debate, 14 women preferred Biden over Palin on the economy, but that number climbed to 23 afterward. A similar shift took place on the question of which candidate they trusted to handle health care—9 women initially preferred Biden, but that number more than doubled to 20 over the course of the evening. Several noted that they would have liked to hear Palin offer any details about what a McCain/Palin health care plan would look like.

Biden may not have closed the deal for the majority of these undecided women, but he impressed and reassured them on the issues that they say will determine their votes in November. And while Palin presented herself as someone voters can relate to, her performance seems to have raised even more questions—at least for this small group of undecided women—about whether she is qualified to be on the Republican ticket.