Sarah Palin does things her way, whether it's finding new ways to talk to her supporters or new words to use when talking to them. She has had two notable achievements recently. First, her neologism refudiate was chosen by the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary as Word of the Year for 2010 and added to its official lexicon. Second, she ventured from her comfortable Facebook home to cooperate with a profile in the New York Times. She comes across well—just in time for the launch of her book America By Heart.
Palin seems to recognize that if she wants to continue her rise, she is going to have to intersect with institutions like the "traditional media" and their "elite opinion-makers" on occasion. In the Times profile, Palin says she is seriously considering a run for the presidency and recognizes that this will require her to expand her tight circle. That will also mean intersecting with the "traditional" political and media system more often, and more regularly, no matter how much she wants to circumvent it. How closely she follows its rules is, of course, up to her. But here are three rules that she will have to contend with if she wants to become president:
Voters should like you. Palin is very well-liked among conservatives, but in the broader public, she is not well-liked. This condition is not improving with familiarity. Fifty-two percent of those polled have an unfavorable opinion of her, according to a recent Gallup poll. That was her highest negative result ever in that poll. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, her unfavorable rating was 54 percent. She is particularly unpopular with independents and moderates, the kinds of voters in swing states who determine elections.
In 2008, Karl Rove famously tried to argue that Hillary Clinton was "fatally flawed" when her unfavorable rating was lower than Palin's is today. Fortunately for Palin, Rove was wrong. Unfavorable numbers are certainly not good, but they do not spell certain doom. Bill Clinton's unfavorable number was 49 percent at one point in the 1992 campaign—not much lower than Palin's today.
So there's hope. For Palin to succeed, she has to benefit as Clinton did. The incumbent has to be very unpopular (George H.W. Bush's unfavorable number in 1992 was 59), and the challenger has to improve her favorability rating. The first half of this equation seems at least plausible, especially if the economy continues to flag, which could further erode President Obama's popularity (his current unfavorable rating is 44). It's the second half that presents difficulties. Part of Palin's success among her core followers is that she doesn't back down. She takes on her opponents and picks fights—with old-boy Republicans like Rove; a Wall Street Journal reporter—and questions the president's manhood. But in that time period, the more people have been exposed to her, the more they dislike her.
Palin's new book comes out on a dubious anniversary. A year ago, when she published her last book, was the last time a poll showed that more people viewed her favorably than unfavorably. Since then, the trend has reversed, and the gap has widened. The average of her unfavorable ratings has increased six points to 51.1 percent.
Palin's unfavorable rating could be meaningless when she's put head-to-head against potential challengers. This is what made Hillary Clinton seem plausible in 2008. While Clinton's unfavorable number was high, she still outperformed potential GOP general election challengers. Palin fans cannot take the same comfort yet. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of potential GOP candidates, Palin tied in a hypothetical primary with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but in the hypothetical general-election matchups between president Obama and potential GOP candidates, Obama scores his highest against Palin with 48 percent of the vote to her 40 percent.
Voters should think you're qualified. In the recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 67 percent of voters said Palin was unqualified to be president. This means that it's not just Democrats (82 percent) and independents (70 percent) who don't think she's ready for the job. Only 47 percent of Republicans think she's qualified, though more than 70 percent have a favorable view of her.