Is Sarah Palin too polarizing to be elected president? This has become a central question in political commentary on the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential nominee. What people often fail to recognize, however, is that the debate over Palin's electability mirrors the debate over Hillary Clinton's electability during the 2006-2008 period.
Clinton may have a very different personal background from Palin, but both women share a common characteristic -- they have sharply polarizing public profiles. However, as this plot of Gallup data illustrates, they managed their image very differently during the pre-campaign period:
Between 2001 and 2006, Clinton largely kept her head down and worked hard as a senator, building relationships with her Republican colleagues and avoiding high-profile controversies. As a result, much of the anti-Hillary sentiment that had built up during the 1990s remained latent, allowing her to cultivate elite support for a campaign that came extremely close to securing the Democratic nomination.
By contrast, Palin's repeated engagement in high-profile media controversies has reduced her public support from the low levels she had reached by the end of the 2008 campaign (when she may have hurt John McCain significantly). Even before she comes under fire from other Republicans (as she eventually will if she runs), more of the public has an unfavorable impression of her than has a favorable one.
All is not lost for Palin, however. Though Clinton started 2007 as a less polarizing figure than Palin, the public quickly reverted to being sharply divided about her as she began to campaign actively for the Democratic nomination. Assuming Palin's remaining supporters will stick by her, she may end up with a similar profile in April 2011 as Hillary had in April 2007. In that case, a successful nomination campaign is plausible (and even a general election victory if the economy is in bad enough shape). However, her failure to improve her image during this pre-primary period may cost her the elite support she needs to win the GOP nomination.
Update 7/27 12:34 PM: It's of course possible that Palin isn't going to run for preisdent, which would certainly help explain her decision to do things like filming a reality TV episode with Kate Gosselin rather than developing her policy resume.