Voters like a steady hand

When Sarah Palin convened a press conference at her home last week, political analysts assumed it was to declare she wouldn’t seek a second term — a possible signal that she’d run for president in 2012. Instead, Palin raised eyebrows by announcing that she would quit her job at month’s end, while failing to give a clear explanation why.

Political analyst Larry Sabato said the governor’s surprise move “eliminates her from serious consideration for the presidency in 2012.” GOP strategist Stuart Roy called it “one of the most politically tone-deaf moves in years.” A recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 57 percent of voters were less likely to support Palin for president as a result of her decision.

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Why? In a word, it’s the “steadiness” thing. Voters look for certain qualities in the nation’s chief executive: Strength. Leadership ability. An understanding of the concerns of ordinary people.

But not far behind is a virtue most successful presidential candidates demonstrate: a steady hand at the wheel. And that quality is perhaps never more important than when the country faces turmoil.

Franklin Roosevelt was the four-term steady hand that led America out of the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson won a landslide reelection in 1964 as the nation sought stability in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination. Ronald Reagan earned praise for his focus and predictability during the Cold War. George W. Bush reminded voters of his leadership in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, campaigning in 2004 with the tagline: “Steady Leadership in Times of Change.”

Why has that quality proven so important in presidential campaigns? Perhaps it’s because the electorate shares a disdain for unpredictability in its leaders — much as Wall Street loathes fiscal uncertainty and political operatives fear unanticipated news reports even more than the negative stories they expect.

In 1996, then-Sen. Bob Dole — long respected for his predictability as Senate Leader — tried to jump-start his campaign against President Clinton by abruptly resigning his leadership post. While it gave the Dole campaign a short-term boost, the move didn’t wear well, as some found it an uncharacteristically rash decision for the usually straight-ahead lawmaker. The same could be said of Dole’s decision to embrace a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut, which voters saw as something of a political long-ball for the struggling campaign, a surprise they hadn’t seen coming. President Clinton skillfully exploited the issue, warning that Dole’s risky tax plan would “blow a hole in the deficit” that the Clinton administration had made such great progress in closing.

In the 2000 Republican presidential primary, Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire tried to energize his campaign by quitting the GOP and joining the U.S. Taxpayers Party. When that didn’t work, he quit a second time, becoming an Independent. His campaign spun even further off the rails, and he dropped out in October of 1999. In his 2002 reelection bid back home, Smith lost the Republican primary to challenger John Sununu. (Now Smith is running for Senate in his new home state of Florida. If you’re thinking of joining his campaign, I wouldn’t sublet your apartment just yet.)

Last month, some suggested South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had damaged his chances to run for president in 2012 even before the details of his disappearance had emerged. Sanford’s unexplained absence seemed in conflict with the steady style required of a commander in chief.

In the most recent presidential contest, the issue of steadiness came about unexpectedly. When the stock market tanked last fall, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shocked observers with the seemingly impulsive selection of Palin to be his running mate. A few weeks later, McCain made another surprise decision, this time responding to the stock market crash by announcing he was temporarily suspending his campaign. Both moves did damage to his campaign, as voters saw the GOP nominee as somewhat unpredictable on big decisions. President Obama, on the other hand, was credited with the deliberate way he chose Joe Biden to join his ticket and praised for the steady hand he showed in responding to the economic crisis.

It may well be that Palin’s critics have been too quick to declare her political future at an end. But by feeding the perception that her leadership style is unpredictable, even rash, Palin hasn’t done her presidential prospects any favors.



Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD
Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.